The Cinque Terre is such a stunning part of Italy – we fell in love with it immediately; just like millions of other people worldwide. So it’s a good thing that since 1997, The Cinque Terre (meaning The Five Lands) has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site which will hopefully keep the magic intact.
Part of the Cinque Terre’s unique charm is the absence of any noticeable corporate development. Only trains and ferries connect the villages and with the exception of a few small Piaggio delivery put-puts, cars can’t reach the villages. There are designated parking areas high above the towns and some small shuttles to transport visitors to the villages.
Although there is plenty of accommodation in each of these villages in all price ranges, being more budget conscious, we decided we could get better value for our dollar by staying in La Spezia, only minutes away by the regular train connection. La Spezia is a working city in which tourism only plays a part in the local economy, so it has plenty of regular city stuff likes outdoor markets, high end shopping, restaurants and bars, as well as a great waterfront with marinas and lots of cultural activities.
The best part is you’re still only minutes away from any Cinque Terre town you like; including Porto Venere, so you can enjoy the beaches, lunch or dinner in any of the villages and still come back to La Spezia at the end of the evening either by rail or by ferry right into the La Spezia harbour.
There are five villages in The Cinque Terre; Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, plus Levanto west of the CT and Porto Venere on the east side.
Over the centuries, residents have built approximately 7,000 kilometers of terraced stone walls on the rugged Cinque Terre steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the Ligurian Sea. These hold mostly vineyards, olive trees and citrus trees used to make wonderful local wines, foodstuffs and cosmetics.
Ancient footpaths cross the hills and connect the villages; the lower level coastal; Senteiro Azzuro and the ridge-top; Senteiro Rosso.
In October 2011, the villages of the Cinque Terre were damaged by torrential rains which caused floods and mudslides. Vernazza and Monterosso were severely affected as rivers of mud poured down from the hills behind them; unfortunately nine people died.
A woman we met in the CT told us the mud reached all the way to the second floor of many homes. In seeing the towns these days you can’t imagine the amount of money, time and effort that must have gone into restoring the towns to their current level because there is very little evidence of the disaster at first glance.
Except for the ridge-top hikes of the Senteiro Rosso, many of the coastal trails of the Senteiro Azzuro in between Vernazza and Riomaggiore are now closed until further notice (as at May 2014) because some trails have been totally wiped out.
The Senteiro Azzuro is a classic lower level coastal footpath that is extremely popular with many hikers who come from all over the world just to hike from village to village. The coastal hike that is open to hikers at this time is the one between Monterosso and Vernazza only. This stunning hike only takes about 1 ½ to 2 hours. It’s very popular so not much time for quiet reflection while on this trail; but definitely worth every step.
We also did parts of the Senteiro Rosso, a more challenging footpath that follows a ridge-top route high above the Cinque Terre and can include the two extra villages of Levanto and Porto Venere (about 48 kilometres long). We opted for the ridge-top trails between Monterrosso and Vernazza (about 4 hours) on one day as well as the trail from Riomaggiore to Porto Venere (about 6 hours) on another day. Both have very different types of terrain.
Our favourite was the hike from Riomaggiore to Porto Venere where at times, we were literally hiking the narrow ridges along the rocky cliffs; looking down to the crashing waves below.
At the end of our hikes, we really enjoyed sampling some of the local cuisine. Here in the Cinque Terre you can taste some incredibly good olive oils, try the local limoncello (a sweet liqueur flavoured with the local lemons) and taste many good Cinque Terre wines and Grappa (a clear sprit made from the skins, pulp, seeds and stems of the grapes). Then there is the local seafood, pesto sauce, focaccia, citrus spreads and olive tapenades to name only a few.