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Tips for touring the Cinque Terre in Italy

The French Riviera is legendary – towns like St Tropez, Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo are the luxurious seductive resort towns for the rich and famed, known for beaches, brilliant coast and beautiful people. But neighboring Italy, the country known for cuisine, climate and amorous citizens, has its own gorgeous coastline. The Cinque Terre is arguably the most spectacular stretch of seaside towns clinging to cliffs on the Ligurian Sea. As a destination, Cinque Terre – the Five Lands, is an ideal place for exploration, relaxation and a true taste of Italy from centuries ago. Just know that in the prime summer months, Cinque Terre is very busy. Tour groups and guidebooks like Rick Steve’s have clued travelers into this Italian Riviera gem, so it’s far from undiscovered.

The Five towns that comprise Cinque Terre descending the coast from North East about 60 miles below Genoa, are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Each town has its own charm and they are all connected by train, by boat or by hiking trails (most quite rigorous) through the seasides vineyards. This area, now a World Heritage Park and UNESCO site, dates back centuries. Roman paths, churches and stone fortifications that cling to the mountainsides attest to the hearty people who have lived and thrived here. Today Italians take great pride in this region which produces excellent vino bianco and Schiaccattra – a sweet but potent white dessert wine, Olive oil, pesto and foccacia to name a few - plus abundant fresh seafood from anchovies to octopus.

However the biggest industry these days in Cinque Terre is tourism. These quaint five towns have been discovered, thanks to Rick Steve’s and his Italian Guidebooks full of Cinque Terre recommendations. We cannot imagine being here during the peak season from June thru August. Be prepared to encounter throngs of tourists at train station, on boat rides and even on aggressive hikes – many of whom are not physically prepared for the rugged landscape of this region.

2013 Travel Update: Dramatic flooding in October 2011 caused damage to the roads and towns of Vernazza and Monterossa. While most of the repair and restoration in Cinque Terre is complete, some hiking paths, roads and terraces are still under construction.

Learning Italian as a tourista!
Good news – everyone speaks some English here so visitors needn’t learn Italian. However, learning these key conversational Italian greetings and phrases is greatly appreciated by the Italians and improves your interaction.
Good day: buon giourno
Please: per favore
Thank you: grazie
You’re Welcome: prego
Good Evening: buona sera
Goodbye: arrivederci or Ciao
Excuse me: scusi

Monterosso is the most beach like resort town of Cinque Terre, like Atlantic City of Italy, with a rather broad sandy beach overlooked by a boardwalk of shops and cafes. Monterosso also seems the busiest – especially in beach weather. But a short steep climb up stairs from the town you will find a cemetery and convent with splendid view.

Vernazza is the next town, reached by train or boat or a rigorous 3 km hike (an hour and half) up and down, over rocks on dirt paths, with spectacular views of the sea below. This hike is somewhat strenuous, and there are no guardrails at the precipitous drop offs, so be cautioned, and wear good hiking shoes or sneakers. Your reward arriving in Vernazza has a beautiful protected harbor (a postcard setting) surrounded by a fort, a palace and a charming village with stone streets. Just strolling around the alleys of pastel colored stone buildings filled with gelaterias, pizza and pannini shops, restaurants and shops is a pastime. We dined at Belforte in the stone turret at the tip of the harbor – the views are stunning, the pesto and fresh fish are deliciously fresh and the staff is super friendly and attentive.

Corniglia, another strenuous 4km hike from Vernazza, is unique for its perch high above the sea, the views are extraordinary from several sites, and the colorful shops and cafes that line the narrow streets are worth exploring. We arrived in Corneglia in the morning via early hike and found the town to be charming, but spoke with people who arrived after noon and said the little town was crushed with people and not so pleasant, so we recommend you go early and off peak.

Manarola may be the least touristy of all, a small center street leads past few shops, bars and restaurants, down to a fascinatingly efficient marina – where fisherman pulley theirs boats in and out of the water up steeps cliffs. A concrete beach – spiaggia in Italian, is surprisingly popular for swimming in the azure water of the Liguria Sea. You do need to walk the coastline path, well described in Rick Steve’s Guide to Cinque Terre, ou to the point where the Church and Cementary are located for extraordinary views of the coastline. Above the center of Manarola, we dined at Trattoria dal Billy which serves exceptional seafood on a high perch look down into the village and up at the steep hillside terraces of vineyards. We recommend you ask for a patio table, so you can sip the delicious local Cinque Terre wine – sold uniquely here as vino de tavola bianco (house white wine) as you overlook the very vineyards it comes from. Above Manarola is Volastra – a lovely quiet farming town overlooking the coastline, a quick bus ride up the hill, with a stop if you wish at the Cinque Terre Wine co-op.

The most famous walk, and by far the easiest physically, connects Manarola to Riomaggiore on the Via Dell’Amore –translation: the lovers walk. This seaside boulevard is an easy paved stroll along the sea of just 1 km (20 minutes), perfect fo rout of shape tourists versus the more mountainous hikes between the rest of the towns. Its fame comes from the fact that Via Dell’Amore finally connected these two villages allowing young people from the neighboring towns to meet each other (and fall in love) previously isolated by the rugged terrain separating them. As you casually walk you will see evidence of lovers locks, graffiti and pledges of amore along the way – a silly but sentimental tradition.

Riomaggiore marks the end of the Cinque Terre region, and comes with its own piazzas, olive oil and wine shops, and pizza places, plus the requisite churches. The most stunning setting in Riomaggiore requires an hour moderate hike up to the Sanctuary Madonna di Montenero – where you will have the best panoramic views of Cinque Terre up the coast over to the French mountains and Riviera and down to Porto Venere and the outlying islands.

Tips on Hiking the Cinque Terre:
Many people try to hike to accomplish hiking the entire Cinque Terre in one day – which requires over 5 hours of rigorous hiking of 9km and leaves little time for enjoying each town along the way. Rick Steve’s Guide to the Cinque Terre implies that the trails within the Parc are accessible and walk-able for everyone. We witnessed many people not physically fit, or well prepared for such hikes – wearing flip flops and sandals, etc. You should be fit and accustomed to hiking, with quality hiking shoes or sneakers, a backpack with water. These trails are centuries old, over rough terrain with no services between towns, not even railings or guardrails with steep drop offs – very scenic but scary to anyone not used to mountain climbing. We recommend you hike the Cinque Terre in segments; enjoying lunch and a refreshing swim in the Mediterranean at each destination and considering a train ride or boat ride back to your town of origin, unless you are prepared for an intense full day thru hike. We found the best place to stay in Cinque Terre was the quiet picturesque of Manarola, in the middle of the region with a beautiful coastline and the least crowds.

Cinque Terre is reached by Italian trains from Pisa, Bologne, Florence, La Spezia and Genoa. A recommended three days is enough to explore the five towns with a full itinerary and several hikes, which makes it a great addition to your itinerary with visits to Italian cities like Florence, Rome or Venice. A day trip via boat ride to beautiful Porto Venere is also highly recommended if time allows.

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All Stories by Heather Burke
All Photography by Greg Burke