Exploring The Cinque Terre

Thursday, 1 December 2016


The Cinque Terre is one of those beautiful parts of the Italian Coastline that dreams are made of. Five tiny fishing villages made up of cute colourful houses tumbling down the rocky hills right to the ocean filled with fishing boats. The surrounding hills are full of olive groves and vineyards, offering authentic local Italian produce. Located in the Liguria region of Italy, making up part of the Italian Riviera and just west to the city of La Spezia, the five towns of the Cinque Terre make up a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Riomaggiore and Manarola are connected by a beautiful 12km hiking trail, which offers stunning views over each of the five villages, as well as the Italian Riviera and the ocean and is definitely the best way to explore the region. If you're planning your trip to this picture perfect pocket of Italy here is your complete guide. 


How to get there and around  

We picked up a car at Venice airport and made the journey across the entire country of Italy to the opposite site, hoping to reach the Cinque Terre in as little time as possible. We only had a few days in each destination along our Italian road trip, so we wanted to be driving for as little time as possible. Since we were driving, our options for accommodation and where to stay in the Cinque Terre was limited, as very few of the towns are accessible by road or offer options for parking, etc. The only real two options of where to stay if you're travelling with a vehicle is Monterosso al Mare or La Spezia, which is the closest major town outside of the Cinque Terre. From La Spezia it's a quick train ride into each town, depending on which one you choose to stay in. If you're not travelling by car you can catch an intercity train straight to the Cinque Terre from with Milan, Rome, Turin or Tuscany. 

The easiest way to explore the towns is by train. Each of the five towns has their own small train station and they are only 2 to 5 minutes away from each other. The best way to get around is with the Cinque Terre Card which lets you ride the train between the five stations as much as you like, as well as unlimited travel on the Levanto - Cinque Terre - La Spezia line on the regional train line in second class, which is particularly helpful if you're staying in a town outside of the main five. It also gives you access to shuttle buses and the use of the trekking trails. You can buy the card at any of the Cinque Terre train stations, as well as pick up a map with all the information you could need! It's approximately € 16 for a one day pass or € 29 for two days. This year an express train was also introduced between La Spezia and Levanto, the two closest stations on either side of the Cinque Terre, which goes back and forth every 30 minutes. For an even more scenic journey a passenger ferry also runs between the villages, except for Corniglia. The ferry begins from Genoa's Old Harbour, La Spenzia, Lerici or Porto Venere.

If you have the time, the best way to explore the five villages is definitely the Sentiero Azzurro walking trail, which connects all five of the towns to each other via a particularly beautiful scenic walk along the rugged coastline. The difficulty of the walk varies between the towns, with the whole trail winding around 12 kilometres and taking about five hours to complete. The trail offers stunning panoramas, views and tiny details that you can't experience any other way. Follow the N. 2 path marked in red and white through the terraced hills, vineyards and olive trees, along the coast and rocks for the best views of the villages. 


Monterosso al Mare 

The biggest village of the five is Monterosso al Mare, with many streets and even one that you can drive a car on! The flatest of all the towns and the only one with a real beach, it was the perfect place to make our base for our days in the Cinque Terre. We decided to stay in Monterosso due to the organized car park, where we would leave the car for two whole days, since we wouldn't be able to use it around the towns. 

Monterosso is divided into two parts, with the medieval tower of Aurora marking the divide. The new part of town is know as Fegina, it is buzzing with life, full of tourists and visitors, new hotels and excellent restaurants. The old town is dominated by the ruins of the ancient castle and is a more traditional picture of a Cinque Terre village, with typical narrow streets and multi coloured terrace houses. As well as being full of beach front cafes and restaurant with gorgeous views over the ocean this is also where you will find more of the nicer hotels, as well as heaps of private apartments and airbnbs you can rent. Definitely book as far in advance as you can, while there is the largest number of accommodation options here, that definitely doesn't mean there is a lot and they book out fast

Stay: We stayed at the Albergo Dgli Amici in Monterosso al Mare, a cute family run hotel located in the middle of the Old Town. Surrounded by restaurants, cafes, boutiques and bakeries and only a short walk to the New Town and the main beach, we found it was in the perfect location. Breakfast was included in our stay and free wifi is offered in the lobby. 

