Set against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera’s dramatic coastline and overlooking the sapphire waters of the Ligurian Sea, the Cinque Terre have soared toward the top of Italy’s list of must-see attractions. The Cinque Terre are five idyllic fishing villages that fall within the boundaries of the Cinque Terre National Park. Thanks in large part to the proliferation of Internet searches and to Rick Steves’ travel guides, the five heralded villages have become near-permanent fixtures on the Italian tourist trail.
And for good reason. The area is stunningly beautiful.
I remember visiting the Cinque Terre over a decade ago with my family. From that trip, I recall the villages as being relatively unknown to international tourists. But times have changed and now the Cinque Terre have made their way to the forefront of tourist itineraries. And after visiting the Cinque Terre this past summer and retracing my steps from town to town, I realize I can no longer call these villages sleepy. Nor can I say they are relatively undiscovered. Word is out and everyone, it seems, is trying to find their own little slice of paradise in these five quintessential Italian towns.
I visited the Cinque Terre as a day trip from Pisa during one of my layovers. I set out with two of my fellow crew members at 9:00am–merely minutes after landing in Italy and checking into the hotel. We bought tickets to La Spezia and then purchased a day pass that would grant us unlimited access to the trains and footpaths linking the five coastal towns.
We started our day trip to the Cinque Terre at Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost town along the coastal park. Known simply as Monterosso, it is the largest and most accessible town and has all the hallmarks of a typical Italian coastal resort– a string of sand, inviting waters and lines of rentable beach umbrellas. Unlike the other four villages, Monterosso can also be accessed by car.
From Monterosso, one can visit the other towns by either hopping on a train or by hiking along the scenic footpath that follows the coastline. Despite the sweltering summer heat, we had decided to hike the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza so that we could savor the eye-catching ocean views.
The hike is moderately strenuous, with steep uphills and downhills. It meanders past idyllic mountaintop homes and oceanview vineyards, taking hikers through terraced landscapes with rows and rows of fruits and vegetables. At every bend, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the colorful towns and the deep blue waters below.
As we neared Vernazza, we could see the town’s jumble of vibrantly colored houses come into focus. The city’s postcard perfect setting invited us to take photos every chance we got. Its sparkling blue waters teasing and tormenting us in the noonday heat. We reached Vernazza after hiking about an hour and a half–exhausted from the sun and drenched in pools of sweat.
Vernazza is perhaps the most photographed town in the Cinque Terre, with its painted houses curving around a picturesque boat-filled harbor and its crumbling castle overlooking the town in quintessential Italian fashion. In 2011, terrible flooding wreaked havoc on Vernazza, burying the city’s streets in a layer of mud and covering its historic buildings in an avalanche of debris. Today, the city has rebounded and, were it not for the informational posters commemorating the natural disaster, I would have never known that one of Italy’s most famous villages was very nearly destroyed.
Four years have passed since the terrible floods and the town is now clean and perfectly manicured. It bustles with a mix of people from around the world. I witnessed local fishermen taking their boats out to sea, women hanging their laundry from the green-shuttered windows and tourists flooding the town’s narrow streets.
My companions and I ate gelato, drank cold beer and ogled at the pretty town and its colorful, freshly painted houses. I pinched myself to ensure that I was not dreaming and that this was all real–that I was given the opportunity to explore this vibrant seaside village while technically “at work.”
Then, I stripped down to my swimsuit, jumped into the water and let myself be enveloped by the cool and refreshing sea.
If I had known any better, I would have likely waited until we reached Manarola before jumping in the water. Manarola–an idyllic mishmash of pastel houses overlooking the water–was our third and final stop along the Cinque Terre route. Its rocky waterfront contains a secluded area for swimmers that is speckled with large boulders perfect for diving and sunbathing.
I walked Manarola’s tangle of cobbled streets and made my way up the footpath and away from town in order to get postcard-worthy views of the cliffside houses. Many people consider Vernazza to be the crown jewel of the Cinque Terre and, while I agree that Vernazza is undeniably beautiful, I couldn’t help but wonder how the towns could be compared.
We did not have time to make it to Corniglia or Riomaggiore. Considering the fact that we chose to hike and swim, our day trip to the Cinque Terre would have been too rushed and hectic if we had included all five towns.
Similar in some ways to the Amalfi Coast, the Cinque Terre National Park has become a tourist favorite due to its quaint towns and its dramatic coastal scenery. I was glad to see the villages much the way I remembered them–picturesque, colorful and unspoiled by large, towering hotels.
But the Cinque Terre are no longer sleepy fishing villages hugging a seductive stretch of unspoiled coastline. Today, though they still maintain their old-time charm and rugged surroundings, the villages are anything but quiet. Made famous in the past few years by travel shows, Internet blogs and word of mouth, tourism has skyrocketed. I could hardly walk without bumping into another traveler. I could hardly step foot on a train without getting pushed out the door. We were shoved, poked, tossed around and made to wait in excruciating lines to buy train tickets.
Simply put, the Cinque Terre are becoming overrun.
But would I return despite the crowds? Are the views worth the battle?
Without a doubt, my answer is an emphatic yes. And I know I’ll return if I have the chance. There is a reason so many people choose to keep visiting the Cinque Terre despite being prodded and pushed and made to wait in lines.
The five idyllic coastal towns are just too beautiful to miss.