Tucked away on the coastline above Pisa in the Liguria region of Italy, lies 5 villages which until quite recently, had been forgotten by much of the world. La Cinque Terre (which translates into “The 5 Lands”) is composed of the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
Having heard about this land of rugged coastal landscapes and distinctive coastal village buildings covered in traditional charm from a friend, I flew into Pisa for a long weekend, making the nearby town of La Spezia my base for exploring these 5 villages.
One of the transportation options to view and explore the villages is on a boat. Poor weather unfortunately meant that this option was unavailable to me which was a huge shame as this much more scenic option (when compared to the train) would’ve allowed me to view the coloured, stacked houses from sea, the way they were intended to have been viewed – looming, reinforced buildings acting at a deterrent to marauding attackers. Why the buildings were painted in pastel, warm colours however, I do not know!
Each village has a different take on the same concept of “pastel coloured buildings by the coast”. Manarola’s town is for instance, filled with boats, whilst Corniglia in inaccessible by boat due to its location being much higher up on the hillside (visitors have to walk up 365 steps to reach the town level).
Whilst Porto Venere is not strictly part of the Cinque Terre, I thought it to be just as good as the 5, if not better. This is a nearby town not to be missed by anyone who visits the area.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this area of Italy is famed with being the origin for the Italian bread, focaccia. With a population of only about 5000 locals spread across Cinque Terre, pretty much all of the restaurants and snack shops sold solely Italian food – not that I was complaining! Wafts of freshly baked bread, pizza and pastries were present throughout the towns.
Upon the recommendation of the lady I checked in with at the B&B, I actively sought to try some freshly baked regional breads, these being:
- farinata – flatbread made with chickpea flour
- focaccia – this came in plain, as well as an assortment of flavours from tomatoes, to herbs to meat
- panigatti (the spelling of which I am unsure of) – essentially flat bread, covered in soft cheese, with slices of ham and salami on top, folded into a wrap
Whilst we are on the subject of food, some other regional specialities I tried were:
- trofie with green pesto – trofie is thought to be the predecessor to modern day pasta as we know it and is made from either chestnut or wheat flour. Trofie is typically eaten with green pesto, another Ligurian specialty made from basil leaves, olive oil (extra virgin of course!), grated cheese, pine nuts and marjoram.
- fritelle di bianchetti – deep-fried anchovies, cuttlefish, prawns and calamari eaten as a snack
Walking along the towns, I am deeply aware of all the stone there is around me. The mountainside around the five towns are terraced with stone walls, painstakingly hand built over hundreds of years by locals. These serve two main purposes:
- Secure the towns against landslides – an ever-looming threat, the last major one of which happened quite recently in October 2011
- To allow the local farmers to access and cultivate the land
The area is now facing a long-term threat due to the declining interest from the younger generation in cultivating the land and maintaining the terraced stone walls. In part due to this, the Cinque Terre National Park was set up in 1999 to protect the area and the area has also been included in the World Monuments Watch which is covered by the World Monuments Fund. Cinque Terre is additionally a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Terraced, hillside walls aside, there were also numerous local churches, castles and buildings that we passed all made from stone.
As a region famed for its growth and cultivation of grapes and olives, some of its best products for export are, unsurprisingly, olive oil and wine. A particularly famous wine from the region is a dessert wine called Sciacchetrà. At a cost of €7 per glass, it wasn’t cheap, but very much worth every penny I paid for it. Whilst I should have accompanied my wine with something sweet, I opted instead for some focaccia pommodoro, baked I’m sure, with olive oil.
There is no point visiting Cinque Terre with a car. The centres of the towns are not accessible by cars, only walking trails, boats or a regional train. Unless you’re a particularly enthusiastic hiker (and there were plenty of those!) ready to spend the hours that it takes to hike from town to town (assuming the trails are open and not a landslide hazard!), most visitors who come tend to take the train or the boat to get around. The train is by far the cheapest and quickest way to explore the area, with relatively frequent trains coming and going from both directions.
As a result of this, it is common sight to see the old railway lines snaking its way along the coast, with a train rumbling by on it every so often. The sound of the train becomes almost comforting after a while, when you realise that the towns are so quiet that you’d otherwise hardly hear anything else but the sea.
Cinque Terre travel tips
- The 5 towns themselves are much more expensive to stay at compared to one of the other nearby towns such as La Spezia
- Travelling to the 5 towns is very quick and easy by train (La Spezia to Riomaggiore took all of 5 minutes). You will be able to explore all 5 towns in 2 days.
- It is not always easy dragging luggages from the train stations of the 5 towns to the centre of town so keep that in mind if you decide to stay in one of the 5 towns.
- A good way of exploring the area, if not by foot, is by buying a one way day ticket on the boat from Riomaggiore that allows you to drop on and off at your leisure, at each of the towns. You can then travel back in the evening from Monterosso by train. This allows you to take in the scenery of the coast as the train often goes through tunnels which means that you don’t get to see much when on it.
- If you have the opportunity to, be sure to visit Porto Venere. I found it to be one of the best towns, even though it isn’t strictly part of the “Cinque Terre”.