In the past few years, every time people would ask me recommendations about visiting Cinque Terre, I would always tell them: “Don’t go”.
It’s not that I don’t like Cinque Terre, I think they are one of the most beautiful areas in my region – and in Italy in general – but going there had recently become impossible. And it’s probably because I like Cinque Terre so much that I have always told people to avoid them: I didn’t want them to be disappointed by such a marvelous place.
Cinque Terre have always been a very popular tourist destination but in the last ten years or so, they have been included in the itinerary of the cruises stopping in Genoa and La Spezia and this has meant numerous guided tours visiting the tiny villages on a daily basis, making it even impossible to walk down the streets sometimes.
I had heard so many people being disappointed by their visit to Cinque Terre that every time someone would ask me if they should spend some time there, I’d always tell them to go somewhere else unless they were able to visit in winter – and possibly not at the weekends.
the terrace at our Airbnb location in Castè
But Covid19 changed everything and Cinque Terre made no exception. Cruises have been stopped and only tourists from Europe and few other countries are admitted to Italy nowadays, making tourist places less crowded. People started saying that it was a perfect time for us Italians to visit tourist places because they were empty for the first time in ages and my mind immediately went to Cinque Terre: I had never been able to see them in summer, maybe this was the right time.
And so we planned a few days there.
Being the first weekend in August, I was worried it was a bit too crowded anyway and, since I like quiet places, I decided to look for a place to stay outside Cinque Terre but still close to the area. While I was looking for a place on Airbnb, I came across a lovely country house which seemed the perfect place for us: quiet, secluded but just 15 minutes from La Spezia, from where you can get the train to Cinque Terre.
This random find led us to discover a magical place: the house was in Castè, a tiny village in the woods behind Riomaggiore, one of the villages in Cinque Terre. What makes Castè special is that it is a Medieval village with stone houses perched on a hill. In summer, there are 25 people living there but only 6 of them remain to spend the winter.
the vineyards overlooking the sea above Riomaggiore
The residents have become a sort of big family and every year they manage to organize a theatre and music festival and lots of art exhibitions, keeping the place alive and full of visitors. From there, you can walk 1 hour and 40 minutes to Riomaggiore or drive to La Spezia and get the train that takes you to Cinque Terre.
The first day we felt brave and decided to hike the trail that takes you to Riomaggiore in a little less than two hours. Walking a couple of hours didn’t seem much to us but we forgot one important detail: the difference in height. The trail was really steep and it was incredibly hot but the view was breathtaking and getting to Riomaggiore from way up above, walking amidst the vineyards, was exciting.
Riomaggiore is the easternmost village of Cinque Terre and one of the most visited ones, due to its location. It’s probably my most favorite because the very tiny harbor with its colorful houses and just a handful of boats is a sight I will never get tired of. You can walk up and down its steep alleys and stairs and always be amazed by the views.
the iconic view of Riomaggiore harbor
Besides the harbor, some other nice spots are the church of San Giovanni Battista and its little square and the castle, from where you can get lovely views of the village and the coast. If you feel brave, you can hike up to the Santuario di Nostra Signora di Montenero for even more breathtaking views.
Riomaggiore is connected to the next village via La via dell’amore, a path overlooking the sea that is just one kilometer long and a very easy walk. Unfortunately, it’s been closed for years due to a massive landslide and the only other option, if you want to walk, is another path that is way higher. We didn’t want to put our legs to a test and so we decided on the easiest option: the train.
In just five minutes, the train takes you to Manarola, an even tinier village – it has only 300 inhabitants – which is famous for its winter nativity scene: it is the biggest nativity scene in the world and it is set up on a hill facing the village. If you visit in the summer, you can eat a delicious fish lunch in one of its famous restaurants, enjoy a refreshing swim in the clear-blue sea or spend time watching the locals dive off the rocks.
We didn’t spend much time in Manarola, though, because we still had to hike back to our place – under a scorching sun, I would never recommend it. This is why, the day after, we opted for a way easier option and drove to La Spezia to catch the train which would take us to Monterosso al Mare, the westernmost and largest village in the area.
Monterosso is less unique than the other villages in Cinque Terre but it is definitely full of charm. The sea is still as crystal clear as in the rest of the area but there you can rent an umbrella and a deck chair and have a way more relaxing beach experience if compared to the narrow cliffs of the other villages. It is a typical Ligurian village, with little alleys, colorful houses, and tiny squares.
The main sights are the church of San Giovanni Battista, with its black and white striped facade (typical of Liguria), the convent up on the hills, with lovely views, and the statue of Neptune, which is what remains of the elegant Villa Pastine, destroyed by bombings during World War II. We walked a bit around the streets of Monterosso, had some great bruschetta for lunch, and then went for another great experience: the ferry to Vernazza.
a view of the beach in Monterosso al Mare
Taking the ferry is a great way to see the coast and all the villages from afar. Since the ferry stops at every village, you can see each of them and get a perfect idea of their location. The ferry doesn’t cover Cinque Terre only but goes to Portovenere and the Gulf of Poets, another beautiful area that is absolutely worth seeing – and seeing it from the sea is really special.
Anyway, we stopped in Vernazza, which is possibly the most picturesque village of Cinque Terre. The main square is right by the harbor and is lined with cute little restaurants and bars, and then there is the Romanic church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, right by the sea, which is one of the most fascinating churches I have ever seen.
We could have spent way more time in Vernazza, just sitting at a bar and doing some serious people-watching or strolling up and down its alleys but we had to go back to La Spezia: this time we took the ferry because we wanted to enjoy some more views of the coast.
the church in Vernazza
Actually, as the name clearly says, Cinque Terre consists of five villages but we skipped one: Corniglia. The ferry doesn’t stop there, there is no harbor, and you have to walk 400 steps from the train station to get to the village: for some reason, both my laziness and the lack of time have always led me to skip it.
This is very bad of me, also because I have a feeling that – being so overlooked by tourists – it can actually be a very interesting place. This is why we decided to spend a weekend there in the fall!