Cinque Terre Guide: Hitting the Big Five in the National Park

In La Spezia, the location of my accommodation to visit the famous five or ‘Cinque Terre’, I had my only mentally low time on the trip so far. I’d just come from Florence and my energy levels were in hiding, whilst La Spezia wasn’t exactly a grand destination. After sleeping the night, in the morning I ignored my alarms and slept in to recuperate and debated missing out on my exploring for the day, perhaps with a trip to the cinema.

Yet, something in me pushed against the lack of motivation and I’m so fortunate that I managed to meet my aims and have a great time doing it, for if I’d missed out, I would have regretted it.

The Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre are five brightly coloured, rustic villages based along the south coast of Italy, the Italian Riviera. Some from cliffs, and one from a very great height, they all have excellent rail connections through the mountainous landscape due to their popularity, especially in the summer time. A pass to see all five comes in at 12 euros, so it really isn’t worth debating.

My idea was to travel to the furthest village, some twenty five minutes from La Spezia, and work my way back throughout the day. This paid off as it meant I was always making progress back and would be at Riomaggiore, arguably the most stunning of the five, for sunset.

Here’s my Cinque Terre guide and take on each village; the differences between seem small at first, but they each have their own charm and top reason to visit.

Monterosso al Mare

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The largest of the five and most northern, it’s where to go for the beach. All the photos I’d seen were in the sunshine, and that’s how I saw it on arrival. It was actually the first classic beach abroad I’d seen in person, which reminded me of all the images I’d seen working for a travel company. I don’t get the draw of lazing on the beach, but it was certainly picturesque.

Walking ten minutes and through a passage cutting through the mountain, you’re in the town square from which several narrow streets are filled with markets, churches and restaurants that thrive. The colour of the buildings make it stand out from say Florence or Rome, and are better compared to those in Venice.

For all the great views, there is little to do here as it’s a place to hit the beach. I would recommend going into the church, as it’s decorated like a chequerboard. Easily seen in an hour, it was quickly on to village two.

Vernazza

If I was slightly underwhelmed by Monterosso, it was in Vernazza that I was impressed. The train takes you to the top of the high street and you walk down with the coast in view. To the left as you near the end of the road, there’s a cave leading to a tiny beach and rocks where sunbathers were relaxing and potentially sleeping.

When you continue to the main beach off Piazza Marconi, the view is stunning. The protected harbour showcases clear waters, cliff faces and the bell tower with the Chapel of Santa Marta from the main street visible. You can also see vineyards on the mountainside. This is where I stayed for my visit, committing it all to memory (my own as well as my SD card).

I regard it as typical of the region and a good example if for some reason you can only go to one of the Cinque Terre. As I bought my 12 euro card, the lady told me it was her favourite.

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Corniglia

Wow, this one is up high! After leaving the train you climb a never ending staircase of steps that zigzag up the mountainside. If you make it to the top, which takes about twenty, twenty five minutes, head left to the centre as there is nothing but countryside to the right.

Perhaps it was due to the effort reaching Corniglia, but it didn’t match the others in terms of size or beauty. The square was similar to Vernazza but without the cardio! This is more of an endurance village to hit all five, so it’s apt it’s the halfway point. Come here for the views and that extra bit of exercise.

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Manarola

An excellent precursor to Riomaggiore, being a mixture of the final of the five and the Vernazza, it’s potentially the most commercial. Coming out of a tunnel, you’re in the middle of a large main street with steps leading to a viewing platform and walkway down to the ocean. Stop here to take in the scene before heading down.

The port here is particularly large and many boats were both coming in and setting sail. The surrounding noises were of coffee cups clattering on tables, flip-flops hitting feet and the waves pounding against the cliff face. By this point I could see the sun creeping down the sky, and headed for my final destination.

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Riomaggiore

My last and absolute favourite. After walking through the tunnel from the train station, the evening light of the town shone through and it was like seeing a vision of beauty. From near darkness, Riomaggiore revealed itself in all of it’s variety of bright colours, fishing boats and rocks jaggedly appearing from the water. I didn’t waste any time as I spotted a spare bench at the top of the ascent; perfect for photos.

As the light from the setting sun grew into that brief golden haze, it was calming and dreamlike in Riomaggiore. In my opinion, the best time of day to visit. It puts visitors in a celebratory mood and as the red sky at night hits the lapping water, it can’t be beaten. Other guests here took boats out into the water, while others sought drinks from the variety of restaurants. Myself, I could have stayed admiring for hours but as the darkness set in, it was time to head back to La Spezia, smiling.

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So, after a slow start to the day, I had a rewarding time travelling the Cinque Terre. I’ll remember the beauty, of course, but also the relaxed atmosphere. Without the tourist and trains here, it would be pretty isolated.

Useful points about the Cinque Terre

The trains are very busy this time of year. You will get on them but it’s a crowded, hot experience that doesn’t bring out the best in people, however it’s a maximum of seven minutes on board.

The trains are also fairly flexible on the timetable, but mine were all within ten minutes of the advertised time. If you can, get to the platform early and find a spot at the farthest point as the end carriage is always the quietest.

All the train stations have water fountains, so don’t feel the need to blow 3 euros on a coke.

 

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