There’s nothing like the feeling of seeing something you have spent hours Googling or staring at images on a computer screen in real life. The satisfaction from witnessing it with your own eyes and not pixelated on a computer screen is nothing short of awesome. I was lucky enough to experience this feeling twice in the past four days and its all thanks to a little boot shaped country called Italy.
My friend B and I planned to spend the long weekend discovering the area on the coast of Italy called the Cinque Terre. We were also making a brief stop in Milan but I will write about that later. I have dreamed about seeing this area of Italy ever since I saw photos of the colourful houses crazily constructed on top of each other, and finally my dream was coming true. The Cinque Terre is situated in the Liguria region along the Italian Riveria. Known as the ‘Five Lands’, the Cinque Terre consists of five small villages – Monterosse al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. They are all a part of the Cinque Terre National Park which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is famous for its colourful houses clustered on top of the rugged mountains, which over centuries have been carefully built into terraces. There is a walking track which connects each of the villages, with incredible scenery whichever way you look. Unfortunately in 2011, floods and landslides destroyed parts of the area, making the track from Corniglia to Riomaggiore unwalkable. However with the train and boats still running without a hitch – albeit with typical Italian delays – making visiting the entire area possible. The small villages are filled with small, locally run hotels which fill up with tourists particularly in the summer seasons. I had managed to find an amazingly unique place to stay right in the middle of two villages Vernazza and Corniglia, in the tiny village of Prevo, called ‘The Heart of the Cinque Terre’ which made our short time there even more incredible.
We arrived into Vernazza around 11:30am from Milan, where we had flown in late the night before. The sun was out in full swing and the sapphire coloured water sparkled in the bright sunlight. We headed towards the water to a small cafe where we had an espresso and pizza to fill the hunger void that had panged us all morning. Having left Milan at the early hour of 7am we didn’t have time for breakfast. A healthy snack of TimTams that I had brought along tided us over for the train ride but by the time we reached Vernazza, food was first point of call. We chowed down on delicious pizza whilst getting our bearings on the map. Our accommodation was situated on the Blue Path and we hoped we had the right track. With our backpacks and jeans we slugged it up the rugged terrain, puffing and panting and wondering whether staying at the place on the side of a mountain was really such a good idea. After about twenty-five minutes of constant uphill we reached what we assumed was our home for the next two nights. Dripping with sweat we knocked on the wooden door and was greeted by Pierpaulo, our AirBnb host. He was a small, Italian man and impossibly friendly, offering us cold water and a seat in the shade whilst we caught our breathe. We looked out at our view and any previous doubts we had were shattered. The Ligurian Sea went out as far as we see and met the horizon, where the shades of blue differed only slightly. The green mountains stood high around us and to our left we could see Corniglia, two kilometres away. It was absolutely glorious, like every cliche about beautiful things was inspired by this view. We freshened up and basked in the hot sun for awhile before walking down to Corniglia to check out the small village.
The walk to Corniglia was mostly downhill which was a nice change from the uphill slug from Vernazza, though we knew walking back to our accommodation wasn’t going to be fun. The entire walk we were blessed with the stunning view of the village, with its colourful houses stacked on each other precariously getting bigger and bigger and we got closer. Corniglia is the smallest of the five villages and my favourite. Often bypassed by other tourists for its sleepy feel, Corniglia is everything you imagine a tiny Italian town to be like. Windy, narrow streets of cobblestone, lined with shops busting with local made souvenirs, gelaterias, small cafes and rooms for rent. The buildings are multiple storeys and painted in brilliant colours. Laundry hangs from the outside of the wrought iron balconies and old Italian men still outside on their front steps watching the daily activity. Stopping for a gelato at Alberto Gelateria, we browsed through the small shops, admiring the local produce such as pesto and limoncino and eventually reaching the best place to witness the sunset in the entire area. Because it was still afternoon we continued on through the narrow streets until we reached a small, quaint cafe where we had a quick espresso before making the trek back up the hill towards Prevo. Either the track wasn’t as difficult as we anticipated or we were just energised from the strong coffee and we reached our accommodation quickly and without breaking too much of a sweat. We continued down toward Vernazza to pick up some groceries for dinner and have a better look around the village.
The walk down to Vernazza is as picturesque as the walk to Corniglia and the colourful houses don’t get any less beautiful. A much livelier town, Vernazza was packed with tourists wandering through the streets. Still as charming as Corniglia, but a lot more busier we walked down towards the water and sat on the large rocks in the harbour for awhile, looking back at the town. The sun was slowly starting to lower towards the horizon so we quickly grabbed some supplies for dinner and trekked back up the mountain to home. Much more difficult second time round with the addition of rather heavy shopping bags, the walk from Vernazza felt like it took forever and we were sweaty, heaving messes by the time we reached our room. A quick shower and we were back to normal. I prepared an easy dinner of pasta with local made pesto sauce and parma ham. Topped with parmesan cheese and sided with olives and a wedge of brie, we had a gourmet dinner watching the sunset over the ocean. The Cinque Terre was quickly becoming one of my favourite places in the world. We stayed up until late, enjoying the silence of our surroundings, a welcome change from the city life we’ve become accustomed to.
