The Whistletrip:  Itinerary

Day 1:  Fly to Pisa, train to La Spezia then to Manarola, afternoon hike to Riomaggiore

Day 2: Full day leisurely hike from Manarola to Monterossi

Day 3: Boat from Manarola to Portovenere

Day 4:  Depart for international flight

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Why Go

Five charming medieval villages packed with picturesque pastel-colored architecture.  Spectacular ocean views from vineyard covered cliff tops.  Hiking – for all abilities – in glorious Italian sun.  Fresh seafood pasta dishes accompanied by quality local wines.  Comfortable moderately priced hotels and easy to use public transportation, allowing budgets to stretch.  Think a casual Amalfi Coast with slightly fewer crowds.  Even a long weekend with an international flight leaves you feeling as though you’ve been out of the rat race for much longer.

Visiting the Cinque Terre was a solo whistletrip, and a fantastic experience for a lone traveler.  There is enough tourist bustle that you never feel uncomfortably isolated – even when meandering on the more remote trails – but not so crowded that you feel overwhelmed.  The collegial feeling amongst hikers is welcoming.  And since accommodation is concentrated in the hearts of the five Cinque Terre villages, reaching shops, restaurants or transport means short, well-lit walks.

To Travel Agent or Not To Travel Agent

Not.  Definitely not.  KayakBooking.com and a simple map are all you need.

Practical Planning

The closest airports with train options to the Cinque Terre are Pisa and Genoa, both of which are approximately 1.5 hours away by train.  Firenze is another nearby airport, and an approximately 2 hour drive away.  Having a car in the Cinque Terre is impractical and trains are the quickest option in peak season.

I flew to Pisa on discount Spanish airline Vueling, an affiliate of the flag-carrier Iberia.  At Pisa airport, you pick up the hugely convenient PisaMover bus for a direct 8 minute ride to Pisa Centrale train station, for only €1.30 one way.  The PisaMover bus runs from right outside the arrivals section, every ten minutes, all day starting at 6am.

At Pisa Centrale, you get on the next train to La Spezia Centrale for a 45 to 65 minute ride.  Tickets are easy to purchase from the Trenitalia machines, which have English language instructions.  In peak season, it is worth checking the Trenitalia website before leaving home to see if there seats are available on your first choice train time and booking in advance if you are a tight schedule.  At La Spezia, you switch to the Levanto – Cinque Terre – La Spezia regional train line linking the villages.  This runs 1 to 2 times per hour.  The longest leg is La Spezia to Riomaggiore at 8 minutes, with each subsequent village about 5 minutes apart.

The Cinque Terre National Park (the “Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre”) covers the five villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore plus the town of Portovenere and the islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto.  Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, efforts are underway to cap the number of visitors to the Cinque Terre area to 1.5 million per year through advanced online ticket sales.

At the time of this whistletrip in 2016, mandatory “trekking cards” to access the trails in the National Park were on sale instead at a Welcome Center at each village’s train station and in La Spezia.  These cards are inspected at various checkpoints along the trail and cost €7.50 per adult for one day / €14.50 per adult for two days.  The Cinque Terre “Treno Card” provides the same access plus unlimited train travel in second class on the Levanto – Cinque Terre – La Spezia line, priced at €16 per adult for one day / €29 per adult for two days.

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At Manarola train station for an early morning ride. The track runs right along the coast © The Whistletrip

Certain trails are currently closed for repairs.  The Riomaggiore – Manarola main trail, the Via dell’Amore, is expected to be closed until April 2018, as are several other sections between the villages.  This was also the case at the time of this whistletrip and did not impede hiking at all: alternative paths through the cliff side vineyards are available, you just end up mimicking a mountain goat a little more than you would otherwise.

For the latest prices for Cinque Terre trekking and “Treno” cards, as well as updates on which trails are open, it is important to check the Cinque Terre National Park website.

Day 1:  Manarola and Hike to Riomaggiore

The Goldilocks of the Cinque Terre – larger than Corniglia or Riomaggiore, smaller than Monterosso – Manarola makes an enjoyable base from which to explore the coastline.  I arrived at my hotel at around 2pm, and despite the post-flight morning on trains, wanted to stretch my legs with a hike to neighboring Riomaggiore.  The helpful front desk handed over a trail map, gave directions to the right starting point, and off I went for a 2 hour steep-but-scenic trot over the hill and back.

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Up through the vineyards from Manarola to Riomaggiore © The Whistletrip
  • Must See:  The homes in Manarola and Riomaggiore up close.  While staring out at the shore or absorbing panoramic views of the villages, it is easy to miss the authentic details of everyday life.  Laundry drying from windows.  Chipped paint in need of a refresh.  Proud residents sweeping stretches of tourist-trodden streets in front of their homes.  Charming, mesmerizing, and real.
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    Manarola’s pastel houses are charmingly and authentically imperfect © The Whistletrip
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    Small boats sit at the foot of the Cinque Terre’s cascading cliffside village © The Whistletrip

    Stay:  3* Hotel Marina Piccola was terrific value for money at  €126 per night (including VAT) despite a last minute reservation for peak August season.  This rate included free Wifi and a delicious breakfast combining a continental buffet, eggs a la carte, and real cappuccinos.  Though the pastel pink and green-shuttered building is historic, its 12 renovated rooms are large, modern, air-conditioned and pristine, and have powerful showers.  Located on the street that runs through the heart of Manarola, Via Birolli, the Hotel Marina Piccola is 2 minutes from the waterfront and an easy 7 minute walk from the train station.

