Italy’s Riviera: Cinque Terre

Exploring Italy's most remote and romantic stretch of Riviera, we visit five tiny port towns: dramatic Vernazza, surrounded by vineyards; reclusive Corniglia, high on its bluff; pastel Manarola; hardscrabble Riomaggiore; and the pint-sized resort of Monterosso. Fishing for anchovies, sipping wine out of rustic barrels, and savoring twinkling Mediterranean vistas, we enjoy the ultimate Riviera adventure.

Travel Details

Castello Doria

Vernazza's castle, which is now a grassy park with great views (and nothing but stones), still guards the town. This was the town's watchtower back in pirate days, and a Nazi lookout in World War II. The castle tower looks new because it was rebuilt after the British bombed it, chasing out the Germans (small fee, open daily).

Ristorante al Castello

Perched just below Vernazza's castle, this restaurant is run by gracious and English-speaking Monica, her husband Massimo, kind Mario, and the rest of her family. Their lasagne al pesto, “spaghetti on the rocks” (noodles with shellfish), and scampi crêpes are time-honored family specialties. For simple fare and a special evening, reserve one of the dozen romantic cliff-side sea-view tables for two. Some of these tables snake around the castle, where you'll feel like you're eating all alone with the Mediterranean. Monica offers a free sciacchetrà or limoncello with biscotti if you have my guidebook (closed Wed and Nov–April, tel. 0187-812-296).

Miky (restaurant in Monterosso)

Miky is packed with well-dressed locals who know their seafood and want to eat it in a classy environment. For elegantly presented, top-quality food, with subtle flavors that celebrate local ingredients and traditions, this is my Cinque Terre favorite. It's clearly a proud family operation: Miky (dad), Simonetta (mom), charming Sara (daughter, who greets guests), and the attentive but easygoing waitstaff all work hard. All their pasta is "pizza pasta" — cooked normally but finished in a bowl that's encased in a thin pizza crust. They cook the concoction in a wood-fired oven to keep in the aroma, then flambé it at your table. Miky's has a fine wine list with many available by the glass if you ask. If I were ever to require a dessert, it would be their mixed sampler plate, dolce misto, which offers enough for two (closed Tue, reservations wise in summer, diners tend to dress up a bit — but it's not required).

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.


Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're rebuilding medieval terraces, here on the most beautiful stretch of the Mediterranean coastline: Italy's Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre is five little towns like this — beautifully isolated in the most seductive stretch of the Italian Riviera. For me, the best bits of Italy are traffic-free — and in this unique mix of Italian culture and nature, there's not a Fiat in sight.

We'll explore five rugged little port towns, ride a wine train high into the vineyards, make pesto in its birthplace, dive from spectacular cliffs, buy flowers from a singing florist, and hike — soaking up more sun and scenery than you can imagine.

In the south of Europe is Italy, and between Florence and Genoa lies the Cinque Terre. We'll see all five towns — starting in Vernazza. Then we hike to Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore before catching the boat to Monterosso al Mare.

The Cinque Terre, which means "five lands," was originally described in medieval times as "the five castles." Tiny communities like this grew up in the protective shadows of their castles — their people ready to run for refuge at the first hint of a Turkish pirate raid.

As the threat of pirates faded, the communities grew with economies based on fish, olives, and grapes. Today, the big employer is tourism. Each rugged little town is a variation on the same theme: a well-whittled pastel jumble of homes filling its ravine. These days the castles, which used to protect the towns from marauding pirates, guard only glorious views.

This 10-kilometer stretch of the Italian Riviera is the rugged alternative to the glitzy Riviera resorts nearby. The traffic-free charm is a happy result of its natural isolation. Just sun, sea, sand — well, pebbles — and people. For me, this is Italy at its most relaxed.

For a home base, choose among the five villages. Each has a distinct personality — gently and steadily carving a good life out of the difficult terrain.

You approach the Cinque Terre by train through long, dark tunnels. Explosions of Mediterranean brightness hint at the wonders to come. Milk-run trains tie the villages to each other and to the outside world. The first train line cutting through this tough, mountainous coastline was an engineering marvel for its day.

It was carved out of these mountains just after the unification of Italy, back in the 1870s. Built with the same determined spirit that united Italy, this train line literally helped tie together the newborn country's diverse regions.

We start in Vernazza, where the big news is the hourly arrival of the train bringing an almost rhythmic surge of visitors into town. There's one main street — it runs from its train station down to the sea. Of the five towns, Vernazza has the closest thing to a natural harbor.

The old castle no longer says "stay away." Instead, it seems to welcome people-packed excursion boats. Settle into a comfy spot on the breakwater. Study the arrangement man and nature have carved out here over the last 15 centuries. Crumpled hills come with topographical lines: a terraced, green bouquet of cactus, grapevines, and olive trees blanketing the surrounding hills.

