The famous Cinque Terre region of the Italian Riviera consists of a gorgeous coast-line stretching between five very special towns. Situated on the Ligurian Sea to the north-west of the country, the whole area has been made a national and marine park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result, the area is well protected, which preserves the towns in their original beauty.
One of the biggest draws here for visitors is the walk along the coastal path between towns. The lower walking trail can be theoretically walked in one day, though most visitors choose to stay several days so they can take the time to enjoy the towns, the views and the sensational Italian food. There are also trails higher up in the mountains and the extra effort to walk here pays off.
The main entry points if you’re arriving by train are Genoa to the north and La Spezia to the south. There is a train connecting the two that stops at each of the five villages in the Cinque Terre. You can easily visit the towns by train as there are one or three day transport passes that allow you to use the trains and buses within the area as much as you like. If you wish to walk on the official trail between the villages you will need a permit which can be purchased at the entry to the trail. Sections of the trail are closed for repair and this seems to be a long-term project as it has been printed on the map. One of the villages, Vernazza, has also suffered some damage in floods in October 2011 and rebuilding is underway, although the main part of the town is still accessible.
We arrived in Monterosso, the northern most village, on a sunny day and found the town bustling with tourists queuing for a gelato and sunbathing on the beach. The town has narrow streets filled with cafes, restaurants and shops and there is not much elbow room when walking around. There is a lovely church in the centre made of white and green marble, which is worth a look. We chose not to linger too long in the town and made our way to the trail head. This stretch between Monterosso and the next village, Vernazza, is the most popular as it is the longest section of the official trail that is currently open. It takes a few hours up and down hilly terrain to reach the next village. The crowds thin out along the trail and you can enjoy sensational views of the endless blue sea contrasted against the local vineyards and lemon groves that grow along the cliffs. About mid-way a local woman serves fresh made lemonade for €2, which is refreshing after the steep and frequently sweaty walk to get there.
We were relieved to reach Vernazza after a pretty decent walk. Vernazza perches on a rocky outcrop with a castle dominating the sky-line. This is the perfect place to stop for some refreshment. Some rebuilding is going on since flood damage, though you can still wander the steep narrow streets or enjoy the sea view from the central square. Boats come and go from its harbour, which is another popular way of seeing the area. From here the only way to move on the next village is to either take the train or to take the steeper pathway along the mountain ridge as the main pathway is closed. This is a much tougher walk and fewer people go there, so if you put in the effort you’ll be rewarded with some peace and quiet, not to mention some stellar views. From the top of the ridge, you’ll discover that the whole region is covered with terraced vineyards and winding roads. If you continue, the walk takes you through a forest until you find the pathways leading back to the coastal villages. Sometimes the path is hard to follow as the signage is not so good, but there are not too many pathways so you shouldn’t get lost.
Our walk finally took us to Manarola, which is a largish town with many restaurant options. We were ravenous after our long walk and were happy to find plenty of places where we could eat and enjoy the views. We had some delicious fresh pasta and were happy that, despite the large tourist population, the food quality and prices were still reasonable. As the sun was setting we finished the day with the final stretch of coastal walkway to the last village, Riomaggiore, to complete the Cinque Terre walk. Our stay was short and we were there more for the walking and the views than to explore the villages. Of course you could spend much more time there and there is plenty of accommodation in each town. We stayed in nearby La Spezia, which is only ten minutes away by train. There are also many hotels here but booking ahead is recommended as many were full. Despite the crowds, however, it is still an exceptional place to visit. As we left the next morning the clouds had come over and it was a wet and dreary day, so we were glad that our one and only day in the area had been sun-drenched and gorgeous.
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