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Thursday, 31 August 2006

Le Cinque Terre

Written by Sally Alfis
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Photo by Steve Atkins

Want to visit Florence and Tuscany, but are afraid of the damage to your wallet?  For a beautiful side trip from crowded and expensive Firenze, take a little detour past Pisa,

and hit the gorgeous seaside villages known as Le Cinque Terre – the five lands.  This is an area in the province of Liguria, on the Italian Riviera, which consists of five villages along the coastline that are connected to each other only by footpaths and train tracks – no cars allowed.



It is easiest to reach this area of Italy by train – about a 2½-hour ride from Florence.  And although you’ll have to make transfers in the cities of Pisa and La Spezia, the beauty and tranquility of the villages is well worth the effort.  Weekends are crowded with tourists – both foreign and Italian– so for a crowd-free trip, traveling during the week in spring or fall is best.


We arrived into the train station of the village:


Monterosso al Mare (“Monterosso by the Sea”) to a clear blue sky, with the crystal sparkling water of the coast beneath it.  The screams of joy and laughter echoed over the rocks from the little Italian ragazzi (kids) playing merrily in the Ligurian Sea.



Monterosso is the most popular of the five villages, due to its large and beautiful sandy beaches, along with its cute old town section filled with shops and gelaterie (gelato shops).  In Monterosso, we spent some time looking in the little shops and having a typical Ligurian lunch: anchovies with lemon, linguine with clam sauce, and spaghetti con pesto.  Liguria is the area where pesto originated, and having an order at every meal is an absolute necessity.


We digested our lunch by lying with the locals on the small public beach near the ferry dock for about two hours, getting bronzata – tanned.  Be sure to bring your own beach blanket and umbrella if you plan on lounging in the shade.  The price for two lounge chairs and an umbrella is usually about twenty Euros ($25-30) on the portions of the beach that are roped off as privato (private).  The public beach was such a great way to pass the time in the afternoon (we sat on our airplane blankets from our flight over).  The water was like a magnificently refreshing bathtub and the company of villagers chit-chatting during siesta time was great background noise to the calm sea.



From the beach we headed to the ferry taking us to our next destination and home for the night – Vernazza. Although the ferry is about three Euros more expensive than walking the trails or taking the train, it offers views of the villages not possible from land.  From the ferry, you get clear pictures of the villages; their bright, cheery colors reflecting off of the Italian sun glare.




Via internet, I had booked a little camere per affitare (rooms to rent) in Vernazza called Camere Elisabetta.  The place was all the way up at the top of the town, so we had to climb never-ending windy, stone stairways to the top. As I peered around corners looking for the place, I heard a friendly voice yell at the top of the stairs "Sally! Sally! Sono qui!" (Sally! Here I am!).


I looked up to the pink house with green shutters and beautiful flowers around it, #63, and saw a chubby Italian in her mid-50's, wearing a house dress and flagging me down. Elisabetta greeted us with hugs and kisses (never met the woman before in my life) as her little, puffy, white Pomeranian named Pepino jumped excitedly at the site of new people.


The two floor apartment that we had rented for the night (only 60 Euros) was decorated in 80s-style Euro-décor.  Weird prints on the couch and bed spread were completely mismatched but had a lot of charm.  All of the windows had a view of some sort view and we even had our own rooftop patio terrace that overlooked the Ligurian Sea.  And for those on a true budget, there was also a kitchen for preparing your own dinner.  The best part for English speakers is that both Elisabetta and her husband Joseph speak English, which is great for making reservations and having a local, yet comfortable place to stay.


My favorite part about that entire experience in the apartment was the
little signora who lived across the pathway.  When I woke up the next morning and went out the front door to walk into town, getting some colazione per portare via (breakfast to take-away), she was outside watering her flowerpots.  I waved and smiled saying "Buon giorno, Signora!" (Good morning, ma'am).  When she waved back and smiled, she replied, "Buon giorno bella!" (Good morning, beautiful), which completely thrilled me .  For the rest of the day she would always smile and say something in Italian about whatever I was doing as I passed by.  I felt almost a part of the neighborhood.


Vernazza is a great village because it is so homey.  There are no large hotels in Le Cinque Terre; only small B&B’s and rooms to rent.  It really allows for a very local experience when afternoon tourists aren’t in town.  When I went down into the village to pick up breakfast, the locals were taking their morning cappuccini in the two or three bars in town – no tourists whatsoever. After I picked up some brioches and had a cappuccino, I walked over to the little beach/port and climbed on the rocks to take in the morning harbor routine.  The town pescatori (fisherman) were rowing their boats back in towards the beach, and then throwing fish scraps to the stray cats prowling the piazza – poverini (poor little things).