Each town is honeycombed with a range of rooms, apartments, and small hotels. Rentable private rooms — called camere — are the best values throughout the Cinque Terre.

This gang rented a place with a homey living room and a small but fully equipped kitchen. This couple chose a perch right above the piazza. The adjacent church bells chime through the day — but, thanks to an agreeable town priest, they're silent through the night.

In Vernazza, the action's at the harbor, where you'll find a kids' beach, plenty of sunning rocks, and a wealth of cafés and restaurants.

Like a breakwater keeps out the waves at the bottom of town, a gate stops traffic at the top. No cars enter this village of 600 residents…except early on Tuesdays, when trucks and vans roll in for the weekly tailgate-party street market.

While most tourists are still in their rooms, villagers — some who've never set foot in a modern mall — do their shopping. The mobile market serves a different town each day. The flower stand is a family affair. For 20 years of Tuesdays the Lombardo family has set up right here. And the son, Eros, florist by day and opera singer by night, sells flowers with a dramatic flair.

The people of these towns are proud of their heritage. They brag that while big-time Riviera resorts nearby sold out, the Cinque Terre is still locally owned. The families remain tight, and they go back centuries.

Until the coming of the train and tourism, these towns were very remote, and heavily dependent upon the sea. Even today, traditions survive.

While nothing like past generations, small-scale fishermen still earn their living working their nets while the tourists play. And each day, restaurateurs count on these men to keep their diners smacking their lips.

And each of the five villages actually retains a distinct dialect.

Beppe: Every village have a different dialect.
Rick: What's an example?
Beppe: Example, for talk about "married," in Vernazza is "sposato."
Rick: Sposato. And if you're married in Riomaggiore?
Beppe: Accompagnato.
Rick: Very different. So when you hear somebody, you know what village they live in.
Beppe: Yes, sure.

From the main street, you can pop into a series of narrow stepped lanes — called carrugi. These zigzag every which way. In the densest parts of town, these lanes became interior passages. If you keep climbing, eventually you'll pop out up at the top, near the castle — handy for fleeing attacks.

The castle is nick-named Belforte, "the place of loud screams," for the warnings shouted from its tower back in pirating days. A tower has stood guard here for a thousand years. Visitors climb to the top for the view and to imagine past raids.

Today, the castle functions as a tourist lookout, a perch from which local daredevils dive…

…and a restaurant. And, the fort's lowest deck is perfect for a romantic meal. For a sweet dessert wine, sip the local Sciacchetrà. It's served with biscotti…ideal for dunking. Savor the view and the unforgettable setting.

But this submarine-strength door hints that the weather's not always so calm. Mammoth waves can slam into this wall. And, as photos inside attest, winter storms can engulf the entire tower in waves.

Life here is subject to the dictates of the weather. And the people of the Cinque Terre know the weather by the wind.

Rick: Bellissima giornata.
Giuseppe: Una bellissima giornata.
Rick: It is nice.
Giuseppe: Yes, but I think that the weather will be changed.
Rick: Yeah, why?
Giuseppe: Because we have now a wind from Syria, called scirocco. Normally, the seas will be too rough. Then, after scirocco, we have a wind from Libya, called libeccio. And that storm coming, come in from the sea.
Rick: So, from Libya, libeccio.
Giuseppe: Yes.
Rick: From Syria…
Giuseppe: Scirocco.
Rick: Scirocco. Bad news.
Giuseppe: Yes, yes. And, normally, we have after libeccio, the wind from the north, called tramontana.
Rick: Tramontana.
Giuseppe: This wind coming down from the north and cleaning the sky. You'd be, again, una bellissima giornata.
Rick: Good for the tourists.
Giuseppe: Yes, for us.
Rick: So if you know the wind…
Giuseppe: In Cinque Terre, if you know the wind, you don't need the weatherman.

But the weatherman was no help when a freak rainstorm hit the region in October 2011. Like many towns built in a ravine, Vernazza paved over the stream that once divided the town in order to make this people-friendly main drag.

The city was buried in an angry torrent of mud 10 feet deep. With the steep hillsides serving as a giant funnel, the flash flood overwhelmed the tunnel containing the town's stream. While every street-level business in town was destroyed, the townsfolk have rebuilt, and are careful to keep their expanded drainage system ready for the next episode of violent weather.

Vernazza has recovered. And it's main square has some of the region's finest restaurants. And we're settling down for the classic dishes of the region: pasta with pesto and anchovies.

Waiter: Gnocchi con pesto. The pesto is a local sauce; it's come from Liguria, the region where we are now. When you come here, you must try pesto.

