Taking Tea in the Kasbah

Our Italian adventures continued as we left Florence (which you can read about here and here) and headed west by train to the Italian seaside: the Cinque Terre. The five lands (translation of Cinque Terre – pronounced CHINK-weh TAY-reh) seem to cling precariously to the Ligurian coastline, their buildings like pastel colored jewel boxes stacked on top of each other, somehow defying of the laws of gravity.

The five villages of the Cinque Terre are located at the southern end of the Ligurian coast and include (from north to south): Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. They have been perched precariously on the seaside cliffs in the northwestern region of Italy since medieval times. Rick Steves describes the Cinque Terre’s tumultuous history in his travel guide on Italy (2009):

“In the feudal era, this land was watched over by castles. Tiny communities grew up in their protective shadows, ready to run inside at the first hint of a Turkish Saracen pirate raid. Marauding pirates from North Africa were a persistent problem until about 1400. Many locals were kidnapped and ransomed or sold into slavery, and those who remained built fires on flat-roofed watchtowers to relay warnings – alerting the entire coast to imminent attacks. The last major raid was in 1545.

“As the threat of pirates faded, the villages prospered, catching fish and growing grapes. But until the advent of tourism in this generation, the towns remained isolated. Even today, traditions survive, and each of the five villages comes with a distinct dialect and its own proud heritage.”

The villages are linked by clearly marked hiking trails, some of which follow along the coastline and others that climb up into the steep hillsides that take you through vineyards and gardens. It is possible to hike the entire length between Monterosso al Mare to Riomaggiore in about four hours, but doing so won’t leave much time to enjoy the villages. (They are also linked by the train which runs frequently and is super easy to navigate.) I recommend allowing a full day to hike the trails and to be able to poke around in each of the villages. You will need a trail pass which can be bought at the train station or the trail heads. (In 2011, a one day pass cost €5.)

Very few cars or Vespas are driven in the Cinque Terre due to the narrow and steeply winding streets as well as in most areas of the villages, the only way to get from one place to another is to take the stone stairs that have been laid or carved into the cliffs. And when I say stairs, I mean if you lived there, you would have buns of steel.

No need for stairmasters here

We were staying in Vernazza in a small apartment hosted by the owners, Maria and Giacomo Capellini. The kindly and elderly Giacomo met us in the town piazza, a quick five-minute walk from the train station. After greetings in English and Italian, he scooped up our bags as though they were full of feathers and led us across the piazza to the apartment building. Then, with the strength of a mountain goat, Giacomo swiftly climbed the 62 steps (yes, we counted them later) up three flights of stairs to our apartment. By the time Mappy and I made it to the door we were panting and sweating and our sturdy host wasn’t even the tiniest bit out of breath.

The kitchen and balcony

The bedroom area

Giacomo and his sweet wife, Maria, helped us get settled in to the charming and quaint apartment and oriented to the tiny village of Vernazza. Mappy and I were nerdishly excited about having our very own clothesline right outside the balcony doors.

The humble clothesline, how we loved you so.

By then, we had become total laundry nerds. In our defense, it had been quite hot in Italy and we were walking an average of six hours per day while sightseeing. Plus, we had seven miles of hiking to do the next day and all of that makes for lots of sweaty, stinky clothes. Because we already had a couple of strikes against us being foreigners who didn’t speak the language very well, we thought it best to at least smell fresh when ordering our wine and gelato. So, we had quickly become experts at hand washing our clothes in sinks all over Italy. Having our own Italian clothesline right outside the door made us simply giddy with excitement. Like I said: Total. Laundry. Nerds.

We quickly unpacked our stuff and then went down by the seaside to enjoy the view and the cooling breeze while scoping out where our next gelato fix would come from.

Beach area in Vernazza

One of the reasons I chose Vernazza as our home base was because it has a nice, flat beach. Several of the other villages have rocky, steep beaches and one – Corniglia – doesn’t have a beach at all because it’s high up on a cliff. The beach in Vernazza is right off the piazza and there are kayaks or small boats you can rent to go out on the azure Ligurian Sea. (The five villages are also accessible by boat or kayak if you are the sea-faring type.)

