One of the most dramatic sceneries in the world composed of these five ingeniously constructed fishing villages can bolster even the most jaded spirits. Sinuous paths traverse seemingly impregnable cliffsides of this UNESCO World Heritage List member, while a railway from 19th century lead through a series of tunnels and will ferry you from village to village. Fortunately, cars were banned years ago and only natives have access to them.
Rooted in antiquity, Cinque Terre’s five villages date from the early medieval period. Monterosso, the oldest one, was founded in 643, when hill dwellers moved down to the coast to escape from invading barbarians. Riomaggiore came next, established in the 8th century by Greek settlers fleeing persecution in Byzantium. The others are Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola (my favourite one). Much of what remains in the villages today dates from the late Middle Ages, including several castles and parish churches.
In this article of mine I’m gonna talk about three of them – Riomaggiore, Manarola and Vernazza. Happy reading!
Riomaggiore is the most southern village of the Cinque Terre. It was first mentioned in the 13th century. The founders of the village moved from the hills to the sea, and built 3-4-storey houses on the rocky, steep territory. The houses have two entrances, one at the front and one at the back, usually higher up. The buildings were constructed this way not only because of the steep hills, but also for safety reasons, so that the inhabitants could escape in case of Saracen attacks.
The village was built in the valley of the Rivus Maior (river), hence the name. The river was covered, it’s now running under the main street. From the main street, Via Colombo, many sets of steps lead to small alleys further up the hill. The word “carruggio” refers to the tiny, narrow back alleys that you will find all around the Cinque Terre and Liguria. The houses are built close to one another, not much sun enters the back alleys, so they are nice and cool even during the hot summer months. Riomaggiore is like a labyrinth of alleys and steps to be honest.
The village is divided into two by the railway line. The area by the sea with the colourful little boats (gozzi) and the drying nets is the fishing village (borgo dei pescatori) where tourists enjoy the mediterranean sun, local fishermen take a siesta, and you can watch a beautiful sunset from small seafood restaurants. The rocky beach of Riomaggiore can also be found around here, just take the trail to the left, along the sea.
Of course the fishermen work as well, at night or early morning, and many local traditional dishes are still based on the catch from the sea. From the main street (and station), you can get to the fishing village through the underpass, following the “Marina” sign. Right behind the tunnel will amazing views opens up.
The upper part is the agricultural village (borgo dei contadini), surrounded by terraces. This is where you’ll find Via Colombo, the steep main street, with lot of steps on both sides. The main street is full of restaurants, bars and small shops. Above the railway lines a nice piazza was created, one of the few flat areas in the village. This is where kids are running around and playing soccer after school.
Further up, near the church runs Via Telemaco Signorini, named after the famous Italian impressionist painter. The Florence-born artist discovered Riomaggiore in 1860, then later returned several times, lived and worked in the village. He created beautiful paintings about the unique landscape and the life of the local people.
The main street and the railway station are connected by a long pedestrian tunnel. Pay attention to the nice mosaics! Near the station as well as on the walls of the Town Hall you will see the murals of an Italian-Argentinian artist named Silvio Benedetto. His interesting artworks are inspired by the hard work of local farmers.
Traditionally the famous coastal hiking path, the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue path) begins in Riomaggiore. The first section – between Riomaggiore and Manarola – is called Via dell’Amore (Lover’s path). The path begins near the railway station with a set of steps; you will see the “Via dell’Amore” sign. Unfortunately the Via dell’Amore is currently closed because of a rock slide.
Try to arrive early before the big groups arrive, then it gets too busy and crowded. If you are staying in the village, it’s worth getting up early as this time of the day you will meet locals only. Get some fresh fruit and warm pastry for breakfast, and watch the fish vendor and the old ladies chatting in the street.
Quite a few seafood takeaway places popped up in Riomaggiore during the past years. Although I am a big fan of slow food, these can be good options if you just want a quick bite and something cheaper than restaurants. Try “Il Pescato Cucinato” or “Mamma Mia!”.
