Tandem Travel Tales: Cinque Terre

ON TO THE ITALIAN RIVIERA

Cinque Terre is one of those places that has started to boom with tourism in recent years. If you’ve ever looked at Instagram travel photos, chances are you’ve seen more than one photo of Cinque Terre. Unique in its composition, Cinque Terre is comprised of five small fishing villages dotting the cliff-filled coastline of the Italian Riviera. Considered a gem amongst most tourists, the crowds and infrastructure here reflect the hype.

Riomaggiore Harvest Festival 2018 @travelingintandem
The final day of Riomaggiore’s annual Harvest Festival.

The five villages of Cinque Terre, which translates to “The Five Lands,” are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. If arriving by train from Florence or Rome, visitors will enter the villages from the south through the larger port city of La Spezia. From there the trains stop periodically along the way. However, we did quickly learn that not every train stops at every town every time. It can be a bit convoluted at times.

THE FIVE LANDS OF CINQUE TERRE

Reflecting on our time here, each village stands out in its own way. Some have more restaurants, while others allow access to beautiful hiking trails. Here are our brief interpretations of each.

Riomaggiore @travelingintandem
Looking down on the beautiful buildings of Riomaggiore.

RIOMAGGIORE: Easily one of our favorites, we were lucky to have booked our Airbnb right in the bustle of this local treasure. As the first stop on the train from La Spezia to Cinque Terre, it is a wonderful introduction into the seaside culture that dominates these charming villages. Leaving the train you will immediately funnel into a long, mosaic-ridden tunnel to the south. After a bit of a walk, you pop out at the bottom of a surprisingly grand street that winds up and into the hills. If you were to continue on and down the stairs, you’d be surprised to find a small cove where independent fishing boats launch and the occasional sun bum catches some rays.

We fell in love with this place because to us it felt the most authentic while still being accessible. That winding road continues up, and up, and up, while adorning fun and slightly kitschy restaurants and shops along its perimeter. Up the hill and to the north, or through a series of winding staircases jutting from the main drag, you can access a beautiful fort and it’s accompanying small church that overlook the intensely blue Ligurian Sea. There’s a bit of everything available in Riomaggiore, but it still maintains a lot of the original charms that attracted visitors to Cinque Terre in the first place.

Manarola @travelingintandem
Looking at Manarola from afar.

MANAROLA: The second stop on the train is Manarola. We weren’t able to spend much time here, but it’s definitely a place that you visit for the views. Many of the world famous images of Cinque Terre are various shots of the colorful, stacking homes of Manarola. With accessible walking paths that wrap the north side of the inlet, the views are great any time of day or night.

Grandma, Steve, and I had breakfast in Manarola just before heading back to Rome. While most people exit the train and head straight down towards the water for the views and shops, we chose to wander up the hill in the opposite direction. Not too far up the hill sit three small tables nestled into a shady corner at the bend in the road. Though I can’t remember the name of the cafe that sits just east of the tables, I can tell you it’s a great spot for quiet reflection outside of the hustle and friction that can be Cinque Terre.

Corniglia, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
A look at the elevation of Corniglia and the terracing of the coast.

CORNIGLIA: Steve and I’s favorite, grandma, unfortunately, was not able to join us for our adventure to Corniglia. The middle of the five villages, it is the most difficult to access by train. On the train, you pass through the heart of each of the towns except for Corniglia. Here you see a train station, walkway, and one small road, but the colorful homes aren’t immediately visible. As it turns out, hundreds of switchback, shallow steps later, Corniglia greets you at the top of the hill.

Steve and I were smitten with the authenticity and character exuded by Corniglia, representational of the coastal Italian culture it houses. This was the only place in all of Cinque Terre that locals seemed to publically separate from tourism. There were house cats lounging in the sun right next to a community of old women enjoying one another’s company in a knitting circle. Complete with our first granita, Corniglia proved to us once more that the places that require a bit of extra effort are often worth it.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
The beautiful harbor of Vernazza at dusk.

VERNAZZA: One of the more popular villages, Vernazza is perfect for someone looking for a breadth of restaurants and shopping. A small, boulder-ridden peninsula juts out into the sea, offering the perfect place to sit and enjoy the sunset. It also houses a beautiful, rocky beach just south of the main walking street. To access it, exit the train and head to the water. On your left, you’ll see a cavern that is partially roped off and filled with small, stacked pebbles. Just around the bend will be a number of locals sunbathing and enjoying the lapping of the water on the rocks.

Monteross, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
The largest beach in Monterosso, outfitted with many umbrellas on a windy day.

MONTEROSSO: Often a favorite for travelers, we had a hard time loving Monterosso. While it does offer the largest variety of consumable goods, it is also jam-packed with other tourists fighting for their little piece of paradise. Offering the most accommodations, it airs on the side of inauthentic compared to the rest of Cinque Terre. However, it does house one of the only coastal hiking trail trails open at the moment, connecting it to Vernazza by foot.

