For my birthday last year two of my best friends gave me a fantastic present – they said that they were taking me on an adventure. I didn’t know where we were going or what we were doing, but I knew that I’d love whatever they arranged – we know each other inside out, and I’d be happy to go anywhere with them. It took a while to find a date when we were all free and when my husband could be in the country to look after our son, but just over one birthday later we finally set off on our trip from London to…. Italy. I still didn’t know what we were doing there, but my friends had told me that it would be hot and to pack a bikini, trainers, beach shoes and something smart to wear.
When my friends finally told me the plan, I was very excited to find out that our adventure was to be in Cinque Terre. I first went to Cinque Terre (with these same friends) when we were in our twenties. We were working as English teachers in Piedmont and we camped in nearby Levanto in order to explore these five tiny villages – our budgets didn’t stretch to hotels in those days. I can’t remember much of the detail of that trip, apart from trains, beaches and friendly locals, but it left an impression of a beautiful, unique place, and it’s somewhere that I’ve always wanted to go back to.
Cinque Terre is in Liguria, on the coast between Genoa and Pisa, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, because of its scenic and cultural value. The five ancient fishing villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore cling to the rocks above the rugged Mediterranean coast, their traditional pastel-coloured houses crowded together. The picturesque villages are connected to each other by footpaths along the cliffs and a 19th century railway line – you can’t drive directly between them.
Because the villages are so compact, they offer a limited number of places to stay, and the main streets can get quite crowded with visitors, especially in summer. Our trip was in July, and we stayed at a hotel in Levanto, the next town and the next stop on the train line along the coast from Cinque Terre – and the same town where we had camped years earlier. Staying here was a really good idea (of my friends) because we avoided the crowds but could still easily explore the Cinque Terre villages on foot and by train. Plus we could stock up on picnic supplies at a local supermarket before we set off each day.
Walking in Cinque Terre
On our first full day in Cinque Terre we walked along the coast from Levanto to Monterosso, the northernmost of the five villages. It was a beautiful walk along tracks, through woods and clifftop paths, and it took us about four hours to walk the five-mile route. It was 30 degrees and so we walked slowly, stopping often to rest in the shade. We passed a few other people while we were walking. We had water, wine, bread, cheese and tomatoes with us and we stopped for a picnic when we found a shaded bench with views of Monterosso.
After a much-needed cold drink in Monterosso we went to the beach and swam in the sea to cool off. We strolled around the town, had another cold drink and then headed to the station for a short train ride back to Monterosso – our tickets cost four euros each. I noticed that although the main streets were quite busy with tourists, as soon as we stepped into side streets it was quiet and uncrowded. This was also the case in each of the Cinque Terre villages which we visited (and I’ve also found it to be true for other popular tourist destinations in Italy, such as Venice and Florence).
Trains in Cinque Terre
On our second (and last) day in Cinque Terre we wanted to explore the other villages and so we bought a Cinque Terre Card at the train station. This card costs 16 euros per day and covers trains, buses and access to the footpaths in the Cinque Terre park area.
The coastal footpaths between the three southernmost villages, Riomaggiore, Manarola and Corniglia have been closed since a landslide in 2011 so we couldn’t walk between those. Instead we took a train from Levanto to Riomaggiore (the southernmost of the villages), looked around, had a coffee and took some photos before taking a train along the coast to Corniglia.
To reach the village of Corniglia from the station you have to climb some steep flights of steps as it’s perched at the top of the cliffs. We stopped for lunch in the shade on a pretty square at Trattoria Il Buongustaio – I opted for fresh homemade pasta with local pesto and it was just what I needed to boost my energy levels for walking.
After lunch we set off along the path from Corniglia to Vernazza. We had to show our Cinque Terre Cards in order to access the footpath. It was over 30 degrees and so walking was quite hard going, but the spectacular views of the landscape and the sea were a great distraction. Just when it felt like we were never going to get there, we came across a clifftop bar with a sign advertising freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice, which turned out to be exactly what we needed. We sat in the shade on the terrace of Bar Il Gabbiano, looking out to sea and relishing our cooling drinks.
As we approached Vernazza it was so hot that we could barely stop to appreciate this spectacular view. We were desperate to get to the sea and cool off. At the beach the pebbles were too hot to walk on – we had to wear our trainers to the water’s edge. The water felt delicious on my skin, but it was uncomfortably hot at the beach so after a quick splash in the sea we made our way through the village to the station and took a train back to Levanto.
I absolutely loved our trip to Cinque Terre. It’s a beautiful and interesting area to visit and I’d recommend it as a great place to explore on foot or by train. If you want to avoid the crowds, it’s better to go there in the cooler months, but even in summer you can find quieter places away from the main streets.
Tips for exploring Cinque Terre
- Think about staying in a place near to Cinque Terre, such as Levanto, rather than in the villages themselves – this will save you money and give you more choice of accommodation.
- Buy a Cinque Terre Card to use on the trains, buses and footpaths.
- If you’re hiking between the villages in summer, carry water, snacks, sunscreen and a hat.
- Take your swimming gear with you so that you can splash in the sea to cool off.
- If you feel like it’s too busy, get away from the main streets and explore the side roads.
Over to you
Have you been to Cinque Terre, or would you like to go there? Is there anything that you’d like to know about our trip?
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