A trip to the Cinque Terre, Italy: Beautiful views and the disappointing seafood

A trip to the Cinque Terre, Italy: Beautiful views and the disappointing seafood
Manarola, Italy

The romantic and magical towns of Cinque Terre in Italy’s Liguria region is on many people’s must-see list. Was it all it was hyped up to be?

Based on the title, there is a good chance that you, dear reader, might think that I am either picky or a grumpy grouch. To put things in perspective and before I go any further, I would like to say I am from Sydney Australia, a place that is famous for its large, sandy beaches and abundant seafood.

Cinque Terre touts colourful houses, adorable small traditional coastal towns, seafood and timeless ocean views.

As a photographer, I have always wanted to visit the Cinque Terre in Italy for the colourful houses perched high on the mountainous headlands over the ocean. Considering how far my home country of Australia is, Cinque Terre is definitely a world away.

I visited the Cinque Terre area around the end of the peak season in August, which is the end of summer. The weather was still hot and there still plenty of people enjoying the coastal area and water.

The name “Cinque Terre” means “five” (cinque) “lands” (terre) and the name is actually the name of the national park there that includes actually more than five, but the five most famous towns of the area, Riomagiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. The towns lie in a line along the coast of the mountains there, overlooking the Ligurian sea.

The Cinque Terre towns of magazines and travel brochures is the historical town center of each town, although visitors can also venture further inland to the villages. On this occasion, I did not go to the villages, but I did visit the towns on two separate days.

To get to Cinque Terre, my travel buddy and I got a train from Florence after initially flying in to Venice.

This was my first time there and I visited the area on two separate days. On the first day, I took the ferry there, 30€ per person for a day pass that stops at 4 of the 5 towns. First stop was Riomaggiore.

Riomaggiore

I must say that when I first got to Riomaggiore, I was slightly disappointed because the colours of the buildings there, which is what Cinque Terre is best known for, were not as vibrant and saturated as promised to me by the vast number of promotional pictures in the media. Although I suppose I should not be surprised as the media is full of doctored and overly edited images – a search for something along the lines of “instagram vs reality” shows you the sometimes astounding differences between a cherrypicked and heavily edited image and reality. Which, by the way, I am proud to say is something I don’t do with my photos.

 

That is in no way to say the area isn’t beautiful, which it is, but rather that it does not look the way it does in highly edited promotional pictures, and as a photographer and traveller that chooses destinations based on their photographic representation (as I am sure many people do), accurate photos are important to me where flashy images and misinformation is always trying to get your attention.

Unlike the large busy beaches of Sydney or Thailand, the towns of Cinque Terre has next to no sandy beaches – in fact, the only real sandy beach there is in Monterosso (granted, there is a sandy beach in Vernazza, but it is so small, it is more like a sandy front yard). But that is not a problem for me since I don’t really like sand anyway.

 

Instead, Riomaggiore has its own specialty, rock bars and outcrops that people sunbake on, climb over and jump from into the water. The rocks are large, white, cuboid boulders, large enough for people to spread out a blanket and have a nap on.

 

In some towns, the ferry docked directly at the rocky areas with a ramp rolled out to disembark with. In Riomaggiore, there was a very small rocky that led directly into shallow ocean water, which was a good place to cool off for a bit without getting totally wet, that is, if you don’t fall completely in the water. The force of the waves from the water was actually strong enough to knock you over sometimes, so I stayed on the side where there was a handrail, as did several other people. If I come again, I would definitely bring swimwear and go for a swim.

My main goal for the visit as a photographer was to photograph the area, and I did that by land. But if I had the budget and time to do more, I would have arranged a way to take some of the typical shots of Riomaggiore from the water by hiring a boat or maybe even go paddle boarding.

Because I travelled by ferry with the day pass, I had limited time at each of the 4 towns accessible by ferry, because the ferry comes once every hour and it takes about 20-30 minutes to get from one town to the next by boat. This wasn’t so much of a problem because the towns are very small, you can actually see the entire town in just an hour if all you want to do is to look at it and take a few snaps, that is how small the area is. If you want to have a sit down lunch and go for a swim, you would need more time.

