I read many an article about Cinque Terre, Italy before I finally booked my visit and with each colourful clifftop photograph and each glimpse of the small boats cluttered along narrow harbours in the sunshine, my urge to visit heightened. I couldn’t quite grasp what was so special about Cinque Terre, the UNESCO listed cluster of little villages in the La Spezia region of Liguria – but I knew I wanted to be there to find out.
The most confusing part, though, was deciding where to stay because I simply wasn’t able to find a consensus. In a place so enchanting, it is not surprising that you develop an inherent bias and compelling affinity towards the village you based yourself in and here I am, aware of this, yet falling under the same spell.
It is true that each village comes with its own sense of character and vibe, some miniature and sleepy, some more pulsatile and energised but in truth, it makes little difference which one you stay in since travelling between them is quick and easy – so how exactly do you go about choosing which Cinque Terre village is best to stay in?
It is no coincidence that I start with Riomaggiore, the village we stayed in and the one, in my admittedly partial view, that weaved the perfect balance of bustle and atmosphere without excessive crowds.
Guest houses and hotels are plentiful in Riomaggiore and we stayed at the delightful, family-run Locanda Del Sole, just a few minutes up the hill from the main street in Riomaggiore.
With some great foodie finds, including the chocolate and pear gelato at Bar Centrale, the piping hot frito misto seafood cones from Il Pescato Cucinato, you will find a dense proportion of delicious eats in this Cinque Terre village.
Riomaggiore and Monterosso are served by most train lines, whereas the other villages are missed out on some train journeys so if you are based in either of the former two villages, you are extremely well connected transport-wise.
If you continue your ascent up the gentle slope from the main street in Riomaggiore, you will find the Castle of Riomaggiore above and behind the Locanda del Sole, perfectly situated to boast panoramic coral views over the village, particularly if you visit at dusk.
Alternatively, amble towards the gravelly beach and relax on the rocks to watch the sunset (if it isn’t lurking behind the clouds as it did so obstinately when we tried.)
If I return to Cinque Terre and choose a different village to stay in, it would have to be Manarola, which I found the most picturesque (but it really is like being asked to choose your favourite child.) Manarola derives its name from a large, old wheel that was once used in the production of olive oil and its namesake stands proudly in the village.
The other focal point to take note of is the old church in the village that dates back to the 1300s.
It was an endearing sight and a refreshing reminder of regular, daily life in this area, to walk out of the train station towards the main village to find a group of young, local school boys playing football with competitive glints in their eyes and unfazed by the crowds of tourists watching from the sidelines.
There is a clearly delineated, easy walking path in Manarola, commencing with a stroll through small vineyards before looping around to offer inviting aerial views over the village. This gentle walk may be broken up on one of the several benches you will find en route, perfect seating for a charming picnic so do come equipped with food if you fancy a cheap but very cheerful lunch with a view.
Significantly raised from sea level, Corniglia was the only of the five villages not accessible by boat with a climb of approximately 400 steps from the station for the fitness enthusiasts or a shuttle bus for the rest of us.
Easily the most mellow and unspoilt of all the villages, Corniglia is the village for you if you love all that is humble, unassuming yet reliable and comforting within the confines of a smaller space.
We reached Corniglia after a late morning hike from Volastra, which is a short bus ride away from Manarola or Riomaggiore.
The hike took us around 90 minutes and after a little peek inside Cornigilia’s peaceful church, we perched on a step in the small but sociable main square. There, we would find other travellers pausing for a mid afternoon break with fresh fruit bought from the small greengrocer in the village or some thirst-quenching granita from Alberto.
And when we could gaze upwards to soak up the last rays of the sunshine for the day, we would spot in the distance, the legs of a local lady, topping up her Vitamin D on a balcony we could only dream of installing in our own home.
Vernazza is the fruit burst of colour in the Cinque Terre. It is the photogenic, lusted-after face of this region and it knows it.
As much as I yearn to play rebel and to pretend I am too alternative to sell out to it, I am swayed by the cluster of bright parasols and its perfectly trimmed harbour.
I am seduced by its energy, by the indulgence of choice with its shops and cafes. We shuffle tediously through the large groups of tourists in the town to reach Il Pirata for lunch. And there, we succumb to the bruschetta and the cannoli because we are in Italy, and in Italy, the temptation is overwhelming.
