Cinque Terre, the five lands situated on the Italian Riviera between Genoa and Pisa, is one of those really special places that words can’t describe. It truly is charming, rugged Italy. The gorgeous scenery is made of a stunning coastline dropping down to the Mediterranean, packed with pastel coastal villages and hiking trails between terraced vineyards, lemon trees and olive groves.
I found myself there for the first time in 2003, a backpacker in the sleepy town of Riomaggiore, my favourite of the five. We arrived and only then inquired about guest lodging and ended up in a tiny apartment fitted out with the basics. Most nights we bought pasta and local wine from the Co-Op (the only grocery in town) and it was enough to satisfy, sitting around talking about our travels in a charming Italian flat at night, after hiking between all five towns during the day.
I vividly remember meeting Aussie backpackers in their mid-twenties. They were old and brave in my eyes of just 19. I couldn’t believe they threw their cares of getting a big kid job out the window; that could wait. The world comes first.
So, when my Mom told me the one place she wanted to go in Europe whilst visiting me in the UK this past May was Cinque Terre, I couldn’t say no.
The thing was, I was nervous. In the twelve years since I was last there in 2006 for my second time, I’d heard rumours about how much had changed. Cinque Terre is no longer the quiet backpacker, hidden ‘old’ Italy that I experienced in my youth, it’s now on the tourist trail. It’s in magazines, guidebooks and caters to cruise ships. I was excited to relive my former footsteps but anxious that I may discover something I didn’t recognize.
In order to make Mom’s dream come true, we had a 4:30 am wake up to get to London Gatwick. 7 hours later we arrived in Riomaggiore from La Spezia, but it only took one look at the town to know all the travel was already worth it. I was back again in this amazing other world so different from home or anywhere else I’ve been, and a place that was one of my favourite backpacker spots as a teenager.
I was excited to show Mom all of the five towns, and how different they can be from each other. I could point out what’s changed and what new restaurants had arrived on the scene, places I used to sunbathe and sip wine along the coast. I was excited to get her into her sneakers so we could begin the famed hike, it’s so magical trekking from town-to-town and I wanted her to experience what I had before.
I even loved practising my (poor) Italian. “I wish I could speak French,” Mom said. “You mean as good as I speak Italian?” “Haha, something like that.” I think she was saying I could be better despite four years under my belt in High School.
The thing was, things had changed. A devastating rock slide had damaged the most famous part of the hiking trail, Via dell’Amore, which hugs the rocky coastline from Riomaggiore to Manarola. It used to be the most dramatic and breath-taking bit too. Also, because of the mass tourism, you now need to buy a hiking pass to use the trails. There are free trails, of course, but I was dead set on showing Mom the Cinque Terre I knew as a backpacker.
Nowadays there’s no general store that’s not stuffed with souvenirs, or local wine without a Cinque Terre label slapped on to it to promote tourism. Being more or less cash only, the ATMs fail regularly and the demographic has gotten older. It’s no longer a secret backpacker haven.
That was the most obvious thing, there were people everywhere. And I mean everywhere! Chinese tour groups, hiking enthusiasts, backpackers and day-trippers coming off of cruise ships in La Spezia. Luckily, we still had some pretty fantastic meals, enjoyed the picturesque scenery, and had some awesome mother-daughter bonding time too. Going in the offseason of May, I just can’t imagine things at full swing during summer, likely not my cup of tea at all.
Of the three times I’ve been to the Cinque Terre, I’ve always stayed in Riomaggiore. It holds a special place in my heart.
We stayed in an amazing refurbished apartment right in the middle of the marina, steps away from where I sunbathed on the rocks in my youth. A step up from the old granny flat on the main street, we were in the heart of one of the most scenic areas of town. With our window open at night, we woke up to the sound of Italian fisherman getting their boats out in the early am and to the sea lapping at the shore.
Lydia, from our accommodation Allo Scalo dei Mille, greeted us from the train station to show us our immaculate apartment. She was super helpful also in recommending restaurants and giving us background on the locals i.e. her cousin is the priest at the only church in town which made Mom happy when we attended on Sunday. Denise, the owner of our flat was American, born to a Cinque Terre resident and came back after growing up in the States to renovate the building into apartments for rent. Smart lady.
Every morning we had a coffee on the main street at Hotel La Zorza, a simple eatery below a budget hotel but an easy place to grab a pastry and a cuppa before setting off for the day. There are so many new restaurants and cafes on the high street, finding a decent coffee or meal wasn’t always a guarantee.
My favourite secret find thanks to Lydia was off of a small side street. Osteria Maite could have had better service but sitting out in their courtyard amongst the twinkling fairy lights at night with a wine and fresh pasta was all we could have asked for. I even tried the walnut sauce, which was to die for, a classic of the local Ligurian cuisine.
The best views in town were at cliffside A Piè de Mà. We reserved a table that overlooked the Med, the perfect place for sunset. They do good cheese boards and have an extensive wine cellar. Unfortunately, they are cash only and have no table service, meaning a very long and unnecessary queue to the bar.
