Cinque Terre which means Five Lands, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Cinque Terre comprise the five small coastal villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso located in the region of Liguria in the province of La Spezia.
Summary of the Towns
All the towns slope down to sea-level except for Corniglia, which is perched on top of a tall cliff. Four of the towns possess an old-world charm (from North-to-South: Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore). The northern-most town, Monterosso, is completely different. It is very beachy-resorty, with not much to see beyond the boardwalk apart from modern apartment blocks and hotels—nothing like the narrow, crooked streets of the other towns, lined with colorful old houses stacked haphazardly on top of each other.
Everyone has an image of this part of the coast: vineyards that cover the hills like patchwork, the clean, deep sea that reflects them. Here, prestigious grapes are grown in small areas of ground closed inside typical terracing that bridles the side of the mountain, and it is also here that the famous ‘passito’ wine Sciacchetrà with its golden amber colour and soft, velvety flavour with hints of honey and almond is produced.
Five miles of inaccessible small roads and vertiginous cliffs, where the wild and incredibly beautiful villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore nestle, guardians of a territory that was declared a National Park (the only one in Liguria), and is included in the Unesco World Heritage list. These villages seem to be fragile when nature lets loose water that makes the mountain slide, but their 5,000 inhabitants all share the same strong spirit.
Only some stretches of the rough landscape in the Cinque Terre have been domesticated by man, who managed to work the seemingly dry and unworkable soil. Even today the farmers lower themselves among the rocks using strong ropes to harvest the grapes. Their effort and courage are enjoyed by visitors when tasting the DOC wines that accompany fresh fish and other unforgettable flavours on the table.
The five sea villages that cling to the rocks or face the small bays along the routes immersed in Maquis shrubland can only be described to tourists after having seen them. Behind the villages there are many other places of devotion, one for each town, that can be reached along the via dei Santuari.
Manarola is a town filled with boats, at least on the lower part of it. Covered boats of all kinds line the main street, but it is hard to say when they had last been out. There are many lovely places to eat and drink in Manarola. La Cantina Dello Zio Bramante serves acciughe (anchovies) fresh from the sea, with lemon, olive oil, and fresh, crusty bread. Aristide Café had the cheapest espressi macchiatti (70 cents), the first bar encountered if walking from Riomaggiore (a paved, easy, path that goes by the sea, and takes about 15 minutes or so). It turns out that Manarola also has the best gelateria of all the towns: 5 Terre Gelateria e Creperia, on Antonio Discovolo next to the Farmacia which is next to the COOP 5 Terre. Manarola also has a nice little swimming area. It’s a little cement pier next to some big rocks that you can wade out from, into the blue blue waters. It gets deep fast, so it’s possible to dive off the end of the pier. Plenty of caves and coastline to explore, and underwater rocks. There are also a few more swimming holes farther on, accessible from the Blue Trail, not far from the gate beyond which the trail pass is required. There are stairs going all the way down to sea level, and a small little terrace about half-way down with picnic tables where you can see locals enjoying a simple lunch. There are lots of sharp mussels and barnacles down by the rocks, but otherwise the swimming is fantastic here too, without many people.
Riomaggiore is the southern-most of the 5 Terre. During the day you can hear bell towers chiming and at night the frogs are in frenetic chatter as small boats go night fishing for anchovies and other fish using lights to attract the fish. Riomaggiore also has an ancient stone castello, about which little has been written. An information sign outside explains that first mention of the castello appeared in a document from the mid-500s, which already described it as “ancient”. Its quadrangular walls with two circular towers were built to protect the citizens in case of an attack from the sea. In 800, the castello became a cemetery, and parts were destroyed to adapt it to its new function. Nowadays it is one of the monuments of the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. Most of the action in Riomaggiore is on the main street, Via Colombo, where there is an assortment of cafes, bars, restaurants, and of course, gelaterie. There are also alimentari shops selling the typical yummy Italian fare: fresh fruit (strawberries, cherries, and nespole), an assortment of salumi (salami, mortadella and the like), cheeses, olives, etc. These are good places to stock up for the hikes into the hills, although all of them are not very far from a town. Bar & Vini, perched on the side of the mountain above the sea, is excellent place for a summer night. The place had the usual mix of tourists and local families with their kids, even well into the night.
Farther along the Blue Trail there is a stone beach that offers much easier access to the water, and also more people. At the Corniglia train station, the path gains height to reach the town, the only one not near sea-level. The road passes lemon trees, vines, lilies and vegetation of all kinds, and in May the air is full of the perfume of flowers.
Corniglia feels smaller and quieter, but just as quaint as the other towns. Bar Nunzio serves 2e glasses of local wine—with a complementary bowl of local olives— under some yellow umbrellas near the statue of Corniglia himself. There is a little piazza with a communal olive press where you can sit and pass the time. There is also a tower, but it is not very high.
The Blue Trail from Corniglia to Vernazza, the next town to the north, is a dirt path that starts off in an olive grove above the town. It keeps climbing and things get a bit sweaty and steep in some places, with many stone steps and a few switchbacks. Nothing too strenuous though. The trail along the sea affords great backwards views of both Corniglia and Manarola. Vernazza is approached from above and its two ancient towers are in prominent view (they close at 7PM). The town itself has a maze of tiny streets that eventually lead down to the main street. At first sight, Vernazza seems a little rundown. The paint on the buildings around the beach area is peeling off in large sections, but don’t let that put you off. Vernazza is lively and boisterous and has a great night scene, two clock towers, a beach, boats, and a large public space with umbrellas and tables. The beach area is a small sandy strip that is not the best swim spot (there is only a small section of water roped off for swimming, beyond which are boats and then the open sea), but it is safe for kids and free of sharp bivalves.
Pizzeria Fratelli Basso on via Roma is one of only two places in town where you can eat farinata—like a focaccia but made with chickpea flour. The wood-fired pizzeria down the road will make it if they don’t have any left.
You can spend the evening having wine along the main street below the train station, lounging on a quiet bench above the town beside hotel Gianni overlooking the sea, or by the sea, watching the mountainous coastline zigzag in and out, hiding Monterosso.
Monterosso is built to accommodate many tourists in large, modern apartments and hotels. It doesn’t have quite the same charm as the other towns, but it does have a quite a large sandy beach with lots of colourful umbrellas, and of course, beach-side restaurants and cafes. The backstreets of Monterosso are not as interesting as in the other towns.