The Colorful Seaside Villages of Cinque Terre, Italy
After two nights exploring the picturesque villages nestled in the pre-Alps of Lake Como, we took in one last beautiful view and hopped on a train in Varenna that would take us through Milan to the west coast of Italy, our final destination being the Cinque Terre.
After a quick train swap at Milano Centrale, we embarked on a 3½ hour train ride to Monterosso al Mare. It seemed like every train we got on was slightly different and this one was set up with many small rooms that could hold 6 passengers each, three on each side, facing one another. At first, it was a bit awkward sitting in a tiny room with perfect strangers, but not long after, Dustin started trying to converse with our roommates. There was an elderly couple sitting with us and they turned out to be the nicest people. The woman said she had just started taking an English language course and was eager to try out her newly acquired speaking skills. Dustin had an app on his phone that translated words and phrases to Italian. So bit by bit, through broken English on their part and mispronounced Italian from us, and to be honest, what seemed like a bit of Charades, the four of us were able to communicate and it was so much fun! I am sometimes a bit timid to talk to people even when I know they speak English let alone when there is a language barrier, but Dustin has helped to pull me out of my shell a bit with this. The couple’s stop was several before ours and when they got off, the old man helped his wife leave the train and then made a special trip back in and shook our hands and kissed us on the cheek. It was heartwarming to know that we had made some new friends in a foreign country, even if only for the afternoon.
The train ride to Monterosso was half spent inside of tunnels through the mountains and half incredible glimpses into what was in store for us with the beautiful beach views peeking through in between. The towns we went through slowly started becoming more and more dotted with palm trees and we started getting excited for warm weather and the Ligurian Sea. Cinque Terre means “Five Lands” or “Five Villages” and we were staying in the first of the five, in a village called Monterosso.
Monterosso al Mare
The train let us off in the center of the village but our hotel proved to be much harder to find than we had anticipated. We ended up hauling our luggage up and down and back and forth across the town several times before we finally stopped and asked directions. When we finally found Affitacamere Anita, it looked more like a converted apartment complex than a hotel and the check in office was in located in one of the units, which made it even trickier to find but we finally spotted it. We had reserved a sea view room but we got there to find out that they were doing some work in the room we had requested so they unfortunately had to move us into a room without a view right next to the check in office. We were a little disappointed at first but the room they gave us was a pleasant surprise.It had recently been renovated and was very nice. We grabbed a bite to eat at a café with a view of the sea down the street then immediately changed into our swim suits and headed to the beach.
Lunch on the Ligurian Sea
Monterosso al Mare had the best beach of the 5 villages that make up Cinque Terre which made it very popular with tourists.This wasn’t our first choice of where to stay but the other villages (Vernazza, Riomaggiore) were already booked up and Monterosso being the largest, had more options for lodging. Don’t get me wrong; it was very beautiful. It just didn’t feel Italian to us. It seemed more like the Caribbean or something and we wanted to feel like we were in Italy! We did enjoy being able to go swimming for a bit though and it turned out that this was the only time we were able to go swimming on the entire trip so we were happy we did!
There are two sides of Monterosso and after swimming we decided to walk over to see the other side, opposite of where we were staying. This side felt much more authentic and had lots of winding streets and alley ways full of shops and restaurants, and another beach. We wandered around for a bit and explored and then that evening, we got cleaned up and had a couple of cocktails at an open air café on the water. They did not serve food though so we walked around and found a small pub and had dinner there.
The next day we wanted to venture out and see the other villages of the Cinque Terre. There are trains that go between all five of them or you can hike the trails. The hikes range between 20 minutes to upward of 2 hours depending on which leg of the trails you are on. We had planned to hike the stretch between Riomaggiore and Manarola called Via dell’Amore, or Walk of Lovers. Couples from all over the world visit this trail to put a padlock on the fence alongside it and throw the key into the sea to “lock their love”. We thought since we were on our honeymoon, this would be a fun thing to do but it was sadly closed the day that we visited due to the poor conditions of the walk. We decided we would just have to find some other place to lock our love later on our trip and that it would be more original that way anyway!
Instead of hiking, we took the train to fifth village of Riomaggiore. The train runs between all of the 5 villages and is by far the quickest way to travel in between them. Since we had limited time there and wanted to see the most that we could, we decided on this option. There is a ticket office in Monterosso that sells trail and train passes for 1 or several days but we got lucky because the 8 day rail pass that we had purchased prior to the trip worked for these trains so we did not have to purchase additional tickets. Riomaggiore ended up being Dustin’s favorite of the Cinque Terre.
It is the southernmost village of the 5 and is situated in a small valley with a sloped entrance to their cozy harbor where we watched scuba divers prepare to dive, saw locals cliff diving off of rocks, and ate a café perched atop of one of the cliffs. Their steep stairways are the only way to move about most of the villages in Cinque Terre and Riomaggiore was no exception. We trudged up these stairs to Torre Guariola, which was an old tower with a beautiful lookout over the sea and the village.
From Riomaggiore, we decided to take the ferry back to Monterosso so that we could photograph the villages from the sea. It was unreal how the ferry pulled up right at the jagged rocky cliffs, quickly threw out a walkway, and boarded passengers without a pier or a dock. We were able to see all 5 of the Cinque Terre this way and it was neat to see the differences between them.
The 5 villages that make up the Cinque Terre: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore
Later that evening, we took the train back to the quaint village of Vernazza for dinner, which was my favorite of the Cinque Terre.
This was the village we most wanted to see when we originally arrived. Some friends of ours had stayed here in the past and told us it was a must see and I’m so thankful they did! Its colorful harbor is one of the most photographed areas in the Cinque Terre and is perhaps the most picturesque. We loved that it was free of car traffic, which added to its charm and authentic feel. We stopped at some shops along the main street and bought some souvenirs. Cinque Terre is known for its flavorful pesto dishes so we bought a pesto spice mix to take home with us as a momento of our time there. After perusing the shops for a bit, we decided to walk up the steps to Castle Doria. There is a small fee to go all the way up but the views are worth it!
On the way up to the castle we noticed that there was a restaurant called Franco’s Ristorante La Torre just below the castle on the side of the cliff. We decided that we would like to eat there for dinner. They hadn’t opened yet so we decided to take a stroll around the water while we waited to take in the sights and get some good shots of the harbor.
Italians eat dinner much later than Americans and oftentimes restaurants do not open until after the time that we were used to being done with dinner already, so we had to get used to eating later in the evenings while we were there. We were the first couple in the restaurant when they opened and we were glad we were, because it filled up quickly! It did have the best view in town and who doesn’t want to say they have eaten dinner in a castle? We ordered a pesto dish since the area is known for this and it was fabulous, as was the house wine that was made locally in Vernazza. We also ordered a seafood dish to split. We silly Americans expected our shrimp to be the reddish orange curly cue little pieces of meat that we are used to getting in restaurants in the states but they arrived fully in tact with legs and eyeballs! I have to say, I prefer when my food isn’t looking at me! We met a wonderful Australian couple who was dining at the table next to us so we exchanged travel stories and info over dinner about our experiences so far in Italy. They were from Sydney and had traveled extensively throughout the world so it was inspiring to talk with them. Fortunate coincidences like that add such a flavor to the evening! It’s fun hearing about other places and how people live and the differences in cultures.
After dinner, we took the train back to our hotel in Monterosso and packed up our things so we could get an early start in the morning to Pisa and Rome. The charming villages of the Cinque Terre will definitely hold a place in my heart.