“There is nowhere to go but everywhere”
– On the Road, by John Kerouac
On the train ride from La Spezia station, you peer out the window as you are teased with snapshot peek-a-boo views of the sea, quickly dancing in front of you like a picture-flipping book, appearing and disappearing as quickly as they came. You soar through the tunnel, an exciting five-minute ride, in anticipation to see what lies on the other side; the ever-famous Cinque Terre. You close your eyes and imagine the views you’ve seen in photos and travel blogs and can already taste the fresh seafood as you begin to feel your mouth start to water. The train comes to a halt…you have arrived.
Sometimes when you visit a well-known attraction, the photoshopped pictures of overly-saturated touched-up perfection that you see on travel sites, blogs and guide books, can set expectations a bit too high and leave you feeling disappointed when you see it in real life. Colors aren’t as bold, features don’t pop as much, and those ocean blues look more like grey underneath a cloudy sky. However, Cinque Terre somehow looked even better than all the photos, perhaps because we were physically there, feeling the salty air against our faces and the sun on our bronzed skin.
We must now be ten shades darker than when we left the cold and grey April of Seattle five months earlier, bright-eyed and free, bound for Ecuador to start our indefinite world travel adventure. That seems like a lifetime ago now. We looked up into the azure blue sky to see colorful block-like houses and buildings stacked atop each other in soft pastels of orange, pink, yellow, purple and blue, comprising the tiny villages. As we stepped off the platform, we were immediately greeted with pristine views of the sparkling Mediterranean waters, glistening like fish scales in the sun. We looked at each other and smiled. We’re here. We made it. One of my favorite excerpts from the book Vagabonding, says, “when you look at a map with a narcotic tingle of possibility, you know you are ready to be a vagabond.” Cinque Terre was one of those places that Sasha and I saw on the map and felt that wanderlust. We just had to visit.
Cinque Terre literally translates to “Five Lands” and includes the five quaint villages of: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso, listed from East to West. (It took us a good five days to finally remember the village names.) Cinque Terre is located in Liguria on the coastal sea of the Italian Riviera, and was added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. We visited in August (2017), which is the busiest and hottest time of the year. The best time to visit is in June and September when it isn’t too hot for hiking, and the crowds have mellowed out.
We spent a total of one week in this area and stayed in an Airbnb in a small village called Villafranca, a 40-minute drive by car to get to La Spezia train station, which is the jumping off point to get to the five villages. We took our time exploring 1 – 2 villages each day, and returning to our favorite village twice (Corniglia – more on that later). It is possible to see everything and even hike between villages in two days, but that would be rushing it. My recommendation is to stay at least three days, but if you have the flexibility and you enjoy swimming, hiking and eating seafood, then five days is the perfect amount of time. The towns are tiny…I’m talking, so small that you can walk through in about ten minutes. However, the magic is in the sea, and that is where we spent most of our time.
Many people say that Cinque Terre is a destination to visit while you’re young. Because of its geographic location on sheer cliffs, the hiking trails and walkways are all quite steep. There are certainly ways to enjoy the beautiful scenery without being a fit twenty-something, but it certainly does help to be in relatively good condition to enjoy the hiking trails and walkways of the small villages.
How to Get to Cinque Terre
Unless you are staying in one of the villages (Monterosso is the largest), La Spezia is the closest town and also where the train station is located. Train tickets cost €4 per person one way, regardless of how short or far a distance you are going. You must purchase your tickets at the train station (there are both self service machines and live people as well as an informational help desk with a live person). Once you purchase your train ticket, be sure to stamp it in the green machine before boarding the train. Trains run every half an hour until midnight.
There are several different ticket types depending on what you want to do and the timeframe you have available. There is a one-day and a two-day pass, which includes unlimited train rides PLUS hiking between the villages. We purchased the day pass, which was €16 per person, valid for one day only. This was well worth it, because we did some hiking and took several train rides between the villages when it got too hot. This ticket also includes the busses that go in between the villages.
*TIP*: Do NOT play dumb and try to get away with boarding the train without a ticket. There was a ticket checker on nearly every train ride, and they are serious about cracking down on people who don’t follow the rules. We saw an Aussie couple our age get caught with an expired two-day pass that they claimed they thought was good for three days. The train cop wasn’t having it. He spoke loudly and clearly, ensuring everybody could hear so that he could make an example out of them, and it sure worked! The normal fine is over €100 per person, but he “felt nice” that day and only fined them €52 per person, which they had to pay in cash on the spot. Don’t be that couple! I imagine it ruined their whole day.
Keep in mind that several hiking trails between some villages are closed for trail maintenance depending on time of year and weather. When we visited, the only trails that were open were between Monterosso (the last, most Western village) and Vernazza, and Vernazza to Corniglia. The rest of the trails were closed, however, there are alternate routes (marked in red on the map) that go through the mountains and are a bit more strenuous and take longer (approximately three hours). Because we have done so much hiking on this trip and we head back to Washington State soon, where we have endless mountains, our goal was to stay by the sea for as long as possible before we have to head back into the Seattle winter.
We visited the villages out of order, but for organization purposes, I will list below each of the villages in order from East to West.
Where to Swim
There is a great swimming spot that can be accessed by following the stairs to the marina (where the boat picks up passengers) and head to the left. Instead of going to the pebbled beach, which can be crowded and uncomfortable, just set up on the rocks and it’s an easier way to get into the water for swimming and snorkeling.
We took the boat from Rio Maggiore to the next village of Manarola. Boat tickets can be purchased near the dock and cost €5 per person, only €1 more than the train, and it’s a lovely ride and much cooler than the hot, sometimes non-air conditioned trains. Ride time is approximately 10 minutes to Manarola.
