Cinque Terre, Italy
Pesto and Hiking
The Cinque Terre is a beautiful flower that is in danger of being loved to death. So many people visit “the five lands” that the government has, at times, put restrictions on tourism. A flood and mudslides in 2011 devastated the Cinque Terre, but it has since recovered.
Even with a crush of humanity, the Cinque Terre remains a jewel on the Italian Riviera. Houses painted in pastel colors seem to be carved into the cliff sides while steep cobbled streets and winding alleyways supply a surprise around every corner until you finally arrive at a piazza high above the sea, complete with locals sitting on benches chatting away, and children playing soccer. Explore and you can still be rewarded with some hidden gems.
A short history
This region has been inhabited at least since the Bronze Age. The Saracens sacked the villages in the 9th century, but were driven out in the 11th century by the Tuscan Obertengo family. It was during this period that the land was terraced and cultivated (including the planting of wine grapes). Defense systems like warning lights and castles were implemented to warn of the frequent pirate attacks.
In the 12th century, the Republic of Genoa took control of the area. But, after the discovery of the New World, the marine powers of Italy faded, including Genoa, and with it, the Cinque Terre. The Five Lands remained in hibernation, backwater fishing villages, until their rediscovery by tourists in the 1970’s
Hiking the five lands
Each of the Cinque Terre’s villages is tucked into a crevice or perched on a cliff and accessible from the outside world only by train or boat (no cars are allowed in the villages and parking outside of the town is expensive).
Besides the local train, all five towns are also connected by hiking trails that run high above the coast. You must purchase tickets to access the trails. There are several different kinds of tickets, including combo tickets that include museum admissions and train fares. I recommend getting the one with the train ticket because if you hike the whole trail, believe me, you’re going to want to take the train back.
My favorite trail is #2. Get an early start because the entire trail takes about 6 hours, longer if you stop along the way. We stopped quite a bit. You will, too. Bring your camera, the views are spectacular. Sparkling blue water, precisely terraced vineyards, and the next town off in the distance, it is all incredibly charming.
I recommend starting on the easy end of the trail. The walk from the first town, Riomaggiore to Manarola couldn’t even be called a hike; it’s a leisurely stroll. The path is flat and paved. You’ll get to Manarola in forty minutes if you dawdle. From then on, the paths get progressively more difficult.
Manarola to Corniglia takes seventy-five minutes. This path is a little more difficult but you’ll be rewarded with views of the sea and nice gardens. If you’re planning an easy hike, Corniglia is a great place to stop for lunch and a glass of Cinque Terre wine. You can turn around, hike back, be at your room in Riomaggiore two hours and tell everyone you “hiked the Cinque Terre.”
If you proceed to Vernazza, the fourth town, be prepared to sweat. The hike gets very steep with uneven pathways, and lots and lots of stairs. There are several places where only one person can pass at a time. You’ll see many folks with walking sticks (Germans mostly, we found). This section will take you up to two hours.
You’ll be forgiven if you hop on the trail in Vernazza and head back at this point. Especially if it’s a hot day. And it’s often hot in the Cinque Terre.
The last section of the hike, to Monterosso, is the longest and most difficult. More steep passages and Germans with walking sticks await. But the views are worth it!
Trail #2 is only one of several trails you can hike at the Cinque Terre. More experienced hikers might want to try #1 or #9 or one of the other rugged trails. But, again, they are only for experienced hikers.
Whichever trail you choose, be sure to bring the essentials; sunscreen, a hat, water, and snacks. And, don’t wear flip-flops or you could be in for a hefty fine! If you bring your bathing suit, a dip in the Liguarian Sea is a great reward for a completed hike.
For the cherry on top of your hike, walk to the far end of the beach at Monterosso. There you’ll see Il Gigante, a 14 foot concrete sculpture of Neptune. Designed and built by Jewish Italian artist Arrigo Minerbi who was forced into hiding in 1937 by the Fascists. After WWII, Minerbi was able to return to his work. Unfortunately, Il Gigante was damaged by Allied bombing raids and later by waves from the sea. Today, battered Neptune looks like he is part of the rocky cliffs on the beach.
This part of Italy, with its mild climate, is ideal for growing basil. In fact, the best basil for making pesto is Genovese basil (Genoa is just up the coast), which is from this area.
