The Cinque Terre lies within what is known as the Italian Riviera, in Liguria, in the north-west corner of Italy.
It’s protected by a rugged coastline and the Cinque Terre or ‘Five Lands’ refers to a series of the most picturesque villages in the whole of Italy, all linked by a coastal path and a small regional train service.
We stayed ‘under canvas’. We drove down from our home in Wales, staying briefly in Hythe before catching the ferry and driving down through Troyes and Turin and into Italy.
We were heading for Deiva Marina, a small holiday town about 65 kilometres south of Genoa and in La Spezia at the start of the Cinque Terre. Door-to-tent flap clocked up 1783 km but the advantage is that you can park up and leave your car keys alone for the duration of your stay. The local bus and train services in this part of the world are excellent. Italian trains run on time and are frequent, clean and cheap. You often share your train carriage with school children travelling along the line between home and school.
Guide books refer to the villages of the Cinque Terre, although, in reality, they feel more like towns. They are, from west to east: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
Basically, you use the coastal train service to decide which villages you want to visit and either link them together by train or, walk sections of the coastal trail between villages, It’s up to you. You can walk as little or as much as you prefer. Remember, July can be exceedingly hot but the villages are more or less equally spaced out along the route and the distance between the first (Monterosso al Mare) and the last (Riomaggiore) is about 40 kilometres.
Deiva Marina lies north of Monterosso a Mare, so it meant a train journey to our starting points, but that was part of the joy as the train hugs the coastline and the views are absolutely splendid.
And so to the five ‘villages’
Monterosso al Mare
This is as far west as you can go if you’re visiting the Cinque Terre. It’s a geographical ‘bookend’. The cliffs that surround the village are larger than those protecting the other villages and the beach is probably the best of the five.
The town is split into two, the beach area and the village itself. The two are connected by a tunnel which is a pedestrian access. There are very few cars in the town itself.
The benefits of Monterosso al Mare is that it has a free beach, not completely unknown in Italy, but certainly this makes the resort very popular in the summer.
As towns on the Cinque Terre go, it’s probably the least interesting and, whilst they are all very picturesque, it’s a good starting point to head east. How long would I spend in Monterosso al Mare? If you’re coming from the east, the beach, the sea and the pavement cafes provides welcome relief from the hot summer sun. It’s ideal for a morning or and afternoon swimming and sun-bathing. The railway station is so handy, you can pack up your things and move on without very much effort at all.
For a number of years I worked in education with John Sam Jones, who came from the Mawddach estuary in North Wales. Whilst he was a county adviser for personal and social education, he was also a published writer. The Fishboys of Vernazza 2003 is a collection of stories exploring the lives of young gay men from Wales.
I’d never heard much about Vernazza and I was ill-prepared for the beauty of the place. We walked to it over the coastal headland and as you turn the final cliff-edge it awaits you, running down the valley and out into the Mediterranean.
It was a fortified town back in the 11th century and an active naval base for the Obertenghi family. It survived pirate raids in the 15th century and turned its hand to wine production in more modern times.
In 1997, it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its prosperity today is largely due to tourism.
By train from Monterosso al Mare, it’ll take you barely five minutes. So walk, and soak up the scenery. Along the way, like us, you may meet someone producing fresh lemonade to order. As we were working our way down a narrow path in between bougainvilleas we came across a small group of men all carrying rifles, out hunting the cinghiale, or wild boar. A hand emerged from the bushes and waved to us. From a stall in a small garden a man was producing lemonade. Fresh lemons in a glass, two cubes of ice and water from a hose pipe! When the temperature is into the 30s, it’s refreshing and very welcome and, for a couple of euros, you’re helping what is literally a ‘cottage industry’.
Each of the five villages is different in its own way. Whereas Montorosso al Mare is beach and small town, Vernazza is fortified harbour with an ancient tower protecting it from a promontory on the headland.
The coastal path delivers you at the top of the town and you can wander down to the harbour for a welcome beer and lunch from one of the many delightful pavement cafes.
15 minutes on the train from Vernazza brings you to Corniglia. If you’re walking, it’ll take you a little over an hour to cover the same distance.
Corniglia is different in that it is is not actually at sea level. Instead, it sits on a rocky promontory about a hundred or so metres above the sea.
