Famous Five: Why Italy's Cinque Terre is worth braving the crowds
Italy's Cinque Terre gets hot and crowded but simply must be seen, says Arlene Harris.
Set the Mood
The sky is cornflower blue, fishing boats bob about on iridescent water and the pastel hues of higgledy-piggledy houses contrast prettily with a dark grey cliff face.
I'm in Cinque Terre, the stunning World Heritage Site on the edge of Italy's Ligurian Sea. The name (which translates as 'five lands') denotes the five tiny villages which attract upwards of 2.5 million visitors a year to their mix of winding cliff paths, cobbled streets, picturesque harbours, terraced vineyards and, of course, clusters of colourful houses.
Riomaggiore, Monterosso, Corniglia, Vernazza and Manarola are uniquely different yet all share the same, otherworldly beauty. Locals go about their daily business almost oblivious to the hordes of visitors peering into shops and homes and spreading themselves out along the beachfronts.
Having undertaken the mammoth task of climbing the cliff path from Riomaggiore to Monterosso (the famous Via dell' Amore, or Path of Love, between the two villages was closed), we arrived hot, thirsty and hungry and followed our noses to Il Bocconcino (Strada Provinciale 38) - a fried-fish stand which, judging by the queues, seemed worth the wait.
Paper cones filled with calamari, a selection of white fish and a few token fries proved to be the most delicious lunch we had ever tasted. At €7 a head, it was more expensive than many places in the region, but we certainly weren't complaining.
The Cinque Terre rail card is a surprisingly good value at €16 per adult (€29 for two days; €41 for three). The day pass allows you to hop on the train at La Spezia and get on and off at various villages as you like throughout the day or evening. It also covers bus travel (in the midday heat, a bus from the station to the hilltop village of Corniglia is a must), guided walks and Wi-Fi in all the villages.
Another pleasant surprise was the abundance of water pumps providing cold drinking water free of charge at regular intervals.
Cinque Terre is beautiful but a victim of its own success, with visitors flocking here in droves. Local authorities are working towards a scheme to reduce tourist numbers in a bid to preserve the beauty and atmosphere of the place. In the meantime, avoid the crush by taking a trip in late spring or early autumn.
Finding a room in Cinque Terre during high season can be difficult and expensive - an alternative option is to stay in La Spezia, a 15-minute train ride away. Levante Residence is a short walk from the station, offering spacious apartments with breakfast on the communal terrace and a recommendation for the best local pizzeria (laspeziaresidence.com; rooms from €120 per night).
The mountain 'path' from Riomaggiore to Monterosso is not for the faint hearted. The tourist information centre needs to offer clearer advice - there is no handrail, not much by way of step, and the hike over the cliff takes at least an hour. Be prepared!
Get me there
The closest airport to Cinque Terre is Pisa - to which both Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly from Dublin.
Train tickets from Pisa to La Spezia cost from €9 (trainline.eu) and Cinque Terre adult train passes cost from €16 per day (€7.30 per child); more at cinqueterre.it.