The following morning the bright sunshine woke us and we had a quick breakfast before heading off down to Vernazza again for a day of exploring the rest of the area. The temperature was glorious, much better than the cloudy days I’ve become used to in the Netherlands. The trail was much busier today, filled with tourists doing the same as us. It was a bit of a slow process, with people stopping every few metres to capture the beautiful view. We eventually reached a restaurant on the each of the mountain above Vernazza where we stopped for a coffee and to let the slower tourists get a head start on us. La Torre was a small restaurant with an incredible view. We stayed for awhile, letting the caffeine wake us up and headed down through Vernazza and onwards towards Monterosso. The track between Vernazza and Monterosso was the longest between all the villages and depending on which was you walk, can be rather difficult. Luckily, as we were coming from Vernazza, the track was only uphill for about the first third, and then downhill for the rest. Passing others who were walking from Monterosso, I could only feel sorry for them as they slowly stepped up the uneven steps with red faces and heavy breathes. We reached Monterosso in about 90 minutes and walked down towards the town.
Monterosso is definitely the most touristy place in all the Cinque Terre. The only village with a proper beach, the sand was covered with sparsely dressed tourists basking in the sun. There is two parts to the village, the old town which had a similar feel to it as Vernazza. Sheets hung off the makeshift clothesline from building to building. Small souvenir shops selling everything covered with Cinque Terre as well as local goodies and small cafes and restaurants. There is also two very beautiful churches amongst these streets, St. John the Baptist is unmissable with its black and white striped walls standing out amongst the terracotta coloured buildings that surround it. The other, Chapel of Mortis et Orationis just across the small street, more discreet but equally as beautiful. We walked through a tunnel bridge where buskers played Italian songs which echoed through the tunnel and towards the other part of Monterosso, aptly named new town. A boardwalk lined the beach and was packed with little shops. We stopped for a quick snack, consuming a delicious foccacia and another espresso and rested our feet for awhile. We opted for the easy option to reach the next village and caught the boat which was a fantastic way to see all the villages.
We caught the boat from Monterosso to Riomaggiore which took about forty minutes. We stopped in each village except Corniglia and it allowed us to see the colourful villages from a different perspective. Once we reached Riomaggiore, we disembarked on the rather shaky ramp and down to the rocks on the waterfront for a few photo opportunities. Deciding it was lunchtime (well technically second lunch, but it is holidays!) we chowed down on some calamari and fish followed by a punnet of fresh strawberries. We walked up the steep streets, not really doing anything but enjoying the relaxed vibe that these villages offer. It was late in the afternoon and we still had to hike back home so we grabbed a quick gelato and waited for the train to take us to Corniglia, where we could walk up the mountain to our accommodation. In typical Italian fashion, the trains were delayed but eventually we got on one and took the ten minute journey to Corniglia. Grabbing a few supplies for dinner, even though we weren’t really hungry, we stopped for another gelato and walked up to the lookout where we watched the sun start to set as we devoured our ice-cream. The sky was filled with purple and yellow, with not a cloud in sight. We headed for home, rushing so we could enjoy the final moments of the sunset from our place. Snacking on some parma ham and cheese, complimented by a glass or two of limoncello, which we diluted with sparkling water (that stuff is strong!) we watched the sky turn from blue to black and compared our favourite parts of the Cinque Terre. Knackered from a big day exploring we headed to bed so we could make the most of our final morning in this beautiful part of the world.
The following morning we were greeted by the sound of rain and yesterdays blue skies were replaced with grey clouds. Slightly disappointed with the weather we packed up and Pierpaulo kindly drove us to the Corniglia train station to avoid us having to go down the slippery trail with our backpacks. We thanked Pierpaulo profusely for his hospitality and caught the train (this time not delayed – a miracle!) to our final village of Manarola, which took all our five minutes. Manarola is my favourite village from afar, with its coloured houses all stacked on top of each other. It is what I picture when I think of the Cinque Terre. The rain had cleared so we hiked up the hill to the lookout, giving us the famous view overlooking the town. We wandered down through the streets of Manarola which was a little smaller than Vernazza but definitely bigger than Corniglia. The smell of freshly baked foccacia wafted through the cobblestone streets which tempted us for an early lunch. We found a small pizzeria and I had a slice of pesto pizza and B had a calzone. It was absolutely delicious. I adored the Italian food and thankfully we were doing lots of walking to burn off some of the treats we had been consuming. Wandering around a bit more, soaking up the last of our Cinque Terre time, we had another gelato (seriously, its like the food of the Gods) and jumped back on the train towards Monterosso where we could catch the train to Milan.
We reached Monterosso and the sun finally came out from behind the clouds. We walked through the tunnel bridge to the old town to grab a few things to take home. Wanting to have a bottle of limoncello and pesto as a souvenir, we went into a shop called Enoteca La Monterossina which was wall to wall full of bottles of locally made products. A large, jolly Italian man greeted us with a small shot glass and said tasters were free and we had to sample everything. There was jars of tapenades, pestos, jams and bottles of liquors and wines which all took our fancy, and we couldn’t decide where to start. The shop owner insisted we try his limoncello, which we happily obliged. After that shot, he insisted we also try his orange liquor, mandarin liquor and raspberry liquor. Several shots later of very strong alcohol, we felt the influence of the liquors, which I believe is the reason why we walked out of the shop with a bag full of bottles of Italian liquor. One last gelato stop (nearing double digits on the gelato count) we headed towards the train station and waited patiently for the delayed train to arrive.
Next stop Milano!
From the girl who’s insides are currently made up of gelato and pesto.