Six years ago, on October 25, 2011, a freak rainstorm hit Cinque Terre and buried Monterosso and Vernazza in the mud. It was the most devastating floods in the area with 13 people dead. The people worked hard in rebuilding their villages and since then, Cinque Terre has undergone a miraculously recovery.
When Nicky first mentioned about Cinque Terre, I was like, “What is that?” I immediately google and fell in love. I can’t help feeling a little ashamed for not knowing one of the most beautiful places in the world. Where have I been hiding?
Cinque Terre literally means five villages; Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The five fishing villages are a UNESCO world heritage site and easy access by train.
We chose to base ourselves in Portovenere. On the first day, we took a bus to La Spezia, and then a train to the northern-most village, Monterosso. The next day, Lorenzo, our host, is gracious enough to let us borrow his scooter. So, we started off with the first village, Riomaggiore.
Some roads in Cinque Terre are a bit scary with impossibly steep sections and hairpin bends but the road journey was extremely picturesque. On the way back, we stopped in a middle of nowhere and taking in gorgeous sunset views. We loved the experience of riding through the “Terrazza”, steeply terraced cliffs with the unbelievably breathtakingly scenery. Nonetheless, the parking in any of the little villages is limited and we were forced to walk a long distance from the parking place to reach each village.
The beach of Monterosso in the northernmost of Cinque Terre is the biggest and nicest. The sea is blue, and the view is stunning. It is well protected by the giant, “Il Gigante”, a rocky statue. Il Gigante has broken arms and legs, suffered from an allied bombing during the second world war. He looks ill and weak and becomes a symbol of Monterosso beach with a hidden story of luxury and tragedy.
We enjoyed walking along the beach and taking photos of lovely scenery. We visited the beautiful black and white Saint John the Baptist church, and Mortis et Orationis Oratory, the black confraternity which is also known as a religious “club”. The mission of this club was to arrange for funerals and taking care of people in needs: orphans, widows, and shipwrecked people.
After that, we enjoyed our sumptuous seafood lunch in Monterosso before heading to the next town, Vernazza. We thought of hiking to Vernazza but were informed by the hikers we met that it took them about two hours. Timing and stamina was an issue here, so we missed out on the spectacular views of the town from above.
Vernazza is a charming small fishing village. In 2013, this town was listed as the top 20 destinations to visit in the world by the New York Times. Beautiful colourful little houses clustered around a picturesque harbour, topped by a small castle.
Tourists were crowding near the main square and enjoying the view when the big waves came by, and then crashes down making a huge splash of spray. Everyone was clapping and laughing. Those affected by the splash took it in stride and enjoying the fun. What a beautiful day, smiles and laughter of people surround us make our day sparkle with happiness. We ventured the tiny squares and little alleys and had our aperitif.
Corniglia is our least favourite, just because of the difficulty to reach the village on top of the hill. To reach Corniglia, after exiting the train, we must either walk the street followed by climbing 382 steps or take the shuttle bus up the hill. Not feeling quite that adventurous, we waited for the bus. It was a small bus, and as the queue was long, we had to take the next cycle (that was the only bus). It took us almost one hour to arrive at the destination (including waiting time). Corniglia itself is a relaxing and authentic town where we enjoyed another aperitif with the view of the statue and church Oratoria di Santa Caterina.
When we arrived Manarola, we took a stroll down to the waterfront where the crowds were already forming. This village has the most stunning view of the sunsets. We took the trail up until we reached the perfect lookout spot. We were graced with an amazing view of colourful houses in the steep hills, and beautiful amidst cloudy sky. The sky was divided into two parts; one part was pouring, and the other half still showing off beautiful sunset over Manarola. The sunset sparkles reflecting off it, and the village became a curtain of gold. The view must be seen to be believed, it was magical!
Riomaggiore is located in the most southern village in Cinque Terre. It is the most rustic village with big rocks and pebbles and stunning views of the Ligurian sea. It is in a beautiful natural environment, and we enjoyed people watching; avid photographers taking amazing shots, families enjoying gelatos, people sun-tanning and swimming, and lovers walking hand in hand.
