From the French Riviera we crossed our first European border via train into Italy. Our first stop? Vernazza, one of the five fishing villages located in the Cinque Terre. The fives villages, Monterosso, Riomaggiore, Vernazza, Cornilglia, and Manarola have been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1997. The villages were built on the dramatic rocky cliffs of North Western Italy overlooking the glorious Mediterranean Sea.
Where to stay?
Accommodations exist in each of the five villages, some are more resort like and place you in the center of the action, while others are just expensive. We opted to stay in San Bernadino. Following the directions of our Aribnb host, we were instructed to buy tickets for the shuttle from the train station, head to the small grocery store in Vernazza to provision, then haul our bags up the hill to the parking lot. The shuttle driver confirmed our destination, and before we knew it we were whisked high above sea level to the small village of San Bernardino.
When we say small, we mean small. The town plays host to just a few families that technically share the same regional name of Basso. Our host Manolo was waiting there to welcome us. He gave us such a warm welcome it was almost like meeting a long lost family member. The village is located on a ridge that overlooks Corniglia. Manolo was very welcoming and left us plenty of breakfast goodies, including a bottle of his Father’s homemade wine, not sold in stores. If you are staying in the area, consider Manolo’s airbnb!
The view from the village and our apartment was impressive alone. At night it was incredibly quiet. Even with the local bar nearby. The bar is run by a local family and the clientele is of a very mature age. We joined them, along with Manolo for great company and conversation a few evenings before making dinner.
Transportation Between Villages
Cars are allowed on the roads between the villages but be prepared to play chicken. Some roads are not wide enough for two cars to pass each other around the same curve. Cars are not allowed in the villages, and the designated parking lots can be extremely crowded. If your using a car in the Cinque Terre, you should still be prepared to hoof it into the village.
The shuttle bus does a round trip run between Vernazza and San Bernadino every few hours but stops running after 7 pm. We walked to Vernazza from San Bernadino via the road on a downhill run. We passed many homes with amazing cliffside vineyards. A small chair lift is used to haul everything from people to supplies to and from each row of vines.
Some of the Italians we met in this area were very outgoing and extremely friendly. After a few rides on the shuttle the driver started to get to know us. She practiced her English while we practiced our Italian. On our second attempt to walk from San Bernadino down to Vernazza, a car came whizzing by us and stopped up ahead. It was the driver in her own personal car who asked if she could give us a lift!
The Train is the easiest and quickest way to get between villages except for Corniglia, the train doesn’t stop there. Beware of crowds during the middle of the day, people come flying out of the train cars, after being packed in like sardines. Early morning travel is best. We walked the road on another downhill run from San Bernadino to Corniglia, then hiked the trail over to Vernazza.
The Cinque Terre is a hikers paradise. An intricate 7 mile trail system connects all five villages. We met many serious looking hikers in full blown hiking gear on the trail between Corniglia to Vernazza. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when we got made fun of for wearing flip flops as our hiking shoe of choice.
Loud laughter followed from just behind the ridge. I guess they found that funny. I wasn’t paying attention but soon became aware of even more glances towards our feet from other hikers. The trail is a bit steep in some areas, rocky with uneven ground, and large steps both up and down. Our guide book calls this portion of the trail system demanding.
We both chuckled because what they didn’t know is that with boat living in Mexico we’ve become accustomed to having these flip flops sewn into the bottom of our feet. Just walking on some streets in Mexico, or hiking up the rocky desert ridges on the islands near La Paz can be demanding. I will admit if you can avoid hiking in flip flops then please do, because unless you have some extensive training, too many things could go wrong during your journey.
The other option to get between the villages is by boat. We observed this method carefully and determined it wasn’t for us. The fishing villages have very small harbors that do not allow the large ferries to actually pull up to a dock. They slowly nose into breakwater wall, drop the gang way long enough to board the passengers and off they go. Not to mention the boats looked a bit top heavy with all of the passengers congregating to one side.
Monterosso – This village has the most draw for its beaches and all the accessories for rent that come with beach going. Monterosso has both a new and old portion of town. In the old town we explored the harbor and the town center. The church exterior is made of candy striped marble. Stripes near the top are more narrow to give it the illusion that it is taller than it really is. The cemetery on the hill is a mild hike for a great view. Before leaving don’t forget a jar of fresh made pesto!
In the new town we dined at Riky’s where we met Mario and his wife vacationing for the first time in the Cinque Terre from a small town in Northern Italy. We enjoyed each others company throughout dinner as we eyed each other’s plates. Mario taught us about the Italian cuisine. Spaghetti should only be served with seafood or plain with tomato sauce, and ravioli traditionally contains meat not spinach, and is served with tomato sauce.
Vernazza: Walking through this beautiful village today, it is hard to imagine the town was completely devastated by a flood in 2011. In four hours 20 inches of rain fell burying the town in over 13 feet of mud and rocks. The water near the harbor is an absolute stunning color of turquoise blue with a clear view straight to the bottom. There are options for swimming, but we were afraid to put our feet in here for fear they might become permanently planted. The entire harbor area and the boats all brought back warm fuzzies of our own boat in Mexico.
In Vernazza we sampled the frocacia bread and gelato stands. The church near the harbor has the most magnificent view out of the side windows of the sea. Daria Castle is good for a climb, and also gives another great view of the harbor from above. Near the parking lot up the hill is a cafe called Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre. This is where we met the Sicilian twins who run the place.
At first we had no idea there were twins working there. Until we were asked the inevitable question twice by the “same” owner consecutive days in a row.
“Where are you from?”
“You don’t remember us? We had a whole conversation about this yesterday.”
“No, that was my brother. We’re twins!”
Indeed they were. Identical twins from Sicily who proudly introduced us to the concept that bacon and eggs are NOT for breakfast in Italy. Traditional breakfast in Italy is a cappuccino and a pastry. By the way, cappuccino is only for mornings, not for afternoons. By afternoon you drink an espresso. We enjoyed the entertainment and the lesson in Italian food from the twin brothers at Il Pirata.
Corniglia: This village serves up its own version of restaurants, small gift shops, a church, and a marina. Of course we followed the signs to the marina, to reveal the small fishing fleet, and the secret to visiting the Corniglia “beach.” Large rock stones are surrounded by water. Bring a towel, your bathing suite, lunch and pull up a seat on one of the fabulous volcanic rocks. Maybe consider packing a cushion. Sample the ravioli with walnut pesto sauce before you leave.
Riomaggiore: Riomaggore is the only town with its own elevator but don’t think that’s an invitation for you to bring your strollers to the Cinque Terre, unless you’re just that kind of crazy, or your packing a lot of wine in your child’s diaper bag. From the train station the picturesque part of town is through the pedestrian tunnel, where we found yet another sign for a marina. Of course we couldn’t resist, and found joy in watching the dinghy rentals, and scuba divers.
A funny moment occurred when a family whose little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl of about the age of 3 became an instant superstar. 20 or so Korean ladies were waiting with us and everyone else for the train but they found the little blond girl so captivating that they vied to have their photo taken with her individually while her parents patiently looked on and laughed.
If your still following along you will note we are missing one of the five villages. That’s right, we stayed in the Cinque Terre, and did not even visit all five villages! Guess that gives us reason for a return trip in the future. (wink. wink.)