Cinque Terre, Italy’s String of Gems
Cinque Terre (translated The Five Lands), a Unesco World Heritage Site, is a necklace of 5 seaside villages strung along the Italian Riviera. It’s some of the most beautiful and dramatic coastal scenery anywhere in the world (my opinion, but also that of countless others).
The colorful villages are linked by hiking trails that wind along the coast, up high through olive groves and vineyards, and down low along the water. The whole trail is known as Sentiero Azzurro, or the Azure Trail, and the part of the trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola is called the Via dell’Amore or the Road of Love. A fence overlooking the sea is embedded with hundreds of padlocks, souvenirs from visitors sealing their love for each other. A train also links the towns, mostly through tunnels, for those who grow footsore or weary, and boats cruise the coastline as well. No cars are allowed.
When I was there the first time, in 2008, you could walk from the first village to the last in a day, albeit a long day. But in October 2011, a flash flood washed out some of the trails, buried streets and homes in mud, and killed 9 people. They have recovered relatively quickly, although not all of the trails are open yet. Still, the ones that are give you astonishing views of the villages and sea, and there are plenty of other things to do in this popular tourist destination. (This time I was there in August, but my recommendation is to go in either June or September to avoid the massive crowds).
Stay in one of the villages, if you can, in order to be able to fully enjoy your time in Cinque Terre, especially the peaceful evenings when people head out and stroll through the towns and watch the sun set. Both visits I stayed at Cinqueterre Residence, high up on a hill in Riomaggiore, a small, family-run establishment where they treat you like you’re one of the family. We had great views from our balcony, and they serve a tasty breakfast, including cappuccino with a smile.
Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso are all worth a visit, full of gorgeous architecture, a profusion of flowers, shops galore, and many, many dining establishments, from tiny trattorias to fancier ristorantes, or just pick up snacks along the streets. They’re known for their local limoncello, basil, garlic and pinenut-filled pesto, and anchovies (if you ever thought you didn’t like anchovies, you haven’t tried these!), as well as focaccia in many different variations – rosemary, olive, tomato, cheese. And of course, there’s plenty of gelato.
The main thing to do in Cinque Terre is hike, between the villages, but also in the hills above, where you can get away from some of the tourist crowds. Check your guidebooks, as some of the hikes are relatively easy, but others are quite strenuous, especially in the summer sun. Bring plenty of water, but if you’re lucky, you just might find someone selling fresh-squeezed juice along the way.
You can also hang out at the beach. The longest and busiest beach is in Monterosso, with chairs and umbrellas for rent, and sand that’s soft on your feet. You’ll find other beaches as well, in other villages, which are less crowded but tend to be rocky.
Shopping is a pastime for some, and you can certainly pick up lots of souvenirs, but my souvenirs, with my shoestring budget and small backpack, mostly consist of photos, and there are plenty of photo opportunities here.
If you’re in the area for a while, and you want a day trip away from the Cinque Terre, check out Portofino, a short train ride up the coast. It’s full of high-end shops and the yachting crowd. Colorful buildings line the harbor, and you can rub elbows with the rich and famous, although be prepared for prices to match.
Cinque Terre, like many beautiful places, has become perhaps a little too popular, but it’s so beautiful, it’s definitely worth braving the crowds to see.