The Cinque Terre, in case you haven’t heard, is a group of five beautiful villages on the Ligurian coast, perched above the sea, clinging to the rock. You can’t drive into them, the views are staggering and they have some of the best hiking of the whole coast. I’ve wanted to visit for about as long as I can remember, but have always been put off by stories of hordes of tourists fighting for space in the streets, quarreling over jars of pesto and throwing focaccia at each other. Okay, some of that isn’t true, but it does sound like it gets pretty busy.
As luck (is it right to call it that?) would have it, the global pandemic has stopped a lot of people from travelling this year, which means usually overcrowded spots are ripe for the visiting. So, in the spirit of every global disaster having a silver lining, we put our masks on our arms (this is seemingly the only place to carry a mask when in Italy), loaded up the car and headed for the coast!
It takes about 3.5 hours to drive to the Cinque Terre from the Langhe. The villages themselves are car-free and so parking is at something of a premium. There are small parking areas on the edge of each village, where it costs about 25 Euros a day to leave your car. It is far from guaranteed there will be enough space for you though. Alternatively, your accommodation may have a space they can offer you for a small fee.
Free parking might also be available on the roadside near to the entrance of the village, but check that you are definitely allowed to park there before abandoning your car for three days, or you might come back to a large pile of multe attached to your windscreen. We arrived in mid-afternoon and found a space straight away, right on the edge of Manarola, but I’m guessing it might not be quite so easy in non-pandemic times.
The other option is to park by the train station in La Spezia (paid and free spaces are available) and then jump on the train to your village of choice. This is undoubtedly quicker, and also takes away the will-we-won’t-we stress of trying to park at the village.
The 5 Villages
Each of the Cinque Terre villages has its own unique charm and, honestly, they would all be lovely places to stay, but depending on what you are looking for, one may be more appropriate for you than another…
Coming from La Spezia, the first village you reach is Riomaggiore. This is a decent-sized, quite lively village with a great view of the sunset and some good restaurants and bars. Allegra had her best Bloody Mary of the trip there (and she tried a few! Research, research…), and watching the sunset from the rocks by the harbour was a real highlight.
Next up is Manarola, where we stayed. This is the quietest of the villages. I thought this would be a good thing, but in reality, it meant a rather limited choice of restaurants and bars. Trattoria Billy, at the top of the village, was our favourite dining spot. The village is lovely, but there just wasn’t enough there for us.
The next village along is Corniglia. While it doesn’t have direct sea access from the centre of the village, as it’s a bit higher up than the others, you can walk down to the sea fairly easily. The central street is really nice, if a little narrow, and there are loads of great little restaurants and bars to choose from.
The fourth village is Vernazza. This is my favourite. It’s a bit bigger than Corniglia and has loads of shops, restaurants and bars. It had a really nice buzz about it, much more so than Manarola. If we go again, that’s where we will be staying. We ate dinner at a restaurant on a cliff edge above the town one night. The food was good, but the view…. Check it…
Finally, you come to Monterosso, a village which looks and feels completely different to the others. It has a long beach, with the main drag of the town spread out along it. It’s lovely, but you could be anywhere in Liguria, it doesn’t really feel like the Cinque Terre. Honestly, if it were up to me, Monterosso would be excluded on a technicality and it would become the Quattro Terre, but then I guess there would be too much souvenir T-shirt wastage. We went all 80s one afternoon and rented a pedalo, so that we could sail (pedal?) out into the bay and go for a swim. Best. 20 Euros. Ever.
Moving between the villages by train is extremely easy, and pretty scenic to boot. Each village has a station and trains run every 20 minutes or so throughout the day. At night they are a little less regular but they keep running late enough to go for dinner in another village and still make it back. A single journey costs 4 euros, or you can buy a day pass for 8 euros which gets you unlimited journeys. There are small buses too, which are good if you want to get anywhere a bit higher up, but for most of your needs, the train should do the job.
The main reason to go to the Cinque Terre (apart from the views, the pesto and the focaccia fights) is the hiking. The Via dell’amore (Allegra claims it should be called the Via dei divorziati. I guess some people just can’t see the romance in two sweaty hours of hiking…) is a beautiful trail connecting all the villages, and there are plenty of tougher hikes going higher up into the hills too.
First things first, you need to buy a Cinque Terre Card to do any hiking, as the whole area is a National Park. It costs 8 euros a day and can be bought in tandem with the train pass. There are checkpoints at the start of every leg of the walk, so you won’t get far without it. You can buy your pass at the checkpoints or the train station.
When we visited (late summer 2020), the sections of the walk from Rionaggiore to Manarola and Manarola to Corniglia were closed due to landslides. These are apparently the easiest sections. You can still walk from one village to the other, but you have to follow other, slightly tougher trails which go higher up into the hills.
The paths are not flat, paved, seaside walks. They climb up into the hills, through the vineyards, across streams, with a lot of ups and downs. That said, they shouldn’t pose too many problems for anyone with a moderate level of fitness. Don’t try to do it in flip flops and a flowy skirt though. It may look better on Instagram, but you won’t get very far… Most of the walks are narrow and rocky, with a lot of steps cut into the hillside. The timings they give you on the signs are pretty conservative… for example, the stretch from Corniglia to Vernazza is supposed to take two hours and I did it quite easily in half that time (what a guy…). The biggest hold-up is people coming in the opposite direction. Most stretches are too narrow for two people to pass, so you end up doing a lot of waiting.
The Covid effect…
As I said before, we went because we knew it would be less crowded than normal. There were still plenty of people around, but talking to a barman in Riomaggiore he said they normally have seven staff, but this year there are just three of them. This was reiterated by a few other locals who told us the streets would usually be completely packed and the restaurants rammed.
Should I visit?
Yes, you absolutely should, so long as you enjoy hiking, breathtaking views and all things Italian. The villages themselves are beautiful, but the hiking paths offer the best views. You could quite easily hike between all five villages in a day, but what’s the rush… book a place to stay, do a bit of the hike each day, do some swimming, maybe hire a pedalo, and get stuck into some great Italian food.