Pesto is simple to make as there are only six ingredients: basil, salt, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and cheese (pecorino or Parmesan). The key to great pesto is the best quality ingredients. To make the best pesto the chef puts some salt and garlic, basil, and toasted pine nuts in a mortar and grinds it by hand with a pestle until it becomes a smooth paste. Mix in olive oil and cheese and you’ve got pesto. Of course, you can use a food processor too, but the mortar and pestle method gives the pesto so much more flavor. And, I find that pesto made in a food processor can turn out gummy. Yuck!
One of the great things about pesto is how versatile the recipe is. You can substitute all kinds of different nuts into the recipe. Try walnuts or pistachios. You can also substitute the basil for arugula, or spinach, or even sun dried tomatoes.
Almost every restaurant in the Cinque Terre offers pesto. Ask a local, they’ll tell you best ones. Some serve pesto with potatoes and green beans. In Monterosso, try Ristorante Milky for the dish. Or, in Manarola, stop by Trattoria dal Billy. Be sure to make a reservation on the terrace where you can get a view of the sea and the steep vineyards.
Cinque Terre Wine
Nothing is better with your pesto than a glass of white wine. Cinque Terre White wine. Almost all the wine produced here is white. Some red has been produced recently, but stick with the white, it’s way better.
Every wine shop in the Cinque Terre sells the local white wine. Look for “Cinque Terre” and “DOC” on the label to make sure you’re getting the real thing.
It seems that every corner of the Cinque Terre has grapes growing on it. Because of the steep grade of the land, the vineyards are terraced with mortarless rock walls. The upper reaches of the vineyards are accessed by little trams, which is quite a site if you’re lucky enough to see one.
The sweet dessert wine Sciacchetrá Cinque Terre DOC is also worth searching out.
Ask at your hotel or B&B about the local wine. Since many families grow their own grapes and make wine as a side business or hobby, you might find someone who will let you try some or even visit their vertigo-inducing vineyard.
Years and years ago, when we first visited the Cinque Terre, I discovered focaccia. Sure, I had focaccia before, but not like this. Crisp and crusty on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, with a little olive oil on the top. Perfection.
Bakeries in the Cinque Terre sell it by the slab. Rosemary focaccia, olive focaccia, plain focaccia with salt. Traditional varieties and new varieties. Focaccia cut lengthwise and made into a sandwich. Whatever your preference you can find it in focaccia form in the Cinque Terre. But, if you are vegetarian, know that most focaccia has lard in it.
Stoll down Via Visconti in Vernazza and stop in one of the bakeries or pizzerias for a piece of focaccia. Munch it as you wander down to the tiny waterfront. Fishing boats are pulled up on the rocks of the natural harbor, just like they have been for centuries. This is a great spot to enjoy a snack, people watch, or maybe go for a swim. And, if it’s Tuesday, there’s a farmers market near the harbor. The cheese monger has great cheeses to go with your focaccia.
Or, walk to Doria Castle, a short walk onto a point sticking out into the sea. This gives you one of the best views in the Cinque Terre and you don’t have to hike to get there! Whip out your GoPro or camera for an excellent addition to your Instachatbook feed.
If you’ve been to Nice in southern France, you might’ve had a crepe called “Socca.” Socca is made with chickpea flour, salt, water, and extra virgin olive oil. Because chickpea flour is gluten-free, socca is crispier than the crepe you are used to.
Travel from Nice, through Monaco, into Italy, past Genoa to the Cinque Terre and you’ll find a very similar chickpea crepe. Here it’s called Farinata. The Farinata is usually cooked in a giant pan, a kind of crepe pan on steroids. Farinata is harder to find than focaccia (which is sold on every corner in the Cinque Terre, it seems), but every village in the Cinque Terre has a couple of places that make it. Like Il Frantoio in Monterosso and Pizzeria & focacceria La Cambusa in Manarola. And best of all, it only costs a couple Euro. Yummy and filling.
Wall to wall tourists
The Cinque Terre has almost become the fourth “must see” location in Italy after Rome, Florence, and Venice. When you’re getting crushed on line to order an espresso or can’t get a seat at the pizzeria, it seems like there must be as many people here as there are at the Vatican on Easter.
But, here’s the difference. Many of the folks coming to the Cinque Terre are doing so on a day trip. The government doesn’t allow cruise ships to the Cinque Terre (hooray!) because the massive boats don’t have anywhere to dock. Instead, cruise companies have them stop at nearby La Spezia or Livorno and travel into the towns.