Where to Eat in Manarola
Restaurant Name: Il Porticciolo
What we Ordered: Swordfish Carpaccio, Bruscette, and a very generous portion of Grilled Swordfish with Sweet Onions
Where to Swim in Manarola
There is a nice rocky swimming area here as well, where lots of people cliff jump.
CORNIGLIA (**our favorite village!!**)
Where to Eat in Corniglia
Restaurant Name: Cucina Casalinga
What we Ordered:
Secondi: Baked Whole Fish, and Mussels
Delicious but pricey (spent 39 euro ($45 USD) on lunch), but worth it!
Our second time back, we ordered the Mussels (again) and the Gnocchi with Ligurian Pesto and Tomato Meat Ragu. PS: there is no such thing as excessive amounts of parmesan cheese in Italy. Go ahead, lay it on.
Viewpoints in Corniglia
Simply head up the stairs where it dead-ends at this viewpoint.
And another view point near a basketball court facing the sea, excellent for watching the sun set:
Where to Swim in Corniglia
Once you’ve finished ooing and awwing over the views, head back down the stairs until you see this sign that says “Villa Alla Marina”:
This will lead you down a set of switchback stairs to our favorite swimming hole of our entire time in Italy. We spent four hours here swimming, snorkeling, laying out on the hot rocks, and cliff jumping. It was pure bliss.
Hiking from Monterosso to Vernazza
On this particular day, we took the train from La Spezia all the way to the last (most Western) town of Monterosso and hiked from there to Vernazza. The trail is nearly all uphill for the first half hour, and the entire trail takes about 1.5 hours.
Monterosso is the only village that has an actual sandy beach dedicated to swimming. It is the most accessible because of its location on the tail end of the villages, and it is the largest, so it is therefore the most developed in terms of hotels and accommodation. Here’s how it looked on a Wednesday in late August at 11:00 AM.
The Hike Between Monterosso and Vernazza
The trails are well paved, though narrow at certain points. Remember hiking etiquette: if you are slow and someone is close behind you, let them pass.
Where to Eat in Vernazza
Name of Restaurant: Il Pirata Della Cinque Terre
What we Ordered: Fresh fish with mixed seafood & seafood risotto
Portovenere is not technically part of the five villages, but it is accessible by boat or car, and I highly recommend a visit! Lined with cute local shops and delicious fresh seafood restaurants on the marina, this colorful town has a softer, quieter feel and is relatively flat!
*Note* – street parking is very difficult to find and costs €2 per hour.
Where to Eat in Portovenere
Name of Restaurant: Trattoria La Tre Torri
What we Ordered: Stuffed Mussels (can’t get enough of them, and can’t beat the price for €10!) and Pesto Green Salad with Green Beans.
Where to Swim in Portovenere
There are heaps of swimming areas and even sandy beaches near the marina that are quite crowded with both locals and tourists alike. If you don’t have kids and laying out in the sun for hours on a beach doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, simply continue further up towards the castle and take the stairs down to the sea, which is just around the bend. Here is a neat panorama photo of the juxtaposition of the marina to the right and the sea to the left. There’s even a neat cave to check out! Bring your snorkel gear and fins (optional) and have a look! There are also plenty of places for cliff jumping here as well.
Lord Byron was an English poet during the romantic movement, and it was said that he swam from Portovenere all the way down the coast past Monterosso, the furthest and most Western village of the Cinque Terre. This was his stomping grounds and the perfect place to get our artistic juices flowing!
If you get hungry after a refreshing dip in the sea, simply wander the streets for a pizza, focaccia, or panini. There are plenty abound! Also, if you’re lucky, you might get to take a picture with the pants of a really, really big Italian dude hanging above you.
Other Highlights Around the Area
Because we stayed quite far away from Cinque Terre, we were in the residential and local neighborhood of Villafranca, where the food was excellent and much cheaper than the touristy areas! If you ever find yourself in the area, here are two excellent restaurants we recommend:
Restaurant Name: Locanda Gavarini
What we Ordered: Purple Potato Gnocchi (don’t they look like blueberries?) & Papardelle with Pulled Pork Ragu
This was kitty kingdom! This restaurant is part of a hotel and a special events venue, and cats are everywhere! They are sweet, tame and like to wait around for people to feed them from the table.
Restaurant Name: Locanda All’Antico Mulino
What we Ordered: Raviolini with Gorgonzola Crema (left) & Gnocchi with Black Truffle Cream Sauce (right) (€10 – 15 per plate)
Other Meals Cooked at Home
Cooking is one of the many joys I find in life, and cooking in Italy is basically a dream come true for me because of all the fresh, local (and cheap!) ingredients at the markets! Because we stay in Airbnbs, we are able to save a lot of money by cooking most dinners and breakfast at home. Here are some of the dishes I whipped up:
Sadly, Cinque Terre was the last stop of our Italy chapter. We have thoroughly enjoyed our five weeks here, exploring the vineyards, the big cities, the ancient ruins, the mountains, the cliffs and the sea. In a way, we feel a bit more like locals than when we first arrived, feeling very much like foreigners. We now understand the customs, know a bit of the language, how to read a menu, and understand and appreciate the culture. It is my dream to raise our future family here in Italy and perhaps to open up a cafe serving healthy food with an American Pacific Northwest and/or Hawaiian twist. As I write this blog post from our bright, sunny Airbnb in Villafranca on 1 September, I have a hard time believing that five months ago, Sasha and I left Seattle for this world travel adventure and we are now nearing the close of it. Our next stop is Croatia for nine days before heading back to the states to begin the next chapter of our life.
The journey continues…