It was the day I had been dreaming of for years, the reason why I picked Liguria as where I wanted to au pair. I was going to Cinque Terre. The five seaside villages that make up this UNESCO World Heritage Site have been on my mind a lot lately. Ever since I heard the rumor that Cinque Terre may be limiting tourists, I knew I had to go straight away. I envisioned myself spending several days in Cinque Terre, taking my time in each town. My plan was to walk the famous coastal trails that connect all five villages. Before my arrival in the Italian Riviera, I heard all the coastal trails in The Cinque Terre National Park were closed for maintenance and that only the difficult trails further up the mountains were open. While I would have loved to hike Cinque Terre, I knew that I was not prepared to hike the more difficult trails. I was wearing a dress and sandals, not the most practical hiking gear. Rather, we decided to take these towns by train. It was not the quintessential Cinque Terre trip I had dreamt of but it was even better, because this was not a dream. The reality of my day in Cinque Terre well surpassed my dreams, trains and all. We hopped on the train from Genoa to La Spezia which would make stops in both Riomaggiore and Vernazza. We decided to start in the furthest and Southernmost village, Riomaggiore and work our way back. The train ride from Genoa to Riomaggiore took about an hour. My excited anticipation grew as our train followed the coast; the villages grew more colorful and the coastline more rugged until we arrived at our destination.
Stepping off the train in Riomaggiore, we followed the hoards of people to the train station to buy the Cinque Terre Card. The Cinque Terre Card cost € 16 and included unlimited access to the trails, trains, shuttles, bathrooms and wifi within Cinque Terre. All useful things. We followed the signs to town and made our way into the first colorful fishing village. I intended to head toward the sea yet ended up walking up hill. We followed the main road, Via Colombo. I kept walking as I admired the labyrinth of houses and shops. I didn’t even notice that we were going uphill until the walk began getting steeper and the village more sparse. I think the charm of this village disoriented me. Clearly the sea is not uphill.
On our walk back through town, we noticed that everyone seemed to be eating a cone filled with fried seafood. The cones came from Il Pescato Cucinato a small shop selling fried seafood to go. The small cone cost only € 5 and the large cost € 8. My mom and I both opted for the small mixed seafood and vegetable cone without the sardines. The sardines didn’t appear too appetizing but everything else looked delicious. I was glad to see that the vegetables consisted of onion rings and french fries. That’s my kind of veggies! We took our cones and made our way to the seaside. I couldn’t help myself from taking a few bites on the walk. We ate the freshest seafood I have ever had while sitting on rocks facing the Ligurian Sea.
In order to get from the agricultural part of the village to the fishing village, you have to take the tunnel under the train station. Once you exit the tunnel, narrow alleys will lead you to the sea. The harbor of Riomaggiore was as quaint as the village itself. The sun-washed houses surrounded the small pebble beach. The fishing boats were left unaccompanied in the harbor. At this point in the day, the fishing village has been overtaken by tourists.
Even though we knew the costal trails were closed, we decided to find the trail leading from Riomaggiore to Manarola, the Path of Love. If that trail was open, it would only take 40 minutes between the two towns. We took the stairs up to discover that the trails were in fact closed for maintenance. The metal gate leading to the trail was locked. At least from up here, we were able to get a better view of the coastline.
We backtracked to the train station where we made sure to validate our tickets before grabbing a train to Manarola. The trains between each town only take a few minutes. Most of the people on the train didn’t even bother to sit down. When we arrived in Manarola, we easily found the sea. We took a straight path through town, through the exceptionally exuberant streets where fishing boats were parked in front of vibrant hued houses.
There is no beach in Manarola, rather a rocky coast. The harbor actually hides behind the rocks and a ramp leads into the sea for the fishing boats. While there is not a traditional beach, it seemed like everyone here was swimming and I could see why. The sea was a beautiful turquoise color and crystal clear. The rocky coast provided an excellent form of entertainment. Some people used the rocks to sunbath while others fearlessly cliff jumped into the blue abyss.
While exploring the town, we noticed that the costal trail appeared to be open. The trail seemed very easy and offered the most spectacular view of Manarola. Manarola looked enchanting, its vibrant hues against the deep sea and the dramatic cliffs behind it. I couldn’t even count the amount of times I stopped to gape at the view. Opposite of Manarola were cliffs plummeting from the sea and weaving along the coast a far as the eye could see. We walked along the trail for maybe 10 minutes until we got to a point where it was closed off. The trail ended in another spot where people were swimming. Even though it was only a 10 minute walk, I’m glad to have been able to hike a little bit of the costal trails. Reluctantly, we headed back to the train to go to the next town.
