The Cinque Terre or “Five Villages” is a popular destination within the Italian Riviera. The five villages that make up the Cinque Terre National Park are, from the north, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, and each are unique in their experiences. The village of Monterosso is a favorite of ours and boosts variety with two towns, an old town and a newer more modern resort town, it also has the only sandy beach of the Cinque Terre. Next you’ll arrive in Vernazza, the most popular of the villages and the most expensive to find accommodations. The middle village, Corniglia, is the smallest and the only village not on the water, instead this quiet village is tucked into the mountain, surrounded by vineyards and terraces. To reach Corniglia from the train station you zig zag up a flight of 382 steps. Manarola is next, it’s colorful buildings seem to tumble into the sea creating a perfect backdrop to some of the most well known photos of this area. Rounding out the five is Riomaggiore, home of a rocky beach perfect for grabbing a bite and having a picnic. Whichever village you choose, whether for a day or a week, these little gems all have experiences to offer.
Getting There and Getting Around
When flying into Milan or Florence, a train ride from either is the easiest way to arrive in the region. From Milan you will go through-and possibly change trains-in Levanto and from Florence you will change trains in La Spezia on your way into the Cinque Terre. Once there the regional trains run the short distance between the coastal villages pretty frequently, you’ll just want to know the last train if planning on staying later in the evening. There are also walking paths, some more strenuous than others, between the villages as well as ferries for a view from the ocean.
Hike the Trails
There are many trails of varying difficulty all throughout the Cinque Terre region. It’s a national park, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with many beautiful vistas. The easiest and most well known walk is Via dell’Amore, “Lover’s Lane”, a short 20 minute stroll from Riomaggiore into Manarola. Unfortunately this and several other hiking trails were badly damaged in a devastating flood in 2011. Most have been re-opened but it’s recommended to visit the Parco Nazionale (http://www.parconazionale5terre.it/sentieri_parco.asp?id_lingue=2) website to find out the current status and difficulty levels of the trails. This Guided Tours (http://www.trekguyd.com/via.html) website is another good resource. During our most recent trip to Italy in Spring of 2014, we hiked from Vernazza to Corniglia, a moderate hike of about 90 minutes. This hike offers multiple stunning views of Vernazza, Corniglia and the staggering coastline of the Cinque Terre. You can easily make a day out of visiting Castello Doria (Tip #8), enjoying your hike and then have a late lunch at Il Pirun (Via Fieschi, 115) once you arrive in Corniglia. Don’t forget to bring water, sunscreen and snacks for the little ones!
Do, Get Lost
If you’re not up for the trail hikes then walking the many streets in the villages can provide hours of investigative fun. Venturing off the main drag, heading up steps through the maze of tightly snuggled buildings offer unique experiences around every corner. There are many beautiful churches, cemeteries, vineyards and colorful old buildings to meander through so put those walking shoes on and enjoy.
Enjoy a Picnic on the Rocks
There is so much to explore here you won’t want to spend precious outdoor time sitting in a ristorante. Enjoy some amazing grab and go specialties then head to the rocks for a picnic. First stop Vernazza for possibly the best focaccia in the area, maybe anywhere. You’ll find Batti Batti on your right at the end of Via Visconti closest to Piazza Marconi. Grab a focaccia and head to the rocks on the Piazza to eat and enjoy the view. Next stop Riomaggiore for a cone of fried veggies and seafood at Il Pescato Cucinato (Via Colombo 199). We were lucky enough to have a kitty greet us at the door, can’t imagine why? Willing to try everything, get a Misto, a mix of veggies, calamari, anchovies and other fish or you can just get what you know you love. Take a couple of these on a walk around town or down rocks on the water. Mangia!
Visit a Sandy Beach, a Giant, and a Tower
Though all but Corniglia have water access, only Monterosso has a true sandy beach, Lungomare di Fegina. If you go during the summer season it will be lined with brightly colored umbrellas and full of people. Take a walk to the northern end of the beach to see Il Gigante, a 14 meter high statue of Neptune that was built in 1910. Unfortunately he lost his arms during WWII, but is still quite impressive. Heading in the opposite direction, walk south, you’ll see a 16th-century lookout tower. Below it is a “Nazi Pillbox”, a low concrete bunker where gunners hid. From here continue around the point to arrive in the Old Town of Monterosso.
Spot a Kitty
There are no shortage of cats in Cinque Terre. You could make a day out of spotting kitties. We’re a family of cat people so this is always great fun for us. Kind of like playing “I spot a Punch Buggy” on a road trip, you can do “I spot a kitty” while visiting the Ligurian Coast.
Visit with the Cannoli Brothers
Sicilian twin brothers Massimo and Gianluca, AKA the Cannoli Brothers, run Il Pirata in Vernazza (via Gavino, 36). They bring to Cinque Terre authentic Sicilian pastry. This is a great place to be entertained by these two silly brothers while sipping on fresh squeezed blood orange juice or cappuccino and catching up with loved ones back home with complimentary wifi. We would make it a daily ritual to stop in, catch up on-line with their complimentary wi-fi, have a truly amazing cannoli and talk to the brothers. If you crave a quick savory bite the bruschetta is recommended.
Ride The Ferry
Aside from hiking the trails, the best way to see the landscape is by ferry. They run from every village except Corniglia. It’s not the fastest way to get around, taking from 10-15 minutes between villages and it’s not the cheapest route either. However, the ferries certainly provide a way to see the coast from another breathtaking perspective.
Check out the view from Castello Doria
Built in the 15th-century to protect Vernazza from pirates, Castello Doria can not be missed. Maybe you’ve already eyed it while sitting on the rocks in Piazza Marconi eating focaccia? It’s cylindrical tower, the Belforte, rises high above the marina in Vernazza. Views from the top are incredible and its only a small fee of 1.50 Euro per person for entry.
Head up the Coast
Here during summer? Beach in Monterosso too crowded for you? Try taking the train north into Levanto or Bonossola. These neighboring towns also have lovely sandy beaches and are usually less crowded by tourists. If you still need to release a little energy afterwards you can walk from one town to the other in 30-40 minutes through the tunnel of a former railway and then along the coast. In addition, Levanto has an array of unique shops just off the water worth strolling around with the family.
You’re in Italy, Eat Gelato
Though this region isn’t known for gelato, you’re a kid in Italy, go ahead, indulge!