Vernazza has a central main street where the majority of the shops and restaurants are located. The entirety of the village can be leisurely explored in less than an hour. Teeming with tourists and locals by day, the small village (population: 500) takes on a whole other feel at night. The jewel box buildings glow in the lantern light, couples and families walk along the beach or shoreline at sunset, and the outdoor cafes and restaurants circling the piazza come to life with boisterous laughter and conversations.

Mappy and I chose to eat dinner that first evening at a restaurant perched high up on the cliff above the piazza so we could take in the view. After 8 gazillion steps (no, I didn’t count this time), we were rewarded with the most amazing view of the trip so far.

View of the Ligurian Sea from the restaurant’s outdoor patio

View of Vernazza

The next day we planned to hike as much of the trail between the five villages as we could while also allowing ourselves time to explore each of the villages at our leisure. We were in Italy and had come to embrace La Dolce Vita, the sweet life, which to us meant not making each day a mad rush to see everything. We also took it to mean we should eat gelato every day and sample as many flavors as possible, a mission we took seriously.

We decided to head south with the idea that we could catch the train from the southern-most village of Riomaggiore up to Monterosso al Mare and then hike the rest of the way back to Vernazza. We easily found the trail head in Vernazza and began the long ascent up into the hillside that would lead us to the next village: Corniglia.

View of Corniglia from the trail

Looking back at Vernazza

Nearly two hours later (we had accidentally taken the longer, steeper trail), we arrived in Corniglia (pronounced like the name, Cornelia), the only one of the five villages not on the water. It is described in the guide books as the quietest village and that certainly was the case while we were there.


Corniglia is beautiful yet small and didn’t take much time to walk through. We weren’t hungry yet for lunch so we headed towards the connecting trailhead that would lead us to the next village, Manarola.

When we got there, signs were indicating landslides had temporarily washed out parts of the shorter trail between Corniglia and Manarola. The only other trail available was one that went even higher up the hillside and was nearly twice as long. By now, the sun was blazing down on us and the thought of taking an even steeper trail to get to Manarola was totally unappealing. So, instead of hiking we walked down the 400 steps (according to my Rick Steves guidebook) that zigzag down to the train station. Within ten minutes, the next train arrived and five minutes later, we were in Manarola. Easy peasy.


Manarola was much bigger and busier than sleepy Corniglia. I was fascinated by the way boats were parked like cars along the streets.


We walked down to the swimming area and wished we had been smart enough to have packed our swimsuits in our backpacks. The water was so clear and delightfully pleasant – not too cold, not too warm – and I wanted to jump in, clothes and all just to cool off.

Manarola’s swimming area

The next village, Riomaggiore, was accessible by trail, a portion of which is called the Via dell’ Amore, the Pathway of Love. It’s an easy and flat stretch of trail. The villages of the Cinque Terre were relatively isolated from each other and the rest of the country up until the 1920’s. Because of this, villagers in each of the towns rarely married anyone outside of their village. Then in the 1920’s, the first trail was made between Riomaggiore and Manarola, though persistent landslides closed the trail more often than it was open.

By WWII the trail came to be known as a meeting point for lovers from the two villages. A journalist who noticed all of the proclamations of love in the graffiti that had appeared along the path coined the name Via dell’ Amore and it has stuck ever since. These days you will also find clusters of padlocks attached to the cables or railings along the path. The latest craze in Italy is to close a padlock on to a cable or railing with your loved one as a symbol of affection.

Via dell’ Amore

Lock in your love along the Via dell’ Amore

After a quick lunch in Riomaggiore, we took the train all the way up to Montorosso al Mare, the most “resort-like” of the five villages. Packed with people, we could hardly navigate through the town for the crowds.

