An intro to… the Cinque Terre
Gillian Price’s Walking Italy's Cinque Terre is a collection of 16 breath-taking routes described in tempting detail. Here, Gillian answers the questions that visitors frequently ask about this magical part of the world.
The Cinque Terre
Pastel coloured villages are wedged into dizzy rock promontories over the sparkling sea, defying gravity. Between them, row upon row of man-made terraces appear to cascade down vertiginous mountainsides. Neck-craningly steep paths lead to spectacular lookouts that take your breath away. Secluded coves with turquoise water are the reward for venturing down hundreds of knee-challenging stone steps. Brilliant carpets of Mediterranean wildflowers add to the irresistible charm, as does the superb cuisine based on locally grown olives and wine. This is Liguria in north west Italy, and these are the Cinque Terre. There’s nowhere else like it, and it is duly recognised with UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
They are five villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – strung along a spectacular near-vertical rocky coastline in northwest Italy. This is the Liguria region and we're talking about a mere 12km stretch between the towns of La Spezia and Genoa.
Why does everyone rave about them? What's the big deal?
The actual villages are a photogenic jumble of tiny tower-like houses constructed in medieval times on morsels of rocky terrain. In some cases, they're hardly a wave's spray back from the sea, although flights of steps and a maze of steep alleys lead up to higher buildings perched on headlands.
Communications were once by boat and, more importantly, by a network of mule tracks climbing inland and linking the inhabitants to their fields. To be honest 'fields' is not exactly appropriate for the Cinque Terre as we're talking about minuscule handkerchiefs of land, painstakingly levelled over the centuries to form shallow terrace upon terrace of cultivated plots supported by dry stone walls and embankments. Cascading down the slopes, they follow the contours of the land and form a breath-taking landscape that is immediately recognisable as the Cinque Terre. The great news for walkers is that there are marked routes that follow these age-old trails passing between rows of carefully trained grapevines, olive groves and even vegetable plots.
Exploring the Cinque Terre
In addition to the five principal villages which come under the protection of the Parco Nazionale Cinque Terre this guidebook includes neighbouring settlements that offer worthwhile pathways. These are seafront Levanto in the north, mountainside Campiglia further down, then charming Porto Venere at the southern extremity on the opening of the Gulf of La Spezia. Each place has a distinct character and for different reasons makes a great base for a walking holiday. All are easily accessible by public transport, and have tourist and park info offices, ATM cash points, as well as grocery shops, cafés and restaurants, and masses of accommodation. The sole exception is Campiglia which has no info office or ATM.
Starting in the north west, Levanto is a natural entry gate to the Cinque Terre for visitors arriving by rail from the Ligurian regional capital of Genoa. The no-frills town has plenty of advantages, ranging from easy access, lower prices and a decent beach, though it is rather lacking in charm. Walk 1 starts its marvellous traverse here.
Separated from Levanto and the rest of the world by a high ridge culminating in the rugged headland of Punta Mesco, spread-out Monterosso al Mare (with a population of 1468) is the only one of the Cinque Terre to boast a beach worthy of that name – an inviting expanse of golden sand stretching along an ample bay. As well as a fair amount of level land, Monterosso has roads and a modern section called Fegina with a batch of hotels, not to mention a railway station. A pleasant seafront promenade runs through a road tunnel to the old centro storico, passing a watchtower occupying a rocky point.
Next along is superbly photogenic Vernazza snuggling in a secluded cove. A modest pocket of sand and harbour protected by breakwaters is overlooked by the elegant Romanesque church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia. A delightful place to stay, Vernazza has 852 permanent inhabitants and a railway station carved into the hillside.
The middle village of the five, charming Corniglia is by far the quietest thanks to its elevated position perched on a vertiginous clifftop headland. This may explain the origin of its name from ‘corno’ rocky spur. From the railway station you go up the famous Scalinata Lardarina, a zigzagging brick stairway composed of 382 steps and 33 ramps – though there’s also a bus run via the road. In addition to elegant churches and cosy houses, it boasts a belvedere terrace for legendary sunsets over the Ligurian Sea.
The following stop is beautiful Manarola. Here a divine sheltered bay and harbour are popular with swimmers who clamber up rock pinnacles to dive into the clear blue sea. The houses here are squeezed into a narrow valley, leaving plenty of space for the extensive terraced vineyards above. The name may derive from magna rota, the large wheel of the water-driven mill that can still be seen in the main street – a convincing explanation as a river crossed by 11 stone bridges flowed here until the 1950–1970s when it was paved over. Another mammoth task was the long pedestrian tunnel that burrows under a cliff connecting the railway station.
