Let me get this straight. Coming to the Cinque Terre was never my idea. I’m putting this solely at my sister’s feet.
A few years ago she told me she had a new item for her bucket list. Cinque Terre National Park with its sky high paths winding alongside a rugged rocky coast that connects five ancient seaside villages.
What struck me right away was the amount of tourists here ready to do the whole hike, with their sensible boots, lightweight backpacks, and special hi-tech walking sticks. They were prepared.
Now we on the other hand where the ones with the overstuffed suitcases – one even had a renegade wheel and would screech mercilessly.
Yes, it is true that we had been working out before leaving for Phase I of the Marco Polo tour but it is also true that Adriane had the advantage on me because I simply was a little less motivated getting off the sofa then she was, and was consequently packing a few extra pounds – in the suitcase as well. Adding to my lack of enthusiasm was a case of Achilles tendinitis that was still flaring up.
But then she did something that stopped all my protestations. She showed me a photo.
And everything changed.
When our Marco Polo trail found us in Genoa, Italy, we couldn’t miss it. Two of the five villages are registered as the most beautiful in Italy. All had their own special character and spirit—oh yes, the area is well known for its white wines, lemons, basil, seafood, and my favorite, pesto sauces.
We were about to witness some of the most breathtaking views on this planet.
The Cinque Terre is a part of the Riviera du Levante and a World Unesco site. Hikers come from all over the world to walk along the Sentiero Azzurro “the Blue Path”. The sweeping views of the coastline, secret beaches, green terraced vineyards, and brightly colored buildings perched on the sides of cliffs all seem to defy gravity as if they were woven of some ancient magic.
We caught the train from Genoa to La Senza and then rode the regional train which runs every few minutes and connects the villages.
We choose to start at the village furthest away from where we were staying in Genoa and work our way back.
We got lost as soon as we left the station in Riomaggiore. What hope did we have, I wondered, of finding five villages when we couldn’t find our way out of the station. Even armed with two maps from the Parks Office we were still stopping to ask people how to get to the trail.
Eventually the beauty of Riomaggiore won us over and we stopped caring where we were, because we were exactly where we had to be.
We climbed to the top of the village and stopped at an old church. One of the villagers invited us to a feast they were having that day, he looked down at my running shoes when we told him our plans, and sadly shook his head. The church bells rang ominously.
Riomaggiore is the largest villages and here is where the main Cinque Terre National Park office is located. Fishing is a mainstay here and we wanted to try the sardines they are famous for but it was early so a croissant and a coffee at one of many tiny outdoor cafes would do for now.
Next stop was Manarola, older than Riomaggiore, and believed to have been here in Roman times.
We followed the main street of Manarola. Fishing boats are parked right downtown. A dramatic harbor with dark rocks beckons, below people are swimming, and the houses glow with a soft pastel light.
Manarola is on a registry of most beautiful small villages of Italy. It was a photo of Manarola that Adriane showed me that swayed me.
The small sleepy village high above the sea of Corniglia was next – and we truly felt that time had stopped here. When you leave the railway station you can either climb the 382 steps of the Lardarina stairway, walk along a paved road, or do what we did, take the bus and save your feet for more exploring.
I had the best gelato in my life here. Homemade lemon and basil – both ingredients grown locally here.
I didn’t want to leave Vernazza. The village is registered among the most beautiful small villages of Italy. In the early days it was a maritime power as ships ran from here to the Republic of Genoa and other countries. The sea port brought economic wealth which you can see in the architecture.
Because of its harbour, Genoa protected Vernazza against Saracens, and barbarians by building castles and bastions which you can still see. A major flood in 2011 devastated the town but the community came together and rebuilt.
This is a beautiful village where I wanted to just sit in the harbour and people watch all day. But there was still one more village to visit.
I regretted not packing my bathing suit when we got to Monterose al mare. Its long sandy beach set along the azure sea beckoned. This is a family friendly village for all fitness levels as it is the easiest to get around in. A walk along the promenade was a delight. As well here is where you can walk out and see the other four villages in the distance.
The historic centre is lovely and we had a delicious dinner of pasta and pesto at another tiny outdoor café run by a charming Italian who never stopped talking.
Watch out for redheads. The name means “Mountain of the ginger-haired” in honour of a family with red hair that ruled the village. Pirates and barbarians often attacked these villages. Perhaps a few Vikings stayed?
I know I would!
There are many ways to visit this area. You can stay for a few days or you can make it about your personal best and do the trail network in a day. Either way, it will be unforgettable. Please make sure you do your research beforehand, as some of the paths are much harder than others as well we found a few were closed. We suggest a visit to the National Park office and website for details.
We only had a day before we were heading off to Venice so we decided that rather than spend all day hiking we would explore each of the villages via the Regional train and hike the coastal path from Manarola to Corniglia. We got a ways down before discovering that it was closed due to a rock slide.
“Ahhh, that silent prayer I had said back in Riomaggiore may have worked,” I said, but felt guilty upon seeing the look of disappointment on Adriane’s face.
“Never mind,” I said. “It just means we will have to come back again.”
But this time we will be ready…with our sensible boots, lightweight backpacks, and special hi-tech walking sticks.