This is its delight. The houses cling to the rock and look as though they have been built out of the very rock itself. On three sides, you’ll find vineyards and agricultural terraces, but the fourth side plunges crazily down into the sea.
The train drops you outside of the village and the coastal path meets the station from where you need to walk the Lardarina, a series of flights of steps that will bring you to the village. There are 33 flights of steps and some 380 steps in all. In the summer, take plenty of water. You’ll be grateful for it.
Corniglia is old. It was here with the Romans and is full of narrow streets, cool alleyways and tall buildings. It’s not the prettiest of the five villages, but it certainly has a character all of its own.
From Corniglia to Manarola is a further twenty minutes by train. Again, it lies on the coastal path, so walking to it is not unmanageable. As the villages go, it’s small, but the buildings are brightly-coloured and they tumble down to the sea.
Manarola is a fishing port and in a wine producing area. It was the inspiration for much of the work by Antonio Discovolo in the 19th century who came here from Bologna to paint the multicolored houses against a Mediterranean sea and sky.
The path from Manarola east takes on a new identity at this point. From Manarola to the last of the five villages, Riomaggiore, the path is the Via dell’Amore, or ‘Lovers’ Trail’.
There is really no other way to reach Riomaggiore from Manarola except by walking the Via dell’Amore. Unless, of course, you have no soul. Alternatively, the railway station is down from the village and it’s a short fifteen minutes ride from Manarola to the further village east and the last of the Cinque Terre.
Again, this is an old, old village. The central street runs down to the harbour though a host of delightful shops, bars, cafes and restaurants. The houses at either side cling to the rock-face and provide subject matter for artists and photographers alike.
It really is beautiful.
You can reasonably expect to cover all five villages in three days, unless you like to linger and soak up the atmosphere Then, it’s probably a week.
If you fancy a change try heading away from the Cinque Terre to Genoa, Porto Venere and Portofino.
A word to describe Portofino? How about ‘Wow!’.
It lies on the Ligurian coast about an hour and a half by train north of Monterosso al Mare. Originally a fishing village, it now shares its economy with being a vacation resort for the well-heeled and famous.
Originally called Portus Delphini, sadly, most of the dolphins have either moved on or died out. However, what has been left is a delightful harbour town naturally sheltered by two headlands.
A short boat ride will take you to see the statue of the Christ in the Abyss, a statue placed fifty feet down in the water to protect local fishermen. It stands on a rock with arms open, looking up at the sky in an act of blessing.
Alternatively, take the eastern headland and walk up to Castillo Brown. Venue for Wayne Rooney’s wedding to ‘our Coleen’, the original property dates back to the 15th century. Rescued from private ownership in 1961, it is now a museum and location for civil weddings. The view back to the town and the harbour makes it well worth the climb and the effort. I don’t suppose Wayne walked up to here with a warm bottle of water and sunburn.
Porto Venere lies about an hour’s train ride south of Monterosso al Mare. It’s supposedly the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Lord Byron spent a good deal of time here as well, enjoying his hobby as an endurance swimmer. Byron’s Grotto is part of the excursion itinerary. Apparently he swam from Porto Venere to San Terenzo in 1821 to visit Shelley. Bearing in mind that San Terenzo is on the other side of the La Spezia gulf, this is no mean feat. It’s not much short of 8km.
The curiosity of Porto Venere is the celebration of their Genoan history by the raising of the regional flag on every building. Bearing in mind that the Genoan flag and the Cross of St. George bear an uncanny resemblance, the first impression as you arrive in Porto Venere is that the English football team must playing here or somebody has started another Crusade.
The capital city of Liguria. Chances are it’s also the location of the airport for the flight home for many visitors. However, unlike many cities that have airports so close, Genoa has class and charm. The historic centre is a maze of narrow streets and alleyways and it feels very under-commercialised.
Whether you’re flying from here or not, try to find a few hours to visit and wander the caruggi , the narrow Genoese alleys, and visit the San Lorenzo cathedral.
I cannot recall ever returning home with so many beautiful photographs taken with very little attention to detail. The whole area is a dream. Mediterranean blue sky and sea and some of the prettiest houses, villas and villages you’re likely to see. Add to that some superb Italian pasta and gelato, it’s somewhere to revisit over and over again.