Via Colle Dell'Ara 5, 66100 Chieti 

Parking: If you're arriving by car like we did, drive all the way down to the town and you will find an organized car park right next to the water known as Parking Fegina. It's the closest parking you will find and a short walking distance to most hotels in the town, as well as the train station. The town is mostly flat with only small inclines, so you will have no problem dragging suitcases to your hotel. This car park is only open during tourist season (March to October) and costs € 12 per day or € 65 per week. 


Vernazza 

Vernazza has a spirit all of it's own. It is like the popular girl in school, that everyone wants to know and be friends with. This little fishing village holds more of the most photographed and popular spots in the Cinque Terre despite being another one street town. It is regularly regarded as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. In Vernazza you can find a church built on the water, the medieval castle of Belforte, which was built in the mid 1500's to protect the village from pirates, and a beautiful waterfront piazza and harbour with a tiny corner of sand to use as a beach. The piazza is full of great restaurants and bars, and surrounded by colourful pastel houses. Around the village you can find steeply-terraced olive groves, which are said to produce the finest olive oil in the country. The best view of Vernazza can be found from the hiking trail, if you just get off the train and walk into the middle of town looking for those postcard views (like I'm ashamed to admit that we did) you will not find them. I would definitely leave at least half a day to explore Vernazza from every angle and experience everything it has to offer. 

Corniglia 

The baby of the villages and definitely the most remote, Corniglia is built far above the ocean on the cliffs. The centre of town can be reached at the end of a 365 step hike taking you 100 metres above the sea, so I wouldn't recommend staying here if you have a bit of luggage. The village is surrounded on three sides by vineyards and terraces, with architecture more inline with rural inland villages, rather than coastal villages. Of the five villages, Corniglia is often the one that is the most often missed. I hate to admit, it is the town that we missed also as we were on such a limited time frame. If you're staying in the area for a few days, I would recommend checking it out because it definitely has it's own charm and uniqueness. 


Manarola

The most photographed village of the Cinque Terre is Manarola, where the most famous views can be found. It is another one street town with a small harbour that's perfect for swimming and sunbathing. It is bustling with life, with honeymooners, backpackers and tour groups alike hunting around for the perfect place to take their memorable photo. Built on a high rock, 70 metres above sea level, the most romantic town of the Cinque Terre has a tiny harbour with a boat ramp and a tiny piazza with fantastic seafood restaurants. I mean, could you find a place where the seafood is fresher?!


Riomaggiore 

One of the most popular town, Riomaggiore has only one main street, a harbour, a rocky beach, a church, a castle (yep, castle), a pharmacy and a dozen tiny restaurants. It is the closest of the villages to the main town of La Spezia and the most southern of the five villages. The road between Riomaggiore and Manarola is know as Via dell'Amore (Lover's Lane), with a romantic atmosphere and breathtaking landscapes. The path only takes about 20 minutes, as the villages are quite connected, and along this path is also where you will find the famous views of Manarola. For a different perspective of the town check out the view from the Castle of Riomaggiore, built in 1260 with beautiful views over the ocean. 


Things to remember

  • The towns are not as spread out as you would think, with the whole hiking trail being only 12km long. If you're thinking of staying in multiple places don't make the mistake of hiking between the towns with all of your bags and luggage. Catch the train between the cities you're staying in, get set up in your new accommodation and then enjoy your hikes hassle free. 
  • Unless you're travelling by car, don't get caught up trying to figure out the perfect town to stay in. They are all amazing in their own way and there's no doubt you will experience them all. Put less research into which place to stay in, and more into the best places to find gelato and pasta! 
  • Even if you have a daily ticket, you must validate your ticket at the railway station every time you get on or off a train. There are signs everywhere to remind you so it should be easy to remember, but penalties can include large fines if you forget. 
  • Sometimes trains are longer than the stations in the Cinque Terre, which means when the train comes to a complete stop your doors might be inside the tunnel. Don't be put off, you can still disembark the train here, and it is often a good idea to get on the train from the tunnel parts of the station as there are less people in these areas. If it's your first time it can be easy to think that you're in the wrong place, but all the tunnels lead to the towns! 
  • The roads into and out of the Cinque Terre are extremely narrow, windy and steep. Allow more time than the navigator advises to get in and out, and be aware if you often get motion sickness as you are likely to feel it. Watch out for oncoming vehicles and pedestrians in the local area. 
Due to the quick nature of our visit to the Cinque Terre, I will admit we felt a little bit rushed and didn't have time to explore the beautiful villages as much as I would have liked. I would recommend visiting the region for at least two nights so you can have at least one full day exploring the towns at your own pace.


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