It may look like it has been painted from the imagination of a romantic artist, but Cinque Terre situated on the Ligurian coast of Italy is a reality – and one to be enjoyed. The name, which can be translated as 'Five Lands' denotes what is to be found there: five beautiful villages –Monterosso al Mare,Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore – which each feel like a world of their very own. All of the villages are traffic-free, part of a National Park and have UNESCO World Heritage status. With that status however, as always, comes the drove of tourists from near and far who are all eager to grab a slice of Italian village heaven. That being said, the tourism certainly isn't as aggressive as in Italian cities such as Rome where everyone is clamouring to tick off the sites – because in Cinque Terre the sites are simply the views themselves, and they aren't going anywhere. Still, if going in high summer season it's important to have somewhat of a plan and some tricks up your sleeve to make the most of your stay and ensure you don't get caught up in the inevitable midday crowds. Here are my Top Ten Tips for Cinque Terre:
1. FLY: to Genoa
For many tourists ( particularly Americans), Cinque Terre is merely a small part of a bigger Italian or European journey. This means that many stop over in Cinque Terre on their way to/from nearby Florence and Pisa. Despite having been crowned European Capital of Culture in 2004, Genoa remains somewhat under appreciated and it tends only to be used as a starting point for those hopping on one of the many cruises leaving its port. This being the case, it makes the perfect place to fly to in order to get to Cinque Terre. The villages are a pleasant, direct 2hr train ride away from Genoa, and the journey along the scenic Ligurian coast becomes a highlight in itself.
2. AVOID: the train
Despite the train journey from Genoa to Cinque Terre being a pleasant one, the train between the villages is best avoided if possible. That's not to say its not clean, safe or reasonably priced – but those expecting a scenic trundle from one village to the next will be disappointed, as the train goes through tunnels 99.9% of the time (which when you think about it makes complete sense, being that the villages teeter on high rocky cliff edges). What's more, it's often very busy with those not wanting to take on the challenge of the coastal walks. Unfortunately, when I visited Cinque Terre, nearly all the coastal paths were closed due to further landslides after a rain-filled winter season, which meant the train was my only option. If, however, the paths had been open, I would have certainly walked from village-to-village, only hopping on the train to return after a hard day's walking.
3. STAY: elsewhere
Yes, yes I know, I'm going against the travel writer grain on this one. Many other writers will tell you to stay in one of the villages to get the most authentic experience in the early or later hours when they are free from day trippers. I'd like to argue that this simply isn't true – get up early or hang around late enough and you can enjoy the same delights as those staying in the villages. What's more, as a lone traveller the villages are a less-than-desirable place to stay because accommodation is expensive enough when the cost is shared by two people, let alone when one person is footing the bill. My suggestion: the pleasant beach town of Levanto, which is a mere 4 minutes by train from the first of Cinque Terre's villages: Monterosso. Its long, sandy beach is perfect for a spot of sunbathing or surfing, its old town is pleasant and slightly bigger (meaning more options for food and drink and a little more going on later into the evening), and as it's not part of the famous five, so prices are lower overall, too.
4. EAT: focaccia
The villages and their region are renowned for several types of culinary delicacies, but focaccia – which apparently originates from Liguria – is the easiest to enjoy on the move. Focaccia is best thought of as a type of pizza with a thicker, fluffier base (but don't tell the Italians I said that, they may have a heart attack). It comes with a variety of tasty toppings and is perfect for popping in your backpack to enjoy during a pause in your hike, or better still, on the beach – and believe me, you will feel smug at lunchtime as you watch hungry day trippers queue to get into restaurants. I grabbed a particularly good slice of Focaccia from Pizzeria La Cambusa in sleepy Manarola on my way down to the seafront.
5. LISTEN: to locals
In big cities like London, it's true that the cabbie may not know or recommend the best place to eat dim sum. However, pint-sized Cinque Terre is a different case altogether. Here the locals are truly local, with many having lived in the villages and surrounding region for several generations – making them the perfect go-to sources for some trustworthy tips. Being such a touristy place means identifying good and authentic cuisine can sometimes be tricky, so one of the best things to ask the locals is where they eat out – because where they eat, is exactly where you should be going too. While in Levanto I got a fantastic foodie tip from a local that Taverna Garibaldi was the place she frequented for real Italian cuisine. She couldn't have been more right. It was so good that I dined there 3 more times during my stay (something I rarely do, preferring to sample as many places as possible) – loving the local atmosphere, salivating over their array of Italian carb offerings, and chatting with the friendly wait staff who by my third visit had started to save me my favourite table. Oh, and what's more, the tourist price tag was nowhere to be seen.
6. RISE: early
You'd do well not to scoff at the old adage of "The early bird catches the worm" in Cinque Terre. Early risers will reap the benefits of costal paths that don't feel like motorways, swims without too many souls in sight and first pick of the morning pastries. With many people visiting Cinque Terre from the nearby cities of Pisa and Florence, it's best to get out there as soon as possible before it gets busy to enjoy the area at its best. However, if you are hiking along the coastal paths alone make sure to tell someone your route just in case, and don't go so early that dawn is breaking and the paths are too quiet – common-sense-safety applies in this piece of Italian paradise in the same way as it does anywhere else.
7. GET: lost
Don't go wandering and fall off a cliff edge, but getting lost in these small villages is certainly a pleasure worth experiencing. Pack a guide and map and put it in your backpack for backup, but don't get it out unless necessary – instead, get lost in the moment wandering down tiny, winding side streets and stumble across hidden Italian treasures. For hikes though, make sure that map is in hand to ensure you really don't step over the cliff's edge (I'm serious).
8. PACK: swimwear
No doubt you will have packed swimwear in your suitcase if you are visiting in the warmer months, but it's important to always have it (and a small towel) in your daypack. This will allow you to be spontaneous and dive into the azure waters when the mood strikes you. In the summer months you will be more than grateful of the opportunity to cool off.
9. ONE: step at a time (or rather, village)
The mistake so many people make is trying to cram too many village visits into one day. Take your time and make sure when booking your Cinque Terre stay that you have a minimum of 4 days to spend exploring. Part of the true pleasure of visiting this place is taking the time to wind down and soak up the scenery, rather than bypassing eating gelato for an hour on the beach because it's 3pm and you still have 3 villages to go.
10. ADOPT: the Italian approach
You may have heard the following expression from Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, or even perhaps during your own Italian adventures, but it perfectly applies to what you should be doing while in Cinque Terre: dolce far niente. The literal translation: "sweet doing nothing". So kick back, and enjoy the sweet delight of lazing around (eating a gelato, or drinking a spritz or two), with the picturesque Cinque Terre as your backdrop.