Cinque Terre, Italian Riviera

La Spezia, Portovenere and the Cinque Terre

The eastern Ligurian Riviera between Cinque Terre and Portovenere is a cultural site of outstanding value, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 along with the Islands Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto. The area covers some 15km along the extreme eastern end of the Ligurian coast, between Levanto and La Spezia. It is a very jagged, steep coastline, which the work of man over the millennia has transformed into an intensively terraced landscape so as to be able to wrest from nature a few hectares of land suitable for agriculture, such as growing vines and olive trees. The communities have adapted themselves to this seemingly rough and inhospitable nature by building compact settlements directly on the rock, with winding streets. The general use of natural stone for rooting gives these settlements a characteristic appearance. They are generally grouped round religious buildings or medieval castles.

Cinque-Terre-Liguria-Italy

Early evening over Cinque Terre seaside towns

Portovenere

An important cultural centre and home of the protected area Porto Venere Regional Natural Park, a reserve with walking trails and dive sites.  The city is just a short distance from Cinque Terre, a perfect spot to base yourself for a day trip to the other villages. Portovenere was an important commercial and cultural centre dating back to the Roman period. Among the remains to be found there are those of a large patrician Roman villa on the coast at Varignano and a Benedictine monastic establishment with a proto-Romanesque church dedicated to St. Peter, on the Arpaia rocky promontory, which was later surrounded by a Gothic construction. In the town, below the Doria Castle (Castello Doria) there is a second church, with both Romanesque and Gothic elements, dedicated to St Lawrence.

St. Peter Church in Portovenere Cinque Terre tour
St. Peter Church in Portovenere

La Spezia

Sitting at the head of the Gulf of La Spezia in the Liguria region of northern Italy, located between Genoa and Pisa on the Ligurian Sea, it is one of the main Italian military and commercial harbours and hosts the arsenal of the Italian Navy.

The Golfo di La Spezia, offers an impressively sweeping panorama of islands and rough headlands. It was renamed “The Golfo dei Poeti” in 1919 by the Italian playwright Sam Benelli for the succession of romantic souls who fell in love with the place. This landscape has attracted many writers and musicians, among them the English Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, the French novelist George Sand, and the German composer Richard Wagner, as well as many Italian artists and writers.

la spezia- Cinque Terre Italy Liguria
A view from the top – La Spezia, Italy

Cinque Terre

The five fishing villages of Cinque Terre date back to the later Middle Ages and until recently were linked only by mule tracks and accessible by rail or water (ferry). The cultivation terraces that typify much of the Cinque Terre landscape were mainly built in the 12th century, when Saracen raids from the sea had come to an end.

The five villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are linked by a system of footpaths making it the best way to visit and explore the area, the walk will afford you beautiful harbour views along with carefully built terraces where grapes and olives are cultivated overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.

Monterosso

The most northern, of the Cinque Terre is the fortified centre of Monterosso al Mare, on the top of St Christopher’s hill, which first played an important role in the 7th century, during the Lombard invasions. After being disputed over by different noble families during the Middle Ages, it threw in its lot with the Republic of Genoa. It is a coastal town in a valley, it’s most prominent features being the church of St John, built in 1244, with its bell tower, originally an isolated watch tower, the ruins of the old castle, and the 17th Capuchin monastery which dominates the town.

The area was almost inaccessible, except by sea, until the Genoa-La Spezia railway was built in the 1870s passing through all the villages and Portovenere. This coincided with the building of the Arsenal at La Spezia, which provided alternative employment for the local people. Monterosso is the largest of the Cinque Terre villages and is divided in two by the medieval tower of Aurora, on one side is the new part of town known as Fegina, with plenty of life and tourism amenities. The old town of Monterrosso has the ruins of the castle and typical narrow medieval streets and multi-coloured terraced houses.

The village has many sights to visit like the Gothic-Genovese style church of San Giovanni Battista and the concrete statue of the Giant, Il Gigante, located tothe terrace of a local villa near the beach of Fegina, representing Neptune, the god of the sea. The village also has the only extensive sand beach among the five villages.

