Day Trip to Cinque Terre, With a Pit Stop in Pisa

Oh, Cinque Terre. As I look back on these pictures from the coast of the Italian Riviera, I am still in disbelief that a place like this exists. I can’t decide what makes these villages most magical: the narrow, winding passageways through pastel-colored houses, the juxtaposition of rocky marinas and vineyards hidden in the hills, or the fact that you can only access the cities via coastline railway. Connected by hiking trails, the five villages of Cinque Terre are now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy during the summer, and it’s easy to see why: the villages transform into beachside havens under the July sun. But we trekked to the coastal cities in January, during the season in which many travel blogs do not recommend visiting. I completely disagree. There is something totally disarming about the way these pastel towns stand so peaceful against the roar of the crashing waves; something enchanting about the deserted cobblestone streets lined with cafes that you have to search to find one that's serving food. For about four hours, we explored three out of the five villages, traipsing down to the docks and hiking up the surrounding hills, all without the aggravation of large crowds. I’d recommend it to anyone, especially as a day trip from Florence. 

It was an easy train ride into the villages from La Spezia station and because we only visited three villages, it was cheaper to pay each time we boarded the train than buy the Cinque Terre train/trek pass. (Plus, all the walking trails were closed due to severe weather in the weeks before.) The first town we stopped in was Riomaggiore, the southernmost village out of the five. If you hike down to the ocean, you'll find a very small wharf filled with stranded boats; hike up near the top of the town and you'll stumble upon a small church and a few cafes. We ended up eating at Via Dell’Amore, a restaurant outside the train station, which was the only establishment serving lunch in town! The owner was humorous and funny-- and the spaghetti with clams was delicious! 

Next, we got off the train in Manarola, the second stop on the train. There is an easy, 20-minute hiking trail on the mountainside between Riomaggiore and Manarola called Via dell’Amore, or Lover’s Lane, that we would’ve loved to have taken instead of the five-minute train ride; however, it was closed due to inclement weather. Manarola is the oldest town in Cinque Terre and, in my opinion, the most picturesque from afar. We hiked up the hill from the marina to an old cemetery atop one of the hills overlooking the ocean and got amazing photographs of the coastline with the small red, yellow and pink houses nestled into the hillside. Then we walked up through the backside of the city and got to glimpse the world’s largest nativity scene scattered amongst the vineyards in the hills. 

Finally, we stopped in Vernazza, the second to last village in the string of five. With the exception of Riomaggiore (where we spent 90 minutes for lunch), we hopped on and off the train for about 30 minutes in each city. Vernazza has a much larger marina than the others, in which the waves crash over the harbor and in through the doorways of the shops closest to the water. We hiked up a hill overlooking the marina and sat for a while on a park bench, taking in the exquisite views. For ambitious hikers with more time, there is a steep, 60-minute trail leading to a small sanctuary and castle above the town. 

In a spontaneous decision, we decided to make a pit stop in Pisa on our way back to Florence. (There is a direct train from Vernazza.) The main boulevard is just outside the train station, and the moment we arrived, we were stunned by the edge attitude of the city’s young crowd. Many of them were boisterous and somewhat abrasive. Let’s just say, I don’t feel the need to head back to Pisa anytime soon! We got to see the Leaning Tower, and that's good enough for me! Plus, I got some beautiful shots of Pisa's bridges over the canals!

Up next, we're headed to our last stop in Italy-- Venice! Thanks for sticking with us this far! Ciao!