Monterosso al Mare is the most northerly and, with 1,500 inhabitants, largest of the five Cinque Terre villages, although ‘large’ is relative in this region. Like the other villages, the narrow alleyways of the oldest part of Monterosso date from the 13th and 14th centuries, yet it feels decidedly different to the other villages. In part this can be ascribed to the earlier arrival of tourism in Monterosso, and the fact that the village has two lovely stretches of beach that make it the Cinque Terre’s only beach resort. Albeit a low-key one.
We’d been itching to get into the dazzling azur waters off the Ligurian Coast. On our last day on the Cinque Terre we hopped on the train and headed on the short journey to Monterosso. We spent some time exploring the tangle of cobbled lanes and alleys in the old village. There are several ancient churches in the village, all with a black and white stripe motif. The Church of St. John the Baptist is the oldest, dating to 1244.
In the quiet of the pre-day-tripping rush, wandering the village and visiting the churches was a pleasure. We found a small bakery and bought some sweet things and a couple of coffees, found a park bench close to the ocean and had an al fresco breakfast as the village came to life. Afterwards we wandered back to the modern village, where a seafront promenade runs between the railway station and the best beach in the Cinque Terre.
We found a patch of sand to call our own and, despite it being early October, went for a swim in the still warm waters of the Ligurian Sea. By lunchtime the beach was quite busy, although I’ve seen photos of it in summer and ‘busy’ is also a relative term here. We were heading to Vernazza and debated in which village to have lunch. Monterosso’s renowned anchovies with a squeeze of local lemon won the vote, all washed down with a cold beer.
The train ride to Vernazza takes only a few minutes, and soon we were wandering down the pedestrianised main street of what many people consider the Cinque Terre’s most beautiful village. It’s hard to disagree, this is a village with a lot of charm, although I think it’s a toss up between Vernazza and Manarola. The main street deposits you at the pretty harbour filled with colourful fishing boats and backed by terraced hills and the 13th century Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia.
High above the houses on the opposite side of the harbour is Doria Castle, a 15th century lookout tower to warn the villagers of approaching pirates. These villages were prosperous in the Middle Ages and an attractive prize for Saracen pirates who sailed these waters. To prove there are no hard feelings, the village holds an annual pirate festival. The walk to Doria Castle passes through narrow streets that wind steeply upwards. The views over the village and coast are spectacular.
The village itself climbs up the sides of hills on both sides of the main street, the tangle of lanes and houses is wonderful. I walked through both sides, eventually picking up the Sentiero Azzurro trail towards Monterosso. A steep ten minute walk along the trail brings you to a point with panoramic views back to the village and the coastline beyond. This is probably the finest view of any of the villages of the Cinque Terre.
Meandering back down through the streets towards the station, we stopped for an ice cream (there are probably more ice cream shops per capita in these villages than anywhere else on earth) and then took the train back to Manarola. We had one more opportunity to watch the sunset over the ocean before leaving for Pisa in the morning.