The crowded yet orderly beach in Montorosso al Mare

We decided to make it a brief stop and then hike back to Vernazza. Unfortunately, it was later (and hotter) than we thought. According to the travel guide books, the 90 minute hike back to Vernazza is a scenic, up-and-down trek with very narrow sections that can be tricky to navigate. Feeling hot and tired, we opted to forgo the somewhat treacherous hike in 90 degree heat in favor of the quick five-minute train ride.

Fifteen minutes later (we did have to walk to and from the train stations after all), we were back in the apartment, ceiling fans whirring above us, ready to wash our clothes and hang them on the clothesline. We felt oh-so-Italian doing so.

Mappy admiring our handiwork with the clothesline

After a long day of hiking and walking in the nearly vertical villages, we decided to spend some time relaxing in the apartment. Mappy drew in her sketch book and I sat by the open doors to the balcony writing in my journal listening to the lilting conversations between families and neighbors outside: local residents returning from work, talking while preparing the evening meal, or chatting with a neighbor outside in the alleyway. I couldn’t understand much of what was being said, though I didn’t mind. Italian is so beautiful to listen to that it was like listening to my own personal soundtrack as I wrote in my journal.

As we were having our evening gelato, the church bells began to ring and a procession of people made their way through the piazza tossing flower petals in their wake. We had the good fortune of witnessing another procession in honor of a patron saint, this time Vernazza’s revered San Giovanni. Children followed behind picking up the flower petals and tossing them in the air like confetti.

Gathering flower petals after the procession

Best gelato of the whole trip: chocolate and pistachio combo from Porticciolo’s in Vernazza

Before we left Vernazza, Maria and Giacomo invited us to their apartment for a glass of their delicious homemade wine. Even though they spoke only a little English and our Italian wasn’t great, we were able to chat with them for a while before catching the train. Meeting such lovely and friendly people like Maria and Giacomo always felt like the icing on the luscious cake during our time in Italy.

Me and our adorable host, Maria, waiting for the train

The Cinque Terre was a completely decadent way to take a break from all of the sightseeing we had been doing in Venice and Florence for the past week. The brilliant blue of the sea, the soul-warming sunshine, the winding hiking trails, the breathtaking views and the mouth-watering food and wine were like taking a vacation within a vacation. The Cinque Terre earns all of the adjectives travelers have been heaping upon her shores for decades and then some.

So, my adventurous readers, what are your thoughts or questions about the Cinque Terre? Would you have enjoyed all of that stair climbing in exchange for the gorgeous views? Sit a while and share. (There aren’t any stairs here in the kasbah so really, there’s not reason not to.)

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24 thoughts on “The Cliffside Villages of the Cinque Terre

  1. sigh….beautiful. Reading this post was like taking a mini-vacation! Thanks Tami!
    Great photos, btw.

    • Thanks, Laird! As I was going through my photos, I was longing to be back there, sipping wine and looking out at the blue, blue sea.

  2. I left a comment, but closed my window quickly and realized it may not have actually gone through. If you get more than one from me, just delete this one. 🙂

    This was fun to read since I just came back from Italy and spent a night in Corniglia on our way from Tuscany to Lake Como. We took the long hike from Corniglia to Vernazza on a hot afternoon (we had to make every second count since our time there was limited). I lost weight while in Italy and I’m pretty sure it’s mostly from sweating that afternoon on all those stairs and hills.

    We spent the evening at the beach and had dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Monterossa. Everything was lovely. Corniglia was quiet except we had an impromptu soccer game erupt on a basketball court outside our apartment room. Fortunately we were enjoying the views from the rooftop terrace, so that just gave us more to watch. We even got to watch the moon rise over Manarola… stunning!

    Thank you for sharing your stories and pictures! It’s fun to see what else I might have missed in our breeze through.

    • Sounds like we took the same hike, just going in opposite directions. The moonrise is gorgeous over the Ligurian Sea, isn’t it? *sigh* And there’s something about being up so high above everything that makes it that much more magical. 🙂

      Sounds like you saw quite a bit while in the Cinque Terre. I hope you post about your time in Lake Como someday. We didn’t make it to that area and I would have liked to do so. Next time…

  3. Gorgeous.

    Tami, I have to stop reading your post because every destination you feature gets added to my list of places to go.

