Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Cinque Terre is so much more than just five instagrammable colourful medieval villages dominating the crystal-clear Ligurian Sea. First of all, it is more like a dozen other tiny villages including the ones that are high up overlooking the five most famous Italian villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore (from North to South). It is also a National Park, including a large marine reserve, and it is an agricultural land where vineyards have been cultivated on narrow terraces supported by dry-stone walls for almost a millennium.
During a regular year, 3 to 3.5 million tourists visit these five villages where barely 4,000 locals live. Clearly, it can get overcrowded fast to the extent that some wonder if it is still worth visiting. Our answer is no, it is not just worth visiting: Cinque Terre is a special place that must be experienced and appreciated for what it truly is. As Luca Natale, child of the land, former guide who knows the territory like the back of his hand and director of communication of the Cinque Terre National Park tells us passionately: “You need to not only visit but really get a grasp of the territory”. How to do so? Read on:
1. From the land
Hiking is already beating most of the crowds: less than 30% of visitors hike from one village to the other on the well-marked trails. Most take the local train that connects them within minutes, and many do the same by boat. Focusing on hikers, the vast majority sticks to the same trail: the Sentiero Verde Azzurro (SVA or the Blue Path also referred to as 592-1) – called Via dell’Amore (or the path of love or 592) between Riomaggiore and Manarola. It is a very beautiful trail bordering the coastline, rather easy given the local elevation, and clearly the most popular path in the entire national park.
However, it will not have you fully experience Cinque Terre. To try and grasp a real sense of its essence, you must elevate yourself and walk the higher trails. Far less crowded, they will take you past the curated vegetable gardens planted in the heights of the villages, through the terraced vineyards and a few olive groves and along and over dry-stone walls with both literally and figuratively breath-taking views on the coastal villages.
For the best of both worlds, follow the suggested route on our interactive map:
- The vineyard trail 531 between Riomaggiore and Manarola is a steep picturesque unequal staircase path that was the only connection between both villages until the Via dell’Amore was built in the 1920’s! Regain your breath as you go up by admiring the sheer cliffs falling into the turquoise blue Mediterranean Sea.
- In Manarola, follow the trail 506 that takes you 340 vertical meters higher to the off-the-beaten path village of Volastra that is not connected by train. From there, follow the trail 586 along the levelled off terraces amongst the vines. It is the most beautiful part of the whole hike! If you are lucky, you may be able to taste some wine right in the vineyards as local producers set up refreshment bars for thirsty hikers. The path turns into trail 587 to reach Corniglia, the only village not right by the seaside.
- In Corniglia, after checking out the beautiful 13th century church of San Pietro, merge onto the SVA trail. Bear in mind that you will need to purchase a permit to access it (online, or at the trail entrance – cash only – or at any train station of Cinque Terre). This is an initiative of the park authorities to limit the amount of people on the trail and develop sustainable tourism to support the local agriculture thanks to which you can marvel at these stunning terraces.
- Still following the SVA trail, Vernazza is great for a refreshing swim close to its cute harbour either diving from the rocks or enjoying its tiny sandy beach before continuing onto Monterosso al Mare.
- This last stretch is the easiest and busiest with great views on the last and largest village of Cinque Terre with its defensive Genoese towers.
2. From the sea
Even if the villages of Cinque Terre started to develop around 1250 under the Genoese Republic, they had remained rather small for a few centuries. The sea was feared. Even with the protective bastions, Genoese castles and watchtowers, pirates coming mostly from Northern Africa raided the villages in marauding expeditions. If the inhabitants used to run up for the hills, the fishermen were often taken hostage to be later sold as slaves or ransomed. It is only in the 16th century when the pirate raids stopped that the coastal villages could slowly develop, while remaining isolated.
Today, the sea is a fantastic playground. From cliff jumping to simply swimming amongst the traditional fishing boats, every village provides somewhat of an access to the water, often rocky and small. The best way to enjoy the Ligurian Sea is by boat. Kayaking along the shore is a magical way of apprehending Cinque Terre. Make sure to take a mask and snorkel to enjoy the underwater world straight from the kayak moored at a boy at large, or from a beach hardly accessible any other way. Entering the cute harbours of Vernazza or Manarola, docking the kayak and walking the narrow streets in search of a focaccia, gelato or cappuccino before taking a plunge and continuing is a fantastic experience.
For a moderate kayaker, linking Monterosso al Mare to Riomaggiore should take about 2 to 3 hours on a calm sea, making it a nice day experience to paddle the round trip.