WORLD FAMOUS HIKING

A number of adventure seekers flock to Cinque Terre for some of the best coastline hiking in the world. Lined with cliffs and rough terrain, the hiking offers beautiful views in addition to rigorous exercise. With a total of 48 paths in the area, a select few travelers hike these trails for days, camping in the mountains along the way. Unfortunately, large portions of the world famous blue trail have been closed for the last 4 or 5 years due to damage from flooding, rockslides, and general erosion.

Selfie Manarola, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
Selfie time with grandma on our last day in Cinque Terre.

When the entire blue trail is open, it extends about 11km and takes nearly 5 hours to hike. During our stay, only the trails between Corniglia and Monterosso were open.

I should also mention, these trails are ticketed. You must go to an information office and buy one of the many Cinque Terre Cards that include blue trail entrance. While they don’t ticket at the beginning of the trail, it can be pretty heartbreaking to get to a checkpoint at your destination only to discover that you owe a hefty fine for not having a ticket.

Selfie Vernazza Cove Beach, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
The hidden cove beach of Vernazza.

GEOGRAPHY OF THE COAST

Aside from fishing, the staple industry of Cinque Terre is wine. With deep sloping hills and intense sun, the terraced geography of this region is perfect for vineyards. Unfortunately, with a rise in tourism, a number of local winemakers and vineyard managers are abandoning their lands and changing their industry to meet the need. The issue here is that in abandoning the vineyards on the hills, plants and vines are dying, therefore erasing the root system that holds the vital dirt to the side of the hill. Without the vines, the land literally washes away, causing not only damage to land but also rock slides and cliff erosion. As a result, this land becomes essentially irreparable and many of the famous hiking trails are easily lost.

Riomaggiore Harvest Fest Parade 2018, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
The start of the Harvest Festival’s parade.

OUR ADVENTURES IN CINQUE TERRE

As I mentioned earlier, we chose to stay in Riomaggiore at a cute Airbnb run by a genuine and charming fellow named Maurizio. We arrived early on a Sunday morning and were surprised to see green, yellow, and purple decorations lining the streets. Having never visited before, we weren’t sure if this was the norm or if we had arrived for a special occasion. Our host informed us that we had in fact arrived on the final day of their annual Harvest Fest, a celebration intended to honor the importance of their vineyards and winemaking culture.

Riomaggiore Harvest Festival Parade 2018, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
Some of the many costumes seen during the Harvest Festival’s parade.

After getting settled in, we hightailed it up the mountain to get a look at the sea and enjoy a bit of sunshine. Mind you it was in the nineties, so it quickly became a task to continue on the climb. What we discovered at the top was an absolute treat. Hundreds of residents gathered near a church for dancing, singing, and the beginning of their annual parade. Children and adults alike were dressed as grapes, decanters, fishermen, pirates, mermaids, and an assortment of other harvest-related personas. They happily marched along, celebrating their holiday while some sipped from their jugs of homemade wine. It was another example of one of the many celebrations we’ve been lucky enough to witness.

Corniglia Stairs, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
Some of the many shallow stairs separating the train from the town of Corniglia.

RIDING THE TRAIN

There are many options for transportation between the different villages, including car, shuttle, foot, and ferry. But as I mentioned earlier, the most heavily utilized mode of transportation is the train. If I’m being honest, it’s a total rip off. A one-way ticket is 4€ per person per ride, even if you’re only going to the next town three minutes down the line. Tickets are non-transferable, must be validated before every ride, and only allow a single trip. In addition, there are often 45-minute windows between trains, resulting in a lot of standing around.

If you’re planning to do a lot of coming and going on one particular day, you can opt for the Cinque Terre Pass. My understanding is that there are multiple versions of this. Some are just for the hiking trails, others are for train and trails. I also think there is a multi-day, but you can sort all of that out for yourself by visiting their website. We purchased a one-day pass on our second day and ended up losing money because we were not able to take full advantage of it.

Grandma at Monterosso Beach, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
A smaller, more private beach in Monterosso.

For people like us who enjoy mild transgression and pushing boundaries, we’ll warn you that it’s not worth the risk of riding the train without a ticket. Almost every time we rode there was a conductor not only checking that you had a ticket, but that it was validated for the appropriate time frame. Steve and I got lucky once, pushing our limits a bit too far. But another time we did see three people try to knowingly use tickets from earlier in the day, and the punishment wasn’t soft.

The conductors are unbelievably used to people playing dumb and trying to pull one over on them. The fine for riding without a ticket is 50€ if you pay on the spot. If you try to pull the, “I’m sorry, I don’t have enough money,” or “I didn’t know!,” or “I don’t have a credit card,” be ready for the police to get involved and the price to go up. The amount of apathy plastered to the faces of the conductors is almost pitiful. I wouldn’t advise testing them.

Sunset, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
One of the many beautiful sunsets seen in Cinque Terre.