Basil, which loves this temperate Ligurian climate, awaits its fate in the mortar. Fresh garlic, sea salt, and toasted pine nuts get mashed into a fine paste first. Then the basil is added. Gradually the chef works it all into a rich green sauce. Like so many Italian dishes, virgin olive oil is mixed in. The pesto is finished with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. And then it's poured over the pasta. Tonight, we're enjoying it on gnocchi.

The most typical main course here: fish. Acciughe or anchovies, a regional specialty — served the day they're caught. If you've always hated anchovies (the harsh, cured-in-salt American kind), try them here, fresh — and cooked in a variety of ways.

Rick: Grazie!
Server: Enjoy!

From each town stretches steep, terraced hills. The ingenious monorail wine train — called a trenino — carries workers high above the villages, where small family vineyards are tended with knowing care. The Cinque Terre takes great pride in its white wine. Traditional farming techniques are complemented with modern know-how, as the delicate vines are prepped in anticipation of a hot growing season.

Historically, each family has its own small vineyard. With the lure of the modern world it's not easy to keep these labor-intensive traditions alive. But those who appreciate the heritage of their land seem determined to keep things going.

These hillsides have been terraced for centuries. Someone — perhaps after drinking a bit too much of the local wine — calculated that the Cinque Terre has over 4,000 miles of dry-stone walls. Built without mortar, they require almost regular maintenance.

The dry-stone-masons of the Cinque Terre are famed for their skill at artfully building and preserving the trails and terraces.

And the craft survives to this day, with skilled artisans like Giuliano Basso.

All five villages are connected by scenic trails, much enjoyed by visitors. From Vernazza, the trail leads dramatically along the coast, and through the vineyards. One of the essential Cinque Terre experiences is to get out and hike. The trails are rough…but manageable. Sure, there are plenty of ups and downs…but with these views, it's well worth it.

The village of Corniglia, perched on a ridge, sparkles in the distance. Corniglia, the one town not on the water, feels more remote than its sisters. With the church overlooking its intimate main square, a couple of restaurants, and a handful of private rooms for rent, it has a relaxing vibe.

Since Roman times, Corniglia has been noted for its wine-making. To this day, many families still make a little wine in their cellar. And if you manage to get invited in…you'll enjoy an education…and, of course, a taste.

Rick: And quanti litri qui?
Guilano: Cinquantaquattro.
Rick: 54 liters — that's a lot. Vino delle Cinque Terre. No, vino della Corniglia.
Guilano: Corniglia o Cinque Terre.
Rick: That's better.

At the windy end of town is a belvedere — a breathtaking lookout perched high above the sea. From here you can scout the rest of your trek, and see your next stop: Manarola.

There's one main path, so you won't get lost. Trails can be congested. Minimize crowds and heat by hiking early or late. As the area's a national park, you'll pay a nominal admission fee, and enjoy better-maintained trails and a more pristine countryside.

Whether strolling through shady olive groves, enjoying wide-open vistas, or pausing for a little sunbathing on your own private rock, the hike is a delight.

Manarola is petite and picturesque — a tumble of buildings filling its ravine above a craggy port. The tiny harbor, with its modern breakwater, does double duty — serving both fishermen and fun-seekers. Cliff diving for beginners is popular here.

In the Cinque Terre, everyone enjoys great views — and that includes the dead. I'm joining my friend Monica on one of her visits to the cemetery perched high above her town.

Ever since Napoleon — who crowned himself king of Italy in the early 1800s — declared that cemeteries were health risks, people in these villages have buried their loved ones outside the towns.

The result: dramatically situated cemeteries high in the hills. With evocative photos and finely carved memorial reliefs, any are worth a visit. In cemeteries like these, some are buried in a graveyard, while most are in niches called loculi.

The sanctuary is quietly busy with locals remembering lost loved ones.

Rick: When you come to the cemetery, it's like visiting your family.
Monica: Yes, my family, my friends. I know everyone here.
Rick: So, do you have relatives here in this wall?
Monica: Yes, here I have my grandparents.
Rick: Ah, Licari! Armando.
Monica: My grandfather and my grandmother.
Rick: Each one is a little bit different. It has a personality.
Monica: Exactly. Every one, want the people, have something like before.
Rick: And people are coming every month, every year?
Monica: No, every week.
Rick: Every week.

Monica: Every week, and it's not necessary to cry when you are here. You are happy because you are together with the people of your family, with your friends.
Monica: Lina is the first bed and breakfast in Vernazza. She rent room, for the first time, to American people. Here is an American boy.
Rick: Look at that, with his rolling suitcase.
Monica: Exactly, exactly. And Lina is waiting in the main road for someone arrive. Here I have Massimo grandparents.
Rick: This is your husband's grandparents.
Monica: Exactly. They died, both, in one week.
Rick: Within one week.
Monica: And here I have my cousin, Sauro.
Rick: Oh. The flood came and took him away.
Monica: Exactly. And they found Sauro in France.
Rick: In France!

