Cinque Terre

The town of Manarola

La Cinque Terre, or "the five lands", are five small, isolated fishing villages scattered along a steep, rocky section of coastline on Italy's Ligurian coast. The miniature towns are jewels strung together by the railway and by the steep, winding path that connects them.

The area is located approximately half way between Genoa and Pisa, just off the A12 motorway (equivalent to an interstate highway in the U.S.) It is about a one hour drive from Genoa, and about six and one half hours from Rome.

The villages are, from southeast to northwest, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. Only Riomaggiore and Monterosso are large enough to appear on the Michelin red map of Europe. They are also the only ones accessible by car. To reach the others, you must either take the local train, or walk.

Monterosso al Mare is the largest and most modern of the five. It boasts a good sized public beach, a "business district" and streets with cars and traffic. The other four seem almost as though they could be locked in a time before cars took over the world. They are very compact, consisting of only a few narrow streets connected by alleys that at times turn into stairways.

Corniglia perched above the sea.

Each is filled with narrow, pastel-painted stucco buildings, usually two or three stories high, with contrasting doors and shutters. There are a few stores and restaurants, but most of the buildings are residences. Corniglia is located on a hilltop, but Riomaggiore, Manarola and Vernazza are old fishing villages, each clustered about its miniscule harbor.

The best way to see the Cinque Terre is on foot. Some of the most spectacular views of each town are from the high points on the footpath between them. The path is narrow and steep, in places becoming a set of stone stairs ascending a sharp slope. But for the hardy hiker it offers beautiful views of the coast as it winds through olive groves, vineyards, and scrubby pine forests. There are also striking views of each of the small towns, generally from above as the trail climbs out of one rocky inlet and over a ridge before descending into the next.

Entering Vernazza from the trail

The train passes through each of the five villages, but it isn't good for sightseeing. Along much of this section of the coast, the rails are in tunnels more than they are in the open air. In more than one of the towns, a train stopped in the station still has one or both ends in a tunnel with the station platforms extending underground. The railway is a local, not the main line, so you if you are arriving by train, you have to transfer at one of the small cities to the north or south of the Cinque Terre. Good transfer points are are Santa Margherita, Rapallo, or La Spezia. (Santa Margherita is a good home base for exploring the area, but that's another story.)

If traveling by car, park in Monterosso al Mare, take the train to Riomaggiore, and hike back. Remember you're not committed to walk the whole distance. You can always take the train from one of the other towns. At least walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola. It's a pretty easy walk, mostly paved and not too hilly.

Take bottled water and plenty of film. Allow four to six hours to walk the whole distance. Stop for ice cream, have lunch or a beer, and enjoy!


Copyright 2001 Harry B. Rowe