Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a pretty snazzy handful of hamlets. These five towns are built (rather impressively) into the cliff sides of the Italian Riviera. Wine, beaches, ancient Italian villages, what’s not to love? It’s romantic (hence the visiting of Cinque Terre after Kenny’s departure), beautiful and relaxing.

We stayed in the town of Vernazza. This is touted as the poster child of Cinque Terre, and for good reason. It’s a tiny town with a main strip that’s barely more than one block. The main piazza is on the harbor and surrounded by restaurants with al fresco dining seats where you can watch the swimmers float about in the clear cerulean sea and the boats come in. The one downside to Vernazza: due to its tiny size, it cannot accommodate the number of tourists it receives during the day (at least during the peak month of September) and as such, it becomes overrun. Each time a train or a boat taxi arrives, there is a literal outpouring of people, and if you are trying to walk against the flow, it’s a mob scene. That said, I think it makes it an even better option for your home base while visiting Cinque Terre. That way you can escape the tourists (somewhat, there will still be loads everywhere) by visiting the other towns during the day, and returning to your more peaceful version of Vernazza for the mornings and evenings.

We spent our nights savoring some Italian food and wine, including a bottle of a beautiful Super Tuscan we’d bought in Tuscany, and even a bit of the Cinque Terre wines. Picnicking with some takeout pizza and pasta to enjoy with our wine was a fantastic way to watch the sunset. And we dined at a restaurant with an epic location up on the cliff one night. Had we had the place to ourselves, I might’ve thought I was on the Bachelorette.

I do have to state, however, that (quite disappointingly) the food is markedly less amazing here than in other parts of Italy we visited. With that said, we didn’t do tons of research or go to the most highly recommended restaurants. But on the other hand, you don’t really have to do that elsewhere in Italy to get amazing eats. It wasn’t bad, but don’t expect homemade fresh pasta to be de rigeur.

Perhaps one of the coolest things about Cinque Terre is the fact that the towns are all connected via hiking trails. Often visitors walk from one end to the other, opting to take a boat taxi or train at the end to cut some of the walk off. We were staying at the second or fourth town, depending on which direction you’re starting from. Since we’d heard lovely things about the two towns on either side of us (which are also the two longest distances between towns), we walked back and forth to each on either of our days in town.

Our first day we walked to Monterosso. We started a bit early to avoid the worst of the heat and crowds. It was pretty cool that the trail was literally outside the door of our hotel (they run through alleyways in the town and then become more rugged as you walk through undeveloped land). The views were spectacular, and it’s pretty incredible to be walking through vines of grapes and looking out at the vast ocean and steep landscape dotted with these colorful towns. Plus, it was really good to get some exercise in after all the consumption.

On arrival, we sucked it up and paid the exorbitant price for a pair of loungers and an umbrella, because this was our first time soaking up the sun in one of those picturesque umbrella-dotted Italian oases.

I was also kind of digging these pedal boats with water slides! Must try these somewhere. Monterosso itself was a bit bigger town, though it seemed to absorb the crowds a little better because of this. The beach is larger here, and you can rent the loungers, which isn’t an option over in Vernazza.

On the walk back we happened to arrive during what appeared to be an in-water concert. As in, the band was standing knee-deep in the water, and several tipsy beach goers were dancing alongside them. We watched from above and then hurried down to enjoy the last of the entertainment seaside.

Here’s a quick video, too:

On our last day we walked the opposite direction, to the town of Corniglia, which is set up on the hill and thus doesn’t offer direct beach access. It’s definitely less crowded than Vernazza and Monterosso, but I would probably not recommend this as a place for visitors to stay unless you really want to escape the tourists (at the expense of having direct water access).

Practical Info

Cinque Terre is a gorgeous section of the Italian Riviera, with five towns built on or into the mountains meeting the Ligurian Sea. The water is beautiful and clear, and the cliffs are steeply terraced. From south to north, the five towns are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. I think the two on the end are the largest, Corniglia may be the least visited, and Vernazza is the cover girl. Corniglia sits atop a cliff with no direct access to the sea. Vernazza has a natural harbor and tiny town beach.

We stayed in Vernazza and one day hiked to Monterosso and another day hiked to Corniglia. The whole area seems at once authentic and overrun with tourists. Folks have inhabited some of these towns since medieval times, and you will see no chain hotels and hardly a hotel or corporate sign anywhere. But it is firmly on travelers’ radar (especially Americans), and at its worst (like a Saturday afternoon in September) can feel uncomfortably crowded.

Transportation: We arrived by rental car from Bologna. Most of the drive was on highways, with the last several miles past La Spezia on extremely hilly, narrow and windy roads. There is official parking about 1km above town for €12/day, so I dropped off Jenni and the bags at the post office/Il Pirata restaurant, drove back up and then walked about 10 minutes down. There is a shuttle bus that I think costs €2. I’m not sure about the other towns, but in general the main town areas have no cars or only locals’ cars.

I believe most visitors arrive by train. Each of the five towns has its own station, and some trains stop only in certain towns. To get here, you would probably have to connect via Genoa/Sestri Levante (from the north/west) or La Spezia (from the south/east). The towns themselves are very small and walking is your only option, though some are quite vertical.

You have three main options for getting between the towns. Trains, boats and hiking. Many opt to hike one way and take a train or boat back. We did return hikes both times.

We departed by rental car for Cassis (via Monaco). One of the small roads was still closed from the 2011 flood, but the scenery made the detour more pleasant. Man, are tolls expensive in these parts. The highway from near Levanto to the French border cost >€26!

Accommodation: We stayed at Vernazza Rooms, right in the middle of town. The first two nights we had Roma 4, then we moved to Roma 1 (higher floor, has a terrace, WiFi doesn’t work as well up there). It is fairly basic, but the staff is helpful and it is convenient. You can hear the train often, but it’s not too bad with the windows closed.

There are not that many hotels in Cinque Terre, so a lot of the inventory is more like rooms in a house or quasi-B&B. Overall, we were surprised by how poor the options seemed. We considered staying at La Torretta in Manarola but didn’t want to spend the money. We walked past Hotel Porto Roca, which is on a cliff overlooking Monterosso and has a pool.

Food and Drinks: The specialties of the area are seafood (including anchovies), pesto and white wine. In general, we found the food here to be less good and more expensive than Rome, Tuscany or Bologna. There are several proper restaurants plus pizzerias/focaccerias, etc. Twice we got take out from Pizzeria Baia Saracena. The pasta was so-so but the pizza was good. Our one proper meal was dinner at Ristorante Belforte, which has a terrific setting perched above Vernazza’s square and harbor. The squid ink tagliolini was great, the rest of it was good. Portions are ample and the service was better than average. Gambero Rosso is well-reviewed.

Activities: There are very few sights here like museums or fountains. The main activities are relaxing, town-hopping, hiking and some water-based options. There are trails going higher up the mountains, but most tourists stick to the red and white marked trail that hugs the cliffside and connects all the five towns. We did the section from Vernazza to Monterosso one day and from Vernazza to Corniglia the next. I think these are the two longest stretches, and each took 60-90 minutes (one-way) and induced substantial sweating. One downer is that you have to pay to use the trails. It costs €7.50/person/day. There are options that encompass train and/or boat passes, too. I was a little put off by having to spend €30 to hike a few hours on two days.

We did not do much else except some swimming. The water is cool but comfortable and refreshing. Monterosso has the biggest beach, including a pay section where it costs €25/day for side-by-side loungers with an umbrella plus access to changing rooms and toilets.

September 13-16, 2014 (Saturday-Tuesday)

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