Looking to travel to Italy’s Cinque Terre? Italy expert and creator of Traveling Through Life Jessica Yeager shares where to eat and drink, how to immerse yourself in local culture, where to take in an Italian Riviera sunset, and how to go beyond the guidebook in the Cinque Terre Italy.
1. Please tell us a bit about your experience in Cinque Terre. What brought you there and what kinds of experiences did you end up having?
This past summer I went on a backpacking trip through Italy. One of the regions I visited was Cinque Terre. Having no real reason to visit other than to see the beautiful pastel villages and soak up the sunshine, it was a place that could have easily fallen by the wayside if my travel plans needed to change for any reason. Luckily, everything went as planned and I’m so glad it did. Cinque Terre was my favorite place I visited during my travels. I loved it so much that I changed the end of my itinerary, skipping out on Lake Como in exchange for a few more days in the Italian Riviera.
Cinque Terre is comprised of five villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. My first stay was in the village of Riomaggiore, but when I returned for the second time, I stayed in Manarola. Of all the villages, however, Vernazza was my favorite. In the future, this is my town of choice to stay, but it’s important to reserve a room in advance, especially in the summer months. What I love about Vernazza is its quaintness. Immediately upon exiting the train from the station you are walking on Main Street. In the other villages, there is quite a distance from the train station to the main part of town. Via Roma in Vernazza is sprinkled with souvenir shops, enotecas, gelataria’s and bakeries. Hands down the best gelato is at Valentino’s. Valentino is passionate about his products and uses organic cream and milk, as well as local fruits to whip up divine flavors. You have to try the Hazelnut or Lemon. Also, make it a point to stop into one of the bakeries for a slice of farinata or focaccia. These are local specialties. After a short walk through town, you enter the harbor square. The little piazza was a favorite place of mine to hang out with friends, especially in the evening. You definitely want to stop by the Ananasso Bar for aperitivo. Grab a glass of Prosecco and watch the sun set into the Mediterranean Sea.
Riomaggiore, Vernazza and Monterosso have a good nightlife in the evening. But be sure to check the train times before you head out. The trains do not run all night and if you are staying in another town, you won’t want to miss the last train home. Although, if you’re having fun it might be worth it, but you’ll be sleeping at the station.
2. What’s one attraction or experience you recommend that a person probably won’t find in their guidebook?
For a unique experience that will take you beyond the guidebook try Voluntourism, a form of sustainable tourism. In 2011, a devastating flood ravished the town of Vernazza (and also Monterosso al Mare). In an effort to rebuild, a group of women from Vernazza formed a non-profit called, SaveVernazza. This program allows tourists to volunteer their time and work with local farmers to recover abandoned land, cultivate vineyards, and restore terracing and rebuild dry stonewalls. Central to their economy and culture are the vineyards, which are built upon stone terracing. Mudslides wiped out many of the vineyards and stonewalls collapsed. Many farmers were unable to rebuild, which actually poses a danger to the town for future mudslides. By volunteering to help rebuild you are not only restoring the village of Vernazza, but also preserving it for the future.
3. For those wanting to experience local culture, what’s a top experience recommendation?
Travel by boat, train, or foot and visit each village. Begin in Riomaggiore, followed by Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Walk the streets of each town and visit the tiny shops, bakeries and cafes. Everyone has a favorite town in Cinque Terre and this is the best way to find which is yours.
But if you really want to experience local culture, then get to know the people. As you wander through the villages, don’t rush. Instead, peruse the local shops, stop for a coffee at a café, visit a bakery for a treat, or simply find a bench in the town square to enjoy a little people watching. As you observe your surroundings be open to conversation. This is an important aspect of Italian culture and therefore can help you feel connected to a place. Make small talk with shop owners, your server, or someone sitting on the train next to you. While not everyone may speak your language, even a friendly exchange of a smile will make you feel connected to a place. The people of Cinque Terre are humble and kind and are proud of their community. Slow down and get to know someone. It’s likely you will receive recommendations on places locals like to go, specialties one must try that are specific to the region, or you may simply learn about someone else’s life.
Connecting to the place I visit is important to me and by being open to conversation, I learned about the history of the dessert wine, Sciacchetrà, as well as the importance of the dry stone walls that I passed without considering their importance to the community, and the heavenly gelato at Valentino’s. The opportunity to gain perspective is always there, but sometimes we need to stop and notice it.
4. What’s one thing that surprised you about the Cinque Terre as a destination?
Aside from the village of Monterosso, Cinque Terre is void of cars and traffic. The main mode of transportation to get from town to town is by train or boat. While there are roads in the hills they are treacherous, not well kept nor highly traveled, especially by tourists. You won’t find big tour buses pulling into town, although you might bump into a large walking tour from time to time. Instead, you will find people outside engaging in a flurry of outdoor activity. Swimming, sunbathing, hiking, working in the fields, or just simply walking around are common sights. When planning a trip to Italy, placing a visit to Cinque Terre in between two larger cities will give you a much-needed break during your travels.
