Travels in Italy: Cinque Terre

Vernazza

Out of all the places we visited in Italy, Cinque Terre was my favorite. Located on the west coast along the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre (meaning “Five Lands”) is actually a national park consisting of five small seaside villages. The whole area is breathtakingly picturesque. This rugged coastline is sparsely populated with brightly colored clusters of rustic buildings that appear to hang precariously right along the sea cliffs. Tiny fishing boats dot the harbors and vineyards and olive groves grow in steep terraces along the lush green mountainsides. It’s an enchanting place not to be missed.

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Once a very remote and difficult location to access, getting here is quite easy nowadays. We took the train from Pisa (after checking out the famous leaning tower) to the nearest municipality, La Spezia. From here, it’s only a 20-minute train ride further up the coast to the park. There are several ways you can explore the Cinque Terre. The easiest and fastest way would be by train, each town having its own tiny platform. It’s also possible to get between the towns by boat. Although a slower and more expensive option, taking a boat can be more rewarding as you can view the park and villages by sea. And then you have your own two feet to get you around. In my opinion walking is the best way to see the Cinque Terre.

The five villages (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) are all interconnected with another by a network of trails. While there is an entrance fee to walk the main coastal trail (Sentiero Azzuro or “Blue Trail”) between the towns, it’s fairly inexpensive. A day pass I think only cost us €7.50. All the other trails in the park are free. You can start from anywhere, but if you want to do the whole 7.5 mile (12 km) walk in a day the most logical places would be at the trail’s termini in Monterosso or Riomaggiore. We began our walk at the northern end of the park in Monterosso al Mare. This was the biggest of the towns and appears to be where most visitors use as their base to explore the region. There is a big beach here as well, making this town more like a beach resort than the rest of the villages. We didn’t stick around in Monterosso for very long, we basically just walked through it to get to the start of the trail.

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Going in the southern direction starts out much more difficult than going north. The trail between Monterosso and Vernazza is considered the most difficult section of the walk as it’s the longest (2 mi/4 km) and the path is steeper at this end. The trail is more uneven and rocky here with lots of stone stairways going up and down along the way. The upside to this is once you’ve covered this portion of the trek it just gets easier from there!

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Upon arrival in Vernazza, we were greeted with a view of the village from above. The scene is exactly what you would expect of a little town depicted in a fairy tale–a small little harbor busy with fishermen making their daily catch, the local market buzzing with activity, the people lazily walking through the narrow streets going about their daily business, and of course the most cliché thing of all–the castle on top of a hill. This is perhaps what makes Vernazza the most popular and most touristy of the five villages. With a little harbor as well as a small pebbly beach, it’s also an ideal place for swimming. After the tough and sweaty hike from Monterosso, jumping into the Mediterranean was irresistible.

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After a swim and a quick bite to eat, we were on our way again to the next town, Corniglia. What started out as a sunny day quickly turned into dark clouds creeping in, and before we knew it we were caught in a heavy downpour. Amazing how quickly the weather can change here! For about 20 minutes we took shelter under a tree with a bunch of other people hiking the trail. Once the rain subsided we continued on into town. Corniglia is the only Cinque Terre town not built at sea level. Instead, it’s perched high above the sea on top of a cliff. I’m not sure if it was because of recent rain, but the town had a rather sleepy mood to it. Compared to Vernazza, it was much quieter and there were fewer people on the streets. We didn’t stick around for very long, only long enough to enjoy the views and grab some gelato from a local gelateria.

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As we made our way back down to sea level toward the next section of the walk, we discovered that the rest of the trail was inaccessible due to landslides and are closed until further notice. So unfortunately, we couldn’t hike the entire length of the famous walk and instead hopped on the next train to the neighboring town of Manarola where we spent the rest of the afternoon. Between Vernazza and Manarola, I would say both are the most picturesque of the villages. While Vernazza has its snazzy little harbor and castle, Manarola perched right at the edge of a cliff. The pastel colored buildings all appear stacked on each other, clinging on the side of the mountain. The small cove at the base of the town next to the sea is also great for swimming and oftentimes you’ll see locals and tourists alike jumping off the rocks. We stayed here for the sunset and it did not disappoint!

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Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit the last town Riomaggiore, but this region of Italy was so incredible that I’m sure I’ll find myself here again one day. One of the things you notice about the villages in the Cinque Terre is how it has escaped the grasps of the modern world. Before the railway was built through here, the villages were really only accessible by foot or by boat. It’s remoteness allowed for the local culture and lifestyle to remain mostly unchanged for centuries. No where in the towns do you find any chain stores or supermarkets. Even the streets are absent of cars. The only traffic jams you’ll find here are two old locals chatting with another or a distracted tourists stopping in the middle of the street to marvel at the scene around them. Aside from the trains rumbling through and the WiFi hotspots in the towns to cater to tourists, life in the Cinque Terre still goes on as it did hundreds of years ago–at a slow leisurely pace.

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