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Published: March 8th 2016
View of our favorite village in Cinque Terre
Merely a decade ago, Cinque Terre was as popular as Mondays. But thanks to Rick Steves and the advent of social media, word about this hidden gem spread faster than ebola, becoming an epidemic in and of itself. So concerning is the influx of tourists that Italian officials will instate a quota on the number of visitors this summer to 1.5 million. The lottery system to determine the lucky souls able to visit these sleepy abodes atop the cliffs will help preserve the culture and sustainability of the area, which UNESCO dedicated as a World Heritage Site in 1997. While these backwaters are no longer the best-kept secret in travel, it still remains a largely untapped source of majestic beauty. Just don't expect to enter "Cinque Terre" into your GPS or that 5-star resorts are waiting for your beckon. And since the "Five Lands" consisting of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore still retain their fishing heritage, come to soak up cultural lessons that only the Italian Riviera can teach, keeping a few tips in mind.
First, realize that Cinque Terre is not a town, a province, or a type of car, so stop looking for it on
Pesto on Tagliatelle
A local invention, pesto is made with basil, pine nuts, olive oil, and pecorino cheese
the map like I ignorantly did. It's a region analogous to Chianti, with the aforementioned villages within its confines. If you've been searching online for hotels in "Cinque Terre" and somehow found one, don't be surprised if you inadvertently made reservations for some place in Spain. To find lodging here, you must scour each village separately. Monterosso is a beach town catering to beer-bellied men and their frolicking wives, or the picket-fenced family with children to preoccupy. Vernazza is small and idyllic, one that Rick Steves hailed as his favorite. Corniglia is the Cinderella of the bunch, the quiet and often forgotten sibling. Manarola is the poster-child that all the parents brag to their friends about, with its picturesque panoramic and gorgeous backdrop. And Riomaggiore is the biggest of them all, boasting scenic views on steep inclines. Once you've picked which best suits your needs, delve into the countless privately owned lodging options available, because you won't find any Hilton or Marriott around these foothills.
Second, understand that using a car has its limitations. The drive is windy, steep, and potentially scary for those who fear heights, but it rewards those who enjoy a little sea breeze with a
A local delicacy using fresh-caught fare
beautiful tour along the coast. Be careful about using a manual transmission if you're inexperienced, because the cramped parking and vertical slopes make for a terrible headache. Speaking of parking, consider the hefty fees you'll likely pay (Є20-30/day) unless you find free parallel spaces along the way. The best chance for finding a free spot (indicated by white lines, whereas blue is paid and yellow is for residents) is before the entrance of Manarola and Riomaggiore, although the latter involves a long and arduous hike into town. The other villages have only paid parking, so weigh your options before deciding. It also goes without saying that no cars are allowed in the heart of the towns, so regardless of which you choose, they all entail parking outside and walking in, which can pose a problem with luggage and kids--unless your hotel provides parking for guests.
Third, a train is the best option for getting to Cinque Terre if you wish to avoid driving. The stress of where to leave your car and the dreaded ZTLs force many travelers to utilize a train from the nearby La Spezia Central Station. Tickets online from trenitalia.com cost Є2.40 one-way, and with parking
Tasty dish from Marina Piccola
at Є1.20/hour or Є14/day (free parking at Piazza d'Armi, a 10-minute walk to the station), this may be the cheaper and more viable method of getting into town. All five villages are connected by train, so it's simple to hop on and off between them, although part of the Cinque Terre's allure are the gorgeous hiking trails linking each one.
Fourth, you must pay to access some of the hiking trails. A Cinque Terre Card (Є5-7/day) allows use of these trails, but there are plenty of free paths like the famous Via dell'Amore between Manarola and Riomaggiore. Regardless of your skill or fitness level, there are trails for any hiker, just be selective of when and where you go to avoid the crowds. Like most destinations, early morning or late afternoon and anytime during the shoulder season from October-April are best, because the last thing you need on a demanding walk is to bump shoulders with countless tourists under the scorching sun in the heat of summer.
Lastly, be aware of the foods you should try before visiting. Pesto was invented in this region (Liguria) and towns like Corniglia introduced their own spin on traditional cuisine, such as
A hiking trail leading up from Manarola and running west towards Corniglia
gelato made with local honey called miele di Corniglia. Also sample the local wine called sciacchetra, a popular sweet white often paired with cheese or dessert. Whether you stay for a week or just a day like us, one of the best attractions of the Cinque Terre is its food, which we tried at Marina Piccola (16 Via lo Scalo). We ordered the tagliatelle with pesto, seared tuna, fettuccine with swordfish and tuna, and calamari. Every dish was incredibly fresh, undoubtedly authentic, and Kristina's mom even proclaimed her seafood pasta dish was the best she'd had in Italy. All thanks to the hardworking fishermen who patrol the waters to haul in each day's catch, which folklore says was the reason for the villages' famous pastel homes lining the cliffs; legend has it that the fishermen painted their houses different colors to help them easily recognize their own from a distance so they could see if their wives were doing housework. Whether the paint job worked is anyone's guess, but it sure does make for a charming setting.
Our group, unfortunately, only stopped by for a short time from Montecatini Terme on our way to Milan. We may be one of the last groups to enjoy Cinque Terre before the lottery is enforced, but we won't be the last to return home professing our love for this place. No pictures and stories will do it justice, so stop living vicariously through Pinterest or Tripadvisor and book your trip to the Five Lands before it turns into another overrun cruise destination. Sadly, it may already have.
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