Sometimes taking a wrong turn takes you to the right place. While I was exploring Portovenere during my recent trip to Cinque Terre, I stumbled upon the a most serene and beautiful cemetery. The site sits on the hilltop by the base of the city’s castle facing out across the water.I never know quite what the right approach is to take in places of local religious significance and mean no disrespect by sharing photographs – for me this was a place of utter calmness, a place to go to reflect on the beauty of the surroundings and escape from the crowds of Liguria.
I’m at the airport, waiting for the queue to die down at my gate. For once my skin tone looks healthy, slightly gold and not in the usual jaundiced ‘office tan’ way thanks to the last five days on the Italian Riviera. Cinque Terre has a high reputation to uphold – like me you’ve probably seen the photographs of multicoloured italian townhouses teetering on the cliffside in many a buzzfeed listicle or travel blog. Called the “five lands” the area is actually five fishing villages along the Ligurian coast, interlinked by hiking trails and a scenic railway. But it’s not quite the idyllic escape the images would lead you to believe, in fact there’s one thig clearly missing from the photographs you’ll only know if you’ve been. The secret? The crowds!
So although I enjoyed my trip very much overall, it was a big change from the other trips I’ve done this year. I don’t condisder myself an off the beaten track traveller, the idea itself is pretty ridiculous because unless you’re an extreme adventurer nothing you experience is likely to be realms away from the rest of civilisation, and there’s usually a reason why “tourist” attractions are popular. I have, however, been half lucky and half strategic with my trip planning recently that I’ve managed to avoid many “big” travel destinations and travelled outside of peak seasons nearly every time. But travelling to Italy in June was not ever going to result in a zen experience, and Rick Steve’s loved of Cinque Terre has influenced enough Americans that it wasn’t just European travellers to contend with.
But the popularity of the region is far from without merit, and apart from some very unpleasant train squashes the crowds soon get dispersed by windy Italian alleyways and the temptation of amazing food.
So now my quasi entitled whinge is over I can spend the rest of this post trying to make you jealous of how I spent the last 5 days wandering, eating, sunbathing and simply absorbing one of the most beautiful places in the man made world.
Levanto is close enough, nice enough, and little known enough to be the perfect base for explorig Cinque Terre. While the romantic in you might be tempted to stay in one of the five villages, the accountant in you will be having a heart attack. If you book enough in advance there are some budget options, but I’m more the indecisive-almost-last-minute type who usually books a few days before going. That’s why last weekend I was freaking out a teeny tiny bit when I finally looked at the options and realised they were few and far between, especially for under €100 a night. When I found Ostello Del Mare in Levanto it was a massive relief – a cheap, well reviewed hostel in a town with a beach a few minutes by train to Cinque Terre was the smart choice. The town itself might be a bit less olde worlde than it’s neighbours but is still pretty in same regional style and palette found along the coast; unpredictable little streets, palatial mansions on the cliffsides, soft amber and terracotta townhouses and authentic restaurants.
When it comes to transportation Levanto is treated as an extension of Cinque Terre. All trains stop there (unlike all the Cinque Terre!), hiking trails join it to Monterosso, and the hop on and off ferry begins the day in Levanto, taking passengers all the way down the coast to Portovenere.
My favourite part about Levanto was that it was a peaceful retreat that still had a lively small town atmosphere in the evenings. Being able to head to the beach on arrival and watch the sunset while dipping my toes in the Mediterranean for the first time in years made a long day of travelling worth it.
Montorosso is con artist. Everyone knows it but no one cares. Because, although it has more in common with Levanto than the other four Cinque Terre (nothing looks old or sprouts from the cliffs with a magical ambience), no one says anything because it’s the FUN one of this entourage of five. Long double fronted beaches decked with sunloungers and paddle boards remind visitors that it’s summer, you’re in Italy, and there’s an amazing sea you could be swimming in right now. Restaurants and bars line the promenade, music plays on the beach, and while there’s less charm here, there is plenty of excuse to while away the day relaxing in the sun.
Vernazza slaps you in the face with the charm Monterosso was missing. A substantial village on size but at the heart and centre is the seafront. An enclosed beach framed by an old stone church and piazza along with ample of seating along the amphitheatre like dock entices you to sit and enjoy the chilled vibes and a glass of local wine or two.
So here’s where I have a confession to make – I didn’t end up getting to Corniglia. Time, transportation, and the temptation of returning to Manarola got the better of me. In my first attempt the trains were off and I ended up getting a fast one which didn’t stop there, the second attempt involved a train brimmed full of way too many people it made a clown car look spacious (I had to escape on the first stop it was unbearable) and the third attempt was a non starter due to a train strike. As Corniglia is the only village on the clifftop and not in a valley, it’s unreachable by boat. While I’m sure it’s lovely, it was just not meant to be. However, viewing from the ferry meant I could see the perched splendour in full. I also like to leave at least one thing left undone everywhere I go so there’s always an excuse to return.
Manarola is my favourite of the Cinque Terre, where all the famous characteristics of the region come together perfectly. The little town is wedged into the hill side in a spherical cove, the houses a patchwork of vibrant colours, and the port snaking out into the sea providing ample room for a summer dip. Another great thing about Manarola is that the cliffside walk providing picture perfect panoramas back. There’s also a clifftop garden and bar to enjoy the vistas, including how magical it looks lit up at night. Throughout my trip I found myself finding excuses to come back to Manarola, including for a sunbathing session watching the cliff jumpers dive into the bay.
One of the biggest, and the last of the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore has all the charm of a traditional italian fishing village. Upon arriving at the train station, you travel through a tunnel in the cliffs and down stairs to reach to scenic port. Here you can climb up to admire the view, go for a dip, or enjoy one of the elevated dining spots. Inland, the town spirals up the hills with many shops and gelato gorging opportunities available.
Further south from the actual Cinque Terre sits Portovenere, an equally picturesque stop along the coastline. The ferry that serves the Cinque also runs down to Portovenere, offering a great day trip to explore the churches and castle along with a very pretty port. Here, colourful townhouses sit along the water and up the hills, offering a view over the sea and to the nearby islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto a ferry around which is included in the cost of the main day pass.
As you can see, the Cinque Terre and its two closest neighbours other a great opportunity to sample the best of the Italian coast. I spent all my time wandering, eating, sunbathing and swimming, and it was simply amazing.