Anticipation filled the autumn air as we looked ahead to Italy’s Cinque Terre.
The Famous Five; a coastal stretch of Italy’s Riviera that is home to five quaint fishing villages, pastel coloured houses that perch precariously on the rock-face where residents live life on the edge, almost literally. How would our day fare? Would we be left disappointed or delighted?
Our Italian love/hate relationship
Our feelings about Italy over the last couple of years have been tinged with what can only be described as a love, hate relationship. Sometimes we adore its romantic canvas and then we take to the road and the love affair comes to an abrupt end as we navigate the highways and bi-ways with their crazy drivers.
We had a similar connection with Cinque Terre (CT) when we visited last year, after stumbling upon Portovenere just along the peninsular from La Spezia. We loved this wonderful town and as a working port has somehow held onto its authentic roots despite growing tourism. And yet Portovenere is NOT on THE LIST, which perhaps accounts for its serene vibe and distinct lack of visitors. At the other end of the coast you find Monterosso; a surprisingly grey town cut in half, discourteously by the railway line, seemingly severing its once beautiful sanctuary. We were so disappointed by our initial introduction to CT that we decided to pass on by.
So this year, late September we were travelling with friends who had the Land of Five on their list and felt we wanted to give it a second chance. Travel is, after all about exploring beyond the magazine cover and seeking real life within the beating heart of the streets. Perhaps this trip would re-ignite the love we so wanted to feel for CT.
Our Cinque Terre adventure
Strangely, despite our previous experience, we woke with anticipation and excitement. With the sun reigning supreme, we set off on what felt like a proper adventure. A bus from Portovenere into La Spezia, a walk to the train station, purchase of an ‘All Day Cinque Terre Ticket’, a quick coffee from McDonalds and on the train within minutes. It felt like a scene out of an Enid Blyton novel, where four friends accompanied by their dog, a packed lunch and fully-charged cameras, set off in search of exploration.
Given that we had only one day and had already visited Monterosso, we decided to start our exploration at the next most westerly point, Vernazza; and within a twelve minute train ride, we had arrived. Yet within seconds of stepping off the platform, we were stripped of our excitement as we were met by a throng of Tour Groups and wall-to-wall tourists resembling something out of Piped Piper. We followed like sheep, assuming that they were all heading towards something spectacular. We passed by one souvenir shop after another and selfie-taking enthusiasts, and hoped that if we darted around them, we would find our slice of tranquility.
They say that ‘First Impressions Count’ and although I’m not a great believer in this quote, I have to say that today, it felt true. Above the shop facades, four storey buildings rise above your head, framed by uniform green shutters. Residents look down upon the bustling crowd below with a mixture of amusement and annoyance it seemed to me. Washing hangs from their lofty windows, despite the camera-clicking posse on the streets beneath them and houses, dearly in need of some love, line the streets blocking out the sun.
At the end of the main street you are presented with a plaza and harbour, which since the October 2011 floods has certainly regained its structure. Like bees to a honey pot, people are buzzing and flocking – to where, we were unsure, although the harbour seems to be the place to hang out. And for sure the sight looking back from the breakwater was pretty, although nothing that, at this point, made us go ‘wow’. Regular ferry boats pull up to the docking pier for yet more visitors to disembark and descend upon this tiny fishing village. Despite being one of those visitors, I felt sad for Venazza and the invasion of so many tourists. The bygone days of earning a crust from the sea is now replaced by souvenir shops selling pasta and scented lemon sacks.
In our attempt to seek something special, we spied a lofty spot at the castle tower; here surely we would see the beauty? Steadily clambering up the steep steps, we arrive at the castle gates, only to be greeted by a €1.50 entrance fee that our Day Pass didn’t cover. So two of us climbed the tower, whilst on principle, the other two stayed below. The view was lovely although it just didn’t quite do it for me. Perhaps the next village would do this iconic region justice.
So our starter for 10 – Porto Venere 1, Cinque Terre 0.
Back on the train we travel east towards Corniglia, which can only be visited by train or car as it is positioned high up on a rocky crag, making it impossible for ferry tourists to access. From the train station you have the opportunity, with your All Day ticket to take the Shuttle Bus to the village centre, although with hoards surrounding the bus as though a celebrity was inside, we decide that the hike up the zig-zag pathway would do us good. After climbing 383 steps to the top, we smile at the Pharmacy at the path’s entrance, inviting you to take something for your excessively beating heart?
Corniglia was village number two that left us speechless. After staggering up the steps, we dashed from one potential viewing spot to another desperately searching that x-factor. Yet scruffy buildings with broken windows, dark, narrow streets with people competing for air and a couple of vistas promising a view to die for and delivering something very underwhelming, was our prize. Were we missing something? Perhaps because of our travels we have just experienced too many wows in our memory bank that have to compete for our affections – is this is danger of our travelling lifestyle? And yet, not less than two days previously we found a ‘wow’ at Portovenere, so we knew it couldn’t just be a laissez-faire mindset and we so wanted to feel the love.