We also had a fantastic meal at Enoteca Dau Cila, one of the two restaurants right in the marina across from our apartment. I was sceptical that it would be overpriced and poor quality for the location but the scampi (shrimps) were huge and fat, and the branzino (sea bass) was simple and light. We were even given a complimentary Lemoncello with our bill and left smiling from the great staff, wanting to come back again if we had more time.
Anybody who appreciates a good meal will tell you that Trattoria Dal Billy (Billy’s) in Manarola is the place to be. It’s well worth the climb up through the smallest of the five towns to get to this cheap and friendly eatery serving simple local dishes. Definitely reserve in advance as they have two seating’s, 7 and 9 pm, and try the specials of both land and sea.
It was also recommended to visit Valastro wineries. A shuttle bus from Manarola station will take you up the mountain into the neighbouring town of Valastro (not one of the five). Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to make a booking and try it.
I’d recommend staying in Corniglia if you wanted somewhere less touristy and more serene. It’s definitely a town I’d like to stay in one day. Smack in the middle of the five, if you’re looking to do the famed hike, this is the closest starting point from Riomaggiore currently due to the path being closed up to this point. For those that don’t know, Corniglia is also famous for its 365 steps, one for each day of the year, up from the train station into the town.
Mom and I took the train to Corniglia to begin our hike on our second day. The ocean views from the steps are fantastic, as is getting a small glimpse of the adorable houses that line the cliffs sandwiched between the vineyards.
After getting to the top of stairs and wandering through town Mom stopped me and said, “how much longer do we have left?” That made me laugh, as we hadn’t even started onto the hiking trail yet. “3 more hours to go Mom!”
Within a few moments of entering the trail, I could tell she understood why this hike is so special. The smell of honeysuckle and the Mediterranean coming into view around tight corners was only the beginning. The best part was, she didn’t take me seriously when I said it was a hike. She thought I meant a light walk. When we finally got to the next town of Vernazza it was like finding gold at the end of a rainbow, a sight so sweet we had worked ourselves up for a well-deserved lunch and Spritz.
This was Mom’s favourite town. As you come from Corniglia, you weave into town down steep side streets before hitting its main central artery. Vernazza also has a lovely port lined with restaurants and it’s a great place for lunch, no matter how you find your way there.
The most famous place with the best views is Ristorante Belforte. Situated within the castle, this cliffside restaurant is stand out. You can’t book, but it’s well worth the wait to dine on the terrace next to the Med in this medieval setting with a stunning backdrop. Even better, they are known for their seafood and their scampi salad was out of this world. Overflowing with so much fresh seafood, I was definitely jealous of Mom’s dish despite my Lingurian squid ink pasta with fresh shellfish being pretty darn good too.
After lunch, we relaxed on the rocks in the harbour amongst the locals and tourists, before grabbing a few Spritzes at Ananasso Bar. While I’m a sucker for an Aperol, Mom was blown away by her Lemoncello Spritz. So much that we stayed for well more than one to enjoy the sun and people watching.
We began the second half of our hike on day 2 from Vernazza, heading to the last town (or first depending on which way you start) of Monterosso. This trail was much busier, and with the amount of ‘traffic’ of tourists, there were definitely a few ‘hug your neighbour moments’ when the path was so narrow it was only 1 to 3 feet wide.
After a steep climb, we made our way down again and were relieved to spot a local selling handmade Lemoncello straight from his lemon trees in a small shack next to the trail. It was an awesome break to just stop and pause, have a chat with the friendly man and happily hand over some cash to support his likely well-lubricated business. As we continued on we stepped over small waterfalls and caught glimpses of Vernazza in our past. Another awesome hike under our belts.
Monterosso is the biggest of the five. In fact, it was a lot larger than I remember, it even has two beaches where the others really have none. Many people stay in Monterosso as it has the only 4-star hotel amongst the group, and many other hotel-like lodgings compared to the small apartments you rent in the other towns. Being bigger also meant that it had more shops with a good variety and some better-quality souvenirs, like Fabbrica D’Arte where we both bought a special memento. But it really was just a gelato that we wanted after a long day of hiking, of course. And we left satisfied.
We only had 2.5 days all up to explore all five towns and obviously would have welcomed one more day. But for my Mom, it was just enough and exactly what she’s always imagined it would be. It’s like nowhere else, rustic Italy, with vineyards taking over the hills, steep climbs through narrow back streets, and old women sticking their head out of the window to hang their laundry and just watch the world go by.
Mom said the locals must be like goats to be able to trek these hills but also, she was really grateful. For some, being in your 60s would limit your ability to achieve such a great accomplishment of hiking to each town. If I’m on honest, I don’t know how I did the whole five in one go in my past, being 19 might have helped. But I also feel so lucky that we were able to do it this time around together as mother and daughter.