In a word:
Cinque Terre is Italy’s no longer hidden gem in the Italian Riveria — and it happens to also be one of my all-time favorite places, despite the increasing crowds that flock there each year.
Cinque Terre is a series of five fishing villages, dating from the 11th century, that are situated along a rocky strip of Atlantic coastline in Northern Italy. They are so picturesque and perfectly preserved that they were collectively made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, and a national park in 1999.
My favorites are the three towns in the middle: Vernazza (above), Corniglia (below), and Manarola. They feel more charming and calm compared to resort-y Monterosso on the North end, and more work-a-day modern feeling Riomaggiore to the South. A rail line, as well as hiking paths, connect the five towns with the larger metro area of La Spezia, the city where cruise ships dock.
Tourism has steadily increased over the last 15 years, even after a major mudslide in 2011. We first came to Cinque Terre in 2010, and immediately fell in love with it’s car-free, medieval small town charm. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I returned a couple weeks ago in June 2015.
I was surprised to find it even more crowded than before, and happy that it has virtually made a full recovery from the mudslide — a couple hiking trails are technically still closed, but the closures are universally ignored by tourists and locals alike according to my hotelier at the family-run Albergo Barbara in Vernazza.
Hiking and swimming:
I’m constantly out of breath while hiking in Cinque Terre. In part its from from climbing over the ancient, terraced hillsides. But it’s also because the vistas are so stunning that when I take a break from hiking to take it all in, I suck air in a rush and hold it in anticipation without even realizing I’m doing it. All my senses are heightened. Leaves from vineyards dappled in Italian sun ruffle gently in the salt breeze, while waves crash against cliff sides far below.
When I do remember to breathe, the air tastes so fresh, it’s intoxicating.
As I continue onward and upward along the secondary trails that most tourists ignore, vineyards slowly give way to lush trees that dampen the sounds of the ocean and bring me further inland — soon I can hear and see only forest. Following the curves of the mountain, I notice that even among the trees there is evidence of medieval terraces from a forgotten time when the whole mountainside was cultivated and cared for. I remember that I am walking on paths that feet have trod for millennia, that these trails were once the main arteries connecting the five towns with each other and the other mountain hamlets up above.
As the trail begins to descend again, I catch a glimpse of a patchwork of bright colors. The next town. I feel like an explorer from the wild discovering civilization among an impossibly rugged coastline.
Once in the town, I grab some pizza from a restaurant’s to-go window and settle down on the warm black rocks of the jetty and watch kids jump off a nearby rock into the small bay. Fits of laughter are punctuated with screams as they geronimo off the miniature rock cliff — it’s a true babel of sounds with many languages mixed with the roar of the ocean.
After eating, I jump in too, and replace the salt from sweat with the salt of the seawater. I splash around for a while, then climb back out onto my rock and air dry while watching the sun set, before taking the train back.
Tips to avoid the crowds:
Most of Cinque Terre’s crowds are day-trippers from cruise ships in La Spezia and bus tours from Florence and Milan. Literally thousands of people come into town just for the day.
To avoid these crowds spend only your evenings, nights, and early mornings in the towns. During the day, pack yourself a picnic of focaccia and fruit and hike the trails above for stunning views.
— Laura Rowley