After we ate breakfast up on our terrace, we hiked further up the stairs past our apartment on the trail that led to the next town called Corniglia.  Up at the top of the stairs, right where the trail began was a big castello torre (castle tower) with a beautiful view of the village, and Monterosso down the coast in the distance.  We didn't walk anywhere near close to Corniglia, but we got up high enough for the beautiful views of the morning sun glistening on the coast.

Vernazza from Trail



As the town church and town hall bells rang, we went back down to the apartment to prendere il sole sulla terraza (take in the sun on the terrace) for a while. We said goodbye to Camere Elisabetta and the little signora across the way, heading down to the train to head back to the beach at Monterosso.


By the end of another cost-free and gorgeous afternoon on the beach, we headed on the ferry to the village of Manarola – our next overnight destination. The ferry passed pretty Vernazza, gorgeous Corniglia perched high on a cliff over the coast, and then finally into the rocky cove where the ferry just barely docked in Manarola.  We walked through beautiful rock formations, passing Italians jumping into the blue-green water off the cliffs, to ANOTHER huge set of stairs.


Once we got into the town filled with pretty pastel colored buildings, it took us about 45 minutes to find our next hotel for the night called Arpaiu.  It was a rough time finding it, as Manarola was also on a seriously steep hill, but we finally came upon the place. Oriana, the hostess and hotel owner, showed us to our beautiful, modern and very stylishly plain room overlooking the sea, with another terrace on the roof. This roof terrace was open to all three of the rooms and was gorgeous, with new wooden lounges and interesting sculptures.



Photo by Tara O'Conner

After having another small Ligurian dinner, we walked on the paved pathway around Manarola’s cove to a pretty park.  We watched the sunset with a few of the locals and a few young couples who climbed down the rocks to be closer to the water. The sun setting along the coast was the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen.  There are no words to describe the boldness of the reds and oranges, the softness of the pinks and purples, and the sea reflecting them all. Manarola a sleepy town, is perfect when you’re looking for peace and tranquility.




On our final day, we left Manarola by way of the Via dell'Amore (Lover's Lane) to the final town of Le Cinque Terre – Riomaggiore.  Riomaggiore is also built on a hill, so be sure to carry light when you plan on exploring this village.  The most beautiful site is the harbor, which can be very easy to miss if the village isn’t explored enough.  There is a small beach at Riomaggiore, but it pales greatly in comparison to that of Monterosso.


My days spent in Le Cinque Terre were my favorite days of my entire 3-week stay in Florence and Tuscany.  My first visit in 2005 introduced me to the area and I returned in 2006 to the vibrancy and warmth of the villages which still feel like they’re with me.



Photo by Steve Atkins

Some tips for traveling in Le Cinque Terre:



Once in the village of your choice, you may continue to other villages via ferry, train (least scenic), or on foot along the beautiful pathways of Il Parco Nazionale (National Park of the Cinque Terre).  And whether you choose to hike all of the villages, some of the villages, or none of them, be sure to pack light.  The reason the towns offer such amazing scenery is because they are built into the sides of cliffs along the coastline.  With all of the stairs and hills,locals and visitors, alike,get plenty of exercise.


Once settled into your accommodations in Le Cinque Terre, it may be best to start exploring from the northernmost village, Monterosso al Mare.  The intensity of hiking trails from village to village decreases as you move further south, so it is sensible to start with the hardest.  If you do not plan on hiking (which is unheard of if you are in Le Cinque Terre), the order doesn’t matter.


With the rocky coastline, lush forests, and terraced olive and lemon groves, the hiking trails of Le Cinque Terre offer views of the Riviera that are unseen to those who visit just the villages.  The hardest trail (Monterosso to Vernazza) takes the longest, at about 2½ hours at a slow-to-moderate speed.  The final trail (Manarola to Riomaggiore) takes only about 25 minutes, and is completely paved.  This hike is known as the Via dell’Amore (Lover’s Lane), and certainly offers an easygoing setting for a romantic stroll.

cliff jumping
Cliff Jumping





Vernazza - Camere Elisabetta
Via Carattino 62
Tel. + 39 0185 458437
Mobile 347 4511834 - 333 4221245
Email : This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Manarola: Arpaui
Via Belvedere n. 196
Manarola 19010 (SP) Italy
Tel. +39 340 6879732
e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



©Sally Alfis

Pictures ©Steve Atkins, Tara O'Conner, and Sally Alfis


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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