One day, all it takes to appreciate Cinque Terre
Monterosso was sleepy quiet when we walked out from the train carriage at 0820. Within a minute and we were already standing next to the coast facing a swath of blue, feeling the sea breeze on our face.
Refreshed, we were all pumped up for the adventure of the day: hike to Vernazza, train to Corniglia, hike to Manarola, train to Riomaggoire and back to La Spezia.
The Cinque Terre Card (€16) was quite handy. That covered park fees, all train rides between La Spezia, all the 5 villages, shuttle bus transfers, WIFI. Of course, it might be cheaper to go ala carte. After all, park entrance fee/hiking permit was €7.50, train rides were €2.10 per trip. But the Card was hassle-free (no digging for loose change on the road).
Colourful wistfulness – Cinque Terre, the five villages
Cinque Terre – the 5 lands – is a collective term for 5 colourful hamlets ie Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterrosso, settlements built right next to the coast. Because of its dramatic landscape, cheerful houses and romantic vibes, Cinque Terre has become a very popular destination. Very.
The first challenge was figuring out how to pronounce ‘Cinque Terre’ (it sounds like ‘ching-kway tear-ray’). Make sure to curl the ‘Rs’ well and good.
Next was deciding how to orchestrate the hike(s). The ‘Blue Path’ (Sentiero Azzurro in italian) connects the 5 villages. I am supposing the Blue Path is ‘blue’ because most parts of it hug the cliff close to the sea. There’s also the ‘Red Path’ which connects the inland villages and involved more elevation gain. For most of us, only the Blue Path matters.
Some sections of the Blue Path are closed ie part of the Corniglia-Manarola trail, the Manarola-Riomaggiore trail, but there is enough of it left to satiate the avid hiker. Refer to the links at the end of blog.
An unexpected detour, still, stunning views ensued – Monterrsosso to Vernazza
We started walking by the coast towards Monterrosso, climbed past a tiny fort perched on cliff on a tiny sandbar. If we continued on, the coastal route would curve up and around the cliff towards a hotel. But the route was closed. Thus barred, we had no choice but to follow the signs into the village.
From the village, a path ascended alongside a vineyard. Very soon, the village was behind, then below us. It would have made a perfect panorama if it weren’t so cloudy. Once we were over the vinyards a check post came into view. Here’s where you either flash the Card or purchase the hiking permit. We were back on the Blue Path.
From here, the trail wrapped around the contours of the hillsides, sometimes offering daring lookouts to the sea, sometimes shaded by beautiful arching trees. The trail was well-maintained, easy to walk and relatively flat.
We reached Vernazza at 1040am. We wanted to do lunch at Belforte but it was closed (open from 1200) so we went to chill at Il Pirata Delle 5 Terre instead. Pirata was open for breakfast and only served lunch from 12pm but the lovely staff made an exception for us – took our orders and with the ok from the kitchen, served us lunch 30 minutes earlier.
We were rewarded with a very tasty, value-for-money meal: seafood risotto, lasagne, pesto gnocchi, burata salad, panna cotta, and cannoli. We got so comfortable it took us tonnes of willpower to pry ourselves from the place and move on to our next hike.
From a distance, it looked like heaven on earth – Corniglia to Manarola
We departed for Corniglia reluctantly (1245) . The train ride from Vernazza to Corniglia took only 3 minutes. Then, we had the option of walking up a long flight of (zig-zag) stairs to Corniglia (as known as Scalinata Lardarina, stairway of 377 steps) or wait for the bus to send us right into the centre of town. Of course, we waited for the bus – needed to save our energy for the next hike especially it became scorching hot. The bus was covered by the Card.
The trailhead started from the path directly across from Scalinata Lardarina (1345). From the village, we walked towards the stairs then then left onto the trail. It’s a gradual ascent up until we reach the vineyards then the trail flattened as we made our way through them. It was a beautiful hike with nice lookouts to both Corniglia and Manarola. Best views of the day!
We reached Volastra first, another village. I took a huge detour in the village after missing a turn. Look out for a long flight of stairs going down (right turn). It should not be very long after you enter Volastra.
A few hundred steps later, we arrived onto a road. The panaromic trail to Manarola (on the right) was closed so we followed the signs along the road towards a huge car park and then voila, we had arrived at the backyard of Manarola.
We took 3 hours to reach Manarola (including time spent admiring the enroute scenery and getting lost) then it rained. My impression of Manarola: dim, dreary, depressing. The village was spreadout, large, overrun with tourists, nothing like the cosy enclave that we’d arrived from (Corniglia). We took a tea break here to rest our tired legs.
Manarola was definitely my least favourite village.
Riomaggiore, a dangerous beauty
We boarded a train to Riomaggiore, arrived at 1735. Spent about an hour there, snapping pictures of the colourful, rundown buildings next to the sea. The organic development of the village and the rugged disrepair exuded a kind of decrepit beauty and character that attracted attention readily. Of course, I was also wondering about the danger of fire.
Riomaggoire was also packed with tourists but it had a lively, festive air quite unlike the conspicuous commercialism of Manarola.
La Spezia, the calm after Cinque Terre
Coming back to La Spezia from Cinque Terre was like having peace restored. The quietness of La Spezia was a stark contrast to the busyness of Cinque Terre. We walked the entire street and only met 2-3 people. It healed our frazzled souls immediately.
Dinner was at Bella Napoli – hearty, traditional Italian fare comprising finger-licking-good pizza and pepper-crusted chicken. Another sterling recommendation that wrapped up a very eventful day.
Cinque Terre lived up to its reputation but felt a tad overhyped. The villages were eye-catching and vibrant but they looked much better from afar, on the cliffs or against the deep blue of the sea. More romantic and wistful. Perhaps, they’d look even better at night.
Doesn’t that sound like an old dame who’d seen better days?