The days of having the Cinque Terre to yourself are long gone.
The string of villages along the Ligurian coast in Italy is far too exposed. Rick Steves wanders the lovely streets and waxes poetic about the charm and the food, and the masses come. Even in the offseason, the streets are jammed with visitors gawking at the colorful little harbors. You should not let that deter you from visiting, however.
I've been wanting to go since I heard about it a few years ago (on a Rick Steves show, I must admit), and my dad wanted to see it in person, too.
The towns, from north to south, are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, all surrounded by and built within rugged hillsides.
The name Cinque Terre means five lands, or in this case, five towns that were individual fiefdoms during pre-Roman times. Because rough terrain made access difficult, these towns developed wine and food cultures that were mostly unhindered by outside influences. Even today, they remain largely car-free. The only invaders are tourists.
Other than Corniglia, which is on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean, the towns all sit along the water. They are linked by a train running from La Spezia in the south to Genova in the north. We started our journey in La Spezia.
First step: train tickets. Shouldn't be too hard, right?
This turned into an exercise in patience, as we ended up being sent to four different places in the same station, eventually getting them from the tabacchi (tobacco shop). Apparently, "A pack of smokes and a train ticket" is how it's done. Train travel in Italy tends to be a little haphazard but ultimately a great deal. To explore the Cinque Terre by train, you buy two tickets, each about $3.
One allows you to travel north, making as many stops as you like, for six hours. The second gets you back to La Spezia, making as many stops as you like along the way.
A walking path also links the five picturesque towns. As Cinque Terre is a World Heritage site, you can't just traipse about willy-nilly. You must pay to walk on the trails; an all-encompassing Cinque Terre Card gives you unlimited train travel between all five towns, access to the hiking trails and an afternoon on a rental bicycle.
When you are traveling by train, the stations come very quickly, sometimes no more than a couple minutes apart.
We flashed through the first four towns on our journey north. Much of the trip is in tunnels, then you burst out into the sun, stop at the next station and then duck back into darkness.
When we finally arrived at Monterosso al Mare, we stepped off the train into a scene straight out of St. Tropez. Beautiful pastel-colored hotels and restaurants front the lovely beach, where you can rent a chaise lounge and an umbrella to relax for the afternoon. The bright blue of the Mediterranean and the rows of beach umbrellas looked like something that would have stopped Monet in his tracks.
Monterosso is the largest (and flattest) of the five towns. All five have restaurants and lodging, and each would make a fine base from which to explore the region, but Monterosso has the most options.
Hotel rooms here can be had from 110 euros a night for a double. And, once the light starts to fade and the last trains depart (loaded with tourists, one hopes), you've got the place to yourself.
In Monterosso, we arrived to find a festive street market near the waterfront. Local art, food and crafts were there for the browsing and buying, enough to fill a carry-on bag. The region is known for its crisp, clean white wine, which can be found easily at street markets or local stores, as can good local olive oil. Ceramic art — much of it bas-relief objects in blue and yellow — and paintings of local scenes were on display at several stalls.
After fortifying ourselves with espresso and pastry at a cafe near the market, we were ready for lunch. We walked back to the station and headed south to Vernazza.
Vernazza has a proper harbor, with a breakwater and a smaller patch of sand. The piazza is right on the water, and we splurged on a delicious lunch of grilled octopus, veal and pasta with pesto, washed down with a local wine and all within 20 feet of the sea. The wine we sampled had a label with four simple icons on it, translating to "eat fish, watch ocean." I couldn't agree more.
Vernazza is possibly the most picturesque town of the five. Tiny streets wander down from the train station to the harbor, lined with charming shops and tasty-smelling restaurants. This is tourist country, so there are few great deals, but the view really is worth it. From the waterfront in almost every town, you can look up or down the coast and see the other towns. The train winks in and out of view as it passes between tunnels.
After lunch, my cousin and I decided to walk the Cinque Terre trail. We hopped the train to Corniglia, bought our Cinque Terre trail cards at the tourist information office and headed for the trail. We were asked at a few points along our walk to show our trail cards, so keep them handy.
We didn't visit Corniglia, I'm sorry to say. It's a beast of a climb up a staircase with about 20 switchbacks, or a long wait for a shuttle bus, so we headed south along the trail instead. It is considered the quietest of the five villages and features a communal olive press where the locals like to sit and pass the time.
The trail between Corniglia and Manarola is pretty rough, so hiking shoes are recommended, but I saw people in flip-flops, as well. After about a 45-minute walk to Manarola, it was time for a cold bottle of water and some gelato.
Cinque Terre Gelateria e Creperia is widely recognized as serving the finest gelato in the region. Considering the number of gelato shops I saw, that's an impressive feat. The chocolate gelato they serve is like heaven in a small cup.
Next, it was off to Riomaggiore, the southernmost town. The trail, known as the Via dell'Amore, or the Way of Love, takes about 15 to 20 minutes and is well-paved and easy. It's so easy, in fact, that along the route you can stop for an espresso or grappa (a regional specialty) at Bar dell'Amore, which perches on the hillside overlooking the Mediterranean.
Riomaggiore is the final town on the trail. Watching over it is a castle, dating to the mid-12th century, that yields a stunning view of the area — if you're brave enough to climb the steep road behind the train station. Like the other towns in the Cinque Terre, it has a wonderful assortment of small hotels, restaurants and waterfront views. The Via dell'Amore ends right on the train station platform, so if you're tired from all that walking and gelato, you can clamber aboard the train and be whisked away.
I recommend you to save a little energy, however, and explore the town.
Those who aren't fans of rail also can explore the region by boat. Water buses serve all five towns, but at some of them, be prepared to disembark by walking across a plank between the boat and the shore.
In the end, the train and my feet were all I needed for this trip — and to understand why it is such a tourist hot spot.
A day spent eating, drinking, riding trains and walking along the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean is one to remember.
IF YOU GO: