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The Cinque Terre: A Primer

The Cinque Terre, the five tiny, technicolored fishing villages which cling to the craggy Ligurian coast between Levanto and La Spezia, are perhaps one of the most picturesque stretches of Italy's coastline to glimpse from the water. They each spill down the cliffside to the water's edge in pleasing disorder, a jumble of brightly tinted houses and disjointed terracotta rooftops, connected by a number of hiking and walking trails that string them together like pearls on a chain.

5 Terre(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Unfortunately, much of the charm that can beguile from the distance over the Mediterranean quickly wears thin once you get closer. Overrun by mass tourism over the past few decades, the number of visitors in the Cinque Terre during the summer months far surpasses the capacity of these villages' narrow streets, tiny restaurants, and limited lodgings. Be prepared to walk (be prepared to walk a lot, luggage in hand, up and down the steep village lanes) shoulder to shoulder with what can seem like every American and Brit visiting Italy that summer, dine with them, and lodge with them. Be prepared to see and experience very little authentic, local culture. Be prepared to hike the famous trails between the towns in a line like ants making their way over a pesky log.

5 Terre(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

But if you are prepared for all of that, then you may not be disappointed with the pretty hamlets of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Here is a Cinque Terre primer for your visit:

Getting There


The Cinque Terre's five villages were once so remote from the rest of Italy and disconnected between themselves that they earned the nickname of “The Five Lands”, as each existed as if its own tiny world. Though they still butt up against the Mediterranean on one side and the steep mountainsides of Liguria on the other, they are no longer as hard to reach as they once were. There is a local rail line that runs between them, and each village has its own station so visitors can hop on and off the train to visit all five, and faster national trains from the larger cities in Italy link to this slow local line. While chugging from one town to the next, make sure to sit on the side of the train facing the sea to enjoy the views over coast.

5 Terre(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

There is also a road running along the mountain slope behind the towns, though visitors need to remember that the town centers are closed to traffic, and the few parking lots are located high above the villages. Often the better option is to take the train in, and, for the more active, walk or hike between each town. The Cinque Terre are both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park, and have miles of hiking paths between and above the villages which pass through vineyards and olive groves, directly over the surging waves, or further uphill skirting the steep mountain slopes.

5 Terre(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Of course, one of the most fun and picturesque ways to visit the Cinque Terre is by sea. Particularly pristine, the sea here is a marine reserve and a fantastic place for a fishing or diving excursion, or simply a boat trip by private speedboat or sailboat or on the “battello”, a local ferry line. You can get off at four of the five villages - Corniglia, perched high above the water on a clifftop, is the exception - and stroll through the center before continuing on, stopping for a meal in one of the waterfront restaurants either in the Cinque Terre or at one of the larger and equally picturesque coastal towns nearby.

5 Terre(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

What To Do


Cinque-terre-manarola(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The main activity in the Cinque Terre is, well, the Cinque Terre. The villages themselves are the central draw, and you will spend most of your time wandering and photographing them. Vernazza is considered by many to be the prettiest, and though it and neighboring Monterosso al Mare were badly damaged by landslides and floods in 2011, both have made great strides toward recovery, with much of the damage repaired and the businesses reopened. Vernazza is the only village with a piazza overlooking the sea, for a restaurant meal with a view, and Monterosso, the largest village of the five, is known to have the best shopping.

5 Terre(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Corniglia, the center village, is one of the least visited as its clifftop position requires climbing 400 stairs, but because of this also has some of the most stunning views and hikes on the coast. From here, you can hike to Manarola through the dramatic terraced vineyards which surround this tiny hamlet, stopping to sample the area's wonderful light white wine, and continue on to the smallest of the five, Riomaggiore, with its 13th century fortress overlooking the Mediterranean.

Terraced vineyards. 5 Terre - Manarola.(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

What To Eat


Trofie con pesto(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If most of your time is spent wandering the towns, the remaining time you have will be spent getting between them (by train, boat, or foot: see above) and rewarding yourself for the effort with some of the area's excellent food and wine. The region of Liguria, home to the Cinque Terre, is birthplace of *pesto genovese*, the magical paste based on basil, pine nuts, pecorino, and garlic, and is also famous for *focaccia*, a flat bread which can be baked plain or with herbs, olives, or anchovies - a common ingredient in many local dishes - in the dough, and then drizzled with the region's famed local olive oil.

Ligurian-roast-fish(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Fish and seafood also dominate the local cuisine, and *scampi*, the local shrimp grilled or boiled, and whole roast fish baked with potatoes, olives and rosemary, are on most menus. We recently enjoyed the latter at the memorable Ristorante Billy in Manarola, and though we were nonplussed to be surrounded by American and English diners - all of whom we discovered the next morning were also staying in our same hotel - the authentic flavor of Liguria still shone through.

Sunset 5 Terre. Manarola.(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Related Links:
48 Hours: Portofino and the Cinque Terre
48 Hours: Firenze (Florence)
La Maremma



Contributor:
Rebecca Winke

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Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy