Italy is a world-renowned travel destination with endless options for active travel. But, if you’re looking to do something really special, hiking Cinque Terre is definitely a great adventure.
Guest contributor, Shelli Elledge from Written FYI, recently visited Cinque Terre with her sights set on hiking. Read about her experience traveling on foot from one colorful hilltop village to the next. Not everything turned out as she planned.
How do boomer travelers explore the five villages located on the rugged coastline of Italy known as the Cinque Terre? That’s the question my husband, Ron, and I asked ourselves when we first heard about the challenging hiking trails along Italy’s Ligurian coastline in Cinque Terre National Park.
We had so many questions. Would the trail be too rigorous for us? Where would be a good place to stay? And how would we get to this extraordinary—and somewhat out of the way—destination that’s also a World Heritage Site?
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Getting to Cinque Terre
Taking the train from Turin in northern Italy to the Cinque Terre, we got a pretty good idea about the rugged terrain that separates this region from the rest of Italy. Slowly descending from the higher elevations, the train glided through at least a dozen tunnels, allowing us only intermittent glimpses out our windows.
Emerging from the last tunnel, the trail slowed to a stop. We had arrived in Monterosso al Mare, our destination and the northernmost coastal village on the Cinque Terre.
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Three Days in Monterosso al Mare
Exiting the train station, we could have squealed with excitement just looking out across the horizon. More dramatic than in pictures, the waves of the coastline collided with craggy rock formations.
High misty mountains and densely-foliaged hillsides cuddled the town. In the distance, we could see zigzagging trails, mortar-less rock terraces, and rows of vineyards.
We could also see the other pastel villages strung along the coast, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, each nestled in rocky crevices or clinging atop sheer bluffs. As if having tumbled to their present positions, they sit stoically where mountains reach the sea.
It was raining on the day we arrived, but it didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s mood. Cafés and seaside eateries were busy with people out and about.
We stopped to grab a quick bite to eat and ask for directions to our hotel. We were told, “Just follow the road, it’s only a few minutes from here,” so we took the local’s advice and headed for the town center.
My husband and I quickly found out that most everything in this town is only a few minutes’ walk. The cobbled walkway, used by people and a limited number of very small autos, borders the wide beach that attracts tourists during the summer seasons.
Reaching the town center, we followed the sign and turned right at the narrow corridor leading to the hotel.
We stayed in the Hotel Souvenir, a family owned and operated place that’s clean and comfortable. The neat-as-a-pin lodging also serves a delicious complimentary breakfast in the mornings.
Souvenir Hotel has all the modern conveniences we needed, except for an elevator. So, if you stay there, be prepared to walk the stairs or ask for a room on the ground floor.
Monterosso has many good restaurants, cafes, and gelaterias. Typical Ligurian specialties include pasta and seafood dishes that are dependent on the catch of the day, all topped with fresh herbs. Steaks are Florentine style, or cooked rare, and large enough for sharing.
For a casual lunch or dinner, we enjoyed going to a little three-table place called Emy’s Way. Yes, it’s small, but Emy is as entertaining as the food is good.
My favorite dish is their pesto alla Genovese (pasta with pesto, pecorino cheese, and pine nuts), a regional favorite that does not have anchovies.
For an elegant dinner on our last evening in the Cinque Terre, we dined on the patio of the Torre Aurora Mare Cucina, once the town’s fortress. Just off the pedestrian walkway, we had walked past it several times during our stay. But what a setting!
Our little table overlooked the bay and was a perfect spot for capturing the essence of this special place. As the sun was setting and the shadows were slowly creeping up the hillsides, we could see the twinkling lights of the other villages in the distance. It was a perfect ending to our visit!
Boomer Travel Tip
Tips for hiking Cinque Terre
The hiking trails and terraced hillsides are unique features of this region. The terraces are gardens of vineyards and olive and lemon groves, connected by a web of paths. Over time, these sunny landscapes have become one of Italy’s most famous, even though somewhat isolated, coastlines.
Trails vary by length and difficulty so many visitors do a combination of hiking and riding the train. However, my experience is that, if you’re there in the spring, rainy conditions could result in trail closures.
When we were there in mid-May, it was only lightly drizzling so we decided to take a chance and head up the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza. But, about a half-mile from our starting point, we were stopped by a park attendant who discouraged everyone from hiking because of slippery and treacherous conditions.
Wow, would our expectations and hopes be dashed?
However, even though we had ridden the train between villages, we still got in plenty of walking. The hilliness of the towns made for a phenomenal day of sightseeing and we got in some great exercise. By the end of the day, my Fitbit was pleased and so were we!
Our Two Favorite Villages in the Cinque Terre
Although each chalk colored village has its own special appeal, our two favorites are Vernazza, the second village south of Monterosso, and Manarola, the fourth village.
Boomer Travel Tip
Shelli’s trip to Cinque Terre was part of a larger Italian adventure. Read more about her small group tour through Tuscany!
Vernazza is a favorite because of the picturesque sheltered bay and the historical Doria Castle. The cobbled walkway is lined with souvenir shops and seafood cafes, but meander down towards the piazza just off the water where you’ll find adventurous cliffside divers and passengers waiting for the next ferry ride.
Just to the left of the piazza, there’s a watchtower where guards would alert the town when marauding pirate ships came into view. Climb the first flight of stairs and there’s the famous Ristorante Belforte where Andre, our server extraordinaire, treated us like royalty.
We enjoyed caprese salad, pasta and clams, and lemon crème for dessert. Yummy! After admiring some spectacular views, amazing food, and stellar service, we had plenty of energy for moving on to the next village.
Manarola was another of our favorite villages. Like the other towns, it’s hilly, but worth the effort of walking a little further up the walkway past the restaurants and shops to a beautiful waterwheel that’s right at the edge of the road.
For a real treat, continue past the waterwheel and towards the church to see incredible views of the village below. It is from this spot where many of the famous photos of the Cinque Terre region are taken.
Boomer Travel Tip
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More fun things to do in Cinque Terre:
- Enjoy a Cinque Terre boat cruise with appetizer and lunch
- Take a wine tour that includes tasting and lunch
- Sign up for a 4-day Cinque Terre guided walking tour
- Book a day-long private trek with a guide
- Explore by kayak from Monterosso
A Great Place for Active Boomer Travelers
The Cinque Terre is a wonderful place for boomer travelers, whether you decide to trek the hillsides, ride the train, or simply spend a day in Cinque Terre like Donna and Alan did during a northern Italy road trip.
If you do plan to hike, take note that some trails are shorter and easier than others. However you do it, be sure to take your time, wear good shoes, and enjoy the views!
All photos courtesy Ron Elledge.