Reflections on Five Lands – The Cinque Terre

CT-manorola boatsI’ve just been scanning through my photographs of the Cinque Terre and trying to figure out what I should tell you about it. You see, my thoughts initially were that the Cinque Terra gets built so high, that when you get there, you are inevitably let down. I was going to talk about the final day, when I climbed up the hill at Vernazza, through the vineyards and market gardens, and realized what I had been missing. That the Cinque Terra must be seen from above to be appreciated. But when I look at these shots, I realize it’s not just the lofty views that amaze people – every single one of them has grabbed something beautiful.

And so, I’m a little stuck. You know those holidays you take, where you don’t enjoy them as much when you are within the midst of them, as you do when you look back at them? It’s almost like you need some space to give you a true perspective. I remember Malta was like that. When we were there, it was so hot, I was just tired and sweaty all the time. But I don’t even have to look at my photographs to recall how incredible that place was. The Cinque Terra’s great flaw is the crowds, and now I have distance from them, I can properly appreciate the beauty and the singularity of the place.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had many Mediterranean holidays by the water. And so I had compared the Cinque Terre views to Positano, the architecture to Varenna, the lifestyle to Capri, the food to the Cote d’azur, the water to Korcula, and the crowds to Venice. Compared with all the other places, the Cinque Terre comes in second best (except for the crowds – even Venice had its escapes in parts of Dorsaduro and Cannaregio.) But when I consider the total package, the Cinque Terre really does tick a whole heap of boxes.

CT-manorola ferry view

It’s a holiday for young and old. The transport is well organized and for Italy, fairly reliable. The area does not have to be explored via the goat tracks that join the towns, but can be done via the sea or rail, and the main parts of the towns are easily navigatiable, even if you want to avoid the hills. I can imagine my Mum and Dad shuffling down the main alley of Manarola, artisan gelato in hand, finding a perch on a sea-wall and watching all the pretty young things engage in bizarre mating rituals or tramping down from the cliff walks with jangling backpacks and the glow of adrenaline. 

CT-manorolo benji after swimmingThe kids will find playgrounds in every town. Like the elderly, they enjoy the icecream, and the diet of pizza and spaghetti Napoli. They also watch the teens and backpackers, and urge them to jump off the 15 metre rocks into the crystalline water, cheering when they do, jeering when they don’t. But the favourite part for them is the transport between the towns – ferry, yacht, double-decker trains, walks on tiny tracks, and up spindly stairs, racing away from their unfit parents to get the winning first look at the view at the top.

And for me and my husband, we loved the swimming, but without the death-defying jumps. We ate at restaurants perched on precapices, wedged in caves and hanging into the water. We drank Prosecco or espresso with our breakfast in the sun with cornetti al cioccolato and panini with rough-cut pancetta. We laughed at our children chasing pigeons and each other in the piazzas. We worked off our carbohydrate-filled diets with sunset walks on cliff-tops, and rewarded ourselves with aperitifs at bars on top of the world. We snapped pictures from the water that I look at now with wonder.  

You see, the Cinque Terre has something for everyone. That’s why it is so crowded – in Summer, anyway. It’s a trade off. We are all searching for that perfect holiday – you know, the secret one. But the fact is, if you are a main-stream traveller, it simply doesn’t exist. It has been found, time and time again, but millions of others. Without the crowds, you don’t get the infrastructure. The sights bring the the people, and there is no escape. I’m not saying there aren’t beautiful AND peaceful places in the world. But it’s unlikely you will find them with a Michelin starred restaurant and a TGV train station within walking distance.

CT-manorola jumper

So forgive the area it’s one great downfall, appreciate it for what it is, and you will enjoy it. Hopefully not as I did, upon reflection, but in the moment, as you should. 

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The Juice:

The Cinque Terre, or “Five Lands” is a UNESCO listed strip of towns on the Ligurian coast, on the Mediterrarean in northern Italy, encompassing Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Each town has it’s own unique character, while all look similar from the sea.

  • Monterosso al Mare has the only sandy beach, and is a long, and large village split into the township and the beach. It has the biggest range of hotels, and the greatest population.
  • Vernazza is where we stayed, and is one of the smaller villages, with a small sandy-ish beach and a better swimming area off the rocks. It has a great selection of restaurants, and many think it is the prettiest. Accommodation is small-scale pensiones and apartments.
  • Corniglia has no beach access (but a new elevator to the train station), and is the smallest, highest and quaintest of the lot. It still almost has a feel of a non-tourist town.
  • Manarola was my favourite – as pretty as Vernazza, but without the throngs of youths taking up all the good sunbaking positions. The swimming was the nicest here – crystal clear, and easy access (off rocks), and there were also some lovely restaurants.
  • Riomaggiore is the most famous, and has the handy option of an elevator to the top of town if you are not so keen on the stairs – worth it to trek to the top – this is where the best vineyards are.

Ferries, trains, tracks and roads run between the towns. It is also possible to charter a boat between them. One would be able to see all towns in the one day, but it would be hard work. The walks between vary in difficulty, so if you are an inexperienced walker, make sure you pick and choose carefully. We spent two nights in Vernazza, and could have done with at least one more, probably two, ideally a week.

CT-monterosso beach umbrellas

Stay:

We stayed at the last place available at late notice, Lulu rooms, which was serviceable, fairly well positioned, but not memorable, although they did allow the four of us to sleep in the one room, which almost made the inflated price tag bearable. Next time I’ll choose Manarola’s La Toretta or maybe Hotel Porta Roca in Monterosso. Those who like true luxury generally stay in the bigger hotels in Sestri Levante, or Portofino, and train down for day trips. Poor man’s Cinque Terre, Levanto, is also far from ugly, and a very affordable option with easy connections via train or boat.

Eat:

Eat at the iconic Blue Marlin Café in Vernazza for breakfast (or a nightcap at the other end of the day), Aristide in Manarola for lunch, and for the sunset views over the water, Belforte in Vernazza for dinner if you’re splurging, or La Torre if you’re on a budget (they also have basic rooms at La Torre).

CT-manorloa ferry view close CT-manorola point CT-vernazza cliff view tower CT-vernazza cliff view CT-manorolo beach couple CT-vernazza sunset geranium CT-riomaggiore houses CT-monterosso station

4 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your honest account of the Cinque Terre. I was lucky enough to visit one time early in the season and was pleasantly surprised how very different it was without the crowds. Love your photos.

  2. Hi Sarah,When we visited Cinque Terra it was off season (late September) and we thought we'd died and gone to heaven! We were driving from Florence to Lugano with no particular plan on where to overnight and as it got dark, I insisted we stop for the night as the winding roads were treacherous in the dark. We parked outside of town (no cars allowed into town unless they were locally registered) and dragged our suitcases down the hill past the train station. There was no one around but thankfully we were met on the road by a nice gentleman who motioned for us to follow him into a small grocery store where his sister was…there was lots of excited Italian and arms waving. She grabbed a key off a hook on the wall and, again, we were motioned to follow, further into town and then up a narrow alleyway and through a tiny, nondescript door which opened into a gorgeous villa overlooking the sea. We took it and spent the next three days exploring the pathways between the Five Lands! We were practically the only tourists there. Thanks for bringing back a very fond travel memory. It's amazing how different times of year bring a totally different character to a place. We've found the same in the Greek Islands.Anne 🙂

  3. Ohh Anne, that sounds AMAZING! both to you and Jenny, I am extremely jealous. To have seen the beauty of the place without the crowds? Lucky you. But tell me, was it too cold to swim in that incredible water?

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