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The Cinque Terre - Five Villages in Liguria
The Cinque Terre (pronounced CHEEN-kweh TEHR-reh) is the name given to five small villages along the eastern Ligurian coast. Cinque means "five", terre means "lands": Five Lands. The villages from north to south are:
Four of the five villages are at the bottom of steep hills that run down to the sea. Corniglia sits on a cliff about a thousand feet above the sea. Until the 1960's, these villages were not accessible by road, so they remained isolated. This all changed when the road was built, but the villages still have an "old world" feel. They are very small towns, full of interesting old buildings and narrow pedestrian lanes. Cars are not allowed in most areas of the villages.
You can reach the Cinque Terre easily by car or train. If you are driving, I recommend that you park at one end of the Cinque Terre (either Riomaggiore or Monterosso al Mare) and travel between the towns by foot, train or boat (see below for more information).
I first heard of the Cinque Terre in an article in Travel + Leisure magazine in 1990. The author and his wife went to Liguria and, on the first day, did such a strenuous hike from Portovenere to the first Cinque Terre town, that his wife refused to do more and he had to do the rest of the hike alone. The travel writer Rick Steves discovered the Cinque Terre and wrote about it in his Italy travel guides.
Probably because of Rick Steves, the Cinque Terre is overrun by American tourists (mostly young Americans), but you will also see many Germans (there must be a German version of Rick Steves) and Italians in this area. The towns have been changed forever by the huge numbers of tourists that come for about six months of the year. The trail between the towns is so well used that you never walk for more than five minutes without seeing others on the trail. In spite of all this, the Cinque Terre is one of the nicest places we have ever been.
The Cinque Terre town of Vernazza, seen from the trail
On our 1997 trip we were staying for three nights in Camaoire and wanted to go to Portovenere because it is famous for its cats (that was before we found out that most villages are full of cats and that Italian cats are not like our cats at home - they are more neglected and wild). But, we took a wrong turn and ended up in the first Cinque Terre town - Riomaggiore. I didn't want to go to Cinque Terre because everyone goes there. "Too touristy," I said. Still, we were there, so we parked, wandered around the town, had a fabulous lunch and left. Ever since I have wanted to go back. So on our June 2000 trip, we booked a vacation rental in Trebiano (near Lerici) because it is close to the Cinque Terre. On that trip we spent two days in the Cinque Terre and did the hike, and had a lovely time. For our September 2003 trip, we booked 1 1/2 weeks in an apartment in Levanto, the next town north of the Cinque Terre towns.
The Cinque Terre Trail
There are two sets of trails that connect the Cinque Terre towns; route 1 which goes high above the towns and route 2 which goes between the towns closer to the sea. Route 1 also connect Portovenere on the south and Levanto on the north to the Cinque Terre. You can easily walk between the Cinque Terre towns on the lower route in one day. It takes about 5 - 6 hours. See the page on the Cinque Terre Trails for more information.
Driving to the Cinque Terre
You can drive to Riomaggiore from the south or to Monterosso al Mare from the north. You can even drive between them all now, but when we tried this, we got very lost and ended up going inland (and gave up). My TCI road atlas shows a big road connecting the villages from above, but I was told that is a "projected" road, not an existing road. The Tourist map (to the right) is more detailed and shows the connecting roads.
The roads that do connect the villages are narrow and winding and go along a steep hillside. The best way to visit the villages is by foot (on the trails connecting them), by train or by boat.
The Cinque Terre is off the A12 Autostrada that runs north and south along the coast from Genoa to Livorno. You have two approaches: you can go to the town on the northern end, Monterosso al Mare, or the town on the southern end, Riomaggiore.
Driving to Monterosso al Mare
To get to the northernmost town, Monterosso al Mare, is an easier drive that to Riomaggiore. If you want to do part of the walk, this starts with the longest section - 2 hours to Vernazza. Monterosso is a nice town, but it is not built into the cliffs like the other towns, so is not so dramatically beautiful.
Directions: Exit from the A12 at Carrodano-Levanto. Take the direction west to Levanto. Before you go into Levanto take a left towards Monterosso (or Cinque Terre); there is a sign. This road takes you right into the town.
Parking: In Monterosso al Mare it is also easy to find the parking lot. The road comes in to the northern edge of the town and the parking lot is a big dirt field (fenced) on your right, by the water's edge. There is an attendant here, but no restrooms. In June 2000, it cost us the equivalent of about $6 to park for 7 hours in the middle of the day.
Driving to Riomaggiore
To get to the southernmost town, Riomaggiore, is a trickier drive. You have to make your way through the city of La Spezia. Riomaggiore is a beautiful town, built right into the cliffs. It has the easiest walk to the next town, 30 minutes on a paved walkway.
Directions: Exit from the A12 at La Spezia. A main road (part of the Autostrada) takes you straight into town. It ends at Viale Italia. Turn on this busy, main street in the direction of Cinque Terre or Portovenere (you will see signs). The town will be on your right and the port on your left.
This next part can be a bit tricky. Keep driving with the water on your left until you are forced to take a sharp right because the road ends. You have to drive around a port area. When you come to Viale N. Fieschi, you take a sharp left. This street goes around the end of the port area and then takes a sharp left and goes south along the edge of the port area.
In a short time, you will see an exit to your right for Cinque Terre where you have to go up a ramp-like road. The road you are on goes straight along the water and ends up at Portovenere. To get to the Cinque Terre, take the exit to the right going up this hill. (From this point it is 14 km to Riomaggiore and 12 km to Portovenere.)
Follow this road as it winds up over the hill and then down the other side to the Cinque Terre. Exit from this road into the southern most town of Riomaggiore. The last mile down to the town is hair-raising. It is a very narrow road that creeps along the edge of a cliff. You drive straight into the multi-level parking lot at the top of the town.
Parking: You cannot miss the parking lot in Riomaggiore. It is at the end of the road. The parking lot is 5 levels (all covered except the top level) and is straight ahead. An attendant gives you a ticket. There are restrooms in the parking lot. In June 2000, it cost us the equivalent of about $10 to park for 7 hours in the middle of the day.
Tickets for the Trains and Trails
You are now are required to pay to walk the trails in the Cinque Terre. Manned booths are set up on the trail outside of each Cinque Terre town. You have two options.
The Cinque Terre towns have many good restaurants. We had an excellent lunch in Vernazza at Gambero Rosso, sitting outside under umbrellas on the main square overlooking the sea.
Gambero Rosso Ristorante
Also recommended in Vernazza:
Picking up a Rental Car near the Cinque Terre
If your first destination in Italy is the Cinque Terre, you can get there by train and pick up your rental car after leaving the area, because you do not need a car in this area.
Be careful where you decide to pick up your car. Jean from MI picked up her car in Viareggio and was not pleased with the service or the car she got (they had several mechanical problems).
> Jean from MI, October 2001: We picked up our rental car in Viareggio because it has an office in the train station and it was open on Saturday morning. I wouldn't recommend this for others. Because it is such a small office, there is only one person in the office and our car was not serviced. I mentioned some of the car problems we had in my trip report so I won't repeat them. However, I think we might have had better luck renting in a larger office which might be more organized. The location worked for us, though, since we were able to hop on the Autostrada and head into Tuscany.
Slow Travel Photos: Photos of our lunch at Gambero Rosso in Vernazza
Travel Notes - Liguria: Cinque Terre trails
Travel Notes - Liguria: Levanto trails
www.cinqueterreonline.com: Cinque Terre Online, some local information
www.5terre.com: The 5 Terre Network, lists of local businesses
www.fishnet.it: Non-commercial site with real information about the Cinque Terre
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