Five ancient and remote villages on the
rugged northern Italian coast.....
Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore are the five small towns that make up the Cinque Terre, the Five Lands. The first settlers came in about 1100, and cultivated the slopes in order to plant grapes and olive trees. These terraces were built with dry stone walls, an art. These people were self sufficient, living off the sea and the land. Forts were built to protect the towns from pirates.
Until 1870 the towns were virtually isolated, and then the railway was put through. After that the towns were not isolated, but people became less self sufficient and there was a lot of emigration.
In 1970 an American wrote about the lovely villages, and tourism began. Now most of the hillside terraces are still used, and the fishing continues to a lesser degree as the inhabitants cope with tourism but want to keep up their traditional customs.
Today the cruise ships and tours bring hundreds of tourists each day to visit the Cinque Terre. Yes, it is crowded, but the charm is still unchanged.
Getting there by excursion....
Cruise ships have tours that go to three or four of the Cinque Terre villages. As always, cruise excursions are good because the ship will wait if your tour has difficulty and the passengers are late. They are expensive, however, and sometimes use difficult routes that are hard for some people. As a personal experience..... the bus took us to Manarola, and because there is no road access into the town, we were let off the bus high on the hill. The first bit was to come down a steep slope on uneven steps (the photo beside), easy for younger people, but three of the older women in the group had difficulty.
Then there was about a kilometer of quite steep paths and more steps down to the waterfront - the bus drop-off point was 380 feet above sea level. The rest of the tour was fine - by boat to Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, and then back to La Spezia by train. Check the difficulty of the excursions. and understand that they can be tricky for some people.
©2018 Google ©2009 GeoBasis-DE BKG
Getting there on your own by boat.....
The boat (passenger ferry) leaves La Spezia from the waterfront, a short walk from the cruise port terminal, so it is handy. It goes about every hour, so check the times on-line, and the schedule is different off-season. Of course, taking the boat will depend on the weather - if it is raining or windy the trip would not be pleasant, or the boat may not go at all. The boats go to Portovenere and then it appears that you transfer to another that goes to the villages of the Cinque Terre. (See the section on Portovenere.)
This is about a two hour boat trip to the farthest of the Cinque Terre villages, Monterosso Al Mare. This is wonderful in nice weather, and you get to see the villages from the sea - and that's the only way Corniglia can be seen.
Going both ways by boat and walking the villages would take too long, so it is suggested that you do a combination of boat and train.
Getting from La Spezia to the Cinque Terre by train.....
The train station in La Spezia is 2 km./1.25 miles from the cruise port terminal. Walk down the waterfront to the end - there is a traffic light on the waterfront street. Turn towards the town and walk straight up the street, Via Prione. The street curves sometimes and the name changes, but stay on it, walking as straight as possible and you will come to the station. Don't walk under the tracks, the station is on the near side, to your left. (There is a somewhat shorter route, but the chances of getting lost are much higher.)
Or...... get a taxi from the cruise terminal.
Check the train schedules. They run about every half hour during the day in peak season.
This is a fast way to travel - you can be at Monterosso al Mare, the farthest of the villages, in 30 minutes. The trip is not attractive as most of it is in tunnels, just poking out long enough to stop at the towns.
It is also inexpensive. If you are going both directions by train, you can get a Cinque Terre day card for 13 Euros in the off-season and 16 Euros in peak season, and get on and off as you please - or about 2 Euros between towns.
Understand that this is Italy, and delays are only to be expected. I stood on the platform in Monterosso al Mare for close to an hour as a pickpocket had locked himself in a train bathroom.
Or use both boat and train.....
Depending on the weather and your interests, combine the two. Perhaps go to the farthest village, Monterosso al Mare by boat, and then take the train between the villages - or take the train to Monterosso and use a combination of train and boat, getting off at each stop for exploration.
Monterosso al Mare
©2018 Google Image©2009 TerraMetrics
Train station ferry docks the old town
We are starting at the north end of the Cinque Terre, the farthest from La Spezia.
Monterosso al Mare is different from the other four towns on the Cinque Terre. It is along the shoreline and up two valleys that widen out as they reach the sea. The train station is between the valleys, and as you come down to street level in the station, turn left to the older part and right to the newer part of town. Monterosso has beaches, and you can rent a big umbrella in all three parts of town.
Walk to the left first - along the sidewalk by the edge of the beach. The path goes into a tunnel (photo beside top), and when you are through it, you are in the old part of Monterosso. Walk up the main street by the church with the bell tower (photo beside). There are lots of shops, restaurants and colourful buildings for good pictures. There are lots of outdoor restaurants with great Italian food.
When you have had a look, walk back through the tunnel and past the train station to see the newer part of the town. Here are apartment blocks and more modern architecture - and cars..... the only place in the Cinque Terre to allow cars.
Vernazza is a favourite! It has the only natural port of the Cinque Terre, so was important from the 11th century onwards. By the 1300's there were dreadful raids by pirates, and the port was fortified with a wall that still can partly be seen from the ocean, and a castle and lookout tower, standing on the point of land.
Vernazza has many terraced vineyards, some built in the late 1800's when the town became well known for wine making. You can see them in the air photo above. This doesn't show how steep the hills are!
The harbour is dominated by the Church of Santa Margherita d'Antiochia of Vernazza. It is thought that it has been there since the 1100's, and renovated in the 16th century. The main square at the harbour is colourful with umbrellas over the restaurant tables, and as in three of the Cinque Terre towns the main street has the little boats parked, as there is no room in the harbour for them. The train station is over the main street.
It is possible to climb to the castle and tower above the harbour entrance, but the way is a bit difficult to find - there are steps and passages up between the houses. There is a marvelous view from the castle deck, and even better from the top of the tower. There is a small charge to climb the tower.
Corniglia is different from the other Cinque Terre villages, as it isn't actually on the sea. It is on the top of a rocky cliff, so is less touristy. If you go on the train, there are 33 flights of brick stairs, with 382 steps to get to the town....., or a long winding road.
It is named from the Roman family who originally owned it.
©2018 Google Image©2009 TerraMetrics
Manarola is a lovely village, with multi-coloured houses stacked one above the other on the steep cliffs, and the terraced hillsides with grape vines.
If you arrive by train, the path immediately goes into a tunnel, and when you come out into the light you are on the main street. To find the station if you are leaving by train, go up the street just past a terrace that crosses the path. The picture below is the entrance to the tunnel.
In the past, there was a lovely walk called Via Dell'Amore along the cliffs to the last of the Cinque Terre villages, Riomaggiore. The path was closed for safety reasons, and the word is that it won't open again until 2021. This is sad, as the walk was easy and very lovely. (Below)
The central street is busy, and filled with boats! There is no protected harbour here, so the boats on their little trailers are pulled up onto the street (beside).
There is a path from the harbour that winds around the cliff to the north - the picture below left is taken from the path. At the corner of the path where you can no longer see the town there are stairs up to a hotel and garden and great views.
Across the harbour to the south, there is another path near the water, and this is where the ferry boats dock, and fishermen sort out fish and nets.
©2018 Google Image©2009 TerraMetrics
The train to Riomaggiore stops just to the north of the town, and there is a 5 minute walk through a tunnel.
The colourful houses on the steep hills often have a door at the bottom and another door at the back, three or four stories up. This was useful when the town had attacks from the pirate Saracens.
The town is in two parts - from the overpass the section below by the sea is the place of the fishermen. There are the little boats on the streets, and nets, floats and other fishing gear there for use and for decoration.
Above the overpass is the section for the vineyards and wine-making.
The towns of the Cinque Terre are lovely. If they are on your bucket list, I hope you get to enjoy them!