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The Cinque Terre coast looking south from Monterosso

Today we did a full-day excursion to the Cinque Terre region in Liguria. After the port change from La Spezia to Livorno there was some question as to whether it would go ahead (Livorno being much further away from the Cinque Terre than La Spezia) but it did, albeit making for a longer day – 9 hours instead of 7 hours or so.

First, a bit about the Cinque Terre itself (or themselves). It’s made up of five small villages, built into very steep hillsides that descend into the Ligurian Sea. There is no road along them – most of them can be reached by narrow, twisty roads descending from the motorway and national road running along the top of the hills – but you can’t get coaches along these roads, and in any case there’s no vehicular access into the village centres, although locals can get further than non-locals – there are barriers across the roads and locals have the key. But eventually, even for locals, the road stops and it’s foot traffic or scooters only from then on. Rail access is possible as there is a railway line that connects them. It runs at sea-level and goes through many tunnels when it encounters the headlands that separate the villages, but its stations are in, or very close to, the village centres. It’s actually a main line, to Genoa, so there is a lot of traffic along it. The villages are also connected with each other by boat – but more of that later – and there are, or used to be, paths over or round the headlands that connect them. But using the footpaths was always a long and arduous trek, and following rockfalls some years ago a number of these paths are closed. So essentially it’s train or boat between the villages, with a possibility of being dropped near one of them.

The excursion started at about 8:15 and after exiting Livorno (an unlovely city) we drove up the motorway towards Genoa. Along the way we actually got glimpses some miles away to the east of the buildings of the Camp dei Miracoli in Pisa – the Cathedral, the Baptistry and of course the Campanile, better known as the Leaning Tower. We had a toilet break at a motorway services after about an hour shortly before leaving the motorway. We drove through La Spezia while our guide explained all the features that we could see of the city before taking the hill road out of town, which gave us good views back (and down!) to the Gulf of La Spezia. Then it was over the hill towards Manarola. This is actually the second (from the south) of the Cinque Terre – there is no road access (well, not for coaches) to Riomaggiore, the southernmost village.

We were dropped about half a mile from the centre of Manarola and walked down towards it. We didn’t stop in this village, other than for a few photo opportunities, as the main point of going to this village was to pick up our transportation to the next one. We should have gone by boat to Vernazza (the fourth village) but our guide had learned that the boats weren’t running – the seas were too rough to stop at the quays in the smaller villages. So he re-planned, and it was decided that we would use the train throughout the day. This was easier said than done. Andrea (our guide) lead us to the station at Manarola (down at sea level and close to the little harbour) and got the tickets, but we found the platform already packed with other tourists – because of the boat problem, everyone visiting the Cinque Terre today was using the trains. The train arrived and was already full. Some people got off and we attempted to get on, but it was very hard. We tried different doors in different coaches, but it was the same story everywhere. In the end I was pushed onto the train by a Trenitalia employee, just like you see in the films of the Tokyo Metro.

We went just two stops and alighted at Vernazza – the journey wasn’t much more than 5 minutes – and in this village, once we’d sorted ourselves out and recovered some of our equilibrium, we had some free time, about 35 minutes. Andrea told us that we would have to take the train again after that, and he had some some advice for us: “Today you have to be Italian! Just push your way onto the train!!” We walked round Vernazza which was even more beautiful than Manarola for half an hour, and then went back to the station. Here there was a delay – the next stopping train up the line was running about 25 minutes late, probably because of space problems. Eventually it arrived, we fought our way on, and travelled just one stop, to Monterosso. In this village we had the main free time of the excursion, about two and a half hours, though some of this was taken up when Andrea crocodiled us into the old village (there are two bits to Monterosso) to make sure we got to the centre.

If I was being super-critical I would say that Monterosso isn’t quite a stunning as the other villages we saw; it’s bigger, and because there is some road access to the new part of the village it’s busier. But it’s also true that by this time (1 o’clock) we were quite tired and hot, so perhaps not best able to enjoy Monterosso’s charms. Anyway, we found a simple pizzeria and had pizza and mineral water, wandered around the village taking pictures thinking that it was actually pretty nice, found a gelateria artigianale and enjoyed gelati, and eventually found a bench near the beach where we sat looking at the sea and southwards down the mountainous coast along the line of the Cinque Terre.

