Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cinque Terre Travel Tips

photo of Riomaggiore
Cinque Terre, the five cliffside villages on the Italian Riviera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an entry on the bucket list of many travelers. If you’re going to Italy, it’s worth the effort to make side trip to the Ligurian region, where you can enjoy the spectacular natural beauty of this national park as well as the scenic villages of Santa Margherita and Portofino, which are about an hour away by train.

Getting there
Most travelers find the most affordable way to arrive in Italy is to take a plane to Rome. From there, you can rent a car and drive from city to city on your own schedule. You can also take the train, which takes about seven hours. The closest major city is Genoa, about two hours away by train.

Where to stay
Hotel Italia in Rapallo
To get a better view of the entire region, I searched online for a hotel in Santa Margherita. While there are plenty of hotels in this town, they tend to be rather pricey, so I settled on Hotel Italia e Lido  in Rapallo, the quiet seaside village next to Santa Margherita. I was thrilled with my choice. A five-minute walk from the train station, the hotel is on the seaside overlooking a small castle built to defend the village against pirates in the fifteenth century. Rooms are clean and comfortable, and there’s even a free hot breakfast buffet and wifi in public areas. Since I was traveling in September, the hotel was not fully booked, so I got a free upgrade to a sea-view room, where I enjoyed my evenings sitting on the small terrace sipping wine and tasting cheese from the nearby shop. Talk about la dolce vita!

From Rapallo, you can take the bus or small boat that runs throughout the day to Santa Margherita and Portofino. I recommend walking along the seaside to Santa Margherita, which takes about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how often you stop for pictures. Just be sure you walk before sunset because there is a stretch without a sidewalk that can be pretty dangerous after dark.

Note that there are no roads in some of the villages, so it’s best to take a train. To go from Rapallo to Cinque Terre, take the train to Riomaggiore, the farthest village, which takes about an hour. You can also take a boat that will stop in one or two of the villages, but if you want to walk from village to village, or if you want to see all the villages, the only option is to take the train. Schedules are posted in all the stations. If you’re coming from the east, take the train from LaSpezia.

Seeing Cinque Terre
Lunch in Riomaggiore
Plan to spend at least a full day visiting Cinque Terre, especially if you are hiking between the villages. When you get off the train at Riomaggiore, you will find a tourist information window outside the station, where you can ask for a map. If you want to do the hike, you will climb some stairs to the starting point, where you will buy you ticket (€5). Before starting the hike, be sure to visit this fascinating village. You can either take a short walk through the tunnel from the train station or wander around the side of the cliff, which offers a spectacular view of the harbor and sea. If you have difficulty with stairs, be sure to take the tunnel. For a treat, stop for lunch at one of the cafés overlooking the harbor. You can also find picnic fixings in some of the shops and have lunch along the seaside.

If you don’t have time to visit all the villages, be sure to make a stop in Vernazza. This scenic village has a lovely harbor and beach, a delightful place to stop at a café for a glass of wine, some ice cream or a meal. You can also climb up the cliff to visit an old castle and enjoy the view of the sea and the town below.

Note that when you buy your train tickets to and from Riomaggiore, you can use them for up to six hours from the time you validate them.

Other Sites to See
photo of Porto Venere
Porto Venere
Not far from the Cinque Terre area is Porto Venere, a scenic village with tiny streets, ancient ruins, a beautiful port and seaside cafés. Some say this village is more beautiful than Cinque Terre. Be sure to visit and decide for yourself. The ferry that runs among the villages of Cinque Terre also visits Porto Venere. In addition, you can take a boat on a day trip from the same place where you pick up the boats that operate in Rapallo and Santa Margherita. This cruise includes commentary in Italian and English, and it makes a brief stop in one of the villages in Cinque Terre. This cruise isn’t available every day, so be sure to stop by the ticket booth to find out when it runs. Also, if the captain decides the sea is too rough, the cruise will be canceled, so tickets are only sold shortly before the boat departs.

The first time I tried to take the cruise, it was canceled, but I quickly and easily made it to the train station, bought a ticket to Riomaggiore and found my way there. I met several other people who were making the same journey, so we found our way together and ended up running into each other throughout the day.

After wearing yourself down in Cinque Terre, you can take a relaxing stroll through the towns of Rapallo, Santa Margherita, Portofino and Frutuosso. Again, it’s simple to take the boats, which run about once an hour. Just be sure to check the schedule to avoid getting stranded in another town. Depending on what you want to see and do, covering these towns will take a day or two.

More Tips
  • Cafés and restaurants in Italy have a cover charge for table service. The fee is generally about €1.50 per person, but runs around €3 in some places like Portofino, a more popular spot on the Italian Riviera. In fact, everything in Portofino costs a lot more, so if you’re trying to save money, don’t plan to eat here.
  • Be sure to stroll up the hill above Portofino to visit the Church of St. George and Castello Brown. If you still have any energy, hike out to the lighthouse.
  • Buying train tickets in smaller Italian towns can be a challenge if you don’t speak the language. I have yet to find a ticket seller who speaks anything but Italian. If you’re lucky, you can find another person in line who speaks English and will help you translate. Otherwise, you can write down the name of the town where you’re going. If the ticket window is closed, you can use the machine, which offers information in English, but you will need a credit card with chip and PIN technology.
  • Before boarding the train, you must validate your ticket by placing it in the small device usually found just outside the ticket office. If you present a ticket that hasn’t been validated to the conductor, you could be thrown off the train and face an expensive fine.
  • Be sure to try pansotti cum salsa di noci, a specialty of the Ligurian region recommended by someone who grew up in the area. It’s a mild ravioli-like pasta with walnut sauce, and it’s delicious.

If you’ve visited the Ligurian region of Italy, please share any additional tips you have for other travelers. If you haven’t been there, but would like to go, feel free to post your questions, and I’ll be happy to respond.