    KA-snort on laundry nerds. You’ll have to hang some unmentionables on that there clothesline, then get together with Jenny Hansen (More Cowbell) for an Undie Chronicle post.

    • Thanks, Sherry. I’ll have to search through the photos to see if we captured our unmentionables on the clothesline in any of the places we stayed. We washed clothes often enough that I’m thinking we should have one in there somewhere. After seeing some of the fantastic Undie Chronicle undies at Jenny’s, I don’t think ours could compete. 😉

  4. Oh, Tami, I love this post! I was in the Cinque Terre 2 years ago and it was just like a slice of heaven. I stayed in Vernazza and we may have had gelato from the same shop 🙂 Unfortunately, most of the paths between the towns were closed at the time due to rain, but I did enjoy the Via dell’Amore–one of the most spectacular walks I’ve ever taken. What a charming haven away from the world. I’m glad you got to go 🙂

    • Even though most of the trails were closed, it sounds like you had a great time in the Cinque Terre. Yes, it is charming haven there – I’m glad we both had the chance to experience it. 🙂

  5. Tami, another delightful post. Now I have to add this to my list of places to visit. So many places I want to go! I had heard about these five towns before, so I was glad to read more about them. Thanks.

    • Oh, yes – you should go next time you’re in Italy. So worth it and it’s easy to get to by train (which is how we got around in Italy). Even if you don’t do all of the trails, just exploring the villages and having a glass of wine by the sea is simply divine. I hope you make it there someday.

  6. on ,
    Mary Ann said:

    Tami, this brought me back to my ‘honeymoon’ time 15 years ago…thanks for writing in a way that takes me on a journey with you

  7. on ,
    marcia said:

    Now I’m ruined for the day….I no longer want to attend my 3:30 district meeting and
    all I want instead is gelato and sea breezes from the Cinque Terre. Sigh….

  8. How did you ever leave? If I could only go to one area in Italy, this would be IT. And when I do finally make it there, I will probably stay. So beautiful. Thank you!

    • It was difficult to leave such a beautiful place though we had lots more to look to forward to on our trip. When you make it to Italy, you should definitely go here. I’m so glad we were able to make it a part of our time there.

  9. on ,
    Coleen Patrick said:

    Love the photos! I especially want to jump off those rocks and swim in that clear water 🙂

    • Thanks, Coleen! I wanted to jump in the water, too! Next time I’ll be sure to have my swimsuit with me. 🙂

    • It is even more stunning than my humble photos reveal. And the clothesline made it that much more enjoyable. 😉

  10. OMG, I am SO jealous. SO JEALOUS!!! I’ve been aching to go here for years. My sister and I have a trip planned that is still the fantasy trip but will be reality if I have anything to say about it….hold on. Drifted off into the fantasy trip zone there for a bit. We’re to hike the swiss alps, visit Florence for a latte (priorities; their lattes are totally worth 20 hrs in a train), cinque terra and then…who cares. I want to hang out there for as long as I can.

    • I so hope you make it there someday soon. Everywhere we went in Italy was amazing in its own unique way. The Cinque Terre had some of the most amazing views and it didn’t hurt that we lucked out with gorgeous weather.

      Your fantasy trip from the Swiss Alps and then down into Italy sounds wonderful. In my humble opinion, I would add a stop in the Lake Como area as well as a stop in Venice if you have the time, you know, since you are all the way over there anyway. I didn’t make it to the northern lakes region but it is on my list for a return trip someday. Venice, though, was amazing. 🙂

      • Yep, Venice is on the list (before it sinks under the sea) and Lake Como is on it as well. Clearly I need to consult you before I go as you totally have the same dream trips I do. Except you have gone. SO JEALOUS!

        • I would be happy to share what I know and what I learned from my time in Italy with you. Ask anytime. I will eventually have a post on tips and tricks for making travel in Italy a little easier.

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