Cinque Terre, Italy’s Secret Garden

Cinque Terre

Traveling by rail from Southern France to Florence or Rome, you’ll find a charming stop worthy to explore. Enter Cinque Terre — meaning the “five lands” — a cluster of five fishing villages that hug rocky cliffs overlooking the glittering blue Mediterranean.

Protected by a stone sea wall, the picturesque towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore snake along lush green terraces filled with olives groves and ripe vineyards.

Whether spontaneous or planned, a few tips may make your stay in Cinque Terre more enjoyable. First, have your passport on hand. Border security run checks on trains entering the country. Also, note that Italy has dropped the Lira money system. Look online for the latest exchange rate, and bring Euros for your holiday.

Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and has limited car and bus traffic on the narrow roadways. Hotels and hostels do not always take credit cards, so be sure to ask when booking. Hotel Punta Mesco and Hotel Margherita in Monterosso are some exceptions.

ATM’s are scattered but can be found in all villages, and you’ll find a bank in Monterosso. Italians generally do not tip at restaurants, but if you are pleased with service, 10% to the server is sufficient.

During the high season, July through September, call for room reservations and confirm them. Faxing or emailing is not recommended. Small hotels may be unable to handle such inquiries, (i.e. messages may go unanswered). Or, if accommodations book solid, your room reservation could be lost — that is, given away.

Bed & Breakfasts and hotel rooms may not reflect what some call a “3-star” rating. Many establishments are small, some without television or air-conditioning. If an Italian-style (i.e. light) breakfast is offered, expect to receive coffee, bread or croissants, butter and jam. Breakfast at a café for a larger selection. Also, avoid arriving for lunch anywhere at 2 p.m. Many restaurants close daily at this time for at least an hour.

A Storybook Setting

gelato

Between each village of tightly-packed technicolor buildings, a steep, narrow path known as the Blue Trail rises as high as 1,000 meters above sea level — perfect for hikers looking for a challenge and a spectacular view. During the summer season, expect crowds and remember to pack sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat. Hot, briny breezes and an intense sun can burn even a dark complexion on the trail.

The green surroundings of Cinque Terre make it coveted by travelers seeking a relaxing spot away from the big, touristy cities. One might describe it as a secret garden, where locals take leisure time seriously. Here, life moves at a slower pace, and you’ll find that many villagers enjoy sitting outside during the afternoon. Follow their lead and relax under the bright sun, with a cold creamy cone of gelato.

From the French border to the last village of Riomaggiore, the trail takes roughly five hours to hike, but don’t feel inclined to hurry. The unique charm of each village beckons you to visit the many shops and market squares, or draws you with the alluring smell of homemade pesto and freshly baked bread. Experience it all, then take the train back to the town where you booked accommodations. Trains generally run on the hour.

Hiking the Blue Trail

blue trail

Monterosso—Vernazza—Corniglia—Manarola—Riomaggiore

The first village, Monterosso, the most visited of the village cluster, boasts an extensive beach, a castle, and the 17th century Capuchin monastery with artwork open for public viewing. Most hotels, such as Hotel Villa Steno and Hotel Pasquale run 100 Euros and upwards per night for a single room.

The old town section is a charming walk, where visitors are greeted by shopkeepers eager to sell paintings, ceramics, and glass vases from local artisans. If you are interested in scuba diving, Punta Mesco Dive Center is located in the town of Levanto, just north of Monterosso.

For those wishing to surf the web, find The NET on Via Vittorio Emanuele n. 55. Internet access is around 6 Euros per hour. At nearby Hotel 5 Terre, rent a canoe for around 5 Euros per hour and paddle around the harbor. For lunch, head down to the beach on the main esplanade. Find any restaurant serving seafood risotto, and melt your cares away.

From here, the path to Vernazza is rough at times.

The town of Vernazza is most recognizable for its large round tower near the ruins of a medieval fortress. Locals like to gather at the cafés near the village bottom, sipping cappuccino where the harbor waves shatter into salty spray.

For exploring, avoid the crowds and head for the back streets. Residents often people watch out their shuttered windows, and striking up a conversation can be as easy as looking up. Hotels in Vernazza typically start at 70 Euros per night. For a scenic view, head to Gianni Franzi Hotel just below the castle. For web access, stop in at the Blue Marlin Bar up the street, or the Internet Point opposite the laundromat.

The trail from Vernazza to Corniglia is the greenest and steepest part of the hike, and may take as long as an hour. Rest on the large boulders for a snack or water break.

Corniglia, the village furthest from the sea has a secret all its own. Guvano cove, a nudist beach tucked along a cliff, is not on tourism brochures. Walk for about ten minutes through the old closed railway tunnel to access it. Staying in Corniglia can be a bit of a workout, with 375 steps (visitor counted) to reach accommodations such as La Posada di Villa Sandra on Via Fieschi. If a minibus is in the area, catch it at the train station.

Continuing on the journey, the path between Corniglia and Manarola has been known to close, and locals post warning signs. If so, walk down the winding steps to reach the train, and take a quick ride to Manarola.

Quick Facts:

  • Lang: Italian
  • Currency: EUR, euro
  • Time zone: GMT +1 h
  • Tel. country code: +39

Manarola, a town built in the 12th century, is a diner’s delight. Splurge a bit, and visit Il Porticciolo’s for excellent service and satisfying seafood pasta. At Marina Piccola, dine by the water for an inexpensive, good meal. Traditional fare of the region include dishes such as spaghetti al pesto (with fresh basil leaves, garlic, olive oil, and cheese), steamed mussels in tomato and mozzarella salad, and walnut cake or a rich chocolate tiramisu for dessert.

Whichever you choose, compliment the entrée with a genuine Cinque Terre white wine. Expect to pay 70 Euros and upwards for two. If you prefer a tranquil setting, avoid the crowded harbor eateries, serving mainly pizzeria-style food.

One of the few hostels in the area, Hostel Cinque Terre is a popular place on Via Riccobaldi, 21-located about 300 meters from the train station. The hostel offers free Internet for guests, and a stay for around 20 Euros per night. If it’s full, try Hostel Ospitalia Del Mare at Via S. Nicolo’ 1, in the town of Levanto, just north of Monterosso. Here you’ll find similar prices, as well as Internet service, bike, surfboard, and scooter hire.

On the scenic road from Manarola to Riomaggiore, notice the message carved into the sea rocks above the path, “Via dell Amore,” the way of love. Before hiking onward, stop to visit the beautiful baroque-style Saint Lorenzo church, a landmark of the town.

Riomaggiore, the last village on the Blue Trail (20 minutes from Manarola), is where many travelers prefer to stay. Less touristy, some would say that Riomaggiore is possibly the best town to find an authentic cultural experience.

A beautiful B & B, Locanda Ca dei Duxi costs around 70 Euros per night in the center of town. Another noteworthy choice is Villa Argentina de Gasperi, 170, starting at around 75 Euros per night.

Try La Lantera restaurant, near the harbor for local seafood with meals priced between 17-25 Euros. For a refreshing swim, backpackers say the clearest water in Cinque Terre is at the pebble beach, accessible by a path left of the harbor.

A haven for pleasure, Cinque Terre invites travelers to indulge in a feast of food, relaxation, and beautiful surroundings. At day’s end, dig your toes into the cool beach sand, and watch the luminous sun dance across the pink, rolling waves. Soon, you’ll dream of your next stroll along the coastline of Italy’s secret garden.

*All listed prices are approximate.*