Cinque Terre, which means Five Lands, comprises the five small coastal villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso located in the Italian region of Liguria. They are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Over the centuries, people have carefully built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Part of its charm is the lack of visible corporate development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside.
Le Cinque Terre
Riomaggiore is the southern-most of the 5 Terre. During the day you can hear bell towers chiming and at night the frogs are in frenetic chatter as small boats go night fishing for anchovies and other fish using lights to attract the fish. Riomaggiore also has an ancient stone castello, about which little has been written. An information sign outside explains that first mention of the castello appeared in a document from the mid-500s, which already described it as “ancient”. Its quadrangular walls with two circular towers were built to protect the citizens in case of an attack from the sea. In 800, the castello became a cemetery, and parts were destroyed to adapt it to its new function. Nowadays it is one of the monuments of the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. Most of the action in Riomaggiore is on the main street, Via Colombo, where there is an assortment of cafes, bars, restaurants, and of course, gelaterie. There are also alimentari shops selling the typical yummy Italian fare: fresh fruit (strawberries, cherries, and nespole), an assortment of salumi (salami, mortadella and the like), cheeses, olives, etc. These are good places to stock up for the hikes into the hills, although all of them are not very far from a town. Bar & Vini, perched on the side of the mountain above the sea, is excellent place for a summer night. The place had the usual mix of tourists and local families with their kids, even well into the night.
Manarola is a town filled with boats, at least on the lower part of it. Covered boats of all kinds line the main street, but it is hard to say when they had last been out. There are many lovely places to eat and drink in Manarola. La Cantina Dello Zio Bramante serves acciughe (anchovies) fresh from the sea, with lemon, olive oil, and fresh, crusty bread. Aristide Café had the cheapest espressi macchiatti (70 cents), the first bar encountered if walking from Riomaggiore (a paved, easy, path that goes by the sea, and takes about 15 minutes or so). It turns out that Manarola also has the best gelateria of all the towns: 5 Terre Gelateria e Creperia, on Antonio Discovolo next to the Farmacia which is next to the COOP 5 Terre. Manarola also has a nice little swimming area. It’s a little cement pier next to some big rocks that you can wade out from, into the blue blue waters. It gets deep fast, so it’s possible to dive off the end of the pier. Plenty of caves and coastline to explore, and underwater rocks. There are also a few more swimming holes farther on, accessible from the Blue Trail, not far from the gate beyond which the trail pass is required. There are stairs going all the way down to sea level, and a small little terrace about half-way down with picnic tables where you can see locals enjoying a simple lunch. There are lots of sharp mussels and barnacles down by the rocks, but otherwise the swimming is fantastic here too, without many people.
Corniglia: Farther along the Blue Trail there is a stone beach that offers much easier access to the water, and also more people. At the Corniglia train station, the path gains height to reach the town, the only one not near sea-level. The road passes lemon trees, vines, lilies and vegetation of all kinds, and in May the air is full of the perfume of flowers.
Corniglia feels smaller and quieter, but just as quaint as the other towns. Bar Nunzio serves 2e glasses of local wine—with a complementary bowl of local olives— under some yellow umbrellas near the statue of Corniglia himself. There is a little piazza with a communal olive press where you can sit and pass the time. There is also a tower, but it is not very high.
As Corniglia is atop a large hill, it is only reachable from the train station by either climbing the 365 steps up the hill (“one for each day of the year”) or also there is a bus run by the Cinque Terre National park that takes people up to Corniglia and back down again. This is a must if you are carrying suitcases. The bus only runs from 7am – 8pm, and starts at 8am on the weekends.
The Blue Trail from Corniglia to Vernazza, the next town to the north, is a dirt path that starts off in an olive grove above the town. It keeps climbing and things get a bit sweaty and steep in some places, with many stone steps and a few switchbacks. Nothing too strenuous though. The trail along the sea affords great backwards views of both Corniglia and Manarola. Vernazza is approached from above and its two ancient towers are in prominent view (they close at 19:00). The town itself has a maze of tiny streets that eventually lead down to the main street. At first sight, Vernazza seems a little rundown. The paint on the buildings around the beach area is peeling off in large sections, but don’t let that put you off. Vernazza is lively and boisterous and has a great night scene, two clock towers, a beach, boats, and a large public space with umbrellas and tables. The beach area is a small sandy strip that is not the best swim spot (there is only a small section of water roped off for swimming, beyond which are boats and then the open sea), but it is safe for kids and free of sharp bivalves.
You can spend the evening having wine along the main street below the train station, lounging on a quiet bench above the town beside hotel Gianni overlooking the sea, or by the sea, watching the mountainous coastline zigzag in and out, hiding Monterosso.
Monterosso is built to accommodate many tourists in large, modern apartments and hotels. It doesn’t have quite the same charm as the other towns, but it does have a quite a large sandy beach with lots of colourful umbrellas, and of course, beach-side restaurants and cafes. The backstreets of Monterosso are not as interesting as in the other towns. Not to be missed at the end of the beach is a big statue holding a terrace.
