Cinque Terre

The scenic beauty of Cinque Terre makes it a truly enchanting experience not to be missed on Italian Riviera.

Be it the rugged simplicity of its five fishing towns, Vernazza, Manarola, Monterosso, Corniglia and Riomaggiore, or the clear blue sea and multi-coloured buildings, Cinque Terre is exceptionally beautiful. These five villages have given the region its name, Cinque Terre, which means “five lands” in Italian. The rocky mountains that rise precipitously from the pristine turquoise sea and the sloping vine and olive yards that cling onto the steep cliffs add to the mystic scenery of the region. The near impossibility of any real technological advancements in the region due to its unique geography, has proven to be a boon – Cinque Terre has managed to keep its enchantment intact.

It’s most dramatic and scenic coast of Cinque Terre will surely boost the energy levels of the travel weary visitors in no time. Due to its unique and eye popping natural surroundings and very well conserved villages, the region was conferred the UNESCO World Heritage title in 1997.

The villages are connected by a 19th century railway that cuts through a series of coastal tunnels, traversing the seemingly impregnable cliff-sides. Cars are not allowed since over a decade back. The villages are also connected by the winding pathways along cliff edges above the sea side.

The steep terrain and the sea just below it, ensured that pathways were the only option to commute for centuries. These beautiful pathways have gorgeous views of the rocky coast and the roaring sea and access to secluded beaches and grottoes, which makes these walks pure bliss for nature lovers.

UNESCO’s recognition has made Cinque Terre one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations. Each town has maintained its distinct charm and continues to draw visitors, in spite of some damages that were caused by the flash floods of 2011. Some of these coastal trails were closed for some years due repair work, but most of them have opened since and the remaining ones are expected to open in summer, 2016.

Cinque Terre has breath-taking and charming locales that lay out a magnificent spread of visual treats. The region’s five villages date from the medieval period. The oldest of them is Monterosso that was founded in AD 643. The hill dwellers then moved closer to the coast to escape the barbarians who invaded them. Next was Riomaggiore, established in the 8th century by fleeing Greek settlers from Byzantium.

The other villages that were later established in due course of history were Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola.

The area provides with an excellent understanding of architecture during the High Middle ages as most of the castles and churches date back to the this era and have been preserved immaculately with almost no change from the those times.

Apart from the ancient architecture, the unique feature of this area are the steep cliffs that have been chipped, hacked, chiselled and contoured into dwellings of all shapes, sizes and hues over a period of two millennia.

During the unfortunate flash floods of 2011, many historic streets and houses in Vernazza and Monterosso were buried and there were many casualties. The people of this area, resilient as ever, bounced back to normal life in no time, though some walking trails are still fragile and hence closed to visitors. Most of them are scheduled to open by summer 2016.

BEST TIME TO VISIT CINQUE TERRE

Most tourists prefer summer to visit Italy in general and Cinque Terre in particular, to enjoy the warm climes and the inviting sea to swim and bask on its beaches.

But, late spring or early fall could be a good option so that you can avoid the crowds. It could be impossible to get a room in Cinque Terre in summer unless you book far in advance. The weather is also more agreeable and you could walk around and hike up the hills without much of a sweat. There could be a threat of rains during April, May or September, but it should not deter you from visiting Cinque Terre at this time.

HOW MANY DAYS TO STAY IN CINQUE TERRE

If you intend on touring all the five villages, you would need a minimum of three days. Visiting too many places in too little time would mean meaningless shuttle from one train station to another, not giving you enough time to neither enjoy the beaches nor the hikes.

HOW TO REACH CINQUE TERRE

By Air

Milan is the closest major international airport from where one can then further travel to Cinque Terre by train. The train journey takes two hours to reach Genova from Milan, where you can change to the local train line.

The Malpensa International Airport at Milan serves as a major intercontinental base for the Italian airline Alitalia. You can reach the train station either by an express train which takes half an hour or by the airport bus from which takes about an hour.

Even though Milan is the major airport in the area, Pisa and Genova are the closest airports to Cinque Terre and Firenze is also not that far off, but you may not have the luxury of many international connections to these airports from outside Europe.

By Train

Railways are the best option to get to Cinque Terre villages. Each of these villages have a train station though some of them are served only by local trains. Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are the train stations in Cinque Terre.

Trains from Genova and La Spezia are regular and run frequently. Trenitalia which is the state carrier, operates all trains. A tourism office in a hallway off platform 1, in La Spezia, sells passes for Cinque Terre including the hiking passes for the sea hugging walkways.