Manarola is connected to the next town by the Via dell'Amore, or Walkway of Love. It's the easiest stretch of the hike, and a good place from which to savor your own private piece of Mediterranean coastline. Enjoying this stroll, it's easy to understand why so many artists and romantics are drawn to this region. The next town hides just around the corner.

Riomaggiore, while bigger than the towns we've seen so far, is another cozy collection of homes nestled in a valley. The tangle of pastel houses lean on each other as if someone stole their crutches. The colors of these villages are regulated by a commissioner of good taste from the community government.

For those hiking the trails, an ideal snack is a slice of focaccia. Focaccia originates here in the region of Liguria. The baker stretches dough to fit the pan, roughs it up with finger holes, adds a few simple ingredients — perhaps tomatoes and olives, drizzles olive oil, and splashes it with salty water. Hot out of the oven, the focaccia comes in several varieties, and is a local favorite for a quick snack to go.

Rick: Grazie!
Baker: Grazie!
Rick: Ciao!
Baker: Bye!

While you can hike or ride the train between towns, you can also catch the boat. If the weather's calm, hourly boats link the Cinque Terre towns. After a hike, it's fun to survey what you've explored. There's Manarola…and Corniglia — safely on its hilltop — and from my boat I can almost see our apartment in Vernazza.

Last stop for this boat, the numero cinque of our Cinque Terre tour, is Monterosso al Mare. This is the most resorty town of the group. With cars, larger hotels, rentable umbrellas, and the best beach around.

If you want the kind of beach scene that leaps to mind when you hear the word "Riviera," you'll find it here. Warm water, colorful umbrellas, plenty of bodies soaking up that Mediterranean sun, and an inviting promenade.

Complimenting Monterosso's happy beach scene is Restaurant Miky. And my son, Andy, is joining us for the region's most elegant dining experience. While tourism has brought a new affluence here, even high-end places are still family run. The father, Miky, runs the kitchen with an impressive mix of artistry and precision.

Meanwhile, the mother and daughter help wait tables and charm their guests. Miky's pasta is cooked with a unique twist — capped with pizza dough and finished in a wood-fired oven. Sara is bringing us the house specialties, and making sure we know what we're eating.

Andy: Looks delicious!
Sara: Buon appetito!

When our pasta arrives and the crust is broken, the steamy aroma heralds a taste treat to come. And to cap a great meal, chef Miky drops by as we're enjoying our traditional Sciacchetrà and biscotti.

Rick: Complimenti. Tutti delicioso.

From the beach resort half of Monterosso, a tunnel leads under the castle and into the old town. Here you'll find more restaurants, characteristic shops, and a world of colorful lanes. Sure, it's touristy, and virtually every storefront caters to visitors' needs. But there's a low-key ambience where you're reminded we're all in this life together, so let's enjoy the moment.

It's aperitivo time, and as everywhere in Italy right about now, families are out — kids and parents — children enlivening main squares. One tradition that thrives oblivious to all the tourism is that special time when people are out, socializing…enjoying the cool of the early evening.

Back in Vernazza, I'm enjoying the passeggiata with Irene.

Rick: Buona sera!
Irena: Ciao! Ciao Maria! Ciao!

A stroll here — especially with a local friend who knows everyone in town — gives a good insight into this close-knit Italian community. A community that I've been visiting since all of us were a lot younger.

Friend: Mi scusi!

Rick: Ciao Antonio! There's my friend!

Rick: Does this bench have her name on it?
Irene: Uh, yes! [In Italian: He wants to know if this bench has your names on it!]

Italy's Cinque Terre is an irresistible mix of nature, culture, and human activity — well-worn locals, sunburned travelers, and inviting family-friendly piazzas. Sure the place is now well-discovered. But I've never seen happier, more laid-back tourists. While the Cinque Terre now endures the storms of the modern world, the region's charms are as endearing as its people are resilient.

And even today, when the church bells ring, the fishermen at sea and the grape pickers up in the hills look back at their village, and they know Italy is still Italy. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin'. Ciao.

Credits:

Rick: If you know the wind…
Giuseppe: You know the wind in Cinque Terre, you don't need a weatherman!…Sorry!
Rick: That's perfect! No, it's great!

Karel: OK! I'm rolling!
Rick: I'm goin' where the water tastes like wine! Stay drunk all the time!

Giuseppe: …in Cinque Terre, you don't need a weatherman!

Clips

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