Within days of landing in Florence, just shy of a gazillion people told us to go to Cinque Terre. Since I was fortunate enough to visit there a long time ago, I knew precisely why I was getting peppered with this recommendation. S hadn’t been yet, so even before we settled into our new Florentine digs, we had placed Cinque Terre at the top of our must-see list. And a couple weeks ago, we made it happen.
Cinque Terre, meaning “five lands”, is the name given to the cluster of five small fishing villages nestled along the northern Italian coastline. In this area of Europe, there are several options for picturesque, seaside towns with beaches and views – the Amalfi Coast and the French Riviera, for example. But, Cinque Terre seems a little less glitzy and pretentious than those other spots. Don’t get me wrong, Amalfi and the French Riviera are beautiful and I’d go there in a heartbeat, but the vibe in Cinque Terre is just a little more rugged and backpacker-ish. In other words, so much more me. Umm, no.
The quick hit list of everything you need to do here includes hiking the trails between the villages, exploring the villages, going to the beach, taking the ferry, eating your weight in fresh seafood (since you know, you did all that hiking), being captivated by the views, drinking sciacchetrà (a dessert wine made from local grapes – a specialty of the area), and taking lots of pictures because literally everything looks like a postcard. I mean, even the sky looks better here. The five villages are connected by the hiking trails, a ferry, and a train, so it’s pretty easy to get from one to the next.
A quick aside on something I think I’ve alluded to before. Even though I refer to this as a blog, I really only mean that in the WordPress sense of the word. I’m never going to write posts like “The Ultimate Guide to Hiking Machu Picchu” or “Five Must-Try Foods of Lisbon” and especially not “What to pack for a Sri Lankan Weekend in the Spring” here. I devour those types of posts when I’m planning a trip (well, not so much the last one – no need when you have a perennial wardrobe), but really, this is much more travel journal than typical travel blog. So, with that said, I am just following my normal MO of telling you what we did, sprinkled with some of my ADHD-esque tangents, and maybe you’ll find it marginally useful if you go, or maybe just a little entertaining, or at least hopefully, you’ll get a mini-mental vacation from looking at the pretty pictures.
Some people say it doesn’t really matter which village you stay in since they are all so close to each other. I don’t know that I totally agree with that. We stayed in Riomaggiore in a perfectly serviceable apartment, but with a perfectly awesome terrace that opened up onto sea views on the left and village views on the right. We had to climb somewhere in the ballpark of 6 flights of stairs for it, but it was totally worth it. Re-reading that, it really doesn’t sound all that impressive, but I swear it seemed like a lot. Anyway, lots of apartments have balconies and terraces with great views, so I strongly suggest getting one of those and then (insider tip coming) – having your fella serve you coffee on the terrace while you are getting lost in said views. And on a more obvious note, you probably also need to make peace with stairs before visiting here as they will be your ever-present companion on this trip.
We loved Riomaggiore as our home base and it was probably our favorite town. But they’re all just a bit different. A little on each of them below, along with our itinerary woven throughout.
Monterosso al Mare
We started our trip by taking the train from Riomaggiore – the southernmost village, to Monterosso – the northernmost village, and then hiking south from Monterosso to Vernazza. (As of this writing, two of the four trails in the main hiking path are closed due to landslides.) Monterosso is the largest of the villages, the most flat, and has the most “resort-ish” vibe. The water was still pretty cold in April, so there was mostly a lot of “laying out” – a concept I still can’t totally get my head around. Maybe it’s because I come already tanned. I dunno. Anyway, not totally our scene so we didn’t linger here much. We picked up pizza and foccacia at a small waterfront stand for pre-hike grub and then headed through the town to find the beginning of the trail.
Speaking of concepts I don’t totally get, I’m using the word ‘hiking’ like a pro, but internally, I feel silly using it and don’t get what distinguishes it from the word I’m inclined to use: walking. Did some clever person just come up with a way to spin walking into something a little more rugged and sporty sounding? Cause that is brilliant. Or, if I’m walking on a sidewalk and then traverse to a grassy area with trees and fallen leaves and some scattered rocks — have I just crossed the threshold from walking into hiking? I thought the fallen leaves bit there was a nice touch. People have tried to explain this to me before, but I guess those explanations never seemed that cogent to me.
If memory serves, it’s about a 2 hour hike to Vernazza. Somewhere along the way, there is a tiny makeshift hut with a guy selling lemonade and limoncella. We partook of this tasty reprieve before heading onward.
Vernazza is widely considered the most photogenic of the villages (and it’s also the one I most clearly remember from my initial visit here). There is a perfect spot along the hike where the trail opens up to a gorgeous and famous view of the village. You can see the church, the densely packed and stacked pastel buildings, a waterfront piazza, and boats bobbing in the harbor. It is something else.
After exploring Vernazza, we took the train over to Manorola for dinner. We went to Trattoria dal Billy and had a seafood prominent meal: tuna carpaccio, black squid ink pasta with seafood, fried calamari and fried shrimp. And all that was sandwiched in between house wine, bread baskets, tiramisu, and panna cotta. Once upon a time I think this restaurant was a hidden gem, but it’s a pretty popular spot now – and with good reason. It also served as a reminder that if a place has good views, it means you’re probably walking uphill to get them.
The next morning we roamed around Riomaggiore. We snacked on mixed fried fish, served in a paper cone, while walking around the town. Riomaggiore manages to preserve that quaint feeling, while still being substantial. It isn’t too big, but not too small either. It isn’t too quiet or too loud. It has a decent amount of restaurants and bars, and thanks to a castle and a church, can claim to have a few interesting sights of its own. We were always glad to be coming back to this town at the end of our days. The first four pictures below were taken from our terrace.
After our morning roaming in Riomaggiore, we took the ferry from Riomaggiore to Vernazza so we could hike from Vernazza to Corniglia. This hike was a bit shorter – maybe 1.5hrs. Corniglia is just a dot of a village. We found a restaurant with great views of the sea, so we grabbed a table and ordered a couple of glasses of wine to accompany our intense gazing. We also tried a glass of sciacchetrà, the local dessert wine. It was served with a dish of biscotti, which our server instructed us to dip into the wine first and then eat. It’s like the grown-up Italian version of Oreos and milk. Hmm…now I’m wondering what it would taste like to dip Oreos in sciacchetrà. I bet delicious.
And for the handful of you that read this and are as over reading the words stunning, charming, picturesque, and breathtaking as I am of writing them, I totally feels ya. But Italy makes it SO HARD.