For the moment though it was Portovenere 2 CT 0.
Such was our disappointment and tiredness, if we’re honest, we decided to miss Manarola. We heard a less than positive review from a lady who was staying there, so would Riomaggiore be our final saving grace? It’s true that this most easterly village had a certain charm as its roads rose steeply into the mountain bedrock above it and its streets swooped down to the sea below. Some buildings had been newly painted, creating something similar to the magazine images, although we still felt there was something missing. You need to be fit to wander the streets of this village, as in your pursuit to explore the real village and not just the high street geared for tourists, you will need to climb towards the gods – and the stairways are unforgiving.
As our experience came to an end and we reflected on our day out in the Famous Five, what would our honest appraisal be in influencing future visitors? I would love to report that this is a ’must’ on your Italy tour, although with all integrity I cannot. Clearly all experiences are coloured by our own conditioning and the truth is that you must make up your own mind. I’m really glad we went and we did have a fabulous day together – travel after all is not a Utopian experience – you must experience all sides of a place to truly be enriched. Although these are the factors that influenced our experience; the villages are over-run with expensive ferry arrivals and tour groups. The villages seem to have lost their souls, selling them to the Tourism devil and it felt to us that they had sacrificed their authenticity for the sake of the crowds, of which we were part, of course. The buildings look tired, unloved and shabby and fishing boats had been replaced by motorboats looking for their next experience-hungry customer. The marketing of the area creates an expectation that, in reality didn’t match up for us. We hoped for so much more.
Photoshop certainly gives us an illusion of Cinque Terre at its best and if you are looking for a genuine insight into the villagers’ way of life back in the day, you may be left sadly disappointed. You can of course say that you have ticked off Cinque Terre, although unless you are wiling to stay in each village for a short period during November to March then I’m not sure you will feel its real heart-beat. Our advice is visit Portovenere as this is what encompasses our expectation of the Cinque Terre and it was the ‘wow’ that we were looking for.
Final verdict? Portovenere 4, Cinque Terre 1
Travel Tips for Cinque Terre
- You can buy a One Day Cinque Terre ticket for €16pp and this gives you access to the walking paths, the Shuttle Buses, the Hop On, Hop Off Train and the toilets that are normally charged at €1 per wee! We bought our tickets from La Spezia Train station.
- Tickets must be validated at the Green Machines before getting on the train.
- You can go by Ferry, which depart regularly from Portovenere, Lerici and Levanto. From Portovenere it costs €33 per person and is subject to weather conditions. Please remember that the Ferry does not stop at Corniglia. From people we spoke to, the ferry is a tiring option, only because linking up to departure times can cause a lot of hanging around and the transfer from one village to another is a lot longer than the trains, which generally go every 30 minutes.
- If taking the train, you can buy a single ticket for €4 one-way, although this will only take you to one village. You must then buy another €4 ticket for each separate journey you wish to take. So if you only want to do a couple of villages each day, then this could be a cheaper option than buying separate Day Tickets.
- The tower at Vernazza castle costs €1.50 to enter and you really only spend five minutes up there. You will need to be fit to climb the steps that leads to the Ticket Office, so be aware of this and the costs before you make the climb.
- You can take a small dog on the train and boat for free. You will need either a dog carrier for the train or carry the dog and take a muzzle. For a larger dog, check before you travel and make sure you have your dog passport.
- If you take the train, take note of the departure schedule so you can manage how long you spend in each village. This way you don’t waste valuable time waiting for a train’s arrival. They are not always on time.
- Visiting all five villages in one day by train is doable, although it is a tough schedule that doesn’t really allow for any chilling or lunch/refreshment breaks. We did three villages in our day trip over about four hours and with the walks to and from the station, it makes for a long day. Ideally to enjoy the villages take two days.
- You can hike between the villages if you are keen walkers, although some of the paths are still damaged by the 2011 storms, so please enquire before deciding to walk. http://www.cinqueterre.it
- To visit Cinque Terre, you must have a reasonable level of fitness due to the steepness of the alleyways, towers and paths to and from the train stations. The villages are not all Pram or Wheelchair friendly, so please consider this in your plans and get advice before travelling.
- Of course you can travel by car to each of the villages, although this will add a significant amount of time to your visit as there are no direct coastal roads that link each village. So the mountain roads will need to be navigated to reach each one.
- You can reach Portovenere by car or bus. The yellow bus leaves La Spezia from Via Garibaldi and it takes about 20 minutes to arrive at the town and costs €5 return.