Plan for the 3 days
Our plan was to drive from Menaggio of Lake Como to Vernazza, one of the five famous town of Cinque Terre. At Vernazza we had booked a place for two nights. It would be a long drive of about 320 km and would take at least 4.5 hour of driving. We planned to break the monotonous driving with at least a coffee break in one of the service areas along the highway.
We expected to reach Vernazza by about 3 pm which would leave us plentiful of time to explore the Vernazza, and if there was more time we would explore another one of the five famous towns. On the second day we would explore the rest of the five towns and by mid morning of the 3rd day we would leave Vernazza.
By the end
Vernazza was very beautiful and so were the four other towns. Among the five, Monterosso was the least attractive. On the morning on our way out of Cinque Terre we got the opportunity to view the towns at a higher altitude and the “top down” views of these towns were awesome! A visit to Cinque Terre would not be considered complete if one did not witness these “top down” views.
Cinque Terre meant “Five Lands” it was a name given to five coastal towns/villages located in the Italian region of Liguria and was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The five towns were Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore with Monterosso being the north-most one and Riomaggiore the south-most town.
Access to this town could be done using local trains running from Genoa (in the north) passed through the five towns all the way to La Spezia in the south. There were also roads leading to the towns and some of these roads were very windy, narrow and very “unpassable” at places especially those that branched into the towns. Like most touristy towns in Italy these towns were off limit to cars from visitors.
Getting to Vernazza
Of the five towns we chose to station at Vernazza. Originally we thought of stationing ourselves at Corniglia which was the town exactly in the middle of the five but decided against it later as we found that the town was high up on a cliff and did not have a beach front/jetty. One highlight of these towns were their waterfront scenes which would be lacking in Corniglia. Another reason for choosing Vernazza was that it had a visitor carpark which was about 1.5 to 2 km from the town. That meant we could park at the public carpark and hop on to a bus that plied between the carpark and the town. This “Vernazza visitor carpark” option was also better than an alternative plan of parking our car at La Spezia (some 15 to 20 km away) and taking the local train into Vernazza.
We had read about the “narrow and tricky road” to Vernazza but was willing to make the drive as the branch to the windy road was at the last 8 km stretch. So we thought that if we drove slowly we should be able to make it.
Problems at Toll booths
At the toll booths we could pay by either cash or credit/debit card and after a few rounds of payment we decided to use our euro debit card as it was convenient and there was no card charges. We had paid a few times using our debit card and all went smoothly until one particular booth. Yat Thong inserted the card into the payment machine and after some processing the card came out with the usual Italian instructions and audio feedbacks from the speaker of the machine. We expected the gantry arm to lift but it did not. We inserted the card again two more times and the same thing happened. Not knowing what else to do as it was an “unmanned” booth we pressed the “help button” and insert the card again. To our atonishment the machine literary “splitted” out our card. Yat Thong had to open the car door to pick up the card from the floor. The machine also issued a “ticket” and the gantry arm lifted, we were so happy as we thought all was well and off we drove.
On further studying the ticket we realised that it was not a receipt but a “non payment” ticket. It “said” that we had not paid the €3.20 toll charges. It listed a website where we could find out how we could made the outstanding payment. Three possible options, 1) online payment, 2) pay at some specific manned toll booths and 3) through the post office.
The next day we went to Vernazza Post Office to make the payment thinking that like the Post Office Services in Singapore the payment would not incurred additional charges. We were wrong! The Italian Post Office charged us €1.80 for collecting €3.20 for the toll road company! On hindsight we should have paid online using our Euro Debit Card and there would be no additional charges!!
Taking Breaks to make the long drive bearable
The 4.5 hours drive turned into 6 hours, but it was okay because during the journey we took a couple of breaks. A few breaks to come down to take photographs of some scenic locations, a break at one of the many service areas “area servizio” along the highway for coffee and cookies. The capuccino at the service areas was very inexpensive at €1.30 to €1.50 a cup.
Road Blocked near Vernazza!
From road SP38 we turned into a smaller road. We knew that the smaller road was narrower, but felt relieve when the width looked okay for two ways traffic. It was as we drove inner that the road got even narrower, there were some very tight stretches that would be difficult to maneuver if there was a oncoming car.
At the end of the smaller road it intersected a much wider road SP51. We realised that instead of turning into the small road earlier on, we should have continued on SP38 and turned into SP51 which might be a longer route but a much wider and comfortable road. From the interestion we carried on to another small road which would bring us down another windy route to Vernazza public carpark. Unfortunately just about 2.5 to 3 km from the public carpark the road was BLOCKED. Apparently the road was in a bad shape and too dangerous to pass.
