The Cinque Terre on Italy’s Ligurian coast has been popular with travelers well before Rick Steves made it his favorite destination and started “preaching” about it in the early 1980’s. I first experienced this area over 35 years ago and even then it was difficult to find a room in the busy period of August.
Cinque Terre literally means “Five Lands” which in this case refers to the five idyllic villages that cling to the very steep hillsides of this section of Italy’s coastline.
This region is called Liguria and borders Tuscany to the east, making it a great add-on to a Tuscan vacation. Pisa in Tuscany is a convenient entryway into both, Tuscany and the Cinque Terre. It has an international airport with direct flights from many European hubs such as Paris, Amsterdam and London. From Pisa, you can easily reach the Cinque Terre by train in just over an hour. You can also rent a car to get you to your destination village. However, since the village centers of the Cinque Terre towns are all car-free (except for supply and emergency vehicles), you’d have to leave your car outside of town in a parking lot.
Not allowing cars into the centers of the towns has helped preserve the charming village atmosphere that has changed little over the past decades. The colorful stucco facades of the homes and buildings of the villages are jumbled together, nestled into one another and cascade down the steep hillsides to the sometimes violent, sometimes tranquil Mediterranean Sea. In some of the villages you’ll find paths that are so steep that you may be deterred from braving them. But not to worry — in most cases you’ll be able to choose an alternative easier route to get to your destination.
All 5 villages are connected by a train line with frequent connections which allows you to move quickly between them.
Beginning in the west, the largest and busiest of the villages is Monterosso al Mare.
It features a delightfully colorful old town with great restaurants and shopping. It’s also the only one of the five villages with a sandy beach. This is the town we stay in with our Photography Travel Tour clients as it offers larger hotels to accommodate groups.
Vernazza is the next village down the train tracks from Monterosso. I often refer to it as “Ricksburg” or “Stevesville” as this is Rick Steves’ favorite village. We love it just as much but perhaps for different reasons. As photographers, we like Vernazza because it features a couple of exquisite vantage points for capturing the village from above. A short 20 to 30 minute hike up the path to either the east or the west, you will find wonderful angles for those classic Cinque Terre village images. Just look for the many other photographers setting up their tripods at sunset if you are uncertain of the great spots.
Cinque Terre is famous for its hiking paths that connect all five of the villages. The trails can be rocky and primitive, so sturdy walking shoes are imperative. Each season, injured hikers must be rescued off the trails — leave the flip-flops in your hotel room.
Even though a major flood in 2011 damaged many of the trails and some have still not been reopened, it’s possible to hike the whole length of the Cinque Terre in one day for those with a good level of fitness. An early start and hiking poles can be helpful. The beauty of hiking in the Cinque Terre is that you can pick and choose your sections. If you only want a relatively short outing, say from Vernazza to Monterosso, you have the option of hiking one way and taking the train or, weather permitting, a boat back to where you started out. And, as mentioned before, these trails are also great for photographers who don’t have to hike very far to quickly find wonderful vistas for iconic photos of the villages below.
Moving to the southeast beyond Vernazza we arrive in Corniglia, the only village of the five that is not situated at sea level. This village perches about 300 feet above the ocean. After departing the train, you have a choice of either walking up a road or climbing stairs with 382 steps to get to the town center. There is also a small bus that takes you from the train station up to the village, but it is often overcrowded. Most of the time we elect to leisurely walk up the road instead of taking the bus or the strenuous stairs. The stairs are great for coming back down, though, if your knees don’t complain. Corniglia is surrounded by rows and rows of grapes and terraces and by walking out into the vineyards we find great views of this quintessential Ligurian village — another great photo opportunity. Cornigila has a slightly different atmosphere than the other 4 villages. It is the smallest, the highest and most remote town and perhaps because of this, the quaintest. It is less crowed so it can be a welcome place to relax for a few hours while getting away from the large crowds that at times can get pretty overwhelming in the other villages. Plus, once you’ve made it up the hill, you’ll be rewarded with 2 fantastic Gelaterias (ice cream shops). You’ll also find many quaint restaurants for lunch, a well-deserved cappuccino or a snack and as in all 5 villages, many small stores where you can purchase fun souvenirs from elegant linen clothing, to lemon-scented soaps, jewelry, local spirits and postcards (remember those?).
