Cinque Terre, Italy
In over 40 visits to Italy, somehow I had never made it to Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, a grouping of five towns (plus a couple others) on the Mediterranean, has always been a region based around agriculture – specifically grapes and olives. Then people started hiking from town to town as a sort of mini-pilgrimage and, most recently, it has become a destination for Instagram influencers, posing in front of its colorful houses. But at its heart it’s still about agriculture and wine.
My visit was actually prompted by an online campaign to help winemakers rebuild the ancient stone walls that allow the land to be terraced and grow grapes. The pitch was simple:
- Without the wine growers, there would be no one to monitor or repair the walls;
- Without the walls, there would be no Cinque Terre.
I contributed to the campaign and my perk was a guided Cinque Terre hike. I wanted to help, but I also wanted to have an excuse to finally visit!
Florence to Cinque Terre
I set aside two days of my week-long trip to Florence to visit Cinque Terre. My friend and I actually kept our hotel room in Florence, putting a change of clothes and some toiletries in our backpacks and setting off for the Cinque Terre town of Manarola.
The trains from Florence to Cinque Terre go through Pisa and La Spezia. Instead of simply changing trains, we decided to stop at both cities.
Our 8:28am regional train to Pisa put us in an hour later at 9:28. We walked from the train station to the cathedral and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, walked around the cathedral for a little while, and then slowly headed back to the train station, stopping for cappuccini. We had booked tickets for the 11:42am train to La Spezia and really didn’t need that much time in Pisa. If your goal is just to see the Leaning Tower, an hour and a half is plenty to walk there, take photos and walk back to the central station.
I had stopped at La Spezia on a Disney Cruise with my family many years ago and, instead of doing a day trip to Florence (a bad idea – see this post) or Cinque Terre (a bad idea – see below), we simply relaxed in the small seaside town for half a day. This time my friend and I arrived into the main station at 12:36pm and had until 2:55pm to explore and get lunch. We headed down the main pedestrian street towards the port, got take-out focaccia (a regional specialty) and made it to the port just in time for a major rainstorm to move in. We waited out the storm under the umbrellas of a restaurant for 20 minutes and then quickly walked back to the station, arriving soaking wet just before our train left. If it hadn’t been for the rain, two hours would have been plenty for a La Spezia lunch stop.
Manarola, the second town of Cinque Terre as you travel north from La Spezia, was our destination (the five towns of Cinque Terre, in order south to north, are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso). We chose Manarola because it’s the base of Cinque Terre Trekking, which was arranging our hike.
After a 10-minute train ride from La Spezia, we walked a few minutes from the Manarola train station up to Da Baranin B&B – our home for the night. We checked in, changed into dry clothes and set out to explore Manarola.
In town we grabbed a bottle of local rosé and brought it back to our room. A perfect setting!
We were in Manarola on a rainy Thursday night and most restaurants were closed, either because they close when it rains or because they’re closed on Thursdays. So we had dinner with Christine and Nicola from Cinque Terre Trekking at Locanda Tiabuscion in the nearby town of Volastra. Our meals – the ravioli ragu and pesto trofie with green beans and potatoes – were excellent, as were the local wines.
Hiking in Cinque Terre
After a great breakfast in our room at Da Baranin right at 8am, we checked out and walked down to Cinque Terre Trekking to meet up with Christine and Nicola. Note: Cinque Terre Trekking is an outdoor outfitter and not a trekking operation! They don’t normally lead treks. Instead they’ve become the experts on the local trails and made all of their trail information publicly available (see below). It’s actually not very easy to hire hiking guides in the Cinque Terre, but you also don’t need to. Download an app, figure out where you want to go and follow the directions. On the off-chance you get lost, you should be able to see the coast most of the time and you can simply angle to the village you want to reach. I had a good cell signal the entire hike.
The traditional Cinque Terre hike is from village to village. There used to be an easy coastal path that connected the towns, but two landslides a decade ago destroyed sections of the trail, and they remain closed (because Italy). You can still hike from town to town, but you’ll need to head up the hill to the alternate trails. Or do what we did and hike up and back. There are 120km of local trails and you’ll have a fun hike no matter which you choose.
