Five small, yet dramatic, cliff-top towns sit on the northern Riviera coast of Italy painted with colorful houses of pinks, yellows and orange all with green shutters, connected by a long winding hiking trail, crowded by grassy hills covered in vines and streets lined with bright yellow lemon trees along the bright blue sea. Inside tourists climb scary strangely cut steps combined with very steep hills for the romantic and stunning jaw dropping views, a sightseer’s dream. This is the Cinque Terre.
Our daughter’s spring break afforded us a week in this magical place. After a quick flight from Amsterdam to Pisa, we bought our train tickets in the airport and easily hopped on the Pisa Mover mini train just two stops to Pisa Central Station. Paper tickets in hand, validated at the little white box on the platform, we found our train bound for Levanto, and hurried aboard. Heed this warning: Don’t even bother renting a car. One should not try driving inside or between the fabulous five of the Cinque Terre.
We were picked up at Riomaggiore Station after an hour and a half ride, changing once in Le Spezia by our airbnb host. I was thankful for the ride through the incredibly windy one-way streets with steep dips and climbs and turns pushing our bodies to the sides as if we were on a rollercoaster. Our apartment for the week was situated down a ”private street” or in Cinque Terre terms, a set of fifty or so craggy stairs. Having great difficulty carrying both my luggage and myself down what seemed like forever, our host reached out and grabbed my suitcase and plowed down that obstacle course with ease.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so unphased by such a hazardous and hassle of an entry because of the beauty around me. I think I’ve found my favorite place in Europe. There is truly nothing more dramatically beautiful I’ve seen all in one place. Perhaps it’s the happy vibrant colors of the houses rising high on the hills contrasting with the light blue, sometimes bright turquoise, ocean and sky. Or the welcoming Italians smiling as I pass watching me snap my photos. Or the sun that seems almost permanent in its heavy heated presence wrapping around me like a blanket. Perhaps it’s the lack of loud motor scooters. I think it’s the feel of romance. The reasons are many and easy to understand once you see it for yourself.
Staring at the drawn out paper map given to us outlining our neighborhood in Riomaggiore, I try to find where it is we should go. This is a true experience in navigation. I wonder how locals endure this physically challenging town daily. Getting around requires strength and muscle power. Clearly my gym workouts aren’t measuring up. It’s the stairs. You’d think living in the Netherlands would have prepared me, but no. If the Dutch lived here, there’d already be an inventive, creative system to get up and down this town (probably with bike lanes) that didn’t require hoofing, huffing and puffing. There is an elevator near the church, but it’s only open at certain times of the day when the school children come and go. There’s no time or desire for pain and soreness here. There’s too much to see and do. A few ibuprofen, socks, sturdy sneaks and a positive determined mind are the cure for dedicated sightseeing.
Riomaggiore, the first and largest of the Cinque Terre towns heading north has a small beach, a wharf, a castle, shops, restaurants and lots of beautiful streets and paths to view the sea. It’s absolutely striking, especially at night. I could argue that once you arrive here, there’s no need to see the other four towns, but after only two days discovering the beauty of our base, curiosity gave way to the desire to see more. There’s four other cliff towns along the sea connected by the infamous hiking trail, most of which is still closed from flooding and a landslide in 2011.
You can get around the Cinque Terre easily by train or ferry, quickest being the train, with each town about five minutes or so from the next. Buy your tickets online since there may be no one selling tickets at the stations and just one ticket machine, inevitably with a long line. Get our your smart phone and go to Trainline EU and buy them at least five minutes before you board. Do yourself a favor and walk to one of the far ends of the platform since most aggressive and eager passengers will flock in the middle and crowd those train cars. The train is long so take advantage of the length of the platform. You don’t want to be stuck standing squished like a sardine on this ride, even for five minutes in the heat.
We headed to the northernmost Cinque Terre town, Monterosso al Mare, a 15 minute train ride from Riomaggiore and the least hilly. Graced with a big sandy beach and picturesque views across the sea, it also has some historic sites, a church and lovely colorful streets filled with shops and restaurants. This is the place to stay for those seeking less stairs, less hills and easy suitcase dragging. The train lets you off close to the beach. Walk down the street to sun bathe or climb on some cool tall rocks jutting out of the sea on the sand. Or head through the tunnel to the center of town. You can’t miss the San Giovanni Battista Church with stripes imitating Florence’s Duomo. After some good eats and wandering, great photos and some shopping, we headed back to Riomaggiore by ferry to capture some pics of the cliff towns from the sea. Buy your ticket at the ferry ticket booth before the boat ramp. The ferry ride didn’t disappoint, even in the sprinkling rain. Get a seat outside on the left side so you can get the best pics.
Our next few days were filled exploring the middle towns Manarola, Corniglia and Vernazza, all special in their own ways. My favorite was Vernazza, a colorful and surprisingly simple seascape town with all the buzz heading downwards towards the port. Its hiking trail is open now heading towards Monterosso and an easy walk for amateurs. Vistas are stunning, so be ready with your camera and take your time here. There are pretty little boats in the small harbor and colorful umbrellas at the seaside restaurants which ooze a happy vibe as you marvel at the beauty while smelling the fresh salt air. It’s simple visual pleasure. Stop, look and soak it all in. There’s no need to rush here, and try not to let the crowds rushing downward get to you. If you remember, head to the crowd-pleasing Belforte restaurant at the end of the port. Climb up the stairs to get a table or book ahead for guaranteed stunning views, very friendly service, delicious food and a very memorable experience.
Corniglia is the smallest town with very narrow walkways, a 367-step hike up (or you can catch the little white van/bus) from the train station to the center and some pretty amazing views across the sea to the other Cinque Terre towns. The train or bus is the only way to get here. There is no boat access. You can’t help but marvel and appreciate the views of the vineyards growing on the hills here. We were enveloped by slow moving misty clouds on our visit to this colorful and quaint little town. Ducking out of the sprinkles into an inviting little restaurant we ordered delicious gnocchi and ravioli with butter and sage washed down with the local light and fruity white wine. One doesn’t need more than a few hours here. It’s that small.
Manarola, also stunning and small, has colorful fishing boats lining the center walkway of town heading downward. After heading past the shops and restaurants, you will find a climb to the hiking trail offering spectacular photo ops. When the sun is shining, the sea looks almost bright green. You can go a little ways to see Manarola with its brightly colored houses sitting tall and proud atop the cliff. Make sure you bring your camera here. It’s worth it.
If you have an extra day, consider a side trip to fancy Forte dei Marmi, about an hour away by train. Look out the window on your way to see the mountains laced with white. It’s not snow, but marble and Michelangelo himself ventured here to find marble to carve his famous statues. This upper class Italian Hamptons-like destination has a very long beautiful beach with lounges and umbrellas in the summer. We’re here for a much different reason, the large outdoor market on Wednesdays. Sellers offer all sorts of Italian made clothes, bags, shoes, linens, soaps, jewelry and more between 10am and 1pm. After shopping, do as the rest of the town does and head to lunch for a few hours. The real stores this town is famous for won’t open back up till 3 PM. There are loads of adorable restaurants with outdoor seating. Pick one and relax, perhaps planning your route through what could be Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. All the major designers are here, along with various other stores. If you time it right, you can catch the public bus from the train to the center. If not, hop in a taxi for 12 euros.
Upon returning to Amsterdam a friend asked me what I thought of the Cinque Terre. It’s so different and beautiful it’s hard to describe, like a place you read about in a novel. It’s almost too romantic, too dramatic, too colorful, too stunning to be real, but it is. Go there and bring your camera. Those five towns are simply fabulous.