Oh dear, we were so near but we were stuck. Should we just parked the car by the roadside like a few other cars that had already done so. We could wheel our bags down the road to get into town. It would be about 2.5 km to the public carpark and another 1.5 km into Vernazza town. It was a hot day, and the sunlight was pretty strong and the idea of walking 4 km into town with luggage and backpacks was just unimaginable.
We called up the hotel host and luckily he could speak English! He advised us to drive a loop (about 8 km) and approached the public carpark in the opposite direction. Basically we just retraced our route to the intersection and turned right onto road SP51 then continued down the road until we saw a branch into Vernazza.
Vernazza Public Parking
We reached the carpark at about 4 pm, an hour late but still good. There were cars parked along the sides of the road outside the carpark as these car owners probably did not want to pay the parking charges at the public carpark. The parking fee was €2 per hour from 8 am to 8 pm with a maximum of €15 a day or hours, after 8 pm parking was free. We figured that since we would be leaving our car for about 48 hours it would be better to leave the car in a properly guarded car park. Whether this carpark would be locked or guarded at night we had no idea. Some security was definitely better than no security.
We were pleasantly surprised when the parking attendant informed us that for those that parked their cars overnight at the public carpark a free shuttle services would be provided to bring us into town. He even gave us a “timetable” slip that told us the time of the return trip. This was good news as we were expecting to pay €4 per person for a return trip between the carpark and the town. And another great thing was we did not have to drag our luggage and heaved our backpacks to a bus stop! It was so convenient to pull up our bags from our car and transfer them to the minivan.
The drive into town was very short, probably about 1.5 km. There was only one road into town and near the start of town we saw a huge sign stating that only resident’s cars were allowed in. The minivan stopped at Vernazza only post office and our driver informed us that the “post office” would also be the meeting place if we wanted a trip back to the carpark. Vernazza was a small place so from the post office it was just a short distance to everywhere.
Our first sight of Vernazza was when we were near the blocked small road some 2.5 km up the hill from Vernazza public carpark. There we caught a great top scenic view of Vernazza. From far we could already see the colourful houses and the tall fort tower of Castello Doria located near the water edge. The town was built at the water level so there was a small harbour.
At our “stay” we took a steps uphill, there was a sign that pointed to a Panorama Cafe so we followed the sign and went up the zigzag stairs. Along the way we met some hikers that were coming down the steps they looked very tired and we found that these steps would eventually led to a mountain road to the next town Corniglia! We did not have to go very far before we got a nice view of Vernazza. The sun was setting so the roof tops of all the houses were lighted beautifully.
The next morning we went up the same steps that led to Panoroma Cafe to enjoy Vernazza in the morning light. The day was a bit gloomy but the view was still stunning. Day or night Vernazza looked beautiful.
It was from the steps that we saw another set of steps on the opposite side of town, next to Santa Margherita di Antiochia Church that went up hill. We figured that from there would get another panoramic view of the town from another angle. Our assumption was right as the steps up the hill on the opposite side of town brought us to another panoramic scenic view of Vernazza.
On our second evening at Vernazza we went down to the harbour front after dinner in search of a place for a nice coffee. We ended sitting by the jetty enjoying the lovely view of the town till all the daylight was gone. If was a full moon night and the weather was cool without being cold. It was a beautiful pleasant night at the jetty.
Corniglia was the next town to the south of Vernazza. On our first evening in Vernazza after we went up the steps that lead to the panoromic cafe on the hill just above our accommodation we saw trail with a signboard pointing us to Corniglia.
The distance was just 3.4 km and according to google map the walking duration was about 1 hr and 6 min. The trail was well maintained and the distance/duration to Corniglia seemed manageable so we decided to hike to Corniglia. Unfortunately the distance seemed longer than stated on google map. There were some uphill and downhill trekking and after 1 hr of walking we only managed to cover slightly more than half the total distance. It took us two hours of hiking to finally reached Corniglia.
Corniglia sat on a 100m high rocky promotory, it was the only one of the five that was built on a high ground and did not have direct sea access.
From Corniglia we were able to catch the local train back to Vernazza. To get to the train station we had to go down a 377 steps zigzag brick stairway. Going down was fine but coming up would be a tough job. We counted our blessing that we were not staying in Corniglia or there would be several uphill and downhill walking to and from the train station for the next two days.