Our Cinque Terre Hike
We hiked on a combination of marked and unmarked/reclaimed trails. The marked trails are part of the REL (Rete Escursionistica Ligure) network, are numbered and signposted, and are marked with white and red blazes. The unmarked trails are those that were abandoned for decades and reopened by local volunteers, and they aren’t signposted. Cinque Terre Trekking and other volunteers have uploaded the unmarked trails to OpenStreetMap.org, which is where most trail apps, like AllTrails and maps.me, get their data, so as long as you’re using a standard map app you should be good. Our hike:
- Trail N. 502 (stairs starting in Manarola)
- Donega Trail (unmarked, through mostly abandoned vineyards, with views of Manarola)
- Trail N. 506 (through the village of Volastra)
- Trail 6A (unmarked, we turned off the marked trail in the forest)
- AV5T (the ridge trail)
- Trail 6C (unmarked, to Monte le Croci with the three crosses)
- Trail 6Cplus (unmarked descent through the forest)
- Trail N. 586 (a flat panoramic trail through vineyards back to Volastra)
- Trail N. 506 (descent through olives and vineyards back to Manarola)
In all we walked 6.1 miles (10km) / 16,300 steps in 4.5 hours. The elevation gain to the three crosses was 2,600 feet. We went along 1,000-year-old stone walls, through the forest and into the clouds. It was absolutely perfect – highly recommended.
Arriving back in Manarola at 1pm, we headed to Trattoria dal Billy, close to Da Baranin, for lunch. We got two servings of pesto trofie with green beans and potatoes and a bottle of local wine and rested our legs! The view was gorgeous and the food was excellent. No pictures from lunch, sorry! I try to put my phone down sometimes.
Leaving Manarola we ended up jumping on an earlier train than we had booked, and connected to earlier trains to Pisa and then to Florence. Our tickets were checked once and it wasn’t an issue that we were on different trains.
Uncontrolled Mass Tourism in Cinque Terre
I spoke with local residents from Manarola, Volastra and Riomaggiore about the current state of tourism in the Cinque Terre and they all had different stories but the same overall message – namely that there are way too many visitors, and they are negatively impacting the quality of life for those who call the Cinque Terre home. Their requests:
- Please don’t visit the towns of Cinque Terre on a bus tour. Multiple groups of 50+ people going through the tiny towns clog the walkways and contribute nothing to the towns – just to the tour companies.
- Please don’t visit on day excursions from cruise ships. Again you’re contributing nothing and making it harder for people to live there. I cringe thinking about all of the people from our Disney ship who got onto large buses and inundated Cinque Terre for a day.
- Please don’t take a train in for an hour to take photos for Instagram and then continue to the next town. Instagram didn’t create Cinque Terre’s problems, but it’s made it worse. The towns and people there shouldn’t be props.
How to Be a Good Tourist in Cinque Terre
Don’t get me wrong – the residents of Cinque Terre are happy to have people visit, and yes, you’re welcome to take photos in front of the colorful houses! If you’re going to visit though, be sure that you:
- Stay overnight, or even better, stay multiple nights.
- Eat at locally-owned restaurants. And there are so many good places to dine that no one place is worth a long wait, especially for Instagram.
- Order local wines when you dine, and take some home with you. This supports the farmers more than anything else you can do.
- Hike. Hike up and back like we did, or from town to town. If you visit multiple towns, be sure to stop for meals or drinks in each one.
And please pass this along to others! If you see an Instagram influencer posting a photo from Cinque Terre with a caption saying that they didn’t have time to hike or do anything but take pictures, call them out since their post will only encourage more shallow, harmful tourism. And the tour companies and cruise lines have no incentive to limit the number of visitors. They’re only interested in revenue, and unfortunately that comes at the expense of the local residents. If everyone stops purchasing bus excursions to Cinque Terre, much of the over-tourism problem will be solved. Your individual decision to travel better and travel deeper really does make a difference.
Cinque Terre – Your Turn
Have you been to Cinque Terre? Where did you base? What do you recommend to others?