5. No trip to the Cinque Terre would be complete without savoring the culinary culture. What’s your recommended food and drink pairing?
In advance, reserve a table at DaBilly’s Trattoria in Manarola. Ask for outdoor seating and you will be privy to an amazing view if you go around dusk. Order a glass of the house white wine, called Cinque Terre D.O.C. It pairs wonderfully with the trofie al pesto (remember, this is the birthplace of pesto) or the antipasti frutti di mare (also called antipasti misti).
After dinner order a glass of Sciacchetrà. This is a local dessert wine that is a little pricier but definitely worth it. It is only available in this region and takes years to make.
6. Tell us about one of your most memorable unexpected adventures.
Cliff jumping in Manarola! One afternoon I was enjoying lunch in Manarola with a friend at the harborside restaurant, Marina Piccolo. The restaurant is situated with a view of the harbor, but sits above sea level. Locals and tourists alike can walk down to the waterside and take a swim. Also in view from the restaurant is a large rock jetting straight up from the watering hole and almost reaching the level of the restaurant, but not quite. Every now and again during our lunch, we would hear applause and words of encouragement coming from crowds of spectators overlooking the water below. Sometimes the crowd would do a countdown and then erupt in cheers. We realized that locals were actually climbing up the gigantic rock and jumping off. When a daring tourist climbed to the top, he or she would often become scared and reconsider the jump. This is when the crowd gathered and began a countdown. When the person finally jumped, the crowd broke out in applause.
After watching a few of these jumpers, my friend and I decided to take the plunge. We were in a daring mood and didn’t want to miss out on the fun. When would we have such an opportunity next? So we walked down to the water and swam out to the rock. Once we climbed to the top, we understood the reason that only a few people actually made the jump. It was incredibly high and we both contemplated climbing back down. But as we stood there considering our options, we gained an audience and took center stage. The cheering began and then the countdown, and in a matter of seconds we hopped off the giant rock and plummeted into the blue water. Once we emerged, we were given an ovation. The jump gave us such an adrenaline rush we even went back for seconds. Since I’m afraid of heights, this was both memorable and unexpected. Sometimes when you travel, you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. This was the perfect opportunity.
7. What’s one must-pack item for those traveling to the Cinque Terre?
Sneakers! Cinque Terre is known for its beautiful hiking trails that connect all five villages together. There are coastal trails, as well as trails further in the hillsides. The Sentiero Azzurro, or blue path, which boasts panoramic views of the sea, is an absolute must. Choosing this trail allows you to visit all five villages; however, you can also choose to hike one trail or the whole thing. Start early if you choose to do the whole trail, which begins in Riomaggiore and ends in Monterosso.
Also, if you choose the whole trail option, you can reward your efforts with the “step by step” necklace. There is one shop in each town that sells this necklace and the charms. First, purchase the necklace and your first charm in the town in which you begin. Then once you make it to the next town, take a break and find the next shop to purchase your next charm. The charms are bronze or silver and have the name of the village inscribed on it. After you complete the entire trail you will have five charms representing each step you completed. It is a nice memento.
8. Where can one take in a spectacular view in the Cinque Terre?
You can catch a spectacular sunset in the town of Manarola. Around dusk, hop on a train to Manarola. When you arrive, walk into town and up the main street. Once you see the local enoteca, stop in and purchase a bottle of wine (ask for it to be opened). Then continue up the street, locate the COOP (local grocery store) and stop in for some cheese and crackers. Continue walking up the hill and you will find the entrance to the hiking trail from Manarola to Corniglia. Climb the steps and enter the trail. Travel a few minutes by foot — don’t worry it’s not too strenuous — and when you find yourself overlooking the water with a good view of the sun, locate a spot to sit down. You will find yourself sitting amongst grape vines. With the tiny town below you and the vast Mediterranean surrounding you, settle in, sip your wine and enjoy the moment.
*All photos courtesy of Jessica Yeager
About Jessica Yeager
Jessica is a Jersey girl, pure and simple. But it’s her love of world travel, meeting new people, and exploring sun-drenched elsewheres that takes her beyond state lines. A teacher by day, storyteller by night; she enjoys sharing tales of her adventures that inspire and awaken the traveling spirit in others. During a one month long backpacking trip through Italy, she fell in love with the region of Cinque Terre. Of the five villages, her favorite is Vernazza. After learning about the flood in 2011 that ravished the town, she decided to take action to help preserve the community for future generations. She organized a fundraiser with her third grade class and they are currently raising money to support the revitalization efforts headed by the non-profit group, SaveVernazza. Each time she visits Cinque Terre, she learns more about the community, culture, and traditions. When it’s time to leave, she is already busy planning her next return. Stop by her blog, Traveling Through Life, to read more about her travels.