HOW TO GET AROUND IN CINQUE TERRE

Getting around the five villages is the easiest by the local train that connects all the villages. The next best option is to hike and is highly recommended for the scenic walks. You could even hire a cab in Monterosso, Vernazza and Manarola.

With a stop at each of the Cinque Terre villages, the local train on the Genoa – La Spezia line runs approximately every 30 minutes. Every leg of the journey costs 1.80 to 2 Euros, and tickets are available at all the five train stations. Corniglia is the only train station that is not at sea level. You could use the shuttle (1 Euro) to go up or down from the station if you decide against ascending or descending the 300 plus steps linking the clifftop town with the train station.

Walking between villages is highly recommended for the excellent sights that the walks provide, even though there is an entrance fee to access the walkways. It is also an excellent activity to hike up to the higher pathways to Volastra, Monte Negro or paths beginning outside the park like the one between Levanto and Monterosso, which fortunately are off the tourist radars and can be very rewarding indeed.

You will need a pass worth five euros to access the pathways interlinking the villages. The passes are available at the information offices near the train stations at any of the five villages and at the Levanto and La Spezia stations. For an additional supplement of five euros, you can avail unlimited train travel between the villages, Levanto and La Spezia, for the duration of the pass.

Boats are a very scenic though expensive option to travel between villages. Two ferry lines operate along the Cinque Terre coast that cost 30 euros per day. Golfo Paradiso runs from Genova and Camogli to Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza, between June and September. Golfo dei Poeti runs from Lerici to Monterosso, except Corniglia, stopping at each village, four times a day.

THE VILLAGES

Corniglia

Vineyards and the narrow lanes crisscross the buildings and the stairways of Corniglia that hangs precariously on the cliffs. The entire coastal strip, from Elba in the south to the Italian Alps in the north, present an enchanting view. The sheer altitude and the lack of a harbour coast results in lesser crowds in this farming community, which is an added bonus for the backdoors experience. The 365 steep steps from the train station to the village act as a barrier for the daily hordes of tourists. An easy though not predictable way to visit the village is by taking the green Park bus, which may be crowded and is infrequent

The village is literally built on one single road, which is thankfully, dotted with a variety of shops, gelaterias, bars and restaurants. Largo Taragio is the main square and is located midway along Via Fieschi, where you can find the 14th century church, Chiesa di San Pietro. Of note is the exquisite rose marble adorning its window that was brought from Carrara, a task that must have taken some serious effort to achieve in those days. 

Manarola

Manarola, with its many pastel houses, sits precariously on a steep hill with an unarguably spectacular view of the turquoise swimming cove and the bustling harbour below. The town is built on the black rock edifice of the mountain. Vineyards and olive trees are terrace cropped above the town and it is the centre of wine and oil production in the area. You can find an abundance of the local produce from the shops on the streets of this quaint seaside village.

Monterosso al Mare

Monterosso al Mare offers a beautiful view of the beaches, its clear blue waters and the surrounding rough cliffs. There are many hotels and restaurants making the town the largest, with a population of of around 2000 and it is the busiest in midsummer.

The village celebrates the most festivals of the five villages with the Lemon Feast on the Saturday preceding Ascension Sunday kicking off the events calendar and the annual flower festival of Corpus Christi, on the second Sunday after Pentecost. The alleyways are decorated with colourful petals during the evening procession.

You even have a salted anchovy and the olive oil festival that are celebrated annually during the second weekend of September.

Riomaggiore

Built into a river gorge, Riomaggiore or the main river, is at the eastern end of Cinque Terre. It is easily accessible by train or car from La Spezia. The terraced landscape leads down to a small harbour that is protected by slabs of alabaster and marble. These slabs serve as tanning beds for sunbathers.
Legend has it that the settlement of Riomaggiore dates back to the 8th century when the Greeks fleeing persecution from the Byzantine emperor, took refuge in the protective coves and cliffs of this area.

Unfortunately, easy accessibility has brought in more visitors and modern construction that has diminished some of the old-world charm of the place.

Vernazza

Though a bit more crowded among the five villages, Vernazza excels the others with its beauty and its narrow streets and quaint squares. Being the only one village with a natural port, Vernazza became more important and wealthier than its neighbours. The enchanting arcades, loggias and marble work lining via Roma and Piazza Marconi are evidence to its historic importance.

The remains of the medieval fort, castle and the two towers in the Old Town, stand in stark contrast to the pink slate-roof houses and the colourful squares. Romans were the first settlers here in the 1st century.

With a lively social scene, Vernazza’s sandy beach is across Monterosso, visible from the Piazza Marconi. Dotted by many restaurants and bars, the outskirts of the piazza presents a busy visual treat, which is very unique to Vernazza.

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