Cinque Terre, along the dramatic Ligurian coast

The five brightly painted fishing villages of the Cinque Terre are tightly packed into the precipitous cliffs and coves along the Ligurian coastline. Below lie the rich waters of the Mediterranean, above vertiginous cliffs have been ingeniously and laboriously terraced out of the rock into improbable vineyards and gardens. Founded in the 13th and 14th centuries, life for these small isolated communities must have been hard. Carving a livelihood from the ocean and the terraces, perilous and unrelenting.

Today, the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore still feel remote, but life has changed dramatically since the arrival of the 19th century railway. Tourism has had an even bigger impact. Beginning in the 1970s, it has become so pervasive (invasive?) that locals are debating limiting the number of daily visitors. Even in late September this World Heritage Site was busier than anywhere else we visited other than Lake Garda.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy
Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy
Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy
Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre, Italy

Fishing boats still ply their ancient trade, but today their catch is likely to end up on the plate of a tourist rather than feeding local families. Not that I’m complaining. Sat on a balcony high above the village of Manarola watching the sun set over the ocean eating fresh anchovies with local lemons, and a cuttlefish ink seafood linguine washed down with one of the region’s minerally white wines from a nearby vineyard, is one of the finest meals I’ve eaten … a birthday treat.

The villages are pedestrianised – cars were banned several years ago – which makes them people friendly, and it’s easy to get from village to village either on foot or by train. The railway is a monumental feat of engineering, skirting the ocean at the foot of the cliffs or passing through tunnels carved out of the rock. The best advice is to take the train, but we drove to Manarola, where we were staying, and witnessed first hand the nightmare of driving in the Cinque Terre.

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy
Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy
Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy
Terraced cliffs, Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy
Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

If you were determined, you could visit all five villages in a day – some people do. This though, is a place that rewards slow exploration – especially if you plan on walking the trails that lead to villages high above the ocean and connect the coastal communities. We had four days and even that felt too short. Manarola, an exceptionally picturesque spot teetering on the edge of a rocky outcrop, was the perfect base.

We arrived in the afternoon and after some difficulty found a spot in the village car park. The shock of the parking fee was compensated for by our apartment close the 14th century Church of Saint Lorenzo. It had a balcony and panoramic views over the village and ocean. It’s hard to imagine ever tiring of that view. Our days were spent hiking – a gloriously breathtaking (in every sense if the word) walk to Corniglia was a highlight – or taking the train, interspersed with eating and ‘researching’ local wines.

Terraced cliffs, Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy
Train, Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy
Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

We visited the nearby village of Riomaggiore, most southerly of the five villages, and said to be the oldest, and took the train north to Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Despite being out of season the weather was fantastic and, in Monterosso, we were able to spend half a day on the sandy beach close to the train station and swim in the clear blue waters of the Ligurian Sea. An unexpected delight for people coming from northern Germany.

I can imagine making repeated visits to the Cinque Terre, but outside of a coronavirus pandemic that has severely limited the number of tourists, it might be a very different experience.

15 thoughts on “Cinque Terre, along the dramatic Ligurian coast

  1. Heard of the place. It does look spectacular… One day, one day…

    1. It’s really beautiful, Brian, but I imagine outside of a pandemic it is blighted by over-tourism. The villages are tiny and receive a lot of visitors.

      1. Blighted? How so very English. And true. Many fab places were indeed blighted before this madness.

        1. I realise I’m also part of the problem, but it’s remarkable how much more tourism there is now compared to when I was last in places like Venice and Rome. To be fair, that was nearly three decades ago. I must be getting old!

        2. LOL. We all are. The last ten years have been particularly strong in mass tourism growth. I suspect the numbers will stay low for a while, as low-cost companies will probably go bankrupt first…
          Stay safe Paul

    2. If you’re in the neighbourhood I would definitely recommend a visit.

  2. It is beautiful, but I don’t know if I could cope with the sheer numbers of people it all attracts. Maybe a winter visit might be better. I would love to go but I don’t want to be part of the problem. I do wonder if some places that have been overrun with tourists pre-Covid might be rethinking the future for a post-Covid world (if we ever get there).

    1. I hope there is some soul searching that might result in a more sustainable model. The return of wildlife to the canals of Venice because of the drop in boat traffic is just one example. I definitely wouldn’t come to the Cinque Terre in summer, not even during a pandemic.

  3. Pierpaolo Paradisi November 9, 2020 — 6:00 am

    Cinque Terre face unprecedented challenges: dwindling natural resources, declining economies, a rapidly changing climate and other threats require that all of us begin to work together to reach common solutions.

    More than ever before, we must find innovative ways to ensure that the Cinque Terre National Park can continue to live.

    This is a time of opportunity. A time to move conservation from the sidelines of global priorities to the center of the world stage because the future of these lands depends on a safe, diverse and protected environment.

    You find us here: https://www.theheartofcinqueterre.com

  4. Nice pictures that keep me wanting to visit this part of Italy, but it’s true that I’ve always hesitated in front of the crowds of visitors, unfortunately the site suffers from the number of visitors.

    1. Indeed! I’m not sure I’d want to go in summertime during a normal year, we were lucky that tourism numbers were very low this autumn.

  5. You were so fortunate to have had 4 days!! We had one — on a tour — so you know how little we saw. But a little is better than nothing, and I treasure our pictures. Would love, however, to return for an extended stay.

    1. It’s such a beautiful place, and the coast so dramatic, it’s worth visiting even if not as relaxed as you might have wanted. Definitely somewhere to make a repeat visit!

      1. We read somewhere that the majority of people sleeping in the houses during the summer were guests, not residents. Is that something you may have heard also?

        1. Judging by the popularity of the place, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was true. There aren’t many hotels, but probably a majority of the buildings rent rooms or are rental apartments. Certainly the restaurants are filled with tourists not locals in the evenings.

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