Then it was back to the station where this time we were able to get seats on the train! Again we went just one stop, to Levanto. This was where we due to pick up the coach – Levanto is outside the Cinque Terre and although still built on a hillside, it’s not so steep and the town is therefore better connected. By 3:45 or so we were back on the coach, and starting the drive back to the ship. This began with a truly stunning drive up the valley in the mouth of which Levanto sits. This valley is very steep with numerous hills and hilltops, and has a number of small settlements – hamlets, really – on some of these hilltops. All very ancient, of course – Andrea was referring to ‘11th century churches’ as if they were commonplace. There seems to be no way of getting to these villages except up paths; certainly no roads. Andrea suggested that they are occupied by olive farmers; the steep hillsides are covered in olive groves, and the farmers live in these little hamlets. Then we were back on the motorway, north of La Spezia, and we stayed on it all the way back to the exit to Livorno. On the way we saw the buildings at Pisa again, but clearer this time, thanks to the sun striking them from behind us. We got back to the ship at just about 5:45, so the excursion took about 9 hours.

I really enjoyed today. Yes, there was quite a lot of time on the coach but even then we saw a lot of sights – I haven’t mentioned the marble quarries up in the mountains at Carrara that we could see some miles away, for example. And once we got off the motorway and were driving up in the hills, then we were surrounded by spectacular sights. Andrea was constantly say “on your right is….. now look to your left where you’ll see…. back to the right….” The Cinque Terre villages were very beautiful, and if they were crowded then that’s understandable. And the experiences on the trains will remain a talking point for a long time. Recommended; and we thought Andrea was an excellent guide – he spoke excellent colloquial english and a lot of jokes.

3 Responses to “Azura 2015 – A visit to the Cinque Terre”

  1. Linda says:

    Sorry Tom but today’s excursion sounds like a nightmare. Tuscany region is absolutely beautiful and the medieval towns captivating but your train journeys makes me cringe. That’s a tour I would definitely avoid particularly in summer months. Our visit to Volterra and San Grimingano have left us wanting a longer stay in Tuscany … Hopefully we will get to see some of those little villages in the Cinque Terre region. They sound so beautiful.
    Not sure how you find the time to write your blog but we really enjoy reading your daily reports. Keep making your readers happy. Look forward to seeing some photos when you get home.
    Do you write off line then log on and send using copy and paste?

  2. Phil says:

    Tom
    I have only recently discovered your excellent blog, hence the reason for my only now catching up with some of your earlier posts. This one about the Cinque Terre excursion really caught my eye. We did the corresponding cruise last year (2016) on Ventura and signed up for this excursion which, as advertised, was going to be very convenient from La Spezia.
    In the event our experience very much mirrored yours in that there was a last minute change to Livorno, bad weather ruled out the boat element as transport and as a result the trains were like the London Underground in rush hour.
    To add to our joy a landslide blocked one of the roads the coach normally uses which meant that the villages had to be done in reverse order. So we started off from Monterosso and finished off at Mamarola. Consequently, when it came to lunch, instead of the wide selection of places to eat in Monterosso we were reduced to queuing (in the rain) for a table in one of only two places open for lunch in Mamarola.
    Just to cap it all my camera battery died shortly after we arrived at the start! All in all a very memorable experience but all for the wrong reasons.
    Phil

    • Tom Burke says:

      Thanks for the comment, Phil.

      Your day in the Cinque Terre sounds like a nightmare. Good to have something to talk about now, but I imagine it must have been very disappointing at the time.

      Sometimes I think I’d like to go back to the Cinque Terre, but there are so many people swamping these beautiful hot-spots; and if I did go back I’d just be another tourist. Best, perhaps, to keep my memories of the day we did go there.

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