Cinque Terre: Five Colorful Villages to Go!

September 23, 2018

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy, hiking
Cinque Terre - rainy but beautiful

The blue sky of Düsseldorf disappears and a grey pudding of clouds pushes into my sight. I'm staring out the scratched airplane window. Let's run from the cold and foggy German autumn and go to Italy! Yay.
Shortly before we arrive in Milan, it comes the total break down. I'm not lying. The plane swings, the wind blows - and suddenly we just drop a few flaky feet. A hyena-like murmur shoots through the cabin. I cling to the armrests with both hands. The couple next to me asks if I have fear of flying. I wonder if they're blind or if I'm not green enough in the face.

My best friend Dani, who arrives an hour later with her plane from Hamburg, can't land at all, because the rain has become a thunderstorm. A stormy start to our two-week road-rail trip through Italy, followed by even more rain, awesome views of the Cinque Terre and the hike of death.

The truth about crowds and accommodation in Cinque Terre

Manarola, Cinque Terre, rocks, cliffs, water, ocean, Italy
Waves at the port of Manarola

We are sitting in our cosy vacation home in La Spezia. Coffee's bubbling on the stove and I'm just getting my scarf. "We could bake Christmas cookies," I say sarcastically. Then we stare at the map to find out which of the five villages - Cinque Terre - we want to see tomorrow. The small towns are spread over an eight mile strip along the Ligurian coast and built into the rugged mountain slopes, which makes them appear incredibly picturesque and also a bit mysterious. The entire area is also a National Park and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.

But Cinque Terre is no insider tip anymore. Especially in the summer, many tourists are flooding the area, about which numerous bloggers and authors have already made negative comments. We are here now at the end of September and the number of visitors is very limited. Maybe because it pisses like hell and nobody wants to leave the house. The five villages are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Of course you can try to get affordable accommodation in the winding streets of the villages, but you might as well try to go out without an umbrella on this day by trying not to get wet. That is why you should choose La Spezia as the next 'big' city for your stay. It does have a central station, where trains are ruinning frequently. You do only need few minutes from there to the first village of Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre: How do I get there, around and why are the trails closed?

Manarola, view from the port, Cinque Terre, travel guide
The beautiful view of Manarola

A single trip costs $4,50. It doesn't matter if you go from La Spezia to the last or to the first village. As soon as you leave the train, the next connection (also between the single villages) costs $4,50 again. It doesn't make sense, because the distanes are always different, but nobody seems to care about that. So it is important to consider beforehand in which order you want to see which village - and what you can do on foot. The five towns are connected by hiking trails. The nice paths, which are usually around 0,5 to 1,5 miles long and quite flat, do cost an entry fee. For $9 per day you have access to all hiking trails.

 

If you also want to use the trains as often as you like, the total package (trains + trails) costs $19 per day. You can think now this sucks ass, but the National Parks in the US or Canada are not free either. Protected areas need care - especially when there are many people around and the mountain slopes crash as often as they do in Cinque Terre. It simply costs money to maintain everything. By the way - yes, every now and then hiking trails are not passable and that is also annoying. But this is nature and if it decides to collapse in itself, then even swearing loud in your travel blog doesn't change a thing. Nature isn't meant to entertain us. We should be glad if we can get as close to it as possible sometimes.

1,200 steps on the way from Manarola to Corniglia

Hiking trail from Manarola to Corniglia, Cinque Terre, hiking in Italy
Breathtaking views on our way to Corniglia

And then there are the long and strenuous hiking trails through the mountains. Their distances are between 2 and 4,5 miles and some of them lead over 1.300 feet high into the slopes. They're for free, and whoever ran one of them knows why. You pay with your bones. But you also get something back: breathtaking views of the sea, the cliffs, the colourful houses, huge cacti and beautiful vineyards


On our first day we plan to tackle Manarola and Corniglia. On foot. Free of charge. I'm just telling you in advance.

After freezing for half an hour in a dubious house entrance in Manarola, the rain is finally over and we set off. There are 1.200 steps ahead of us. We sweat and sweat, because the humidity in the wooded slopes is just above that of a Finnish sauna. But again and again we have to stop getting upset because the view down is simply fantastic.

Wine, water and a little overestimation

Rainbow at Cinque Terre in the evening, seaside Italy
A wonderful piece of rainbow in Corniglia

The dark blue sea sloshes like a carpet against the grey rocks. Manarola looks like someone has dumped a pack of Smarties on the cliffs from here. Next to us, light green vine grapes shine in the milky light and far away we even see a shadow of Corniglia. However, the village doesn't seem to get closer in the next two hours. At some corners Dani sends me forward, because she suffers from fear of heights and there is simply no railing at all. It's not dangerous - but it's awfully strenuous.