Cinque Terre is incredibly enchanting. There are plenty things to do here; nature walks, trails, photography, getting inspired, getting lost, exploring the villages, the food, the monuments, enjoying the sun, the beaches, the people, and visiting vineyards and olive groves in the surrounding areas.
We drove from Verona, where we stopped at Mantova and stayed overnight in Pisa, with a lunch stopover at Lerici, a lovely seaside town with wonderful Ligurian feel. Once we reached Portovenere, we parked our vehicle at “Il Golfo” (top of the hill of Portovenere) which cost only €10 for the weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).
Depending on your stay, you can park your vehicle near La Spezia Centrale Train Station or Levanto. The parking in any of the little villages in Cinque Terre is very limited and expensive.
For those flying from Singapore, choose a direct flight to Milan or Rome by Singapore Airlines. And then continue the journey by taking the train to La Spezia Centrale (3 hours from Milan or 4 hours from Rome). If you are travelling to Italy for the first time, I highly recommend flying directly to Milan and back from Rome (vice versa) so that you can plan to visit the most beautiful cities Italy has to offer.
La Spezia train station is connected to cities across Italy which includes Florence, Milan, Venice, and Rome. Italian trains are incredibly efficient and relatively inexpensive (www.trenitalia.it). In La Spezia train station, purchase a Cinque Terre Card (16 EUR for the day) that grants unlimited access to the trains, buses, and the footpath that connects the villages for a day.
There is a ferry service between La Spezia, Portovenere and in four of Cinque Terre villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso). Other stop includes Lerici, Levanto, and other interesting islands. On our first day, we planned on taking the ferry to Cinque Terre but the ferry services were suspended due to bad weather forecast. I can only imagine the beautiful views of the villages and surrounding areas from the water.
We based ourselves in Portovenere for three nights. While Portovenere is a wonderful place to stay, it should be visited separately. It took us about one hour and a half to reach Cinque Terre by bus and train. We had to rush after sunset to ensure that we did not miss the last bus from La Spezia, and waited an hour for the bus to arrive.
We would suggest booking in advance and staying three nights in Cinque Terre (our pick would be Monterosso), and another two nights in Portovenere. It would be good to explore and enjoy Cinque Terre without rushing through it all.
If budget is an issue, base yourself at La Spezia, which is less touristy and have more of an authentic feel. It is easily accessed to the train station in Cinque Terre, and to other cities across Italy.
Discover the charm of each village in Cinque Terre, and enjoy the stretch of beautiful beaches at Monterosso. The water is so blue, and the sound of the sea is relaxing. Cinque Terre has its own distinct personality that you won’t mind sharing with the crowds.
If you are physically fit and have great stamina, wear comfortable shoes and hike Cinque Terre’s coastal trail. Lorenzo told us that the trails to Cinque Terre provide most amazing walks, you can even hike to or from Portovenere. He showed us the starting trail in Portovenere, and the view is strikingly beautiful. Whatever you do, do not miss visiting Portovenere, the forgotten ‘sixth village’. You won’t regret it!
Eat, eat, and eat! Italy is a paradise of food, don’t be afraid of growing fat because you will never be. According to the Bloomberg Global Health Index, Italy is the healthiest country in the world. The food is healthy, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and local herbs, and you will not gain any weight from being physically active, walking up and down steep streets. There is a lot of walking in Cinque Terre.
We love seafood, and Cinque Terre is a paradise for seafood lovers. I ordered “Muscoli” (muscles) for three days straight and never got sick of it. I also savour myself with anchovies (fresh Ikan Bilis), octopus salad, and Spaghetti Allo Scoglio (seafood pasta) with focaccia bread. Focaccia is a local speciality, simply a bread infused with herbs and olive oil. To have it on its own with pesto sauce is also heavenly.
Cinque Terre grows its own olives and DOC designated-origin wines. This country is also famous for its coffee and desserts. When I say desserts, it includes cakes, pastries, tiramisu, pannacotta, and gelato. Yum! So, after every walk, stop for a drink and try their olives and desserts.