This shouldn’t require much introduction, as it’s said to be one of the most recognised, and stunning stretches of coastline in the world. It’s a string of five colourful and tiny villages built into the rugged coast.
The region is essentially closed to cars, so access is via a train service that tunnels through the coasts to each of the towns. And, when I say tunnels, it seriously tunnels, only popping out at the stations (and one or two other places). Ordinarily, it’s also possible to hike between all five of the villages, however, the region was hit by severe flooding in 2011, and some of the main trails still haven’t been fully repaired – they do anticipate that it will be this year though.
We decided to visit it on our first evening in the region, for no real reason, other than the suggestion from a friend about a good restaurant – which was a good enough reason for us.
We caught the train in from La Spezia, which was quick and easy, and cost €4. The train was mostly subterranean, popping out for a few moments near Riomaggiore, filling the train with a collective ‘ohhh’ and ‘ahhh’ at our first glimpse of the coastline, only to disappear once again into the darkness.
It was a little strange arriving at the station, though I couldn’t tell you exactly why – it felt a little like a theme-park ride that was about to begin. It’s somewhere both of us have been eagerly awaiting to visit for quite some time – and we were finally here.
Our first mission was to secure a table at Trattoria dal Billy – and finding it required a bit of exploration, and a whole lot of climbing steep and narrow streets. The staff were all having a meal when we arrived, but Risa politely wrote our request on a note and gave it to them – we were booked for 8PM.
It was a little claustrophobic from inside the alleys, so we headed for somewhere that we’d be able to see the full city, and see the town in its multi-hued pastel glory. We followed the rest of the tourists around on the path to the lookout on the other side of the bay and weren’t disappointed with what we found. It was just like the postcard scene that you’ve seen before, with beautiful multi-story buildings clinging to the side of the rock, clustered around a small rocky harbour – and all painted in beautiful shades of pastel.
The sun was gradually making its way towards the horizon. I wanted to grab some more drone footage, so we walked down as far as we could. Before flying, I just checked with the couple that were relaxing next to us that it was OK to fly – and then spent the next few hours chatting away with the two of them. Really nice folks from Colorado. I won’t lie, I was incredibly jealous of them being able to swim, as I began sweating from the last heat of the day’s sun. I did contemplate diving in in my underwear, but the thought of sitting and dripping for the rest of the evening quickly quashed that idea.
I was surprised to see a few other drones buzzing around, once confusing me as I thought that mine wasn’t responding – yet the video feed showed it was moving!
They ran out of wine, and we ran out of time, so we said our good-byes and rushed back up the hill to dinner, listening as the church bells reminded us that it was already 8PM – but there was still enough time to snap a few shots as the sun lit up the village with an intense yellow glow.
We arrived and took our seat inside, blinded by the setting sun. The glow only got more beautiful the closer the sun got to the horizon, with it slipping behind the next peninsular, lighting the sky in a fiery blaze.
The sun eventually set, so we got serious about dinner. The daily special was crab or lobster pasta – however, it was an entire crustacean, so it was a dish for two. We were recommended the scampi pasta, which Risa loves, so we opted away from the specials – though felt a pang of regret when seeing others have their plates brought out to them.
Of course, that regret didn’t last long as our stuffed mussels and scampi pasta came out (I also had a tomato-based pasta, but was far less photogenic, though still entirely delicious). It always amazes us how different the pasta can be in a good Italian restaurant. It was soft and almost chewy. And then there was the sauce, which was just… I need better vocabulary.
We had to rush to catch a train back to La Spezia, so regrettably skipped out on dessert. As we walked back up the narrow stairs in the restaurant, to the slightly wider alleyway, we saw the queue of people waiting for tables, making us very, very happy to have had the advice to book a table – thanks Toye!
Monterossa al Mare
We planned to spend our second day, a day in it’s entirety, travelling to the other four villages. We were going to start with the furtherest from us, Monterossa al Mare, then follow the hiking trails as far as we could, and then catch the train for the rest of the way, where the trails are not yet re-opened.
Monterossa immediately felt different to Manarola. It was much more open, and at first glimpse, didn’t have any of the charm or beauty. It did however have a very enticing beach, with perfect azure waters – we just weren’t ready to go swimming just yet, we were going to save it for after we were hot and sweaty from hiking.
As we climbed up from the beach towards the tower, we realised that the town stretched into the next valley, too. It was a little denser, and more colourful here, however, there wasn’t really anything that drew us to stay any longer. We filled up with water and followed the signs for Vernazza.
I’ll admit, I was a little ignorant going into this hike. I thought it was just a gentle path that followed the contours of the coast. What we found was a steep trail, filled with odd-shaped rocky steps. A short way into the hike, we passed a group of older walkers, one was nursing quite a nasty head wound, dripping blood all over her top… Maybe we’d underestimated this, and maybe I should have worn proper footwear…
The trail was certainly steep, narrow and a little rocky/slippery, however, it wasn’t anything too difficult. It was slow going though, as the trail was mostly only wide enough for a single person – and we were hitting lots of slow traffic. There was a surprising number of older tourists making this walk – as well as people in far worse shoes than myself (they were dressed well enough to have passed scrutiny at the Monte Carlo Casino). The views back towards Monterossa, through the terraced vineyards and olive groves made up for the physical exertion used.