HERE WE GO AGAIN

So as you may remember from our last post, I was blessed with some sort of stomach bug while in Florence. At the time, I was convinced that it was food poisoning, so none of us took into consideration that it could be contagious. Sure enough, our second morning in Cinque Terre this unfortunate fact started to make itself know. Steve awoke looking less-than-great, but vowed to power through with us, making our first visit to Monterosso. About 10 minutes on the train was enough to know that he wasn’t going to make it far. It wasn’t long before he was making the solo trek back to the train for a day in bed.

Grandma and I decided to push ourselves a bit and try for a morning of hiking to Vernazza. We made it a hundred or so meters up before poor grandma started to look rough. Thankfully we had taken a wrong turn and accidentally spilled back into Monterosso after a brief twenty minutes of hiking. After a bit of rest, it was back to the room for us, too. Thankfully, they were able to sleep almost the entire day and recovered relatively quickly.

Riomaggiore Cliffs, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
The cliffs viewable from the train platform in Riomaggiore.

IT’S TIME TO TALK FOOD

Like many of the places we’ve visited, Cinque Terre has a few signature dishes said by many to embody the region’s food culture. As I’ve already mentioned, this is a region of grapes and wine. The local wine tends to be a dry, mild, white wine. But in addition to wine, you’ll also find a number of other treats.

Fritto Misto

A staple of the region, fritto misto is simply an assortment of fried seafood. Most vendors have different combinations to choose from. Some are a simple fish and chip, while other include a bit of squid, octopus, and crab. While they’re a nice treat if you pick the right one, a newspaper cone full of fried goods can be a little heavy on the stomach if you’re not ready for it. Just be aware of this before ordering the extra large. We tried Tutti Fritti in Riomaggiore for our fritto misto and we weren’t disappointed.

Steve at a Corniglia Cafe, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
Steve enjoying a glass of wine at a charming cafe in Corniglia.

Limoncello

Made from the zest of lemons, alcohol, and sugar, limoncello is not locally made, but is commonly consumed. The taste is intense, sweet, and often finishes a bit bitter depending on the quality. While it’s not for everyone, it is loved by many. Just be aware that many of the limoncellos sold in tourist hubs are not high quality and taste like Pinesol.

Pesto Genovese and Trofie Pasta

Probably the most well know, regional dish, you’ll find different versions of trofie pasta with pesto in every restaurant. The pasta is a simple flour and water mixture with a very characteristic shape. The pesto, on the other hand, stands out for its vibrant and intense flavors. Maybe you’ve heard of Genovese basil. It’s citrus-rich, zingy basil, regionally grown in Italy. Paired with pine nuts and olive oil, it produced a uniquely bright pesto found in the Ligurian region.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
Vernazza from above, taken from La Torre Restaurant.

La Torre Restaurant

This is likely one of the only restaurants you’ll ever hear us recommend for something other than the food. While dinner was good, the views make the experience well worth the journey. Located in Vernazza, you’ll have to trek a few hundred stairs to reach the dining room. We did not have reservations, which I think are the norm here, so we felt lucky to be accommodated. Looking down you can see the entire Vernazza peninsula wrapping back into the inlet of sharp rocks and colorful homes. If you visit for dinner be ready for the dark and slightly unsteady path on the way down.

MOVING IN DROVES

So boiling it down, Cinque Terre as a whole is busy and expensive. There are times that you’ll be standing at the train platform with a tour group of 50-70 people. Nobody wants to get sucked into that sea of chaos. At times the crowds were just plain overwhelming. There is only so much space in those tiny little villages, and people push to make themselves visible.

Sunset, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
Another, beautiful sunset in Cinque Terre.

We were initially a bit sad to have missed the opportunity to ride the ferry. The morning that we tried the seas were too rough to ride, so we opted for the train instead. But later that day we saw a boat unloading in Monterosso and we were glad to have missed our boat. Hundreds of people were exiting the boat in unison, headed straight for the single Monterosso thoroughfare.

While the villages are charming, and the coast is absolutely breathtaking, it takes a certain amount of tolerance to find comfort in those large crowds. At times it felt like coastal Disneyworld for adults. And at other times it felt like we found the most secluded nook in the entirety of Cinque Terre. My suggestion would be to go in the low season if there is such a thing. First of all, there will be fewer people. Second, you’ll hopefully beat the heat.

Street Cat Corniglia, Cinque Terre @travelingintandem
A Corniglia street cat. She deserved to be included in this post.

If you can, nuzzle yourself into Corniglia before taking off to explore the other villages. There was a certain solace we found there that we were not able to find anywhere else. It is quieter, offers shade in the winding streets, and the view is spectacular from parts of the hill. Grab a granita and chill with the locals. Maybe someone will teach you to knit.

UP NEXT

After Cinque Terre, we headed back to Rome. We wanted to soak up the last few days that we had before she passed back over the Atlantic. Then we headed to Sant’Agata dei Goti in southern Italy for our second work exchange. I’ll spoil the surprise and let you know ahead of time that it was nothing shy of an exploitative disaster.

Stay tuned!

Brittany

One Comment

  1. Loving your blog, guys. You are both descriptive and have great ” inviting” conversational style. I miss you both soooooooooo much. ❤️🍷

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.