Le Cinque Terre are 5 villages precariously perched on the Coast of Liguria, between La Spezia and Levanto. Cinque Terre literally means ‘5 lands’, but in this case terre refers to villages. Inhabited since at least the 11th Century, they likely date back to Roman times. The 5 villages are connected by rail, bus, boat and ancient trails that follow the coastline and go up into the mountains. The area was almost inaccessible except by sea, until the Genoa to La Spezia railway was built in 1870.
In 1997, the Cinque Terre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an example of a cultural, evolved organic landscape transformed by man over centuries. The inhabitants have adapted and shaped the steep, rugged, uneven coastal landscape so they could use the land vertically. Terrazzamenti a fasce (terraced strips of land) extend along the steep slopes, up to 400 m above sea level for growing grape vines, olive trees and lemon trees. They are held in place by 100’s of km of muretti a secco (dry stone walls). These are thought to have been built in the 12th century, when Saracen raids from the sea decreased. In 1999 il Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre was established, becoming Italia’s smallest yet most densely populated (~4,000 people) national park.
Aside from clifftop villages of colourful houses, viste mozzafiato (breathtaking views), hiking trails and terrazzamenti, the Cinque Terre area is known for fresh seafood, pesto Genovese made with local basilico and olio, lemons, and white grapes. The grapes are made into white wines, including Sciacchetrà, a sweet wine which is a blend of Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes.
The 5 villages are less than 10 minutes apart by train. Going from South to North, they are:
#1 Riomaggiore is the most Southern village with a population of 1500- including Manarola, Volastra and Groppo. Brightly coloured buildings are stacked on either side of a steep ravine down to the tiny harbour. The main Cinque Terre park office is in Riomaggiore and the start of the Sentiero Azzurro (blue trail) the 12 km old donkey trail along the sea, connecting all the villages. The section from Riomaggiore to Manarola, less than 1 km away, is the fairly flat Via del Amore, which is presently closed until 2021. Sadly, I did not make it to Riomaggiore-find out why in my next post!
#2 Manarola is surrounded by vineyards and famous for wine. The brightly coloured houses seem to follow the natural form of the coastline and lead down to the small harbour, boat ramp and several viewpoints. Carrugi-steep, narrow alleys all lead to the sea. Manarola is a perfect place to watch the sunset. From December 8th into January the hills behind Manarola are illuminated with more than 200 figures and 12.000 lights for the biggest lighted Presepio (Nativity scene) in the world.
#3 Corniglia population ~150 is considered part of Vernazza. It is the quietest village and the only one not on the coast. It is on a 100m high promontory, going steeply down to the sea. Surrounded by terrazzamenti on three sides Corniglia has views of the other villages. Ferries and boats do not stop here, since there is no harbour. Corniglia’s stazione is down near the sea, and the village, is accessed by climbing a wide staircase with 400 steps, called Lardarina. This probably explains why Corniglia is the quietest! There are buses too, although I did not see any. Corniglia was named for the Roman family who owned the land, and it was acquired in 1276 by the Repulic of Genoa. Corniglia’s vino is mentioned in Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th Century literary masterpiece Decameron:
e allora in una tovagliuola bianchissima gli portò due fette di pane arrostito e un gran bicchiere di vernaccia da Corniglia“. Translation by Cristina–‘and then, in an immaculately white napkin, I brought him 2 slices of toasted bread and a large glass of Vernaccia from Corniglia
#4 Vernazza is the most beautiful of the towns, with its tiny beach, picturesque natural harbour and breakwater, surrounded by terraced olive groves. The population is ~825 including Corniglia. Vernazza is first mentioned in 1080 as the fortified naval base of the Obertenghi family to protect the area from pirates. Verna refers to native or indigenous. The local vino is called Vernaccia, which is probably where Vernazza gets its name. A climb to the 15th Century Castello Doria (admission €1.50) will reward you with stunning views over the harbour. The harbour church, Santa Margherita di Antiochia was built in 1251, and the octagonal tower added in the 16th C. The Sanctuary Nostra Signora di Reggio is a 1 hour steep walk away.
In 2011 rainstorms caused massive flooding and mudslides. Vernazza and its stazione were buried under 4m of mud and debris and 7 people were killed. Along the main street is a large black and white photo display of the flooding.
#5 Monterosso al Mare pop 1425 is the largest and most northern village. It is the most accessible by car and has more hotels and amenities and a large beach, the only sand beach in the area. There is an old and new town, separated by a tunnel and the stazione. Monterosso is famous for lemons and anchovies.
How to get there and around– Taking a car to Cinque Terre is a bit of a pain. It is possible to drive there, but the villages are car free, so the car has to be parked somewhere. Parking is more available in and around Monterosso, Levanto and La Spezia.
Train is the easiest, cheapest and most efficient way to travel. There are frequent local trains between La Spezia and Levanto. Many people go on daytours from other cities, but note that Firenze is 2.5 hours away and Milano is 3 hours away, which does not leave much time for enjoying the area. It is possible to stay in La Spezia, Pisa Portovenere, Genova, Levanto, Lerici or even Santa Margherita Ligure and commute by train, but you can read more about that in the next post!
Individual train tickets between La Spezia and Levanto are €4 and valid for 75 minutes. If you plan to hike and take the train, buy a Cinque Terre Card. The combo card (trekking and treno) includes unlimited train travel between La Spezia and Levanto, use of all the trails, and wifi that actually works! It costs €16 per day. For trekking only, it is €7.50 per day. The card is available for 2 and 3 days, except in my case! There are also family and low season prices. For more information, check here.
**Note that proper footwear is required on all the trails. Open toed shoes and smooth soles are not allowed and there are fines.
Buon viaggio, Cristina