It was hot, and we were getting very, very sweaty. We came around one corner and saw a queue of people around this man, who was making and selling lemonade. We were a captive market, so Risa grabbed one – only then to learn that it was €2 for a small cup! This guy was on a gold mine, and judging by the bags of empty oranges, he’s making a small fortune. When life gives you lemons, set up a lemonade stand where you’ll find hot sweaty tourists. He might just need to work on his people skills – the only words we heard him say were ‘duo Euro’.
The trails felt far longer than the advertised 4kms. We wound past several small groups of houses, which perplexed us how they get access to them. Eventually, nearly taking the advertised two-hour time, we got our first glimpses of Vernazza.
We’d worked reasonably hard for our first glimpse of Vernazza, and it didn’t disappoint. It was then just a short downhill walk through some more terraced vineyards before we were in the super narrow, and very cool, alleys.
We spotted some people swimming in beautiful waters on the other side of the harbour, so immediately headed there to swim and cool down. I won’t lie, it was cool, and it did come as a shock, but walking over the carpet-like moss into the perfectly clear azure waters after being a sweaty mess was incredible. We floated around, admiring the city, the sunshine, and just relaxing and enjoying our vacation.
Eventually, the chill got too much and we had to get out. We ate our little picnic while drying off, and went to see what the town had to offer. It was pretty, but I think lots of that came from the beautiful weather we had. It was nicer than Monterossa, but we still had eyes for Manarola. The best views were our first, as we first caught a glimpse from above.
We agreed to continue the walk to Corniglia, which gave us further great vantages of Vernazza as we departed, really showing it for a clump of colourful buildings, huddled on a hill around a harbour.
The Vernazza-Corniglia section of the trail was said to be easier than the Monterossa-Vernazza section. In a way it was, as it was more manicured, and a little less uneven, however, it was long sections of constant stairs! The temperatures were still rising, making it even tougher for us. Summer would not be enjoyable.
However, we’d occasionally get breaks in the battle, and were rewarded with distant views of Corniglia, with Manarola lurking in the peninsula beyond. We’d already read this, but it still was strange to see Corniglia high up on the mountain, when the other four are down at sea level. I had read about a ‘secret’ beach, however, knowing where the sea was, and how far above it we were, it wasn’t worth the effort to climb down and back up – especially after seeing some conflicting reviews about it now being closed to tourists.
Arriving into town, there were more terraced vineyards, as well as citrus groves. Cloud had started to gather in the skies, and temperatures were now starting to fall. Corniglia instantly felt much smaller, and much, much quieter. There were still shops, and tourists, however nothing compared to some of the hordes we’d encountered in the other towns.
Risa treated her self to some Granita, made using the local lemons. It was both intensely sweet and sour, and throat and mind numbingly cold.
We made our way through the town, passing through the narrow cobbled alleys. There was nowhere from within the city to see the city, only from the trails that we’d just come from – unless you have a drone. You could however see Manarola in the distance.
When we left, and walked down to the train station, we realised why many tourists may give this town a miss – there were unknown number of stairs to climb! We saw a few poor souls dragging their suitcases towards the top – I’m surprised there is a bus service in this town, as there are in the others, but maybe they didn’t want to pay for the luxury? I probably would have made Risa walk.
Our final stop, and said to be the biggest of the quintet. It was a long walk down a tilled tunnel from the train station, but once we were finally in the centre of town, we were amazed at how wide it was. The main road was literally wide enough to be a multilane road – though only the local bus was using it. There were also more shops here that didn’t just cater to tourists, including hardware shops etc.
We made our way to the harbour, as that is usually a good view of the town. We were getting fleeting pockets of sunshine, and longer periods of overcast shadows, however, the collection of buildings were still beautifully varied in their shades of pastel (and bright red). It was possible to go swimming here, however, we’d long since cooled down, missing our opportunity for a second dip.
It wasn’t until I took the drone up that I really found beauty in Riomaggiore. It was so much larger, and apart from the main road, still just as dense as the other four. I loved this view – which sadly I wasn’t able to see with my own eyes.
It was tempting to join the crowds that were gathering at the harbour to watch the sundown, however, after the surprisingly tough day hiking, we didn’t want to have to walk the 5km back to our camp site – or wait until midnight for a bus.
We did however grab a small cone of deep fried seafood, like most the other tourists wandering around. It was a mixture of squid and anchovy, with a single prawn (much to Risa’s disappointment). She wasn’t disappointed for long, as it was delicious – if a little chewy. They fried it fresh as we ordered it – it was just a shame that we had to walk back to the station to eat it, rather than sitting by the sea.
It turned out that even with us catching an earlier train, we had still missed the end of the regular bus service, and had to wait just over an hour for the next bus – the same one we’d missed by 5-minutes last night.
It had been an amazing two days, filled with amazing photos and fantastic memories. It’s not a surprise, but we both loved Cinque Terre – though, I think you’d struggle to find someone that didn’t.