It was the ultimate antidote to my growing dislike of hanging around at airports and negotiating with car hire firms: a holiday by train from start to finish. We travelled to the Cinque Terre by a combination of Eurostar, overnight sleeper to Milan and local train to Riomaggiore. No hassle, smaller queues and much more fun.
It seemed fitting somehow. The Cinque Terre is the ideal destination for those enjoy trains, or who just want to do without a car. The five villages perched precariously on a cliff top are mostly car free, and the only way to get between them is by train, boat or foot.
Trains run through tunnels hewn into the cliff
Manarola is built on a cliff top and seems to tumble down into the sea
Trains on the Cinque Terre
The trains run regularly between the villages. From where we stayed, halfway up the hill in Riomaggiore, we could see the trains far below, discharging a fresh set of eager tourists each time one pulled into the station. We bought a week’s pass for the train, using it as a hop‑on, hop‑off service: it was very satisfying to take the train to Manarola for our evening meal, or to buy provisions in a back street shop in Corniglia. Some of the trains are double decker, allowing stunning views of the cliffs and across the sea.
Double decker trains offer the best views
We used the trains to explore the villages, too. Each village has its own character, but you can expect winding streets and hidden churches and castles. You will see vineyards, abundant fig trees growing by the sides of the road, and gardens groaning under the weight of fruit and vegetables. At sea level there are boats and small secluded areas for sea bathing, and in Riomaggiore we spent a happy morning in the Botanic Garden, a long sloping park that we had almost to ourselves.
Corniglia’s church sits on the hillside
And of course there is the food and wine. Lots of it. If you love fresh fish you will be particularly well catered for, but there is plenty of choice for everyone.
Walking Between the Cinque Terre Villages
But to get the most out of the Cinque Terre, you have to enjoy walking. Within the villages you are forced to walk – up and down the steep streets and twisting staircases – although in Riomaggiore a lift from the station to the town centre makes the task a little easier. The shopping streets are lined with cafés and restaurants where tourists and locals alike can take a break from exploring or buying their groceries.
In Riomaggiore stairways run down to the sea
You can walk between the villages, too, along the coastal path. The most popular section is the Via dell’Amore, an easy paved path between Riomaggiore and Manarola. However, hardier walkers may choose to tackle the whole 11km route along an old goat path, taking in sea views and woodland sections with a few up and down climbs.
The coastal path between Corniglia and Vernazza
And if that is not enough, there is a whole maze of inland hiking trails. We chose the path from Vernazza to San Bernardino, a hamlet with an impressive church, and walked for miles through abundant farmland with no-one else to be seen. Another plus point for the Cinque Terre: it may be popular with tourists but you can always find peace and seclusion here.