After spending a few days in Tuscan countryside, we were ready to venture off to the Ligurian Peninsula’s Cinque Terre. We dropped our car off in La Spezia and took the local train to our home base of Manarola, where we’d be spending three nights. La Spezia is a relatively ugly industrial city, but the sights of the Cinque Terre are only a 10-minute train ride away.
The ride is breathtaking, because after spending a few minutes in a pitch black tunnel, there is a point where the tunnel first breaks, but only for a couple of seconds. In that flash, all the weary passengers on the train get a glimpse of the stunning Mediterranean and you can audibly hear them all gasp (us included). A sight like that is enough to pick you up and revitalize your travel spirit!
Since we used the convenient train system to freely move from town to town each day, we figure it makes the most sense in this post to talk about our adventures in each town one at a time rather than purely chronologically.
Manarola is one of the sleepier towns of the five, especially after dusk. This made it an ideal home base as we were able to truly relax after each day’s travels. It was easy to see that the people of Manarola had strong bonds with each other and an enduring sense of community. It became a common sight to find a handful of the same older locals catching up in the afternoon on some benches on the path to our apartment.
One of the first things we did was set off for a hike on one of the many trails throughout the area. The famous Via Dell’Amore—the path between Manarola and Riomaggiore dubbed “Lover’s Lane”—was closed due to landslides, so we decided to take on a much more difficult hike from Manarola to Corniglia, with a stop in the small village of Volastra halfway through. The two-and-a-half-hour hike was worth it, rewarding us with unbelievable views of both towns and the Mediterranean from high above in the hills.
We shared our favorite meal of the trip at a small restaurant looking over the village called Trattoria dal Billy—we enjoyed it so much we went back for a second night! Brittany claims she had the freshest and tastiest mussels of her life and we both agreed that the trofie pasta with pesto (native to this region) was also immaculate. It didn’t hurt that the water views from the restaurant’s multi-level deck were unmatched anywhere else in the town.
After arriving to Corniglia at the end of our hike, we spent some time exploring and then stopped for a quick lunch. We spent the least amount of time in this village as in any other, both because it was difficult to get to and because we felt like that we got everything we needed out of it in that one visit. When it came down to choosing how to spend our other days, we had higher priorities.
The town sits on a high sheer cliff and has an overlook at the end of the main drag. We spent some time there taking in the views, noting that we could see some of the other villages from that vantage point. Before long, we made our way down the long staircase to the train station to make our way to our next destination.
Vernazza is typically recognized as the most picturesque town of the five, and rightfully so. It has a bustling square right on the water with a small jetty that travelers and locals alike use as a resting point. The water was particularly choppy during our whole stay in the Cinque Terre and the waves were giving everyone quite a show the first day we were in town. Everyone lined up on the jetty, slowly making their way closer and closer to the big breaks until one that was bigger than expected crashed and soaked everyone in sight—including us!
When we first made our way from the train station to the center of the village, we noticed a small opening on the left side between some buildings. Upon further inspection we discovered that it was a cave-like structure that led to a rocky beach. We crawled under the arch and emerged on the other side with the sea at our feet, enjoying the waves from a different viewpoint.
Vernazza is watched over by the Doria Castle, a 15th century watchtower that now serves as the best way to get a beautiful panoramic view of the town. We made our way up to the base and then climbed the short set of stairs to the very top. We rested our legs for a bit before moving on to explore the back streets a bit more, even finding a good spot halfway up a staircase from which to watch other visitors get splashed by waves in the main square!
The first time we arrived in Monterosso, we stayed in the area closest to the train station, along the Cinque Terre’s only commercial beach. This town is a bit unlike the others, resembling the upscale French Riviera more than the laid back fishing village vibe of the other towns. We left relatively quickly, feeling a bit confused and disappointed.
It wasn’t until the next day when Rico inadvertently directed us to take the wrong train that we would find out what the real Monterosso was like. We got off the train and accepted that we’d be spending some time in town until the next one. Brittany perceptively pointed out a pedestrian tunnel that she noticed on the ride over and we adventured through it to find the “hidden” quaint part of town! We spent quite a while wandering around with our jaws on the ground asking each other how we missed this before! Sometimes it takes a travel “mistake” to find something truly memorable.
Out of the many sights we saw, the Church of San Francesco struck us with its pure beauty. It was neatly tucked away among the back streets and made for an excellent surprise. We even found a cute cat at the open window of a restaurant’s kitchen, pawing at the cook for a taste of the aromatic fish he was preparing! We were pleasantly surprised with our unintended second visit to Monterosso.
Riomaggiore is a busy fishing village with a beautiful marina at the mouth of the sea full of colorful boats. The town also boasts an impressive lookout point at the top of the highest hill many steps up above the main square, with a couple of beautiful churches along the way. We made sure to spend some time admiring the Church of San Giovanni Battista and Our Lady of the Salvation before making our way to a bench atop the hill where we sat and relaxed.
Back down in the central part of town there is a healthy handful of shops and eateries that we browsed through. One of the last shops we went to was a small art gallery near the marina where we purchased a pen and watercolor piece for our apartment back in Boston. We try to make sure to always get something we can display in our home for each destination that we travel to.
Our next leg of our trip would be the final one. After our three nights on the Italian Riviera, we would be making the 4-hour drive to Venice!
Trip gelato count: 20