We hiked from Corniglia to Verrnazza, which seems more of a downhill climb than that in reverse and we start to hone down the art of traversing villages within a 90 minute window. A well-positioned bar greets us with more temptation on the second half of the hike but we hold on for the feast that Vernazza holds in store for us.
The queues for boarding the boat from Vernazza become a bore in peak season so plan ahead and arrive early or work on your patient streak. This village is busy and crowded but I can’t help but find it fabulous.
Monterosos Al Mare
I make lighter work of my writing by saving the easiest one till last. Monterosso stands out amongst all the villages for its beach properties. If you want a beach break with easy reach of the seaside, fun bars and a little more nightlife, stay in Monterosso.
The beach here is larger and more sandy than the waterside in the other villages with several well-positioned, beachfront hotels and both private and public beaches. Just be mindful that you may have to pay for deck chair usage.
The old and new town in Monterosso are separated by a tunnel and there are clear signals that this village is well-suited to families too with children’s play areas and outdoor activities.
The Vernazza — Monterosso and vice versa walks are the most popular in the region and for a leisurely attempt at it, allow yourself 2 -3 hours, as it is quite hilly.
Tucked away in Monterosso, away from the sea front which has an appealing retro feel, we found a tranquil cemetery up in the hills with family mausoleums, dressed with floral decorations and photographs of loved ones no longer here and reminiscent of the Recolleta cemetery in Buenos Aires.
And if you happen to be in Monterrosso in mid June, you may even find yourself in the midst of the Anchovy Festival. Yes, in a day and age where the word niche elbows its way into the psyche of free-spirited, open-ended mentalities, it seems one actually exists dedicated to this love-or-hate, small, salty fish.
It is no easy task trying to portray the true Italian Riviera charm of the Cinque Terre in words but I hope I have shed some light on the differences and similarities between the villages.
In reality however, if the primary goal of your visit is to be able to visit the 5 Cinque Terre villages, partake in picturesque hikes, consume local produce and relax in a laid back, sleepy part of Italy, then it really makes very little difference, as they ae all so easily accessible.
Levanto – a hidden jewel in Liguria’s crown
That completes your tour of these five villages or the “five lands” that the name Cinque Terre literally translates to but before you head on your merry way, spend a bit of time svouring a few of the nearby dreamy villages and towns, which are easy to see with just a day or half day trip from Cinque Terre.
Levanto, only approximately 5 minutes and one train stop away from Monterosso, is the more rustic, quaint and docile of the two we visited, particularly as we turned up on a sleepy and wet Sunday, when many shops and restaurants were shut.
Hearing the gurgling in our bellies though and just as put off by the rain as we are at home, we sought shelter under the outdoor canopies of Bar da Brigida,where a few snacks and an iced Freddocino with almond syrup saw me through the afternoon perfectly.
If you’re heading to the Cinque Terre and want to stay somewhere away from the hustle and bustle but still within easy reach of the villages, Levanto is a great option.
A UNESCO-listed site, just like its neighbouring Cinque Terre villages, Porto Venere has long been a popular, coastal holiday destination, particularly for all those enamoured with the kind of yacht-filled marina views so reminiscent of cities like Cannes and Monaco.
Once we had our fill of the colourful buildings and chose which one of the countless boats we were most keen to lay claim to (I wish!), we commenced our stroll along the cafe-lined seaside promenade.
En route, we stumbled upon the Church of St Peter and the Doira Castle.
And even a bride walking down the promenade in flip flops!
Cinque Terre Travel and Transport Tips:
- validate tickets before boarding trains
- boats seemed a bit more reliable with timings than trains
- trains very crowded so be prepared for survival of the fittest if you’re travelling at peak times
- not all trains stop at all 5 villages so check before boarding
- trains are often just one per hour to check the times and plan around them if you have a specific itinerary in mind
- I didn’t spot any obvious toilet stops on the hike routes that I saw so use facilities beforehand or….
- carry plenty of sunscreen, water and a hat for the hikes and wear sensible shoes
- hotels are often high up in the hills with lots of stairs so if you are planning to carry heavy luggage, keep this in mind before confirming a booking