Our day trip to Cinque Terre on Tuesday was the day I was looking forward to the most from Italy. I’ve seen so many pictures of the colorful little village (or rather, five villages, though we visited three) that lie on the west coast by Tuscany. We met in Piazza della Republica at 8 a.m. and departed with just one other couple in a Mercedes van from Travel Bound (yeah it was nice).
Our driver, Adriano, was really friendly and answered many of our questions while we took the two hour drive to the west coast. We passed by many medieval villages, farms, an aqueduct (that’s not Roman), and — best of all — the Carrara mountains where the marble quarries are. Michelangelo’s David used the marble here, as did many of the Roman structures and the churches in Florence etc. It looks like snow on the top but it’s actually white marble. As we drove by, the highway was lined with many quarries with tons of huge white slabs of rock. On a bright day, you have to wear sunglasses or the marble will blind you.
We passed through the town of La Spezia, which is the closest like actual city to Cinque Terre. The residents have to drive 30 minutes to get here to shop, go to school, etc. Our guide said 90% of residents of Cinque Terre work in tourism now, just since the 1980s when the beautiful little cities were discovered and became popular for visitors. The winding roads took us through a terraced mountain range that was completely stunning. It was like rice fields in Vietnam, but grapes in Italy instead. They transformed the natural landscape with stone walls and bright green vines in a patchwork of vineyards.
We got out at the first town, Manarola, which is the oldest. Emerging from the van was like emerging out into Hawaii. It was very tropical with the perfect warm temperature, greenery all around and a fruity/fresh/beachy smell in the air. It also reminded of Big Sur in California, which has long scenic drives along the coast.
We walked downhill through the small town on a paved path. While it was steep, it wasn’t treacherous. Some locals were doing laundry and greeting each other, but down by the marina it’s mainly tourists. Manarola was exactly as I imagined with nooks, corners, cute little window boxes, decaying shutters, stone paths etc.
We stopped to get sustenance (peach juice) before going up a trail by the marina. The trail takes you out on a cliff, literally one step away from the ocean, to look back at Manarola. This is the prime photo op that I’ve seen on Pinterest so many times.
After about an hour to explore Manarola, our guide met us at the marina where we went along a rocked path to catch a boat. So many people were out swimming in the sea, tanning etc. It was like a regular resort with colorful, quaint villas surrounding. In love.
Our boat was a typical cruiser; it took us 15 minutes to get to Vernazza, our next stop. we passed the cliffs of another villa along the way and could see the tiny road, vineyards and the huge expanse of ocean. Across the way is France, but it was a little cloudy so we couldn’t see it.
Vernazza reminds me of the story “Nim’s Island” when all the tourists flock to the pristine island. You dock at a marina and there is a swimming lagoon area immediately after entering. The whole area is lined with rocky cliffs and then restaurants further up the boardwalk/pavement area. Tons of tourists were swimming and sunbathing and really just soaking up this place that seems too good to be true, other worldly.
It was searing hot and, having forgone swimming at the last village, we decided to take a dive. Bec, Steve and I just took off some of our clothes and climbed down a latter near some rocks into the Mediterranean Sea. My first time touching it! The sea was turquoise but very deep. I could swim and float easily, though, but kept wondering what could be lurking below. We had seen a ton of fish down in this same area. It was complete bliss though in the cool waters, splashing about, having fun and looking at the greenery all around. A highlight of the whole trip to Italy.
Then some people above on the cement said there were some jellyfish near by. I quickly darted up the latter to get out. I turned around and people were telling Becca there was a jellyfish right by her foot. Sure enough, she was kicking towards the latter and missed it by 1/2 a foot. The little guy was still floating and Steve went around with our guidance. Scary but worth it.
Adriano, our guide, had made us a lunch reservation at a terraced restaurant right next to the marina and sure enough we had it for 12:30 p.m. I ordered pasta with prawns, which arrived as huge flat pieces of like egg noodle with tomato sauce and juicy prawns. Though the pasta didn’t taste homemade per se (though I don’t doubt it), I really loved the texture and shape. It was a bit expensive though at 16 euro for a casual lunch plate.
After lunch we had very limited time. We quickly dashed up the main street, which has been turned into a touristy shopping village that sells art, keychains, limoncello and anything in between. Like I said, 90% of Cinque Terre is tourism now. The couple that came on our tour also commented that it was a lot of cheap souvenir items, but our guide Adriano did say we should get limoncello here because that’s the local good.
A stone tunnel led down a muddy and dusty path to a stone beach. Being an avid beach comber, we looked for a few pieces of sea glass and were curious about the shares of rounded clay pottery on the beach, too.
Adriano met us at the post office up the hill and drove us out of Vernazza and to a secret lookout point at San Bernardino monastery that overlooks Corniglia, the last village we’d visit.
The monastery had gorgeous views of the wide open ocean and the little village perched on a cliff — it’s the only one without a marina entrance.
All I can say about the drive is that I’m so glad we didn’t drive ourselves. It’s like a tiny street that is somehow two ways. The driver had to honk around corners and there are like no rails. I’d have no clue where to go either. He does this 100 times a year.
Corniglia was everyone’s favorite island because it’s much less touristy – really the only ones who can get there are those with private tours like us or those that walk the hours-long hike between all the islands. It’s not accessible by boat like all the others.
We parked and walked down a gravel-like road that passed by stone walled terraces with grapes galore. The stones were clearly individually placed and looks precarious, but peeps in between the walls provided glimpses towards the village.
Adriano left us in the main square for an hour, with a free pass for gelato at a local spot. I tried basil, fig and crema just for a change of pace – the basil was local and all were light in flavor, subtle.
I bought some limoncello as a souvenir as well, because the bottle said Cinque Terre. The stone path wound around buildings like a narrow tunnel, lined with small shops with handmade clothing. It took us to a courtyard with a fountain and other lookout of the whole ocean.
We felt very rushed in Corniglia since we only had about 45 minutes there, and it was the least touristy and most fun to explore — though there were less photo opts for those of you that want the pics.
We boarded back up and arrived back in Florence at 5:30 p.m. Cinque Terre was a must-see place for us in Italy because of the undeniable charm along the beach. It was a wonderful excursion and felt very personalized by Adriano. I definitely felt like we got the insider trip!