Another magical entry in the List of Places to Visit must be the five villages clinging to the steep Ligurian hills along the Mediterranean shores of northwest Italy: Cinque Terre, a Journey to Remember in one of the most scenic parts of Italy.
Almost inaccessible and sheltered from the outside world for centuries, they flourish as time-capsules of old-fashioned life in a perfect setting: along azure shores, surrounded by lush hills covered with grape vines, olives, cactus, citrus groves and wild greenery.
Riomaggiore is one of the five villages.
Although isolated, Cinque Terre has been discovered by the enlightened horde and gets quite busy in season. Visit between October and March to avoid the crowds and enjoy this special place at its best or brace yourself to share it with the summer bunch. Off-season travel is especially rewarding in a destination like this which derives so much charm from its small size and quiet atmosphere or brace yourself to share it with the summer bunch. There is a slight admission fee to what is now a national park.
Most people visit for just one day, which does allow you to see most of the villages, do a little hiking, take a boat ride and several short train trips, without rushing too much. Only five miles from one end to the other, you could sweep through in one day, but better, stay a few nights in one of the little hotels and have an affair that will linger in your heart for a lifetime.
If you want to stay overnight, you would have that much more time for a leisurely visit. There are several hotels in the largest town, Monterosso, and smaller accommodations, including bed and breakfast, in other villages.
The nearby city of Santa Margherita Ligure makes an excellent home base for visiting Cinque Terre, just 40 minutes away by train to Monterosso. Santa Margherita is a beautiful town in its own right, with a good selection of hotels, and is also just 15 minutes from Portofino, in the other direction.
From north to south, the Cinque Terre villages are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and finally Riomaggiore, each about a mile apart with a total population of nearly 6,000. Many visitors might follow that seemingly logical sequence for their routing, but there is a better option. Start the day enjoying Manarola for an hour or two, then take the boat to the other end, at Riomaggiore. From there, work your way back north to see the middle villages.
Why this circuitous route?
Because boat service is great fun, giving you a spectacular view of the hills, cliffs and villages from water level, BUT, it can get crowded, with long lines waiting to board at each of the stops along the way. Therefore, it is best to get an early start, visit Monterosso, buy a one-way boat ticket when you arrive, take time to see that village, then get on the boat, which is not usually crowded in the morning.
During the boat ride, stay on board during the first two stops at Vernazza and Manarolla, then get off at the end in Riomaggiore. Then you return by train, visiting those two or three middle villages, and perhaps do some hiking. For example, you can leave Monterosso on the 10:30 boat and stay on board until reaching Riomaggiore at 11:15. The returning by train is easy, with always enough room on board. Find the boat schedule at their website: https://www.navigazionegolfodeipoeti.it/
The towns are connected by hiking trails and by train, so you have a choice of getting around. You can do a little gentle hiking to get a feel for the terrain, walking through vineyards and olive groves with a view, but nothing too strenuous. Most of your walking will be within each village, enjoying the leisurely pace and coastal atmosphere of these remote communities.
You can travel from one of these towns to the next on foot, by train, or by boat, but not by car -- there is no coastal road connecting Cinque Terre along the steep shore, helping to preserve them as such unique places on this southern fringe of the Italian Riviera 40 miles below Genoa.
There is a road further uphill with limited parking above each town, but this requires some walking. For example, driving from Monterosso to Vernazza would take nearly one hour, requiring a long detour up and down the mountain, and walking to parking lots, but just a few minutes by train, or 90 minutes by walking.
The train makes the entire area accessible, traveling along the coast with stations in each town, except when the train stops at the Corniglia station, you must walk uphill to get to that village. The train service is frequent, with another local train rolling through about every 30 minutes.
Hiking through the hills past vineyards with enchanting views all around is one of the great attractions, but even more enjoyable for most visitors is simply strolling and relaxing in each village, soaking up the peaceful, old-world ambience where cars and trucks are not allowed. You really don’t have to do any hiking at all to enjoy the towns, since frequent train and boat services are available, but walking is such a part of the complete experience that you should try at least a couple of the connecting routes.
More intrepid hikers interested in larger adventures can continue for days along the many trails that continue much further up the hills, detailed in maps available for purchase there and sketched out on the official web site (http://www.cinqueterre.it).
Locally-produced food is served in the restaurants, especially fresh seafood, olives, fruits and pasta served with pesto, ‘pesto besto’ they say, flavored by basil grown upslope. You can get the local house wine in a small pitcher, nothing like it, what a bargain, and not available outside the region.