  • Eat:  Around the corner from the hotel is its sister restaurant, Restaurant Marina Piccola.  Its outside verandah has panoramic sea views and is well placed for sunset.  The squid ink pasta was delicious and followed by equally enjoyable tiramisu.  Guests at the Hotel Marina Piccola get 10% off the check.  In Riomaggiore, somewhat identical booths sell paper cones filled with fried seafood – a great snack after hiking into town.
  • Cocktail: Nessun Dorma serves up bruschetta and antipasti made from local produce, and stunning views over Manarola’s waterfront.  At the top of Via Birolli, turn right at the marina and follow the street up the gentle hill to Punta Bonfiglio – you will spot this outdoor wine bar’s white umbrellas and hear low key lounge music coming from within.  Take a book and go early – at sunset it is hard to get a seat.

Day 2:  Hike to Monterosso through Corniglia and Vernazza

After fueling up on a large hotel breakfast, and filling a small backpack with water, fruit and bread rolls, I set off from Manarola for a full day of hiking towards the furthest village, Monterosso, at 24 km / 15 miles away.  Red and white signposts and wall markings keep hikers on the right track and even in peak season, the trails never felt crowded.

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The Cinque Terre trail’s trademark red and white signs © The Whistletrip
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Through the tomato vines to Corniglia © The Whistletrip

First stop after about an hour was Corniglia.  Sitting atop a hill instead of on the water, Corniglia avoids the cruise ship daytrippers and is the least crowded of the villages.  As I was there on a Sunday, I saw the pretty 14th century Church of San Pietro in the main square empty out after a service and managed to get a peek at the baroque vaulted roof.

From Corniglia, I continued for 90 minutes on the trail to Vernazza – its dramatic waterfront framed by the two regal towers of Santa Margherita di Antiochia Church and Doria Castle.  The main Via Roma and its winding offshoots of narrow lanes (caruggi) are lined with bakeries, cafes and gelaterias to pick up a late lunch.

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Approaching Vernazza © The Whistletrip
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Beautiful coastal views from the Corniglia – Vernazza trail © The Whistletrip

The final 2 hour stretch from Vernazza to Monterosso was the toughest, with steep, narrow segments and sometimes very exposed to the afternoon sun.  The views here were some of the most beautiful, and after arriving in Monterosso, it was immensely satisfying to head to the beach, take off my walking shoes and dip my feet in the cool water.

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Above the rail track that cuts through the cliffs to link the villages © The Whistletrip

To mix things up, I decided to take a boat (timetable and rates linked) back to Manarola.  These run at least once per hour from spring through autumn, and stop at each of the villages except Corniglia and at Portovenere.

  • Eat:  Halfway along the trail from Corniglia to Vernazza, there is a cafe selling fresh squeezed orange juice and other beverages.  Well worth the stop for a refreshing sugar fix.  Vernazza provides a large assortment of eateries from which to pick up a slice of pizza or foccacia as a mid-hike lunch.
  • Beach: Monterosso has the only sandy beach in the area and it gets busy.  Go down towards the town’s main jetty – you can’t miss it as soon as you get off the train or hike in – and you see rows of blue and orange umbrella-ed chairs for rent for as much as €30 for the day.  Alternatively, take a large towel and perch on one of the large boulders for free.

Day 3:  Boat to Portovenere and Along the Ligurian Riviera

While the five villages of the Cinque Terre steal the limelight, Portovenere is a hidden gem that is well worth at least half a day for exploring.  Knowing nothing about Portovenere, I woke up on morning 3, decided that I just wanted to get on the water, hopped to the Manarola marina and asked the lady at the boat ticket booth where I could go for the day.  A  30 minute boat ride along the Ligurian coast later, I was greeted by by the striking Church of St Peter as we sailed into Portovenere, marking the entry point to a beautiful harbor where you can board further 40-minute boat rides around the islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto.

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The harbor front of Portovenere © The Whistletrip
  • Must See:   Stunning Church of San Pietro was built on the ruins of a pagan temple, was consecrated in 1198 and underwent further construction through the 13th century, when striking black and white stripes were created both inside and outside the building.

    Lord Byron, who lived in Portovenere from said to have meditated in the grotto at the foot of the same promontory. From there, it is believed that he swam across the gulf to Lerici – 7.5 kilometers away.img_1155 © The Whistletrip

  • Eat:  The start of Portovenere’s main street Via Capellini at the harbor is marked by a gateway, after which it is lined with options for pizza slices, crepes and other delicious snacks.
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    Gateway to Via Capellini © The Whistletrip

    Tre Torri provides terrific fresh whole seafood in quaint Piazza Bistreri.  I had a wonderful lunch here of grilled heads-on giant prawns with a salad.  Set back from the waterfront and its overpriced restaurants, Tre Torri combined great food with attentive service , chic decor, and quintessential Italian surrounds.

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    Quaint Piazza Bisteri, with delightful restaurant Tre Terri pink at right © The Whistletrip

Roads Left Untraveled: Portofino and Cooking Classes in La Spezia

Portofino is a perennial favorite in luxury long weekend destination lists.  A ferry runs between the Cinque Terre area and Portofino (specifically Santa Margherita Ligure).  It is a several hour round trip and the route is not served every day nor at regular hours, so checking the schedule online and confirming through your hotel are important.  I decided to stay local, opting for the short hop to Portovenere, but Portfino is definitely on the future whistletrip list.

Restaurant Antica Hostaria Secondini, in La Spezia, offers cooking classes specializing in Ligurian food.  This is a real time commitment, starting with meeting in La Spezia in the morning to shop the markets with the chef, and lasting much of the daytime, but gets great reviews.

One final thought:  Pisa.  The city of the leaning tower is small, easily walkable, and the monuments really are special.  Worth a few hours around your flight, especially if you pack light.

© The Whistletrip