Manarola

The natural colours of Manarola: What Manarola really looks like

Next stop was Manarola. Manarola and Riomaggiore are two of the most iconic towns in Cinque Terre – promotional pictures of Cinque Terre are usually of one of these towns.

In Manarola, you can walk along the side of the promontory directly facing the ocean on a special, flat and paved walking trail. It leads out towards the ocean where you can watch the sunset, and turn around to see the iconic view of the buildings on the mountain area in Manarola. It is definitely a vantage point for photographers. There was also a painter there who paints pictures of the view and sells his paintings to passerbys. The path is an easy to walk path that winds very gently around the cliff and is easily accessed from the sea entrance to the town.

Corniglia

Corniglia is possibly lesser known than the other more famous towns of Cinque Terre, perhaps because ferries do not stop there, because it has no ocean access. The buildings are perched high above the ocean on cliffs, which is different to the other towns. It is accessible if you travel by car or train. Corniglia train station is the one station that has ocean views from the platform and gives you access to a brief sighting of the ocean before it heads into the tunnel. However, the town was also not as photogenic as the other places, so we only stayed there for a short time. If you are short on time, you can give this town a miss.

Vernazza

Vernazza is where you can see the iconic brown stone tower facing the ocean at the tip of the headland – the Doria Castle. To see that view, you need to climb part way up the walking trail starting from inside the town. Unfortunately my camera or memory card must have suffered some sort of mishap, because I have absolutely no photos of the area, despite spending some time there with a tripod, which is such a shame.

 

A sad phone photo of Doria Castle in Vernazza
The Doria Castle in the top left corner in Vernazza

Another thing you can see along the path are the farming terraces. Turn around and you will be able to see the ocean and sun behind you. Below you, you can see the train station.

Monterosso

Monterosso has the only fully fledged beach in the Cinque Terre area (there is another, much smaller beach in Vernazza). Being from Sydney Australia and having seen the white sand beaches of the Whitsunday islands in Queensland, I was not in Monterosso for its sandy beaches, and I must say that the beaches of Monterosso were also not as impressive compared to the ones in Sydney. Indeed, the beach in Vernazza is more of a cosy sand pit.
We spent barely an hour in Monterosso because it was not as spectacular as Riomaggiore, Manarola or Vernazza, where, by late afternoon, their colourful buildings seemed like a totally different world away compared to the grey sands and landscape of Monterosso. The beach was already almost completely deserted by just before 6:30pm as you can see in the photo below so the lively atmosphere was lacking too. Monterosso beach lies in the shadows of the mountain at sundown, and the sun also sets behind the headland at Riomaggiore, so if you wanted to see the sunset, you should go to Manarola, which is what I did the next day.

A second day in Cinque Terre

In a last minute decision, I visited the Cinque Terre towns a second time on my stay by extending my stay by one night. This time we travelled by train with an unlimited rail pass, which at the time was 18,20€ per person (lucky for you the price has now dropped).
Lesson learnt: we bought the train ticket for the same day as the ferry ticket, thinking that we could see the towns quickly by ferry and then travel between them by train as needed, since the towns were so small. This was a waste because the ferries are slow and only come once per hour, and you need a good amount of time (about 2 hour, definitely more than 1 hour) in each town if you want to get a good look, and this doesn’t include time swimming or lining up/making decisions about what to eat/disembarking/other activities like hiring a boat. So the recommendation is, if you only have one day or you are short on time, take the train.

With plenty of services in both directions, there was no time limit to stick to, so we spent more time in the towns.

Each of the small towns have their charm and are adorable, in a way is almost like a time capsule, with their slow pace, car-free pedestrian streets, and buildings whose traditional look has been well maintained through their use of only natural and minimally processed materials like stone, brick and wood. There are no exposed shiny glass and metal buildings here, in the background are the farming terraces, and to keep with the authentic traditional look, even the public resting benches are made of wood, all just less than half an hour from the modern busy rest of the world.