3. From the glass
Without the winemakers, the territory of Cinque Terre as we know it would not exist: forget about the picturesque terraced vineyards that protect the land from sliding into the sea. Actually, what makes Cinque Terre a national park are its millennium-old man-made landscapes. Not only have the winemakers manicured the terraces supported by dry-stone walls for centuries, they are also making some of the most confidential and best wines of Italy.
Go for a “Wine Route and Tasting Experience” to discover the flavours and character of this rugged coastline. Manarola and its amphitheatre of terraces is ideal: the passionate and enthusiastic local Sara at Nessun Dorma Cantina walks you through an easily accessible vineyard to the smells of lemon trees, tomatoes, fig trees, jasmine, peach and apricot trees, yellow broom flowers and caper trees. Explaining the various grapes used in the DOC wines (Denominazione di Origine Controllata for Denomination of Controlled Origin) and growing techniques, she then takes you back to Nessun Dorma Cantina, a small 19th century cellar where all these flavours can be found in the glass. Starting by tasting the wine from the grapes grown in the visited vineyard with a dry white Cinque Terre DOC, then going to a less common red to finish with the liquid gold Sciacchetrà DOC (pronounce “shah-kay-trrah”), a delicious passito wine with a gold-amber colour gives a great overview of the local options. Nessun Dorma Cantina caters a wide variety of Italian wines along with a selection of bottles of both independent winemakers and the cooperative from Cinque Terre.
If you want to compare the Cinque Terre DOC wines from the sub-areas (Costa da’ Posa close to Volastra (elegant and fine dry wine), Costa de Sèra close to Riomaggiore (more floral, fruity and salty) and Costa de Campu above Manarola (more fruity and mineral)), visit Cantina Sociale in Groppo, the wine tasting and shop of the cooperative that has supported the winemaking in Cinque Terre for over a century (implementing the monorail and irrigation systems are some of their initiatives). You can also bring home other local products such as limoncino (fermented lemon peels from the trees growing in Cinque Terre, or the local equivalent of the limoncello of the Amalfi region), honey, olive oil…
After such an introduction to the wines of Cinque Terre, make sure you accompany your dinner with some of them: local seafood goes perfectly with the Cinque Terre DOC while the Sciacchetrà DOC with an aged cheese, a dessert or just by itself to enjoy a special moment. Actually, it is a local producer of Riomaggiore whose Sciacchetrà was voted the best sweet wine of Italy in 2020! To know more about the fascinating wines of Cinque Terre, check this article out.
4. From the plate
Pesto, now sought after all over the world, originates from the nearby city of Genoa. What a better place to learn everything about its secrets and prepare yourself the best pesto than overlooking the cute village of Manarola during a pesto workshop!
If you do not feel like going for a cooking workshop and simply want to enjoy, in the heights of Manarola with a splendid view on the village, the vineyards and the Ligurian Sea, Trattoria dal Billy excels at preparing fresh local seafood in an unpretentious yet delicious way. More specifically, the mixed seafood starter of 12 dishes is to die for, as well as the homemade and made-to-order pastas with pesto or seafood. The white wine menu is almost exclusively composed of local Cinque Terre wines, and even the special Sciacchetrà DOC is proposed as a dessert wine.
Cinque Terre is at risk. Tourists come to enjoy the stunning views, the terraced vineyards and a glass of local white wine with anchovies in a traditional restaurant. Inhabitants have found an easier way of making a living, away from the fields: from 1,200 hectares a century ago only 88 are still cultivated today, mostly around Manarola. However, turning away from agriculture implies that the same terraces that make Cinque Terre so photogenic are neglected. Worse than potentially lowering the instagrammable potential of the area, this causes the soil to erode and puts the whole territory at risk. The Cinque Terre National Park has been trying to balance tourism with sustainability and agriculture. Do yourself a favour: spend time in Cinque Terre, really experience it, and this way you will also be contributing to a more sustainable and authentic tourism.
- At the time of writing, the SVA trail is closed between Corniglia and Riomaggiore due to landslides. Check the trail conditions here.
- The Cinque Terre hiking card can be combined with unlimited train rides between the villages: it is the hiking & train card.
- There are two outfitters renting kayaks in Cinque Terre: Cinque Terre dal Mare in Riomaggiore (do not expect high-performance kayaks but basic sit-on-tops) or Outdoor Portofino in Monterosso al Mare (with sit-in sea kayaks and proposing fully guided half day to full day tours in Italian and English).
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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