The next destination to the southeast is Manarola. If you spend any amount of time in the Cinque Terre you will most likely find a village that is your favorite. It’ll be the one you call “home-away-from-home” and want to come back to again and again. For us, Manarola is the one. A few years ago, we stayed here for one week before our photo tour started, made friends with the locals and developed a routine of daily visits to our favorite coffee shop for excellent coffee and “brioche,” the tasty little croissants that, in combination with an espresso, are the “breakfast of champions” for many Italians. Check out the tiny but well-stocked Cinque Terre Trekking store for hiking gear and trekking maps or to hire a trekking guide and for a bit of gossip about the latest local political scandal. And say “hallo” to Christina, an American expat who owns the store together with her friendly Italian husband, Nicola. BTW, everybody here speaks at least a little bit of English. You won’t run into language problems.
We found that after a couple of visits to any of these villages, it does not take long to connect with the locals. You’ll find your favorite place to stay, the restaurant that has the freshest calamari, the coffee bar with the flakiest brioche and creamiest cappuccinos and when you go back the next year they may not remember your name but they certainly recognize your face and greet you warmly. Despite the influx of hordes of visitors the locals here are wonderfully welcoming and retain a sense of calm and cheerfulness. Our theory is that they are grateful to tourists as we make it possible for them to live and make a living in such a charming setting.
In our humble opinion, the vantage point from the path along the cliffs heading parallel to the water to the west of Manarola offers one of the most breathtaking photo ops in the world. We would rate it in the top 25. Yes, it gets photographed a lot, but for good reason. It is amazing! With our photo tour groups we arrive one hour before sunset, claiming our spots with our tripods to photograph the sunset but also, more importantly, the Blue Hour, which happens about 30 minutes past sunset. At this time, we get a great balance of the deep blue sky and warm artificial light from the village. With exposures up to 30 seconds long, a tripod is essential. To learn how to get best results during Blue Hour shooting, click here.
Less than 1 mile to the SE of Manarola we come to the last village of the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore. Before the 2011 flood, one could walk a coastal trail, the romantically named Via dell’ Amore (the Path of Love), from Manarola to Riomaggiore. This path was still closed earlier this year but hopefully the repairs will progress and the path will reopen for the 2016 season.
Our favorite way to arrive in Riomaggiore is from the sea. With our Cinque Terre Photo Tour groups we take the tourist boat from our home base in Monterosso. Approaching via the ocean we get a great photo opportunity of Riomaggiore, a rustic and over-the-top colorful village which climbs up the sides of a valley leading up into the mountains. The hillsides are covered with vineyards and you can sample some of the Cinque Terre’s best wines at “A Pie de Ma,” a magical little bar at the start of the Via Dell’ Amore, owned and operated by sommelier Yvonne Ricobaldi.
If you are looking for one more “must visit” destination for your bucket list, we would put the Cinque Terre up towards the top. It does not have to take a lot of time out of your holiday schedule, say 3 or 4 days to do it right, and it’s an easy addition to your trip to Italy.
We’d recommend that you plan your visit during the shoulder seasons if at all possible. All 5 villages get pretty overrun by European vacationers and international travelers during high season.
The Cinque Terre has UNESCO World Heritage and National Park status which have both guaranteed the preservation of the environment as well as the unique character of the 5 villages. We feel confident that once you’ve had a chance to visit, you will want to come back and stay longer.
Jim and Magrit have been photographing professionally and traveling in Europe for the past 20 years.
They started Photography Travel Tours in 2011 with the goal of educating and guiding photographers to some of the most beautiful and iconic scenes in Europe.
The tours are not just about getting great photographs but also have the side benefits of doing so in wonderful environments. Great food, wine, people, and ambiance.
Read more about Jim & Magrit and their wonderful photo tours here: (http://photographytraveltours.com/about/).
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.