The main attraction of the Cinque Terre is the landscape. Mediterranean herbs and trees grow spontaneously from the top of the hills down to the water level. Well embedded in this magnificent natural scenery, one can admire the intense human activity of the ancestors, when the wine terraces were built. An enormous (and somehow crazy) work of transportation, carrying all the heavy stones on men’s shoulders and women’s heads. A work through the centuries, in fact it’s estimated to have taken about 200 years to build the entire stone-wall network. Its total length has been calculated to be at least equal to the Great Wall of China.
Tourists can enjoy the scenery described above, walk through the towns (or between them) or hiking on the paths and enjoying the local atmosphere.
Depending on the time of the year there are some specific things to see:
- The lighted Nativity in Manarola (Dec. 8th till late Jan.). The world’s biggest Lighted nativity.
- The patron festivity of the 5 towns (all between late May and Aug.), a mix of religious ceremony and popular parties.
- The pirates attack in Vernazza (mid summer), a celebration of the successful defence of the town from a Saracen attack occurred during the middle age.
- The harvest (early/mid Sept.) and wine making, when men’s shoulders and women’s heads are still used as they were hundreds of years ago.
- The sea storms (frequent in winter), a great show of nature’s power.
It is possible to swim in the sea at each of the villages. Almost every year the Cinque Terre Marine Reserve vies for the top of the Blue Flag Beach list of Italy. There are two large sandy beaches at Monterosso, a small sandy beach at the harbor of Vernazza, and pebble beaches near Riomaggiore and Corniglia. Off the beaten path there are pebble beaches in Framura and Bonasola just 20 minutes away on the train. You can swim off rocks at the small harbors at Manarola (which has a very nice and deep swimming hole) and Riomaggiore. Corniglia’s small harbor is reached by a long staircase leading down to the sea. It is probably the quietest swimming spot of all the five lands because of this.
When grapevines and olive trees cover the hillsides, wine and oil are a must on our tables. They prove excellent companions for the salted anchovies of Monterosso served in olive oil as well as the many specialty fish dishes, authentic gastronomic delights.
The cuisine of the Cinque Terre almost perfectly conserves the characteristics of yesteryear; the respect for the flavors and fragrances of the primary ingredients. Trofie is a kind of pasta made from chestnut or wheat flour and is one of the forefathers of modern and more sophisticated pasta. Its condiment is still pesto sauce; an original Ligurian sauce made from basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, grated cheese, pine nuts, and marjoram. Tagliatelle, a broad handmade pasta, is used with sauces that contain mushrooms, cabbage and potatoes, beans, chickpeas or sometimes with pesto.
Vegetable pies, ‘torte di verdura’ are prepared with a stuffing containing borage (borago officinalis), parsley, marjoram, other local herbs that grow wild, artichokes, swiss chard, zucchini, potatoes, and leeks are combined with egg and ricotta cheese or with stale bread soaked in milk or béchamel sauce (depending on each family’s traditions), parmesan cheese. The pie crust is very thin, because flour was a very precious commodity.
Rice pie, or ‘torta di riso’ is a specialty of every grandma in the region. In Monterosso this rice pie was made even more delectable by adding a bit of dried mushrooms to the filling. In Manarola, the tradition is to make this dish for the feast of the patron saint Saint Lawrence on August 10th.
Egg ‘frittate’, or flat omelettes, are popular today as the ‘frittata’ has been rediscovered as a tasty antipasto. Another important dish on the tables of the Cinque Terre population was the ‘cotoletta di acciuga’, anchovies stuffed with a breadcrumb based filling and then fried. The ‘fritelle di bianchetti’, fritters made from tiny newborn anchovies or sardines were also highly appreciated. Following the seamen’s gastronomic traditions, other dishes included stewed cuttlefish, stuffed calamari and spiced octopus.
Mussels, another protected designation of origin product from the Gulf of La Spezia are prepared in a variety of ways: stuffed, stewed, baked.
Farinata, like a focaccia but made with chickpea flour. A regional speciality.
Pizzeria Fratelli Basso on via Roma is one of only two places in town where you can eat farinata—like a focaccia but made with chickpea flour. The wood-fired pizzeria down the road will make it if they don’t have any left.
- La Grotta
- Via Dell’Amore (across the railway station, their ‘tourist menus’ are actually quite OK)
- Restaurant Il Porticciolo
- Da Billy
- Marina Piccola
- 5 Terre Gelateria e Creperia for extraordinarily delicious gelato
- Sa Pesta (Sa Pesta). A tiny little restaurant tucked in the old city, mostly frequented by locals. Sa Pesta has a long history of serving traditional Genovese food. Get the trofie al pesto, as well as some of their fresh baked farinata or other tortas. Go for lunch around 12:30 to get a table.