 

When we arrive in Corniglia in the evening and about three and a half hours later after a few stops, snap breathing and shaky knees, we decide to pay either for the shorter and easier ways tomorrow, to not walk at all and take the train or simply to drop dead. But the evening in Corniglia is wonderful. The sun breaks out and bathes the alleys in a warm light. The colourful facades give way to the orange colour spectacle in the sky and shine like rectangular lanterns. Suddenly a small spot appears between the clouds that looks like a punctual rainbow. I spontaneously escalate with the camera in my hand and forget that my legs consist only of varicose veins anymore, while Dani almost adopts a street cat.
Oh, and it can get so cold in Cinque Terre after sunset at the beginning of September that you should bring a sweater!

Riomaggiore and Vernazza - the best Cinque Terre village has been found!

Riomaggiore, port, swimming, vacation in Cinque Terre
View from the port of Riomaggiore
On our second day we crawl over the floor, but are still curious about the other three villages. Our curiosity continues until about 3 pm, because we simply cannot leave the house because of thunderstorms and torrential rain. That's crap, especially since we can't stay for another day because of our planned round trip across the country. Meanwhile we do a little research with double espresso and warm socks, to decide which village we can kick out. Because due to the darkness that rises from 7.30 pm, we are now only able to visit two villages - even by train. At the end Monterosso al Mare is kicked out, because on the one hand it is not situated on lovely cliffs (like the other villages) and on the other hand it is very touristy with a beach that is covered with sunbeds and umbrellas. So we take the train to Riomaggiore. Dark clouds laugh fatly over the mountains but after we have strolled down the steep road to the harbour, we can even sit down on the rocks in the sea and get a glimpse of the sun.

 

Vernazza, Cinque Terre in the evening, evening light, view, Italy
Oh, Vernazza! You are so wonderful!
Mysteriously, two hours have passed at once and we are already racing on to Vernazza. There's something different. The village captures us immediately - especially when we see the beautiful harbor. Boats are rocking on the turquoise water, the fabric of colourful umbrellas on the open square flutters in the evening wind. Several castles rise on the slopes and the gentle light does the rest. "That's it!" we agree. The most beautiful village of Cinque Terre! During the golden hour we climb the cliffs and the sun conjures up different shadows, colours and nuances on Vernazza's facades every minute. By the time we get to the top, there's already a purple blue in the air. If you walk up the path to the left of the station, just behind the Ristorante Bar La Torre, you have a fabulous opportunity to sit on a few stones and poetically look over the sea and the city. There are hardly any people up there and the silence together with the completely clear view is simply unbelievable! However, you should have a little more respect for the massive cacti than I did, because I almost sat down in one. Harrump.

 

The burning question: Which villages in Cinque Terre should I visit?

Finally, my personal hit list and recommendation for you:
  1. Vernazza: enchanting and spacious harbour, dreamlike castle ruins, gentle exit to the sea with a large market place, open and bright alleys, great views of the village and the coast from above, quiet atmosphere
  2. Corniglia: Located on the cliffs instead of in the cliffs (like most of the other villages), many winding alleys with beautiful non-touristy shops (handmade clothes, decoration from flotsam, fruit and ice cream shops), several observation platforms towards the sea, quiet atmosphere
  3. Manarola: A (touristy) main road, which is very crowded, nice harbour with rugged rocks, great view of the village from above, otherwise very narrow and packed with private boats.
  4. Riomaggiore: Some shabby underpass from the station to the city, a (very touristy) main road, beautiful harbour with bay for swimming and sunbathing (without sand!), from below a great view into the mountainside
Monterosso al Mare: Unfortunately I was not able to visit Monterosso and therefore I do not give a personal rating. According to other reports, this town is particularly suitable for beach lovers, even if it can be overcrowded and expensive on the small sandy spot (parts of it are burried under sunloungers which you have to pay for).
Should you visit Cinque Terre? Absolutely! I have not experienced mass tourism in September (but maybe you should avoid the summer months) and if a few closed hiking trails do not immediately let you run amok, then you have to go there! I recommend three to four whole days for a stress-free visit!
After Cinque Terre we went to Florence and Naples. You can find our crazy, wonderful and shocking experiences in these two cities in my ironic and honest article.

 

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