We trudged by the enormous blooms of a pink hydrangea, passed a lemon tree full of the tart yellow fruit, peered over a bougainvillea bush bursting with bright pink blossoms – and were treated to an even more stunning view of the azure waters of the Ligurian Sea. Our two mile hike up and down the rocky coastline between Monterosso and Vernazza was chock full of wondrous sites that made every step well worth it.
The Cinque Terre (5 lands) is a scenic area on the northwest coast of Italy. This part of the Italian Riviera, consisting of five small villages, is spread across less than a ten mile stretch of coastline. In recent years it has become one of the most popular places to visit in Italy. The views are amazing, the landscape beautiful, and the architecture and buildings awe inspiring. In addition to Monterosso and Vernazza, the other three villages that make up Cinque Terre are Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five.
A Vigorous Hike from Monterosso to Vernazza
Many of the sites are best experienced by hiking along the coastline on foot, but they can also be enjoyed by taking the train. You could drive to the villages, but the narrow, twisting, on the edge of a cliff driving can be treacherous and parking can be a chore. I suggest using La Spezia as your base and taking the train. If you choose to walk the paths, do be aware that there are parts of the walk that have many very steep hills to climb, especially the path we traversed between Monterosso and Vernazza. Even for the physically fit and adventurous, the trails along the coastline may be a challenge – but those steep climbs are rewarded by magnificent views. The total length of the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Path), the old mule path that connects the five villages along the coastline, is about 7.5 miles long. However, even if you are not the type that loves to hike, you can easily take a train to each of the five villages and still get a good taste of what they have to offer.
Since we spent the night in La Spezia, it was a short 20 minute train ride to Monterosso, the furthest village northwest of La Spezia. Our first task upon arriving in Monterosso at 9:00 in the morning was enjoying a cappuccino at a small waterfront café and enjoying the beautiful view. From our waterfront table, we had a great view of the Spiaggia di Fegina, a large outcrop of black rock that, depending on the tide, is accessible by thrill seekers looking for a little adventure. We reluctantly left our 50 yard-line seats overlooking the Ligurian Sea, but were excited to set out and explore the hilltops of Monterosso, climbing the first of many steps that day.
A Fascinating Cemetery at the Top of the Hill
Before we made our way along the Blue Path towards Vernazza, we took a winding twenty minute side trip above Monterosso to an unforeseen little church and a cemetery, where hundreds of Italians had made their final resting spot. The views were spectacular, and the church, graves and crypts were fascinating. Later we learned we had seen the Church of San Francesco and the Capuchin Friars Monastery.
An Uphill Climb
After exploring Monterosso, we headed southeast on the Blue Path towards the coastal village of Vernazza. About a two hour trek, the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza is the longest and most difficult of the trips between villages. We did not mind the physicality of the walk and climb. In fact, it was a welcome respite to stop every so often to rest and admire the wonderful view below us. The ocean and trees and vineyards in the villages were a sight to see. The trail was full of surprises. Hiding around each turn was a small stream, an old bridge, a beautiful hydrangea bush, or a lemon tree with bright yellow fruit as we made our way towards Vernazza.
Keep in mind that the Cinque Terre Trail is a public park, and there is a 7.5 Euro per adult charge. Along the trail you will pay the fee, where you can also get maps, info, and train tickets. We actually bought the Cinque Terre Train Multi-Service Card, which includes use of the walking trails and unlimited use of regional trains from La Spezia, which cost us 16 Euros each. It is definitely worth considering if you plan on taking the train often.
Halfway up the trail, we began to hear the faint sound of music. We went a little further and to our surprise an older gentleman was playing lively accordion music smack dab in the middle of nowhere. I filmed a short video, put a few euros in his cup, and thanked him for brightening our day.Nothing like some great tunes to keep the juices flowing.
Reaching the top
After a seemingly endless ascent, the path finally stopped going up and began to go down. My wife and I smiled at each other knowing we had reached the top, and that going down would be a bit easier. Every step was a new photo opportunity. I took pictures of the coastline, the ocean and the beach. I took pictures of lemon trees and hydrangeas growing in the middle of the mountains. Finally, towards the end of our first leg, we saw the village of Vernazza perched on the rocky peninsula below. What an incredible sight!
We had worked up quite an appetite during our hike, so I was looking forward to a nice meal in Vernazza. There were many seaside restaurants to choose from. We ended up eating at a small restaurant on the water, Taverna del Capitano, where I ordered gnocchi with shrimp and zucchini. The shrimp were served with all of the shell intact, so it was a bit of a chore to get to the meat – kind of like us Texans eating crawfish. But the effort was worth it, as the shrimp was tasty and complemented the gnocchi and the Chianti beautifully.
Corniglia – Another 350 Steps
Tired out from our two hour hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, we decided to take the train to Corniglia. That part of the trip was easy. However, once we got to Corniglia, we realized the only way to get to the village was by – well, of course, by climbing more steps. But this time, ‘just’ 350 steps to the top of the cliff. Together with our hike on the Blue Path, we had registered over 28,000 steps by the end of the day. This walk was not too terribly hard, and it was worth it to get to the top and again see many wonderful views, the town center and another old church. We even found a small market where we grabbed a cold Coca-Cola to refresh ourselves.
Next we took the train to Manarola. It was also a beautiful little city – not as many steps straight up but still a lot of winding paths and roads that had a steep incline. Since it was getting late we did not go to the last of the five villages, the beautiful picturesque town of Riomaggiore. We will make there another day. We were pretty worn out so we shopped a little bit and then decided to take the train back to La Spezia to enjoy a restful evening.
Our Wonderful BnB in La Spezia
We had found Casa Ortensia, a beautiful bed and breakfast on Airbnb tucked away in a nice quiet residential area near the center of town, just down the street from a music conservatory. The BnB is run by Alessandra, who is a marvelous hostess. Alessandra has earned the Airbnb status of “Superhost” by consistently getting rave reviews from her customers. We were only minutes away from a park on the water, which made for a lovely evening stroll. The bed-and-breakfast had a beautiful garden with a small table and two chairs and an umbrella. My wife and I bought a bottle of wine at the local supermarket and relaxed, chatting, drinking our wine, and reminiscing about our wonderful day in Cinque Terre.
Where: Cinque Terre, Italian Riviera
Why: Five beautiful coastal villages on rocky coast overlooking the Ligurian Sea
Get there: By train from Florence, Pisa or any Italian city on the rail
Cost: 7.5 Euro to walk the trail; 3 Euro for train each way
Tips: Stay in La Spezia and take the train into the villages of Cinque Terre
Stay at: Casa Ortensia, a wonderful BnB in La Spezia
Note: Some parts of walking trails have been closed – for current status check with https://www.incinqueterre.com/