The last of the Cinque Terre is lively Riomaggiore. According to local hearsay it was founded by eighth century Greeks fleeing persecution in their homeland. The name derives from the Rivus Major watercourse, now hidden away beneath tarmac. Over time Riomaggiore grew into a sizeable village, typical narrow alleys lined with tower-like buildings piled on top of each other and looked over by a humble castle; the last census gave a population of 1542. The seafront is an especially celebrated spot of an evening when the orange rays of the setting sun light up the coloured houses that appear to topple off the cliffs.
Perched at 400m altitude on a panoramic saddle boasting marvellous views looking both to the Gulf of La Spezia and over the Ligurian Sea, laidback Campiglia sees few visitors. With a permanent population of 60 that swells during the summer months, the mountainside hamlet is an inviting spot and is the start for walks that visit secluded coves. It has a good bus service to La Spezia and also offers groceries, a handful of restaurants and accommodation.
Do I need to book to walk the famous Via dell'Amore?
Booking path access is never necessary however this route (which links Manarola and Riomaggiore) is currently closed as it is being reconstructed after storm damage. The Cinque Terre Park website gives up-to-date info about paths.
Is there a charge to use the paths?
The only route subject to a fee is the Sentiero Verde Azzurro – SVA – which links all five villages. However, at present only two sections are accessible. In any case you can buy a day pass at the ticket booth where the walk starts. The Cinque Terre Park uses the proceeds for path maintenance. Multi-day passes including train travel, WC and local shuttle buses are also available. See the Cinque Terre Park website.
Are all the Cinque Terre walks day routes? Are there any multi-day treks?
While most of the routes in Walking Italy's Cinque Terre are day walks, you can easily put together a superbly rewarding traverse by stringing together six of them. Trek from Levanto all the way over to Porto Venere on the Gulf of La Spezia in 3–4 days. Along the way you stay in a different village each night and get a wonderful idea of the Cinque Terre as a whole.
I've heard it's difficult to carry luggage into the villages. What's the best option?
Carry as little as possible as you'll be the one lugging your bags up and down gravity-defying flights of steps and squeezing along alleyways on the way to your accommodation. Lifts are virtually unheard of. Most railway stations have left luggage facilities so, needs be, you can leave excess stuff there.
How to get to the Cinque Terre
Getting to the Cinque Terre couldn’t be easier – catch the train. If you’re arriving from the south and Tuscany (via Pisa with its international airport then the animated naval port city of La Spezia will be your gateway. Whereas from the north you’ll pass through the regional capital of Genoa before reaching the key railway station of Levanto. Fast through trains between Genoa and Pisa don’t stop at all the Cinque Terre stations so on the stretch between Levanto and La Spezia it’s best to catch the local all-stops service. Known as the Cinque Terre Express, it runs every half hour from spring to autumn and approximately hourly the rest of the year. All train timetables can be found at trenitalia.com.
There are roads to each of the villages but they are narrow, steep, traffic restricted and essential for residents and deliveries. The few car parks are understandably expensive. Bottom line: visitors should not plan on arriving by car.
Where to stay in the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre area is not huge and any one of the villages makes a handy walking base thanks to the excellent train and local bus services. Hotels as such are few and far between due to space restrictions. However there is a wonderful range of accommodation for all pockets. Hostels with shared dormitories and separate rooms can be found in Levanto, Manarola and Porto Venere, otherwise there are countless B&Bs and apartments for rent everywhere.
Accommodation is best booked well ahead in high season – namely May and September, as well as Italian public holidays. Camping is not allowed anywhere.
Hint: bring as little as possible as rooms are small and you’ll inevitably have to drag your bags up and down steep flights of steps yourself – lifts are unheard of. Most railway stations have left luggage facilities.
What if the path I've chosen is closed?
Choose another one. Under no circumstances should anyone venture onto a path that has been closed by the local authorities.
You are putting your own life and those of the emergency services at risk if you need rescuing. The local authorities take risk very seriously – as should all visitors. In the aftermath of strong storms and heavy rain paths are often closed off – sometimes as a precaution as rockfall and landslides are a constant threat. Fire danger in high summer is another reason. All closures are listed on the Cinque Terre Park website.
Is it OK to walk in sandals?
The terrain is uneven and rocky and you need footwear with good grip and some ankle support. Lightweight walking boots are the best bet, although quality sports shoes will be OK.
Will I need trekking poles?
This depends on knees and individual preferences, but I can personally guarantee that if you take a pair of trekking poles with you to the Cinque Terre you won't regret it. Level terrain is unheard of, gradients tend to be steep and never-ending flights of stone steps appear out of nowhere.
Are there any quiet walking routes?
You bet there are! Several jaw-dropping (and knee-challenging) paths can be found in the southernmost section near the mountain hamlet of Campiglia, including the spectacular stone stepped way down to Monesteroli.
Walking in Italy's Cinque Terre
Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore
Guidebook to walking Italy's stunning Cinque Terre. Describes 16 routes in and around the five famous fishing villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Breathtakingly beautiful, this UNESCO World Heritage coastline is a walker's (and foodie's) dream destination.More information
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