“Do you know where you’re going in Italy?”
We had just finished licking our mini plastic spoons at the city’s most famous gelato shop, Fenocchio, in Nice, France on a drizzly evening. Due to the abysmal weather, we planned to leave the French Riviera the next morning for the Italian coast. As we earnestly exchanged stories, tips, and photos on the shop’s tabletops, a new friend we made weeks earlier in Spain inquired of our future plans.
“No, we’ll figure it out when we get there,” I replied.
One of our typical replies, of course. After all, in the words of Rolf Potts, “a tourist doesn’t know where he’s been, and a traveler doesn’t know where he’s going.”
That’s when the whereabouts of Cinque Terre came to light. Ha, little did we know. Apparently everyone else knew. To be honest, we didn’t know much about Italy besides Venice and Rome. Cinque Terre ended up being our introduction to Italy, our surprise treat, and magical retreat along the Italian Riviera.
In 1999 Cinque Terre, or Five Lands, became Italy’s tiniest but most visited national park. Five picturesque villages along with its network of connecting trails and footpaths make up Cinque Terre: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Before tourism spread like wildfire, the region depended on fishing and growing grapes, evident in its centuries of terraced vineyards. Bright boats in the harbor and steep terraces of vineyards add to the iconic cluster of colorful buildings along the coast, making the viewpoints the highlight of Cinque Terre.
Each town is free to explore and enjoy, but to hike the coastal cliff trails requires a national park entrance fee of €7.50 per person for a single day. There are also other combinations, such as a one day park entrance fee + unlimited train pass for €16, which in retrospect we should have purchased since we ended up taking the train two times at a cost of €4 per trip. Live and learn!
Although a national park with overcrowded hiking trails, the majority of Cinque Terre’s visitors is probably not the hikers. A train linking all the towns along with numerous boat taxis and boat tours grant access to even the most weary. As a result this national park sees the unusual mix of hikers, backpackers, and tour groups with flag-waving leaders. To avoid the worst of crowds, we began our hike at 9:30am. It wasn’t as crowded as I expected it to be, even later in the day; I suspect May sees fewer visitors than the summer.
We began our hike from Monterosso due to its vicinity to this excellent motorhome site. Of the five towns, Monterosso is the largest, easily accessible, and has a sandy beach!
It took us about 1 hour and 15 minutes to climb up and over the hills to the next village, Vernazza. As expected, the village was incredibly picturesque, even with the sun behind clouds.
Lemon trees grow like weeds in Cinque Terre. Unfortunately they are sold for the astronomical price of €3.50/kg, or even €3.50 for a glass of lemonade! Though tempting, I couldn’t bring myself to pay €3.50 for a glass of water, sugar, and lemon juice.
The trail from Vernazza to Corniglia took us about 1 hour. The trail brimmed with late spring flowers, and the breeze carried the scent of orange and lemon blossoms.
Normally the flat “trail” from Corniglia to Manarola takes about 40 minutes to walk, but the trail was closed due to flooding (from 5 years ago) and the lack of motivation to quickly repair it. We were told there was an alternate footpath that connected the two villages, but we weren’t told that the footpath would be even more difficult than the first two trails we had already hiked between Monterosso and Corniglia. It took us about 1 hour and 30 minutes to traverse this brutal footpath, but the views were worth it. Wildflowers, orchids, centuries of terraced vineyards galore!
Once in Manarola, we sought out the best view of the village. This was perhaps my favorite panorama of all the villages within Cinque Terre.
And I grabbed a €8 cone of fresh fried calamari…turned out to be some of the best calamari I’ve ever eaten! Seafood is to die for in Cinque Terre. Oh, and gelato too!
And finally, one more village to go—Riomaggiore. The flat “trail” between Manarola and Riomaggiore normally takes only 20 minutes to cross, but unfortunately it was also closed. We grimaced at the idea of hiking at least another hour over steep terraces so we wussed out and bought the €4 train ticket to ride the 2 minutes to Riomaggiore. Compared to the hiking trails, the trains were packed, but the ride was short and we headed straight to the marina immediately upon arrival. The view of the marina with the backdrop of the colorful village did not disappoint.
When it was time to return, we took the train from Riomaggiore back to where we started in Monterosso. What took almost 4 hours from Monterosso to Riomaggiore only took about 15 minutes by train. While most tourists probably only see the villages and consider those visits to be sufficient, I believe the highlight of Cinque Terre is the hike along the scenic coastal cliffs, a satisfying reward for those who break the sweat and endure the steep terraces. We had only heard of Cinque Terre by word of mouth literally less than 24 hours before our arrival to the park, and we are thrilled to have experienced this coastal treasure of Italy.