First of all I’d like to congratulate you on this website as it really is the best resource on the area that I found. Since we have just returned from an 8 day stint in the CT I thought I’d add my bit on what we saw and learned whilst there as it really is a beautiful part of the world (regardless of what grumpy Holy has said below ).
We stayed here for 4 nights at ‘La Torretta’ hotel which is an excellent hotel with fantastic views from all rooms. The hotel is about a 5minute walk up the village from the harbor and is situated next to the top Piazza with the main bell tower in it. All rooms are very well furnished in a modern way but with furniture in keeping with the area. The staff are extremely helpful and speak good English. We paid 68 Euros per night for a double with our own bathroom outside of the room which was also extremely clean and very well maintained. If the budget permits, get a 90 euro double room as they have an even better view with their own bathroom. Would recommend the hotel to anyone but if you think you can roll up and ask for a room this wont happen as they are booked for weeks in advance ( was there June 8th – June 11th ) We saw a lot of disappointed backpackers over the 4 days, so get in fast.
Manarola itself is a beautiful town with very friendly people. Yes there are quite a few American teenagers on their summer break but if you eat in restaurants at night you really don’t see much of them at all here as they tend to eat at much cheaper Pizzerias and at the few takeaway places on the main strip down to the harbor. For the couples, a typical meal at one of the 3 main restaurants in Manarola will set you back about 60-70 Euros including a bottle of the CT wine which is excellent. We did eat at the Marina Piccolo Restaurant on the harbor and wouldn’t recommend it, as it was the only meal we had which we really didn’t think was value for money at all (and the waiter was a slob as well). The Manarola – Corniglia walking path number 2 ( the coastal one ) was also closed over the period we were there with no real indication as to when it was going to open again.
This town was great and our personal joint favorite with Manarola. Here you will see REAL Italian life by REAL Italian people going about their business as opposed to Vernazza which has lost this and seems to be run by the tourism trade. The harbor is a quaint as you will find anywhere and the view from the cliff around the corner from the harbor is great for that classic harbor shot. The town is actually much bigger than it looks in the photos and stretches quite a way up the hill but still a great place to walk around and see the life. I can highly recommend La Lanterna restaurant which over looks the harbor, as the seafood there is fantastic and Conrado and his staff are very friendly and speak very good English.
I would advise booking though if you can over lunch as its a popular restaurant. With respect to swimming in Riomaggiore, if you want to swim in the clearest water you have ever seen outside of the Greek islands, then walk around the left hand side of the harbor on the path which will lead you to a pebble ( actually more like smooth boulders ) beach. If you don’t mind a non-sand beach its a great place to swim and soak up the sun and admire the clearest water in the CT.
As I said above, Vernazza has a much more developed tourism trade and the place is pretty well overrun by the tourists. Unless you get into the back streets you wont see too much REAL Italian life here at all. However, saying this, the town is stunning and the harbor itself lends itself beautifully to a relaxed, long lunch at one of the 4-5 restaurants that line it. If lunch is too lazy for you then you can always grab a seat in the evening after a days walk and watch the sunset over the horizon.
A waiter who has lived his whole life in Vernazza said that if you want to secure accommodation in Vernazza over the phone DON’T say that you just want 1-2 nights. You need to say that it depends on the weather really and may stay 4-5 nights with a really open plan. By doing this you are more appealing to a hotelier for obvious reasons. If you do just stay 1-2 nights there is normally no complications in changing the plan. It is common practice for hoteliers to turn you away for 1 nights accommodation when they can get someone else for 4-5 nights as they make most of their money of the summer period and need to maximize their income every night.
Monterosso is a great town and is pretty much split into two by the tunnel and the mountains. If you are walking down from Vernazza, the old town is the first beached section in front of you and is well worth a walk around as it is loaded with lots of small, character filled streets with some pretty tasty looking restaurants to boot. Whatever you do in Monterosso DO NOT MISS the Seafood Risotto at the last restaurant on the main esplanade as you walk down the beach in the ‘newer’ part of town.( It’s the restaurant with the yellow umbrellas which I cannot remember the name of…sorry ) That dish is truly amazing PACKED with great seafood ( min 2 person ). I can recall having it 3 days in a row we enjoyed it so much!!
With respect to swimming, both ends of Monterosso have very good clean water to swim in. We choose the newer part of town which was great but be prepared to haggle a little if you want to hire beach chairs / umbrellas. We paid £15 all day for 2 people but if you arrive after about 2pm the price drops considerably. In my opinion, the newer part of town is not even worth a walk around as it seems to just have newer ‘kitchy’ restaurants and a lot of medium sized hotels lacking much character at all. Best to stick to the old town for a walk around instead.
The trains that run through the 5 villages were disappointing to say the least with up to 1 hour waits at times when all you wanted to do is be walking or soaking up the sun elsewhere. Although the timetables are clearly readable, try and get yourself one that is ALL in English as there are lots of symbols on the timetable which indicate days where a particular train time will NOT run such as Sundays, public holidays etc etc. Unless you can read the Italian words for these days, you may find yourself waiting for a train that never comes. ( The 11.05 from Manarola still rings a bell to me as a ‘no show’ train ). The woman at the Riomaggiore station ticket office was very helpful in deciphering the timetable and spoke excellent English.
I know that its not one of the Cinque Terra villages but I have to mention Porto Venere which is around the corner from the last CT town. Ferries go there every hour. Portovenere is a stunning town overlooked by the appropriately named Castle of Portovenere on the hill above it. The town has an up market feel to it as you look at the huge yachts and cruisers bobbing in the water with an esplanade lined with good quality restaurants.
It also seemed to have a different type of tourist trade than the CT which was nice to see. ( i.e. less backpackers, more ‘well to do’ Italians taking daytrips from further down the coast ). It’s not a pretentious town in any way though despite the obvious wealth, but has a very relaxed pace with friendly locals. Definitely worth 2-3 days !!!
To avoid disappointment in having lunch at one of those ‘must eat there because of the view’ places be aware that most restaurant’s kitchens close between 2 – 2.30pm after which time you will not be able to sit down to even have a drink. We saw many disappointed people who were obviously excited about the restaurant they were about to embark on only to be told that they were closed.
Finally, I agree with other writers that the CT is not a place to rush through, but a place to wander, swim, eat and generally take in some of the best coastal scenery in the world. Respect the locals when wandering quiet back streets at night, attempt to speak the language at every possible opportunity as it will be appreciated, and most of all……..relax. relax, relax.
I hope this information proves to be useful to our fellow travelers out there from all corners of the globe.
Nigel & Kate Roberts
Aussies living in London