This has caused the government to occasionally limit the number of people allowed on the hiking trails (check the website before heading out). It also creates a crush of people who visit the villages during the day. So far, the Cinque Terre has resisted the urge to build giant resorts along their sea shore. That means that the thousands of souls who descend daily have no place to stay overnight.
So, here’s my advice. Do your Cinque Terre activities in the morning or evening, when the tourist crush is lessened. During the heat of the day, take a siesta, or trek up to the top of the town where you are staying and find a nice café to sit and relax. Most of the cruise ship tourists don’t make it that far.
Day trips from the Cinque Terre
Or, take a day to Portofino. Sure, Portofino is crowded, but you expect it to be. It also has the astronomical prices you’d expect. The ferry ride from the Cinque Terre to Portofino is spectacular. Once there, hike to the lighthouse. It’s gorgeous.
Another option is to take a day trip to Portovenere. A short bus ride away, the town might remind you of one in the Cinque Terre. There’s a small harbor with fishing boats, a beautiful promenade along the water, nice restaurants, and, best of all, far fewer tourists.
Just off the coast of Portovenere is a trio of islands, Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto. A ferry can take you to the island of Palmaria where you can hike and even see an abandoned marble mine. Caves, like the Blue Cave are only accessible by boat. Several companies offer tours that will take you to them. Wander around here in solitude (not really, but compared to the CT…) for a few hours and smile as you think about all the tourists in the Cinque Terre being bumped and bustled.
If you go:
These handy travel bottles
are TSA approved
There is no airport at the Cinque Terre, but there are international airports in nearby Pisa, Genoa, Milan, Florence, Bologna, and Turin.
Cars are not allowed in the Cinque Terre. If you must drive, there is parking outside the towns, but it is limited and expensive. Train is your best bet. They run regularly between the towns and nearby La Spezia is a hub with trains getting to Florence in just over 2 hours.
The ferry runs (weather permitting) to all the towns in the Cinque Terre (except Corniglia) and Portovenre. Reservations are not needed for parties less than 20 people.
There is also a separate ferry service that runs from the Cinque Terre to Portofino. No advance reservations.
Cinque Terre National Park
The hiking trails are within the park. You must buy a ticket to hike the Cinque Terre.
Cantina Cinque Terre
Cooperative of Cinque Terre grape growers and winemakers.
You can book a wine tasting experience or just get a cocktail on the terrace. Incredible views.
Localita Punta Bonfiglio, 19017 Manarola, Italy
Yes, there are incredible views all over the Cinque Terre, but this one is really cool.
Via San Francesco, 19018 Vernazza, Italy
Cinque Terre Cooking School
Learn to make (and eat!) traditional dishes from the region.
Strada Provinciale 38, 19016 Monterosso al Mare, Italy
MG Cinque Terre
Cute shop for bags, jewelry, souvenirs.
Via Fieschi 45, 19018 Corniglia, Italy
Good place to stock up on fruits and veggies for a picnic
Via Cristoforo Colombo 253, 19017 Riomaggiore, Italy
Excellent pesto with green beans and potatoes
104, Via Fegina, 19016 Monterosso al Mare SP, Italy
Trattoria dal Billy
Homemade pasta. Be sure to get a seat on the terrace overlooking vineyards and the sea.
Via Rollandi 122, 19017 Manarola (SP) – Italy
Seafood is the specialty at this restaurant overlooking the water.
Via San Giacomo 10, Riomaggiore
Excellent food with an even better wine list
Via S. Giacomo 65 - 19017 Riomaggiore
Bakery and pizzeria with excellent farinata.
Via Vincenzo Gioberti 1 | Monterosso al Mare, 19016 Monterosso al Mare, Italy
Pizzeria & focacceria La Cambusa
Try the Farinata, a gluten-free option made with chic pea flour.
Via Renato Birolli 114 | Prima Del Mare A Destra, 19017 Manarola, Italy
Great views and a free aperitivo each evening.
Vicolo Volto 20 | Piazza della Chiesa, 19017 Manarola, Italy
Corte del Gallo
Small B&B in Corniglia
Via della Stazione 31, 19018 Corniglia, Italy
I Limoni di Thule
Rooms with wonderful terraces and a sea view. Reasonable rates.
Via Tra Castello 44, 19017 Riomaggiore, Italy
Two bedroom apartment right on the Cinque Terre hiking trail to Corniglia. Amazing views of the towns and water.
Two Bedroom Apartment
Two bedroom apartment in Riomaggiore with a terrace and views of the town and water.