Soaking Up The Charms Of Cinque Terre

30 June 2016
Read Time: 2.6 mins

Never mind the celebrity-packed Amalfi Coast. There's arguably no more spellbinding section of Italy's coastline than Cinque Terre.

Within fairly easy reach of Milan (or Genoa), it's a postcard-perfect medley of cliff-hugging fishing villages with brightly-painted houses, vertiginous walking trails, scenic train rides and enticing foodie (and viticultural) retreats. And very few cars (vehicles are banned from the historic centres).

You'll need at least 48 hours to enjoy Italy's smallest national park, but you could easily spend a week slowly savouring its abundant charms.

Pastel-coloured houses on the cliffs at Riomaggiore Picturesque is an understatement when talking about Cinque Terre (Image: Steve McKenna)

Staying There

With hundreds of accommodation options scattered around – mostly apartments, B&Bs and small family-run hotels – each one of the five fabulous villages is a contender.

They're all much of a muchness in terms of prettiness, convenience, wining and dining, and souvenir shopping potential.

We chose Riomaggiore, the most southerly of the lot. Our reasoning? We wanted to hike from one end of Cinque Terre to the other, so for us it made sense to stay in either Riomaggiore or Monterosso al Mare, the most northerly village.

We would then be able to walk to – and pit stop in – the three in-between villages: Manarola, Corniglia and Vernazza.

Pastel-coloured houses in Vernazza Vernazza from the Blue Trail (Image: Steve McKenna)

Travelling Around

While Cinque Terre isn't very driver-friendly, it's fantastic for those who like to get around on foot or by rail or boat.

A Trenitalia service connects the quintet, running about three times an hour from dawn til around 10pm. Stations are just a few minutes' journey apart, with the trains rushing past the Ligurian Sea and via mountain tunnels.

Even travellers who come to Cinque Terre to hike usually find the trains useful. For example, we decided to spend our first day walking between Riomaggiore and Corniglia (the village in the middle), before railing our tired bodies back to our apartment.

The next morning we took the train back to Corniglia and hiked to Monterosso, before returning to Riomaggiore by rail. When the sea is calm, you can also venture from village to village on boat cruises and kayaking trips.

A bridge along the coastline of Cinque Terre The Blue Trail just outside Monterosso (Image: Steve McKenna)

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Hiking Trails

Tourists traditionally tackle the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail), which has linked the five villages since the Middle Ages. But after landslides in 2011, this 12-kilometre stretch has been partially closed while repair work is done.

It's still open, however, between Corniglia and Monterosso, winding its picturesque way past precipitous cliffs, grape-clad slopes, citrus orchards and even people's flower-filled back gardens.

You'll need a hiking pass to access the Blue Trail. It costs €7.50 (AUD$11) per day, and is available at the villages' park information offices. For €12 (AUD$18), you get the pass plus unlimited local rail travel. But it is possible to walk between all five villages without spending a cent.

Coastal views from the Beccara trail Hiking the Beccara trail from Riomaggiore (Image: Steve McKenna)

Away from the Blue Trail, a tangle of alternative, less-trampled, but well signposted numbered trails thread higher into the bucolic hills. Try the Beccara trail (number 531), which villagers and their mules used to travel between Riomaggiore and Corniglia since time immemorial.

It's breath-stealingly steep in parts, a flurry of stone steps and zig-zagging vineyard paths. But the crowds are thinner, the birdsong more intense and the vistas stunning.

The information offices also have maps of all the different trails including the routes leading to the old Catholic sanctuaries nestled above each village. Experienced hikers will fancy the Sentiero Rosso (Red Trail), which spans 38 kilometres between Porto Venere, south of Riomaggiore, and Levanto, north of Monterosso. Give yourself at least nine to 12 hours to complete it.

Prawn dish Cinque Terre excels in seafood dishes (Image: Steve McKenna)

Refreshments

You're bound to work up an appetite in Cinque Terre. Fortunately, the five villages – and several little intervening hamlets – have lots of enticing places in which to refuel; from tiny hole-in-the-wall cafes offering espressos, chilled Birra Morettis and bowls of olives, to al fresco trattorias serving slap-up meals and carafes of wine on idyllic waterfront terraces.

Seafood is a staple, whether it's plates of grilled sea bass and sea bream, risotto laced with prawns and mussels, fish and shrimp ravioli, and nuggets of deep-fried cod and anchovies (which are typically eaten from paper cones).

Crisp Ligurian tipples go down swimmingly. Don't leave without sampling Sciacchetra, the local sweet wine. You can try it on wine tours run by sommeliers whose families have lived here for six generations, or purchase it from souvenir stores and delis.


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Steve McKenna

A regular contributor to some of Australia's leading newspapers and travel magazines, Steve McKenna has visited, written about and photographed more than 80 countries on six different continents. He fears he has an incurable case of wanderlust and is particularly fond of Europe, Asia and South America.