Italy Uncovered: Why You Need to See Cinque Terre
It’s the picture perfect route that pops up on every Italian road trip bucket list. The Cinque Terre (Five Lands) is named after the string of five pastel-coloured fishing villages along the rocky Lingurian Coast. The route winds from west to east along the dramatic stretch of coastline, passing through the isolated villages, vineyards and woodland that cling to its plunging cliffs. The area is a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage site and although the hairpin bends and sheer drops of its mountain trails are not for the faint-hearted, the views are jaw dropping. If a white-knuckle drive is not your idea of fun, you can park in La Spezia and take a train to each village…
Monterosso is the westernmost town in the Cinque Terre, tucked between sloping olive groves, lemon trees and a curve of sandy beach. Explore the old town and castle ruins up on the cliff or kick back and soak up some rays – Monterosso is the only village in the Cinque Terre with its own beach. Getting around is easy, a seafront promenade links the traditional houses and alleyways (“carruggi”) in the oldest part of town, to the more modern Fegina neighbourhood. The town was founded in 629 by the neighbouring hilltop folk who were fleeing the barbarian invader Rothari. They settled by the sea on San Cristoforo hill, where the ruins of a fortress (now the town cemetery) can still be seen. If you want to stay overnight, the beachfront hotel La Spiaggia is lovely.
From Monterosso, it’s just a short, scenic drive to the second village of Vernazza. Dating back to the year 1000, Vernazza is the most colourful town along this stretch of coast. Explore the cluster of brightly painted houses through a tangle of tiny alleyways, steps and lanes. For uninterrupted views, visit in the early morning or evening when it’s quieter or plan a trip in the low season – the town takes on a unique look and feel in spring and autumn.
Further east, the village of Corniglia is perched high on the ridge of a rocky promontory at the foot of terraced vineyards. Steps lead downwards to the clear water and steeply upwards to the village, where you can see all five villages from the top. If visiting by train, travel light – your gateway to the town is the Lardarina, a 377-step brick stairway. Alternatively, you can jump on a shuttle bus from around €2.50 one-way.
A drive through thick woodland opens out just before Manarola. The pastel-coloured village juts out into the sea, fringed with jangling fishing boats and traditional seafood restaurants. Although the smallest of the Cinque Terre villages, Manarola is famous for being the wine-making capital of the region. Cinque Terre DOC white wine and the sweet dessert wine sciacchetrà are the toasts of the town. If you’re interested in learning more about the local wine-making traditions, there’s a little museum in town devoted to sciacchetrà. It’s open daily from March to October.
Riomaggiore is the fifth and largest village just short of the area’s main hub of La Spezia. Its candy-coloured buildings tumble down a steep hill to a tiny harbour – the region’s most popular spot for photos – and look their best at sunset. Riomaggiore is the starting point for the romantic Via dell′Amore, a well-worn path that’s been beaten through the rock all the way to Manarola. The navel base of La Spezia is also where you are likely to start, making it a ‘there and back’ style itinerary. You could also zip up through the hills via Cornice to make a loop from La Spezia.
How to get there:
The best way to explore the region is to pick up a rental car in Pisa or Genoa – the journey should take around 1 hour 20 minutes from either of these cities. Alternatively, take the train – Italy has an excellent rail network that’s cheap, efficient and reliable. Hop on at Pisa Centrale and travel to La Spezia Centrale. From here you can take direct trains to the villages. Trains also depart directly from Genoa train station to the Cinque Terre villages.