Prior to this summer, the Cinque Terre had been on the bucket list of places I must visit in this lifetime for almost a decade. I first saw the Ligurian destination chronicled in a news package on breakfast TV while I was still a budding journalist back in Oslo. In much the same way a lot of destinations are in our minds, it wasn’t a concrete concept about the destination that took a firm hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go; rather it was that indescribable affinity with a destination that one sometimes gets and feels they won’t get peace until they come face to face with it. All I knew about this cluster of 5 villages – hence the name – was that it had some of the most picturesque hiking trails and is UNESCO World Heritage-listed.
Sometimes, however, you build up a destination to be this wondrous thing which only meets halfway with reality. I’m very thrilled to say that this was most positively not the case. On the contrary, it has become one of my top three all time favourite places I’ve been to.
Day one and two: Bonassola
We arrived at La Francesca, a sleepy eco resort nestled in the hills between Levanto and Bonassola, on a grey, rainy afternoon. As it was springtime and therefore before peak season it was refreshingly cool, fresh and tranquil compared to Pisa and Florence where we’d just come from. The resort is quite tricky to get to by foot so I would advice anyone going there to get off at the Levanto train station and take a cab up the winding hilly roads that lead to the hotel. Levanto, which is about 80 km away from Genoa, is the perfect starting-point for visiting the Cinque Terre because from there you can easily reach the five villages by train (5 minutes), by boat or by foot through well-marked hiking tracks.
After settling in, we spent the entire afternoon watching the rain beat down on the lush landscape from our balcony before getting a pizza from a nearby restaurant. Now the rooms at the La Francesca all come with a kitchen area but we were too tired to attempt any cooking. Besides, all the larger supermarkets are down at Levanto, which is a good 20-30 minute walk away if you are not interested in calling a cab.
On the second day, we decided to prepare ourselves for the succeeding two days of intense hiking we were about to embark on by tackling the rocky hill between La Francesca and Bonassola. Although it was a very short distance to hike, the incline was very steep in some places so we still managed to warm up really well.
On the other side of this trail was the sleepy village of Bonassola:
and the Madonnina della Punta:
We had already been reliably informed by a local that the Madonnina della Punta doesn’t really have any historical significance, having been erected just a few decades ago. It is, however, a great viewing point.
Day three: Levanto to Monterosso
By this time we had come to truly love and appreciate this area and were well acclimatized. We moved hotels to the somewhat more modern Park Hotel Argento just to get a feel for what they had to offer. Comparing the two hotels – even though one is just up the road from the other – is like comparing apples to oranges. They are different and fulfill different needs and will ultimately appeal to different personalities. I’ll say this though: If you like your modern aesthetics – including spas (really comes in handy after hiking), well laid out buffets every morning (including well packaged food items for the hike) and easy access to the train station you’ll go for Park Hotel Argento. If you have a more sustainable and independent approach to life, you like to prepare your own food and for things to be as ecological and organic/at one with nature as possible, you will feel right at home at La Francesca. If you must stay at nothing but the best of 5-star hotels then I’d strongly advice you to skip the authentic, back to basics lifestyle that the Cinque Terre and nearby villages offer altogether. There are simply no luxury hotels around and this in many ways is both the luxury of travelling to this region and its saving grace. The unique flora and fauna would suffer were it to be tampered with just for the sake of providing tourists with the latest in luxurious abodes.
On day three we decided to hike from Levanto to Monterosso, a distance of about 7 km. We were told it was a relatively easy hike and since we walk distances upwards of 10 km back home in London, we were not too worried about easily beating the estimated time of two and a half hours. We were wrong. The trail starts out by immediately ascending steeply upwards and for the next hour and 30 minutes, there are only a handful of chances to truly catch your breath. The descent part of the hike only spans 30 minutes so ration your energetic efforts accordingly. Also, word to the wise: If the Cinque Terre is on your destination bucket list, try to go there while you are still young, and if possible a great deal of time before your 50th birthday. At 30 I really felt how strenuous the four days of hiking combined were, so I can imagine how much harder it would have been had I been twenty years older. Having said that, factor in your fitness level as well because it can and will mitigate age. We met parents with children under the age of 10 and a group of elderly Dutch travellers over 60 on the same hiking trails so it is certainly not impossible.
We were adviced to aim for the Cape of Mesco viewpoint from where you can enjoy a panorama view of all five of the Cinque Terre villages at an elevation of 312 meters as well as the ruins of the San Antonio monastery:
Day three ended with a dip in the sea at Monterosso, the largest and most populated of the Cinque Terre villages, and also our first Cinque Terre village.
Day 4: Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola
Day 4 started out with me howling in pain from sore muscles as I got up from my bed. Every single step I took hurt from all of the steep climbing I had done the day before. We only had one more day left in this region so we decided to only tackle one hiking trail and take the train whenever possible. This is where the Cinque Terre card (train) – which not only gives you access to all of the trekking paths and shuttle buses but also trains and free wifi – came in handy.
We took the train from our base at Levanto directly to Vernazza, which was the second of the villages. Coming from Monterosso the previous day, Vernazza seemed smaller and if I’m being honest just a tad on the boring and tourist-trappy side. We jumped back on the train after exploring the main street and taking this parting shot:
Corniglia, which is the next village after Vernazza is my favourite of them all. It’s small and sleepy, with little enotecas and trattorias. I think I liked it simply because it felt a lot less like a tourist trap than say, Monterosso. From here, we set out to hike to Manarola, a distance of roughly 5 km. The popular and much easier blue path was closed for reparations ahead of the summer season so we took the slightly more taxing green path. Despite the sore and overused muscles, I found this three hour hike much easier than the Levanto to Monterosso one. It only had a few steep steps and was for the most part gradually inclining. Although the higher satisfaction level might have had something to do with the spectacular views it afforded us…
Manarola is compact but very lively. There are dozens of restaurants so it was a good place to have a late lunch. A few glasses of wine later, we decided to forego visiting the 5th village of Riomaggiore in favour of Portovenere. No regrets here though; it’s always a good idea to leave pockets of your favourite destination unexplored so you can go back.
When to go: April to early June is the perfect time to go. The weather is warm but not too much so, there are fewer crowds and longer hours of daylight. I was told the summer months can be relentlessly crowded since this is a very popular destination. The fall months can be as good as the spring months, although there is a risk of rain and mudslides to take into account.