Riomaggiore is also a good choice for young people who want to go out in the evening, sit around in bars and meet other travellers. Bar O’Netto and Vertical Bar are popular these days. Of course if you walk off the busy main street, you will find numerous wonderful, quiet little streets in Riomaggiore as well. Great (and not so expensive) accommodations are offered in quiet places with great seaview, so Riomaggiore can also be a good base for discovering the Cinque Terre.
The first time I came into contact with this little village was few years ago, when I read about it in one Slovak magazine. There was an article dedicated to the Italian spots of tourism and between these ,,most beautiful attractions’’ was mentioned even this village. Back at that time I was like, oh gosh, I have no chances to visit it, soon or later I will also forget its name…but you know what I did? I did one really childish and embarrasing thing – but who cares, when it deals with this kind of beauty? Well, I set a gorgeous wallpaper of Manarola up on my computer. Great idea, right? Haha. So how the time flew, I grew up, and four years later, looking at this wallpaper I realized, that Cinque Terre (and also Italy) would be a great destination for the spring break (and our Eurotrip)! And you know, what I did? Yeah, you guessed it right, we planned it, we managed it and then…when we were finally there, after the long miserable bus journey…we admired it.
Manarola is even older than Riomaggiore, with the cornerstone of the church, San Lorenzo, dating from 1338. But the first mention was way earlier – in 1261. The local dialect is Manarolese, which is marginally – and amazingly, though, different from the dialects in the nearby area. The name ,,Manarola’’ is probably a dialectical evolution of the Latin, ,,magna rota’’. In the Manarolese dialect this was changed to ,,magna roea’ which means ,,large wheel’’, in reference to the mill wheel in the town. Or the second option is its roman origin: it may come from a name of an altar dedicated to the Mani Gods, ,,manium arula’’. But because in both sources it means basically the same, there is no reason to talk about this ,,problem’’ further.
If you arrive on the path from Riomaggiore, you will first see the back of the village. Once you get to the end of Via dell’Amore, you can descend to the railway station of Manarola. At the station you find a pedestrian tunnel, which will take you to the main street of Manarola. So when you exit the tunnel, turn right and walk all the way up to the square of the church (Piazza Papa Innocenzo IV) for a nice view. Along the way you’ll see an old mill wheel as well.
Once you pass the square, continue on the upper, quiet street of Manarola, Via Rollandi. You will also pass the best restaurant of Manarola, Trattoria dal Billy. At the end of the street you can return on Via Belvedere to the main street. Heading towards the sea from here, you will first come to Piazza Capellini. This piazza is not very old, it covers the railway lines, as trains used to rush through the middle of the village. On the other side of the square pay attention to the old photos.
At the lower part of the main street are fishing boats parked in the harbout just like cars in an average town. You can continue walking by a path leading to another village, Corniglia (its quarter Punta Bonfiglio to be exact), from which you will get breathtaking view from a little exotic park to the colourful houses in this tiny town. Near this path is also a great bar called ,,Nessun Dorma’’. You can swim in the sea there, just jump off the rocks if you are brave enough or walk down the ladder. The water is deep, so for good swimmers only! The bay is full of fish, so take your snorkeling gear with you. If you are lucky you can also watch how local fishermen pull up the boats from the sea with the crane.
But what to actually see there, aside the astonishing little houses?
Church of San Lorenzo
The church, built in 1338, has a Gothic facade with a nice rose window and Baroque-style interior. On the facade, there is a bas-relief representing the martyrdom of San Lorenzo. On the 15th-century triptych, you can see San Lorenzo with other saints. The church can be found in the upper part of the village. On the same square you will find a 14th-century oratory and a bell tower from the 13th century, originally built as a watch tower.
Manarola’s castle was probably built in the 13th century. Unfortunately, today, you can only see the remains of the bastion, surrounded by colourful houses.
In this museum, computer presentations, videos, photos and traditional objects will help you understand how the great dessert wine is made, and you can also learn about local life and the hard agricultural work on the terraces.