Monterosso cinque-terre Italy
Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre

Vernazza

The village was founded in the year 1000 it became part of the Republic of Genoa in 1276. The houses are built along the Vernazza stream (also now culverted) and up the slopes of the rocky spur that hides the village from those approaching it by sea. Narrow streets run down to the main street, which opens out into a small square looking out over the sea.

Vernazza is the considered one of the most beautiful villages in Italy and possibly the most characteristic of Cinque Terra. The main attractions to visit here are the Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia, built on the rocks overlooking the sea and the Tower of the Doria Castle, built in the 15th century to protect the village from pirates, is located above the bay and the small port of the village.

Vernazza Cinque Terre Liguria Italy
Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Corniglia

The only one of the villages of Cinque Terre that is built not on the coast itself but on a high promontory, 100m above sea level. The main access to Corniglia is via the footpath connecting all the villages, or via train – with its station connected by a path known as Lardarina containing 377 stairs.

It is dominated by the church of St. Peter, built in 1334 in Goth-Ligurian style and worthy of a stop to see its interior. ON the other side of the village is the Oratory of 18th century piazza Taragio with its Oratory Santa Caterina.

The village has a well established agricultural tradition, being surrounded on three sides by vineyards and terraces. The village resembles more a rural inland village rather than a coastal village like the others on Cinque Terre.

Corniglia cinque-terre Italy

Corniglia, perched 200m above the sea, Cinque Terre

Manarola

A small hamlet established in the 12th century by people from the mountain village of Volastra. Its houses are ranged in part on a rocky spur running down towards the sea and partly along the (now culverted) Grappa stream with plenty of steep and narrow alleyways (carrugi) leading to the sea. Manarola is connected to Riomaggiore the famous by the famous Via dell’Amore (Lovers’ Lane), a footpath that was carved into the rocks above the sea.

The village is considered one of the most romantic of the Cinque Terre and is also where the sweet Sciacchetrà wine originated.

We recommend you start you visit of the seaside village from the main square, Piazza Papa Innocenzo IV right at the top, surrounded by gorgeous vineyards and home of a group of religious buildings: Oratorio dei Disciplinati, Church of San Lorenzo and a freestanding bell tower, built on the ruins of a pre-existing watchtower, all dating back to 14th century. Then make your way through the narrow cobbled streets towards the sea stopping to admire the view and have a fresh seafood lunch.

manarola Cinque Terre Italy

Manarola, Cinque Terre

Riomaggiore

The most southerly of the villages is Riomaggiore, another medieval foundation dating back to the 13th century and that also grew under the Republic of Genoa. Its houses line the narrow valley of the Maggiore stream (now covered, but still flowing under the main street). The village is dominated by the church of St John the Baptist (1340) and the castle, construction of which began in 1260. It is the largest of the five villages and an excellent base to explore the region on day trips.

The famous Via dell’Amore path connecting it to Manarola is one of the main attractions, it’s just over 1km in length and overlooks the sea. If you enjoy walking, you may visit the Sanctuary of Montenero which is located atop a steep hill and can only be reached by foot, here you will be rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of the coastline of the Cinque Terre and the Island of Tino.

Other sights include the Churches of San Giovanni Battista (1340) and of San Lorenzo (1338) as well as the Castle Reggiomagiore, which was built in 1260 and also a great spot for beautiful sights over the sea.

Riomaggiore Cinque Terre
Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

 

Articles

Statue of Cosimo I of Medici, in front of Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Italian Renaissance Families: The Medicis

12 mins readItaly

This blog is part of a series on five influential Italian Renaissance families that shaped Italy, especially during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is based on both our Italian Renaissance Summer School course, and…

Odyssey tours to Italy

If you’d like to learn more, do join Odyssey Traveller’s tours of Italy, designed for the mature-aged and senior travellers.

Take a look at the itineraries, and please call or send an email if you have further enquiries.

External articles to help you plan your visit to Cinque Terre: