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.
The closest airports are at Pisa and Genova. Firenze is also a reasonable choice. The city of Milan is about a 2 hour train ride to Genoa where one is able to change to the local train line. Milan’s Malpensa International Airport serves as a major intercontinental hub for the Italian airline Alitalia, but you will have to take a bus to the train station from the Malpensa Airport (~1 hour). There are also good connections from North America via large hubs such as New York City, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Delta Airlines also operates a flight from Atlanta via New York’s JFK International Airport to Pisa’s Galileo Galilei International Airport.
The Cinque Terre villages are well connected by rail and each of the villages has a train station. Regular local trains from Genova and La Spezia run with high frequency. All trains are operated by the state carrier, Trenitalia. When traveling from La Spezia, you can buy your passes for Cinque Terre in a tourism office in a hallway off of platform 1 at the La Spezia station.
Take the ‘litoranea’ road from La Spezia. It takes approximately 20-30 minutes from La Spezia to drive to Riomaggiore or Manarola. There is a good parking garage in Riomaggiore, up the hill from the train station. The roads to and between the five towns are not for the faint of heart, and why most travelers are encouraged to leave their vehicle in La Spezia and take the train to the Cinque Terre.
Frequent trains link all five villages with each other (Trenitalia-run trains as well as a train service run by the park authority), La Spezia and other places towards Genova (only Trenitalia-run).
A more expensive, but very scenic option, are the boats that run up and down this part of the coast.
Walking is very popular, especially on the main coastal paths, which are subject to park entrance fees. It’s worth exploring some of the higher paths to Volastra (above Manarola), Monte Negro (above Riomaggiore) or paths that begin outside of the park such as the trail between Levanto and Monterosso.
Traveling by car is by far the worst way to explore the Cinque Terre, there is little parking and what there is lies well outside the villages. To get from one village to the next involves driving all the way up to the high road and back down again. Better to leave the car and use the train.
In order to walk along the trails between the villages, one must purchase a pass (5 euros), which is available at the information offices near the train stations at any of the five villages, as well as the stations at Levanto and La Spezia. You can pay a small supplement (an extra €3) for the pass and get unlimited travel between the villages, Levanto, and La Spezia on regional trains for the duration of the pass.
The main attraction of the Cinque Terre is the landscape. Mediterranean herbs and trees grow spontaneously from the top of the hills down to the water level. Well embedded in this magnificent natural scenery, one can admire the intense human activity of the ancestors, when the wine terraces were built. An enormous (and somehow crazy) work of transportation, carrying all the heavy stones on men’s shoulders and women’s heads. A work through the centuries, in fact it’s estimated to have taken about 200 years to build the entire stone-wall network. Its total length has been calculated to be at least equal to the Great Wall of China.
Tourists can enjoy the scenery described above, walk through the towns (or between them) or hiking on the paths and enjoying the local atmosphere.
Depending on the time of the year there are some specific things to see:
* The lighted Nativity in Manarola (Dec. 8th till late Jan.). The world biggest Lighted nativity.
* The patron festivity of the 5 towns (all between late May and Aug.), a mix of religious ceremony and popular parties.
* The pirates attack in Vernazza (mid summer), a celebration of the succesful defence of the town from a Saracen attack occurred during the middle age.
* The harvest(early/mid Sept.) and wine making, when men’s shoulders and women’s heads are still used as they were hundreds of years ago.
* The sea storms (frequent in winter), a great show of nature’s power.
The Cinque Terre boasts some of the best coastline hiking trails in the world. The path from Riomaggiore to Manarola is called the Via Dell’Amore (or roughly “Lovers Walk”). The beautiful trail along the shore is very easy to hike.
Along the way, lovers have the opportunity to write their names on the rocks and trees surrounding the walk. In the middle of Riomaggiore and Manarola you will come across ‘The Lover’s Lock’ which is a place to seal your eternal love. At this point there is a concrete throne in the shape of a male and female locked in a kiss, where many people duplicate this creating a loving photographic opportunity. Remember to bring a small lock to attach to one of the many gates or rails to seal your eternal love in Cinque Terre.
The next hike from Manarola to Corniglia is also easy. However, there is an up hill hike and a large zig zag shaped staircase with 385 steps which can be quite a mission in the midday sun. The trail from Corniglia to Vernazza offers incredible views of shore and is only steep at certain places.
The trail from Vernazza to Monterosso is the steepest (you need a reasonably good level of fitness – there is over 250m of climbing over very uneven rocks, totalling approx. 750 ‘steps’ – not easy for most people), winding through Olive orchards and vineyards and offering dramatic ocean views. The paths are narrow, with a very real danger of falling 12 to 15 feet if you lose your footing. If you attempt this hike, take some water, and be prepared to build up a very decent sweat.
The walk between all the villages takes the better part of a day. For those that would rather not walk (or not walk the entire trail), a pedestrian ferry service runs seasonally to all five villages, plus Lerici. The price is reasonable, and gives a nice view of the villages from the water. The milk train that connect all the villages is also a quick way to hop among towns.
It is advised that you attempt the walk as early as possible to avoid the hottest part of the day during the summer period. Sneakers or suitable walking shoes are essential.
You must purchase a pass for the hike. It is also possible to purchase a hiking and train pass in one if you wish to catch a train to the next town. Trains are frequent but it is advisable to check local time tables especially on Sunday and Public holidays as you could be waiting up to an hour for the correct train.
Monterosso – Vernazza: 90 minutes.
* Narrow trail, steep at times. Beautiful views of Vernazza.
Vernazza – Corniglia: 90 minutes.
* Amazing views of Vernazza; greenest trail.
Corniglia – Manarola: 45 minutes.
* Scenic low trail past a beach.
Manarola – also has its own beautiful vineyard walk.
Manarola – Riomaggiore: 20 minutes.
* The famous Via dell’Amore, paved flat trail cut into the cliff.
It is possible to swim in the sea at each of the villages except Corniglia. Almost every year the Cinque Terre Marine Reserve vies for the top of the Blue Flag Beach list of Italy. There are two large sandy beaches at Monterosso, a small sandy beach at the harbor of Vernazza, and pebble beaches near Riomaggiore and Corniglia. Off the beaten path there are pebble beaches in Framura and Bonasola just 20 minutes away on the train. You can swim off rocks at the small harbors at Manarola (which has a very nice and deep swimming hole) and Riomaggiore.
When grapevines and olive trees cover the hillsides, wine and oil are a must on our tables. They prove excellent companions for the salted anchovies of Monterosso served in olive oil as well as the many specialty fish dishes, authentic gastronomic delights.
The cuisine of the Cinque Terre almost perfectly conserves the characteristics of yesteryear; the respect for the flavors and fragrances of the primary ingredients. Trofie is a kind of pasta made from chestnut or wheat flour and is one of the forefathers of modern and more sophisticated pasta. Its condiment is still pesto sauce; an original Ligurian sauce made from basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, grated cheese, pine nuts, and marjoram. Tagliatelle, a broad handmade pasta, is used with sauces that contain mushrooms, cabbage and potatoes, beans, chickpeas or sometimes with pesto.
Vegetable pies, ‘torte di verdura’ are prepared with a stuffing containing borage (borago officinalis), parsley, marjoram, other local herbs that grow wild, artichokes, swiss chard, zucchini, potatoes, and leeks are combined with egg and ricotta cheese or with stale bread soaked in milk or béchamel sauce (depending on each family’s traditions), parmesan cheese. The pie crust is very thin, because flour was a very precious commodity.
Rice pie, or ‘torta di riso’ is a specialty of every grandma in the region. In Monterosso this rice pie was made even more delectable by adding a bit of dried mushrooms to the filling. In Manarola, the tradition is to make this dish for the feast of the patron saint Saint Lawrence on August 10th.
Egg ‘frittate’, or flat omelettes, are popular today as the ‘frittata’ has been rediscovered as a tasty antipasto. Another important dish on the tables of the Cinque Terre population was the ‘cotoletta di acciuga’, anchovies stuffed with a breadcrumb based filling and then fried. The ‘fritelle di bianchetti’, fritters made from tiny newborn anchovies or sardines were also highly appreciated. Following the seamen’s gastronomic traditions, other dishes included stewed cuttlefish, stuffed calamari and spiced octopus.
Mussels, another protected designation of origin product from the Gulf of La Spezia are prepared in a variety of ways: stuffed, stewed, baked.
Farinata, like a focaccia but made with chickpea flour, a regional speciality.
The fame of the Cinque Terre is largely due to its products, the dry white wine, simply called ‘Cinque Terre’ and the ‘Sciacchetrà’, a prized dessert wine made from prime grapes dried to the point of holding only a few drops of sweet juice. A colorful addition to the Cinque Terre products is ‘limoncino’; a dessert wine made from steeping lemon peels in pure alcohol and then adding sugar and water to make a fragrant and fresh liquor. The lemons, another famous product of the Cinque Terre are prominently on display in the many ‘limoneti’ (lemon groves) and at the annual Lemon Festival held each year in Monterosso during the season of Pentacost.
The Sentieri dell’Uva (Grape Routes) are still as they once were with fig trees planted in strategic positions to give shade during breaks from work, agaves planted to mark boundaries, to line the footpaths along steep, stony steps and to indicate the rail terminals of the recently installed monorails which are the only vertical structures emerging from this seemingly completely, horizontal landscape. Many dry stone walls support this terraced landscape.
The large wicker baskets of grapes (corbe) are arranged along the “pose” (little walls, as wide as tables, built solely for this purpose). These include Albarola (Trebbiana), Biancorotto, Bruciapagliaio, Piccabon (Pizzamosca). To make white table wines the following are used: Fiore di Bosco, Rappolungo, Fogiaccia, Ruspara, and Sesagra. Baskets full of Magnagra (Albarola), from which the famous Black Sciacchetrà is made, are handled with extreme care and set to one side.
The Cinque Terre grape tracks reach down to the sea. In the past, people used to anchor small fishing boats called “gozzi” immediately below the terraced vineyards. Baskets laden with grapes were then lowered from above into these small boats which then sailed round to the otherwise inaccessible village.
Nowadays this method is nothing but a distant memory but by visiting the Cinque Terre you are still able to sample some of the most prized wines of the world that have been created by centuries of backbreaking experience.
The town of Lerici, a couple of kilometers to the south, has several hotels.
You can also easily find private rooms for rent. If you can’t see signs, ask in a cafe.