Our arrival in Corniglia was unlike the other villages. Corniglia isn’t exactly a seaside village, more-so a cliff side village located 100 meters above sea level. In order to get to the village, you have to walk up the mountain. My mom decided to wait at the train station while I made the ascend up the mountain. I thought it wouldn’t take too long. I was wrong. When I got to the end of the walkway, I was faced with a mountain and 382 steep stairs going up it. I wanted to see Corniglia but I didn’t want to take too long either. The only conclusion was to take the stairs at a fast pace. I power walked up the stairs as fast as my body would let me until I reached the top. By the point I got half way, I felt so out of breath. I looked up to see so many stairs still ahead of me and felt that there was no way I could make it to the top. Then I looked down at all the stairs I’ve already walked and realized that I could do this, I was already half way there.
Once I made it to the top, I was so out of breath and thirsty that I could barely appreciate the town. Maybe the stairs weren’t as steep as I recall but looking down at the coast from the village, I realized just how high of a climb it was. I walked around Corniglia in a daze, trying to regain my breath. The houses here had more brick elements then the houses in the neighboring seaside villages. Corniglia is also much greener then the other villages. Not only was the village in the mountain, it also seemed like there were potted plants scattered all around town. Yet, amid all the green I was still in short supply of oxygen. Perhaps I’m a little out of shape. To put salt on the wound, I saw a shuttle on top of the mountain. We could have taken a shuttle up. That would’ve been convenient if I remembered that we had access to shuttles included in our ticket. As soon as the next shuttle came, I took it down to meet my mom. After power walking up a mountain, I was ready to be by the sea.
On our train ride from Corniglia to Vernazza our train halted to a stop in the middle of a tunnel. Evidently we made it to Vernazza. It was a bit ominous to disembark a train in a tunnel. However, I feel like the tunnel acted as a article of a grand reveal of Vernazza. After walking out of the dark, dim tunnel we were faced with vibrant Vernazza. Vernazza is one of the biggest towns in Cinque Terre and in my opinion, the prettiest. We followed the colorful streets into town where I finally stopped at some souvenir stores. All of the souvenirs were so cute, I wanted everything. The streets were lined with shops, restaurants and even local craftsmen. There is no short supply of places for tourists to shop and eat in Vernazza. After analyzing several sea inspired trinkets, I settled on some whimsical sea-creature wine corks and a ship in a bottle.
Along the main road, there is a grotto leading to the sea. The grotto lured me in, despite signs indicating that it may not be open. I think the no- entry signs were only in use during high tide. I walked through the carved passageway to the opening by the sea. The grotto lead to a pebble beach with crashing waves. This little beach was perfect. The waves smashed against the rocks, splashing water everywhere. Trying to dip your feet in the water is no easy feat. My dress got soaked in my attempt. The damp dress didn’t bother me at all. It was nice and refreshing. The only people who were swimming in the water were an elderly couple who laid carelessly as the waves crashed on them.
We left the grotto in search of the Varnazza’s harbor and gelato. We stopped at Gelateria Il Porticciolo, which is located on the harbor. I got a scope of pineapple and chocolate. Perhaps the location aided to the experience but tis was the best gelato I had the entire time in Italy. Buon appetito! I enjoyed my gelato while watching the fishing boats float and the people splashing in the beach, probably scaring the fish away.
Once we finished our gelato, we took a walk to the end of the pier to get a view of the coastline. I watched as young local girls jumped off the dock over and over again into the sea. This is basically their backyard, one beautiful backyard at that. Vernazza has a small sand beach. If we had more time, this would be my ideal beach to swim at with the sand beach, the colorful town and the vineyards cascading down the mountains. The coast of Vernazza was complete with the Church of Santa Margarita d’Antiochia. Located in the main square, the bell tower of this gothic style church differentiates Vernazza’s harbor. Alas our day was winding down and we had one more town to visit so I had to force myself to leave the rock I was lounging on.
Upon arrival to Monterosso al Mare, I was a little disappointed. It was still cute yet it seemed to lack the charm of the rest of Cinque Terre. Maybe I didn’t give Monterosso a fair shot. We were strapped for time so I wasn’t able to venture into the old town. I only had time to see the beach. Monterosso al Mar had a resort feel with a sandy beaches, rentable lounge chairs and hotels. It had a modern feel to it which conflicts with the Cinque Terre’s preserved character. Though the beach did offer a gorgeous view of the epic coastline. Had Monterosso been separate from the rest of Cinque Terre, I probably would have appreciated it a lot more. While it didn’t have the charm of the rest of the villages, the beaches were amazing. I could see spending a whole day here relaxing at this beach. I think my opinion on Monterosso was clouded by the fact that I only had 10 minutes in the town before I had to catch the train back to La Spezia for my connection to Genoa.