The villages trace their written history back 1000 years, with occupation back to the dawn of prehistory. People have been living here fishing and farming, with tourism now providing the primary income.
The main crop is grapes for the local white wines, which are really quite good and can only be purchased in the area. Locally-produced food is served in the restaurants, especially the fresh seafood, olives, fruits and pasta served with pesto, ‘pesto besto’ they say, flavored by basil grown upslope.
More about the boat ride:
The regular ferry service connects the villages (except Corniglia up on the hilltop) during the season, which runs from April through October. It takes only 10 to 15 minutes to travel from one village to the next, once you are underway. It's a lovely boat ride with glorious views of vine-covered hills and the villages. You get to mingle a little bit with locals and tourists, and most of these tourists are Europeans -- they are usually Italians or Germans out for a day's hiking adventure. So that's part of the fun as well as interacting with some of these other tourists, and soon enough you come to the next village along the coastline, the very enchanting and charming village of Vernazza.
They built a jetty here to form a little bit of a harbor. They didn't have any natural harbors in this area, so they had to build their own and the resulting harbors are about the size of a postage stamp.
The boats can pull into the dock just briefly, tie up just long enough to make the connection -- it's a little bit bouncy, but they manage to put down the gangplank. Don’t get off, if you follow our advice explained previously. Ditto at Manarolla, then finally get off at Riomaggiore. If by chance you are in Cinque Terre when it is not crowded, you would have more flexibility in getting on and off without waiting in lines, but during the high season the bots are always crowded. The only time there are no crowds is the off season, and the boats don’t run then anyway.
One of the great attractions of Cinque Terre is the hiking trail that connects the five villages. You really don’t have to do any hiking at all to enjoy the towns, since frequent train and boat services are available, but walking is such a part of the complete experience that you should try at least a couple of the connecting routes.
Monterosso to Vernazza.
The walk between Monterosso and Vernazza takes about 90 minutes, and is not that strenuous. Our suggested itinerary would take you from Vernazza to Monterosso, with the trail easy to find in Vernazza town.
However, if starting from Monterosso, the trail is easy to find, rising up behind the beach. Follow the path, climb the hill past the sign for Hotel Porto Roca, and keep on going around the bend. Once on the trail there are no confusing forks or side detours to confuse you, nor are there any refreshment stands along the way, so be prepared.
There are some staircases, but they have managed it very nicely and very soon you've got spectacular views that makes it all worthwhile. Terraced hillsides for the grapes and the little vistas you come around each bend of the trail. Once you are up along the trail it is relatively level. And it's very easy walking. There are so many beautiful sites to see that you don't even think about the exertion.
There will be frequent glimpses of Vernazza in the distance, jutting out on its small peninsula, and then as you get closer there will be one special viewpoint that makes the entire journey worthwhile, as you stand on a ledge looking straight down into the pastel-colored village wrapped around its tiny harbor.
It’s all downhill from there so you can soon be sitting at a table by the sea in Vernazza and enjoying your reward, a fabulous meal that tastes at least twice as good as it should, enhanced by your accomplishment and the picture-book setting with a spectacular view all around.
There is also a 90-minute walk along 3 kilometers between Vernazza and Corniglia, which is a little hilltop town about 100 yards inland from the sea.
From Corniglia you could head on further south to Manarola, but this trail is currently closed until 2025 due to damage from flooding and landslides. The easiest stretch of the trail is the southern part from Riomaggiore to Manarola. It only takes about half an hour and it's a level path right along the water. It's called the "lovers walk" or Via Amore — it’s the only section where you can walk side-by-side holding hands. Unfortunately, this section has been closed for 10 years due to a major rockslide, but is scheduled to reopen in 2023.
More intrepid hikers interested in larger adventures can continue for days along the many trails that continue much further up the hills, detailed in maps available for purchase there and sketched out on the official web site (www.cinqueterre.it).
The hiking trail connecting them passes through terraced vineyards that offer wonderful views for much of the way and is not overly strenuous for the typical traveler.
Total length of the main trail is 7 miles, with each section between the towns covered in a comfortable walk averaging 2 hours. The entire trail system could be done in one, long tiring day, but it is best enjoyed in sections over several days, except those sections that are closed.
Hiking through the hills past vineyards with enchanting views all around is one of the great attractions, but even more enjoyable for most visitors is simply strolling and relaxing in each village, soaking up the peaceful, old-world ambience where cars and trucks are not allowed.