Close your eyes and picture your most enchanting dream, a place where you’ve longed to go but can only do that in a dream. Are you there? Its perfect, sands beneath the soles of your feet, sweet sea breeze, the azure blue ocean stretches as far as the eyes can see. Ice cream, lots of ice cream, more laughs than you can imagine, happy people all around you, vibrancy and colour, grumpy old ladies hanging out their washing, grumpier old men watching us tourists trample about their quaint town. Happiness captured in this one place. For a long time I have wanted to visit the Cinque Terre. Listen, it is my mission in life that I do all of Italy. I love Italy and as I often say to anyone who cares to listen, I am convinced I was Italian in my past life. Everything about this country resonates with me, from the food to the culture, the people and the history… the passion the sips from every cobble, every pore. Even on the cloudiest of days, Italy can never lose its charm.
One day out of our time in Florence we hopped on a bus and train to Cinque Terre the five terraced towns perched on the rugged hills of the Italian riviera, two hours outside of Florence. With its colourful houses, winding roads, that lead to and from the beach, steep hills for amazing views and some of the most beautiful sunsets, it is easy to see why Cinque Terre is a big draw for tourists and has become something of an it destination for travellers across Europe. It has attracted more than its fair share of travellers, so much so, the authorities are planning a quota system to reduce the amount of visitors from 2.5 million and counting, to 1.5 million. To understand this you have to visit, all through the year, even when its low season there are no shortage of tourists, my instagram feed alone says enough about how many people traipse to the terraces every year. Buts its a jolly lovely place, so can we really be blamed. Cinque Terre, five lands borne of settlers who moved to the cliff side to make a home for themselves, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The towns are idyllic and charm abundant. It is not enough to hear about it, you have to see them to believe it.
Yes it’s overrun with tourists. Yes it can get very busy, especially in peak season- what tourist destination isn’t? It couldn’t be worse than Harrods in high summer, ok maybe a little bit. And yes there is a lot of hype about the five towns, but nothing can take away from the raw beauty of Cinque Terre. Fact. Of the five towns we visited four, Corniglia is atop the highest hill, four hundred steps up and I know she will have killer views but that will have to wait for my next visit. Getting into Cinque Terre is easy from Florence, you have to get there via La Spezia where you take a train to the nearest town depending on your origin of travel. Our first stop was Manarola, the older of the five town. Its a small town that you can get through in a couple hours, quieter and more reserved of the five. It is easy to dismiss it being the first town, but don’t. Walk up hill if you can to the iconic San Lorenzo church, built in 1338, and enjoy the breath taking views of the town. It is also quite a quiet town so mind the locals who are already having to deal with too many tourists trampling through, they are nice enough but mind yourself still. Do take waterproof shoes or converse-like shoes. I did a silly thing by wearing sandals and had to buy some fugly water proof shoes. Uh huh.
Riomaggiore is a little more buzzy with its little beach and harbour, but lacks nothing in charm despite its busy-ness. It is also the culprit for that famous cloister of colourful houses on a cliff that peppers Instagram, signature Cinque Terre. As you go from town to town it gets busier with group tours moving from one to the other. You can walk between the towns to get from one to the other, but we opted for the trains and boat ride. The walk around Riomaggiore is pleasant and its of a quainter feel to Manarola, just by a nose hair really, because each town is unique as they are familiar.
We sailed past Corniglia as we went from Riomaggiore to Monterosso. Corniglia is situated at the apex of the five terraces- 400 steps takes you up there and I would imagine it would be worth it for the views, so maybe next time.
Monterosso del Mare is the busiest of the five towns, split between the old and the new with a very pretty beach that runs the length of it. You can access both parts of the town via a tunnel. Although its the busiest, it was still relatively easier to navigate. As you make your way to the beach on either side of town, don’t miss the beauty of the promenade and the colourful buildings that face the sea. Stop by the little shop and send yourself a postcard to remember your time in this charming town. Whilst sitting on the beach look out for Il Gigante a giant stone statue built in the image of Neptune, we were informed by a local, complete with a trident and sea shell to ward off the waves of the sea. He was sculpted by Arrigo Minerbi in 1910 overlooking the ocean as a decorative edifice for the Villa Pastine but quickly became a symbol of Monterosso. During the war, Il Gigante was bombed and lost his arms, over the years it has suffered ruin from the elements but still remains a charming part of history today. It freaked me out to look up at him so I only dared once; I don’t like statues you see. This is a good spot to sit and immerse yourself in your own company. And the stone giant. The old buildings and stores that line the beach front only add to the charm of the town. Oh stop there for ice-cream as always Italians do it best. Fact.
Our last stop before heading back to Florence was Vernazza, and I wish we had more time to spend there, it has a “high street”, that leads right up to the beach square and bay. More colourful houses perch right not the cliffs facing the ocean, a beautiful bay perfect for people watching, with a harbour and vineyards. The most delicious Canolis from Il Pirata just a short hop away from the station to the left. You can also take the stairs from her to Corniglia if you are so inclined. Vernazza is also a busy town, but the buzz captured its element, like the others it has the brightly painted terraced houses, boats lining its harbour, a rocky and romantic shoreline where people camp out or go for a dive in the deep blue sea. I love the atmosphere in Vernazza from both tourists and locals.
It is hard to say which of the four (five) is my favourite but each one holds its own unique charm. I would imagine Cinque Terre is charming all year round so pick a quiet time of the season to truly enjoy this delightful piece of heritage. And be quiet.