In June, I visited the famous Cinque Terre on the Ligurian Riviera for the first time in my life. I spent a short 4-day holiday in Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost village of the area known as the Cinque Terre. In the past, villages were also called terre (lands), and since there are 5 terre neatly lined up along the coastline, it was naturally called Cinque Terre (Five Lands).
From north to south the villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. This particularly beautiful stretch of coast tucked in between the city La Spezia and the beach town Levanto was included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997. Before the arrival of the railway at the end of the 19th century, these villages were only accessible by foot or by boat.
Of course, I had heard a lot about this beautiful area with its idyllic coves, hills and beautiful clear sea. When I was in Viareggio in the 1990s, I saw the ferry departures to these lands. But I never went. Regrets? Yes, because in the meantime mass tourism has discovered the Cinque Terre and 20 years ago it would have been undoubtedly a quieter and more authentic experience to visit these lands.
With its 1500 inhabitants, Monterosso is the largest village of the Cinque Terre. It consists of the old part with narrow streets and the new part with holiday apartments built to accommodate the growing influx of tourists. The station is positioned exactly in the middle a (pedestrian) tunnel connects the two parts. During my vacation in Monterosso, I stayed in an apartment at the end of the main street of the old town Via Roma. If you stay in the new part, a walk to the old town will take you about 20 minutes.
The fishing boats that once docked in the harbor made way for recreational boats that take you for a trip along the coast. The beaches are packed with umbrellas, restaurants offer tourist menus and breakfast with bacon and eggs. No Italian would ever eat that! Tourism clearly represents the largest source of income for the once isolated and poor Cinque Terre. Fishing has not been abolished entirely though, especially on anchovy that is a local specialty. Lemons are grown on a large scale, and the Cinque Terre produces the quality wine Sciachetrà. If you walk through the village early in the morning, you will meet the people who have lived here all their lives. Elderly, walking or on their bikes, everybody knows each other, they call a cheerful Buongiorno and take the time for a chat.
Monterosso is a charming village with a couple of characteristic streets with restaurants, bars, and shops where you can buy clothes, local specialties, and souvenirs. Or for example, a new hat to protect you from the sun. If you have time to explore more of the village and are not afraid to walk some stairs, take the back streets such as Via Zuecca, Via Gioberti, Via Milite Ignoto and Via Buranco.
Where to eat (or not)
I would have liked to publish an extensive list of the best places to eat in Monterosso, but unfortunately, the quality of food was very disappointing. With the help of Tripadvisor I had made a list of restaurants with a high score to check out, but once again they let me down terribly. After some rather expensive disappointments, we decided to shop for groceries ourselves (also not cheap by the way) and eat in the garden of our apartment.
So, unfortunately, I can only make a couple of recommendations:
Il Bocconcino – under the station – The best fried fish and seafood I have eaten in a long time. Street food wrapped in paper but freshly fried while you wait. An absolute must.
San Martino Gastronomia – Via S. Martino 3 – open for lunch and dinner, here you can take out primi and secondi or eat at a table. The pasta dishes are freshly prepared while you wait.
Gelato artigianale Il Golosone – Via Roma 17 – High quality artisan gelato.
Pizzeria La Pia – Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi 13 – For a tasty takeaway pizza you go to La Pia, it’s tucked away behind the square with the town hall.
Pasticceria Bar Laura – Via Vittorio Emanuele 59 – Breakfast with a cappuccino or freshly squeezed orange juice and a delicious fresh pastry. Here you can taste the local specialty torta Monterossina. You don’t come here for the friendly service though.
To avoid are:
Ristorante La Lampara Ciak where the price/quality ratio is way off and where service is rushed and almost rude.
Pizzeria La Smorfia where we brought back our takeaway pizzas. Worst pizza ever, disgraceful. The pizzaiolo said to the waiter: “Give them their money back because new customers will come in any way.”
Sights to see
Torre Aurora and Chiesa di San Francesco
It’s a short climb to the Torre Aurora, a 16th-century tower that once was part of the fortifications that protected the village from the attacks of Saracen pirates. From here you can go further up to the 17th-century San Francesco Church and the monastery of the Capucines on top of the hill. On your way up you’ll see the stunning panorama of the 4 other villages Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore in the distance.
The church houses some paintings and sculptures, including a painting of the crucifixion attributed to the 17th-century Flemish painter Antoon van Dyck. If you have some energy left, you should visit the monumental cemetery behind the monastery complex. If you go down the hill in the opposite direction then where you came from you can go back down to the village via the characteristic Via Milite Ignoto.
Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista
The John the Baptist Church in Monterosso dates back to the 14th century and is recognizable by the striped marble facade.In the church, a 1300 baptismal font and various paintings have been preserved. The large altar was added to the interior a little later in 1734.
Particular detail is the bell tower, like the Torre Aurora by the sea, it was a lookout tower in the 13th century. Two hundred years later, a section was added on top and it became the bell tower of the church.
Oratorio Mortis et Orationis
In the same square you’ll find the Oratorio Mortis et Orationis. This brotherhood, dressed in black, originated from the 17th century and provided assistance for widows and orphans and offered help to castaways.
Oratorio Santa Croce
The white brothers of the Santa Croce Church managed, dressed in white robes, Monterosso Hospital until the mid-17th century and attended the sick.
Monterosso is enclosed between the Ligurian Sea and the hills, thus leaving little space for a beach. Even though it is a narrow strip of sand and fine gravel, Monterosso has the largest beach of all the villages of the Cinque Terre. The largest part of the beach however is not freely accessible. You can only use the beach or get to the sea if you rent an umbrella or sunbed at one of the beachfront establishments. The public beach, which is less attractive and less well maintained, is located in the far north close to the statue of the Gigant in the newer part of Monterosso and in the south close to the old town.
In the protected nature park of the Cinque Terre you can find a vast number of hiking trails set out by the CAI (Italian Alpine Club). See the map for all trails.
The best-known trail is the Sentiero Azzuro that runs along the coast and connects all villages. Unfortunately, not all parts have been reopened after the landslides that occurred some years ago. This trail is not free and you can buy the Cinque Terre Card, which also offers a number of other benefits. The Monterosso-Vernazza trail starts left behind the town hall, located on Piazza Garibaldi.
Because it was quite hot we decided not to walk the challenging trail Monterosso-Vernazza, but take a hike closer to home in the vicinity of the village. Several hiking trails start at the end of Via Roma and we partially walked the Valle dei Limoni (Valley of the Lemons) path. This route runs along a brook and as the name suggests, a lot of lemon trees. A curious find was the in spider web covered tabernacle from 1700 high up on the wall.
The trail #9 towards Soviore monastery, is supposed to take 1 hour 20 minutes, but as it’s all up hill we were only halfway through after the better part of an hour and we decided to turn back. This is not the first time that I learned the hard way that the duration set for a trail is not always feasible for the average hiker. Or at least not for us.
It is a lot more convenient to take the train to the Cinque Terre. Every village has a station and within 3 hours you reach Monterosso from Florence. On Sunday morning there is even a direct train from Florence. The villages are so close to each other that you could visit several of them in a day.
All day there are ferries between the 5 villages and further south to Porto Venere. The ferry stops in all the villages except Corniglia that doesn’t have a harbor, and with a day pass you can hop on and hop off as often as you like.
Stay tuned for more about my visits to Vernazza and Porto Venere.