How to Tackle the Cinque Terre

While still in California and planning for the Cinque Terre (five villages) hike, I must say there was an overwhelming amount of online reviews and advice on how to tackle this popular hike. From everything I’d read and photos I’d seen, I deduced it was a beautiful hike along the coast, but you had to be prepared and forewarned. Total hike time ranged from 5 hours to 8 hours, depending on physical ability and how much time you spent touring the villages. Everyone agreed to start from the southernmost town of Riomaggiore and work northwards to end up in Monterosso. If you got tired, one reviewer suggested taking the train or ferry to the next town. I decided to get one more person’s advice — the hotel (Hotel Villa Anita) owner, Sandro. Since he had given us such great advice and directions for the hike to San Fruttuoso, I knew we could rely on him again. After a hearty breakfast, we filled up our water bottles (a must!) and set out for our excursion.

This was our plan:

1. 1-hour train ride south from Santa Margherita Ligure to Riommagiore, walk around the town for a few minutes, start the hike at the coast and walk the “Lover’s Path”. Yes, we can now understand why it’s called this. The view is beautiful and romantic. We were charmed by something else. To express a couple’s love for each other, the path over the years has been decorated with locks. Attached to rails and fences, these locks come in a splendid array of various sizes and metal finishes, etched with initials and hearts.

2. After a 30-minute walk through Lover’s Path, arrive in Manarola and visit the town for a few minutes.The seaside is quite stunning. Gigantic rocks used as diving platforms for the young and daring. Small, colorful boats anchored waiting for their passengers. Waves splashing onto shore.

3. Take a short train ride to Vernazza, skipping Corniglia because the trail was still closed from the mudslides in 2011. (Or, you could take the ferry.) While walking around the town, affects of the mudslide were visible, though much of the town was in great shape. We saw some building basements full of dirt and debris, with workers repairing broken walls. The water at the beach was a murky green from excess mud. We decided to take a gelato break, and I snacked on calamari wrapped in a small newspaper cone. Reminds me of chips doused with salt and vinegar wrapped the English way.

4. Continue the hike on the coast to Monterosso. Have a snack and cold drink, enjoy a swim. The hike from Vernazza to Monterosso was spectacular, but arduous. Steep inclines, dramatic descents, shady in areas, and full-sun in others. Always a welcoming view of the sea. The hills are terraced with vineyards, though no grapes at this time of year. Once in awhile we would see a grape-picking contraption — since I don’t know the name, that’s the best way I can describe it. It is a small buggy, gripping a very narrow metal track, with a seat for the driver, and a metal container to fill up with grapes. The track winds itself around and up the steep incline of the mountain. Brave driver, picking grapes and not afraid that the buggy might slip and fall into the sea!

5. Finally, take the train back to Santa Margherita Ligure. We were tired, but satisfied from a full-day’s adventure and memories.

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Santa Margherita Ligure, Charming Town on Italian Coast

We arrived in Santa Margherita after a long, full day of traveling from Madrid. A 2-hour flight into Milan Malpensa, 1-hour train ride from airport to Milan Centrale station, then 2-hour train ride to Santa Margherita. After the heat and crowds in a big city, we were happy to be in this coastal town where you could feel the breeze coming from the vast ocean. I made the right choice in selecting this town as our anchor for the next 4 nights. 

Santa Margherita Ligure lies along the Ligurian coast just south of the popular Portofino and quick train ride to the northern most village of the Cinque Terre, Monterosso. Colorful villas, hotels and restaurants line the picturesque harbor. At the harbor is a small plaza with shady trees, colorful flowers and benches perfect for a rest stop and for viewing the fishing boats and ferries coming in and out of the docks. The green, surrounding hills, dotted with more colorful villas, provide a nice backdrop.

The highlights of our stay include:
1. Delicious gelatos, and with a view. Gelaterie Lato G, across the harbor, was our favorite gelateria in this town. We savored the passion fruit, mango and hazelnut flavors.
2. The afternoon fish market, authentic local experience. I love food markets because you can really be part of the local scene. The fish market is in a perfect, convenient location — right across the small street from the harbor. It is open every day starting at around 5:00 pm. We got there early enough to witness the fishing boats motoring in with their catch, already sorted by fish type in wooden bins, then loaded into carts which were quickly pushed across the street to the market, then placed onto metal racks ready for weighing and selling. There were bins of all kinds — fish, crabs, squid and octopus. The first hour of sales is, we guessed, for commercial sellers or restaurant owners buying in bulk, then the next hour is for the selective chef wanting to make something fresh and delicious for their family dinner.
3. Hotel Villa Anita, 2-star rating, but really 4-star accommodations and service. How do hotels get their ratings? This boggled my mind. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. The hotel is pleasantly located away from the busy, coastal strip. It does have a few peaks of the ocean from some of the rooms. It shares a street with other gorgeous villas, is a quick walk to the center of action — harbor, restaurants and shops — and clean and comfortable. The breakfast buffet is something to look forward to every morning, and you can sit on the outside deck and view the lush landscaping. The pool is small, yet new and comes equipped with several massage jets and a rain shower.
4. The hike to San Fruttuoso Abbey, with a quick gelato stop along the way in Portofino. It was really hot on the almost 4-hour hike from our hotel. We were so happy to have packed water bottles. We hiked up and down steep terrain, went in and out of the forest and always rewarded with gorgeous views of the coast. The descent into San Fruttuoso was exciting. The abbey became more immense as we approached and we paused to take in the scene — a lone, impressive structure; gorgeous water; and crowds suntanning on the small beach, while others enjoyed a swim. I took a dip in with my daughter. The water was so refreshing!
5. The hike through Cinque Terre. We visited Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso. We skipped Corniglia because the trail was still closed from last fall’s mudslide. The towns are fun to visit for a few hours, but not to stay in, especially with my adventurous family. (Best for romantic couples, I’m told.) For our hike through the villages, we took the one-hour train ride to the southern most town of Riomaggiore, then started our walk from there.
I am still working on a separate blog for our visit through the Cinque Terre. Come back soon.