Manarola is worth a visit during winter as well, as for the holiday season Mario Andreoli turns the hillside of Manarola into a huge nativity scene. The 300 characters are made of recycled materials, and are placed in a different way every year. Of course the nativity scene is the most beautiful at night, illuminated. You can see it from the start of December until the end of January. Different scenes are illuminated on August 10, the day of San Lorenzo, and at Easter time. It’s possible to rent rooms with great views.
- first 13 photos are from my first visit in March 2017 and other ones from my second visit in August 2017
Vernazza is a pearl of the Cinque Terre, the most splendid of all five towns. The beautiful church of Margaret of Antioch dated the beginning of the 14th century is standing near the Belforte Tower and the ruins of the castle that was created in the 9th century. On the square facing the bay there are many Italian cuisine restaurants. The population of Vernazza is slightly more than 1000 people.
The fortified town is mentioned in documents starting a early as the 1080 and served as a military/naval base for marchesi Obertenghi as they worked to defend the coast from the Saracen pirates raids which often devastated the small towns to the left and right. For the next two hundred years, Vernazza was key to Genova’s conquest of Liguria, providing port, fleet, and soldiers till they were eventually consumed by Pisa.
The Festa dei Pirati, takes place every year as a floating festival since there is no fixed date…but the fun is guaranteed when it all goes down after about 10 at night! Dressed as pirates accompanied by a percussion group called “Batebalengo”, the town is “invaded” by saracen pirates reenacting the famous raids which tormented their ancestors hundreds of years ago.
In Vernazza, you will find the typical Italian piazza where the locals would gather to “gossip” or spend time together. In local dialect of course, which is known as “u cantu de musse”, and is one of the more characteristic corners of town.
Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia
The octagonal tower of 40 meters and the entrance, located in the apse side rather than in the facade side makes this church stand out for its exceptional simplicity and beauty and it also makes the choice for the brides in the area. St. Marguerite is the patron saint, and legend tells of a treasure chest containing the bones of her hand beached on the shore of Vernazza, lost and then found again. The people of Vernazza saw it as a sign to build the church on the same spot where the bones were found. The church is mentioned for the first time 1318, however there are some debates as to its actual construction since the materials and mode of construction could place its origins earlier, some time in the 12th century. The Feast of Santa Margherita is on 20th of July when the town celebrates with a festival and fireworks.
The Doria castle contains one of the few of the original watch towers that protected Vernazza and its people during the reign of the Republic of Genoa.
The Sanctuary of our Lady of Regio
Located two kilometers above the train station, the sanctuary sits where it’s thought to be the site of the first town, before it moved closer to the coast. There’s a path which you can follow to the 11th century sanctuary to view the Madonna di Reggio, a black-skinned Madonna which many call the “l’Africana”. This image was apparently brought here to Vernazza at the time of the crusades and it’s venerated by many. The feast of the Madonna di Reggio is celebrated on the first of August.
City Walls and Convent
The Convent of the Reformed Fathers of St. Francis is now the government headquarters in Vernazza. Nestled in the city walls, it’s possible to view tower (once one of the city watch towers), cloister and a church which is no longer in use. This exceptionally beautiful convent was newly restored, bringing to life 14 marble covered tombs with latin inscriptions underneath the church floor.
There are two possible beaches in Vernazza. The first and easiest to get to is near the harbour, with small sandy beach and another one (a bit larger) which can be reached from the main square of the city.
And finally, how to get there?
Well, either you will arrive by car and then try to far a parking lot, rent a boat in La Spezia and spend the day there (prices are around 100€ for a family and I honestly think this is the best option…I haven’t tried it this way unfortunately and I regret it). Or another way to see this magical place is by getting there by a train. Full timetable and all the prices can be found here: Trains from La Spezia to Cinque Terre.
I hope you’ll be as enchanted as I was…really breathtaking place, don’t you think? Have you ever been there or you’re just planning it! Let me know! 🙂