 

A second day in Cinque Terre: Pretty pictures and the disappointing seafood

We bought gelato at a local store and had it outside on a bench. Gelato never disappoints, but lunch was amusingly disappointing. Determined to try something other than pasta and pizza, the latter of which we were thoroughly sick of, we decided to try local seafood, after all that is what the coastal area is supposedly known for.

A small plate of tiny black-shelled mussels in Cinque Terre, Italy.
A lovely plate of mussels...

We chose a plate of potato wedges and mussels, only to discover that the mussel meat was no larger than my thumb on my child-sized hand. For a Sydney-sider and someone who doesn’t even like mussels, this was highly disappointing to the point of it being funny, because while researching the destination, seafood was the recommended product of the area and one would have expected them to be a bit more spectacular, particularly given all the hype about how amazing Italian food is.

To quote Mic Dundee… that’s not a plate of mussels.

With more time in Cinque Terre, we climbed part way up the walking trail in Vernazza. The path involves climbing several stairs in the built up neighbourhood streets of Vernazza town center, until you reach a nature area. As you go higher on the mountain, you can see the farming terraces of Vernazza. The stairs are not very difficult to climb as there are rails, so anyone with reasonable fitness who can climb stairs with handrails can do it. I took a lot of photos there but for some reason, not a single one on my camera was saved.

I had planned sunset photos at Manarola, so we made sure to get there in plenty of time to get a good photography vantage point. By coincidence, there was another photographer there who happened to have the exact same tripod I did.

 

To feed two?
Manarola at dusk

I can definitely imagine the awe and magic of approaching the town at night, as a landform comes into view, followed by flickers of light from atop the cliffs, slowly by boat from the ocean in the days before modern plane travel. The sight of the lights dotting each of the small houses on the cliffs would be a sight to behold, and it still is.

Manarola after dark

Afterwards, for a light dinner, we tired another recommended food – “Fritto Misto”, a medley of a variety of deep fried seafood – calamari, anchovies, prawns and vegetables in a paper cone served with lemon wedge and a skewer which sounds great when described. Once again we were amused by the disappointment. Most places would recommend this to visitors as a must-try in Cinque Terre. However if I am brutally honest, I can’t say it is anything special. The idea of a mixed seafood plate is great. But although pictures make it look great, the food is served in a cone so it looks like a lot on the top but there is hardly anything beneath that top layer of food, and half of it it is filled with chips. All together, it is more like the left over crumbs and odds and ends at the bottom of the deep fryer basket at the end of the day. And once again, if you have had mixed seafood plates or calamari in Sydney, the Fritto Misto mix is nothing by comparison. But, I guess it is more for the fun and joy of doing something touristy and the experience of holding that cone of local deep fried seafood snacks in Cinque Terre and enjoying the atmosphere so I’d recommend it anyway.

A late dinner/snack of Fritto Misto

Although July and August are peak tourist seasons, I found there weren’t as many people there as I had expected, and just the right amount. However, the same probably can’t be said if you visit during the middle of the peak season.


 This could be because it was just coming out of COVID-19 no-travel period. Only months prior, travel throughout Europe was restricted with rules on distancing, masks and vaccinations.

Accommodation

For this trip, I stayed at two different accommodations. 

On the first night, my travel buddy and I stayed at a converted double bed bedroom with private bathroom in La Spezia. The listing on booking.com stated that it had wheelchair access/is accessible and on the ground floor. Although it was indeed on the ground floor of the building and flat throughout, it failed to mention the building was actually located at the top of a very steep, stepped hill. At 171€ a night, the price, like the location, was a bit steep.

The next night we stayed at a small hotel in La Spezia for 140€ for two people including breakfast, which was a much better deal than the previous one.

Total cost for 2 people and 2 nights’ stay, ferry and train tickets, excluding food and souvenirs: 407.40€

So did I like Cinque Terre? Definitely. I love small traditional towns and I applaud how well maintained the area is and that it did not succumb to modern commercialism. No glass and metal monstrosities and no McDonald’s here meaning you will definitely have to try the local food. I would love to go back and try boating there next time, and would be better prepared for more photos.

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