For those that did not want to walk up the stairs they could take a local bus that moved from the station and Corniglia
Cinque Terre Day Pass
We visited Manarola, Riomaggioire and Monterosso on our second day in Cinque Terre. We visited all three towns using the local trains. At Vernazza train station we bought a day pass for €16 per person. We figured it would be cheaper than buying single tickets for each trip. To visit the three towns and to get back to Vernazza at the end of the day we would need at least four trips. For a short single trip between Vernazza and Corniglia we already had to paid €4 per person the evening before so we were very sure that 4 trips would costed more than the cost of the day pass.
The passes came with some additional perks, like free local bus rides, free toilet visits and free wifi.
Manarola was the town after Corniglia (fourth town from the north). We went to Manarola on the local train and it was only two stops from Vernazza. After we exit the train we walked through a tunnel which ended into the town.
The town center of Manarola looked similar to that of Vernazza. Blocks of three to four storey houses painted with different colors. Shops, cafe and restaurants were everywhere and they were filled with visitors and locals. Manarola was said to be the oldest of the 5 towns of Cinque Terre.
Like Vernazza, Manarola had a harbour and the view of the colourful houses near the harbour and on top fo the cliff perched over the harbour was pretty awesome.
After Manarola we took the train to Riomaggiore the southern most of the five town. The most scenic part of Riomaggiore was also the harbour front. Riomaggiore had a narrow habour. At the harbour there was this outcrop of large boulders that stretch out to the sea and many people were crossing the boulders to get nearer to the water, so we went the same way too.
We explored the town a bit and decided to stop for a coffee break at cafe “Cocktail”. If was wonderful to relax and watch the people went by (one of our favourite past times on a trip). We ordered capucino, chocolate with cream and crossiant and the total cost came up to €7 (not too expensive).
We visited Monterosso last. From Riomaggiore we took the train all the way north (4 stops) and exited at Monterosso station. Monterosso had a huge beach front and there were many people sun tanning on the beach. We found Monterosso too ordinary just like a typical coastal town.
Statue of Saint Francis and a dog at Monterosso
Scenic view of cinque Terre from above
We left Vernazza on the third day morning. Dragging our luggage and carrying our backpacks down the steps was less laborious than coming up two days ago. We met our driver at the town post office and took the free shuttle service that brought us back to the public carpark. We were glad to find our car in good shape. We had heard about a lot of car break-ins occurring in Italy and was slightly worried about leaving our car in a public carpark.
We picked our car and started our journey to Pisa. We drove on the windy hilly road that took us from Vernazza to Corniglia to Manarola to Riomaggiore. The road did not took us into these coastal towns but just pass the branch roads that led into towns. We were not expecting much so it was a huge surprise when at many spots along the road we got to see fantastic top down views of these towns. Wow! We left Cinque Terre thoroughly satisfy as we had both the opportunities to enjoy the view of the five towns at town level and top “hill” level.
We thought we would be eating our meals out as it would not easy to get grocery in Vernazza. The assumption was wrong because in all the five towns there were grocery stores. Near our “stay” in Vernazza there was a small “Co-ops” outlet where we got milk, eggs, lettuces, bread and slices of meat.
Our host left us some food for breakfast unfortunately they were mainly biscuit, crispy bread, jam and butter. Since I did not like Italian breakfast I would usually complement them with eggs, slices of ham and vegetable. All we needed was just a water kettle to cook eggs!
For the two morning we ate breakfast at our private balcony. The morning sky was beautiful and the sunrays that brightened up the roofs and the farcade of the houses gave the entire place a lively and cheerful ambience. We felt this undescribable “luxurious” feeling to be here to enjoy breakfast and sight.
Our accommodation for two nights
We booked our accommodation “Alessandro Carro Affitacamere” from booking.com for €146 for two nights. We thought we booked a double room but it turned up to be much more than that. It was actually a studio with two bedrooms, small toilet and a private balcony (outside the front door). The studio was rented out as a single unit so no other guests would be using the second room during our stay.
There was no kitchen but a corner pantry with an electric kettle, a small refrigerator, coffee, tea, biscuits, cuttlery. The toilet was outside the rooms along a corridor, it was rather small but very clean. The shower was hot and very forceful.
To get to the studio we had to drag our luggage through some difficult steps. For just two nights stay we only brought our small cabin size luggage, our backpack and our camera tripods. Though the distance was not too long just about 650 m, the many steps made the walk pretty tiring. But all the effort was worth it once we saw the fantastic view from the balcony! The studio had a private balcony with a wonderful view of the town and sea. It was a shame that the private balcony could not be assesed from within the house. We had to exit the front door of the studio to get to the balcony.