CINQUE TERRE, ITALY – VERNAZZA, CORNIGLIA, GUVANO BEACH and MANAROLA
Lets take a quick detour from my budget travel blog of Iceland for a few moments. I recently also went to another incredibly beautiful destination – although extremely different from Iceland in almost every way – the Cinque Terre region of Italy. Situated upon the Western coast of Italy, this region is actually a national park, with very strict building regulations in place to help preserve the unique look and feel of the region.
Predominantly made up of five main coastal towns (although there are other small villages and Hamlets along the way), Cinque Terre is quite unique in that there is a complete hiking trail between all five towns along the coast – widely regarded as one of the most beautiful (and not too difficult) hiking trails in the world.
The five main towns of the region are – Monterosso Al Mere (the biggest), Vernazza, Corgnilia (the smallest), Manarola and Riomaggiore. I didn’t get chance to visit Monterosso or Riomaggiore on my travels unfortunately, although I have heard Montrosso is very different in feel to the other towns in the area, being something of a large touristy beach town as opposed to the quaint winding Italian coastal villages found elsewhere in the area.
We ended up staying in a rather basic, but absolutely wonderful AirBnB property in a tiny hamlet called Prevo, situated between Corniglia and Vernazza. Prevo was so small the only way to realise you were there was the word “Prevo” written on a bin left by the roadside!
The views from where we were staying were absolutely sensational, this was taken from our bedroom window –
Outside the house itself, the views were even better – a complete panorama of the bright blue Italian coastal sea. It was quite the sight to wake up to – particularly when I’m used to seeing the delights of East London’s Hackney Road every morning –
To get to the Cinque Terre region we flew into Milan, rented a car from the airport and drove to the coast – a perfectly fine option, but bear in mind the drive is reasonably long (about 3 hours), and once you arrive at Cinque Terre you probably have about another hours drive along the incredibly steep, winding and borderline terrifying mountain roads of the region – this isn’t an area you can speed in. Apparently flying into Piza is a more time efficient way of getting to Cinque Terre if you are driving, or you could fly into Milan and get the train down (although I would be nervous relying on the Italian train infrastructure personally – they were on strike the weekend we visited!).
Where we were staying was absolutely charming, but we we itching to get out and explore the area, so decided to take the car to the town we had read a lot about and was the closest to us – Vernazza.
VERNAZZA, CINQUE TERRE, ITALY
Vernazza is I believe, the second biggest town in the Cinque Terre region after Monterosso, and is famed for having two ruined forts standing watch over the town (one pictured above), and a comparatively happening nightlife scene for a small coastal town located in an Italian national park.
Guys, I’m going to level with you right now – I wasn’t too into Vernazza. The region had apparently been hit by heavy flooding over the last year, causing a lot of damage to the area. Whilst most of the other towns were now almost back to normal (especially as several of them are much higher up altitude-wise than Vernazza), Vernazza was clearly still trying to get itself back together when I visited – no big deal, these things happen.
The issue I had with Vernazza was the sheer amount of tourists flooding the town! The town was absolutely packed – and we visited in early April. Whilst the locals mainly rely on tourist trade for income so are probably somewhat grateful for their presence, when we visited it seemed most locals just wanted everybody to clear off so they could get their town back in order, and not have to deal with people shrieking at them for their wifi password.
Vernazza is the only town in the region aside from Monterosso (which is much further up the coast) that has an accessible beach. To reach it is quite charming – you have to dip under a huge rock that leads off the main street through the town. The beach itself is quite beautiful (if a little dirty after the flooding), but again when we visited was absolutely so overrun with people it was difficult to really stop and enjoy yourself –
The town also has many restaurants, a picturesque harbour and small church and lots of shops clearly focused on the tourist wallet. Vernazza was ok, but not really wanted from my holiday in Cinque Terre, so we had some dinner, went to the local deli, stocked up on wine and went back to our amazing hut in Prevo to watch the sunrise over the sea.
The next day we woke up and decided to explore the town on the other side of where we were staying, Corniglia….
CORNIGLIA, CINQUE TERRE, ITALY
So having woken up with a rather sore head (on account of drinking all the wine we purchased from Vernazza the day previous), it soon dawned up us that to actually get to Corniglia, we would have to walk there – what better way to cure a hangover than a mountainside cliff hike right!
We only had enough food in the house to make ourselves a rather frugal breakfast – think fruit and yoghurt rather than a lavish brunch (and no coffee), so off we set with our heads clouded and our energy levels a little dulled.
Luckily for us, the main walking route between the towns was a short hike down the mountain from where we were staying (when I say hike, it was more an imaginary trail behind buildings, bushes and scrambling over walls) until we eventually found the trail. The view – as always – was stunning, try and see if you can spot Corniglia on the cliff in the middle of photo one (hint – its the beige coloured blur) –
It was about a 45 minute hike (it probably took us an hour considering the state we were in) from Prevo to Corniglia (Corniglia to Vernazza is probably about 1.5 hours). Its a relatively simple hike with some steep parts, but nothing too troublesome. We found ways to amuse ourselves along the way –
Eventually you spot the town of Corniglia small in the distance (initially depressing as you realise how much further you have to walk, particularly when hungover and hungry), but it soon comes around pretty quickly –
I cannot say enough good things about Corniglia. This town was GREAT. Everything I wanted Vernazza to be. Smaller, windier, more authentic. Much fewer loud screeching tourists, less obvious tourist shops, lots of nice cafes and restaurants and much friendlier locals – most locals seemed quite welcoming to visitors here.
Corniglia is not a massive place, it probably won’t even take you an hour to walk around it, but it is certainly extremely charming. We had a wander through the streets. Halfway through is a piazza with several cafes and a chapel –
One thing I will say unashamedly about the Cinque Terre region is that the food is GREAT. Forget trip advisor or online reviews – we didn’t eat badly anywhere the whole time we were there. Follow your nose (and the locals).
We stopped in the piazza for what was intended as breakfast, but ended up as a light lunch. Even simple food here is fantastic. We lunched in a cafe called Cafe Matteo and ordered a fresh orange/lemon juice made with lemons from the town – so fresh and delicious, it was amazing. Some simple bruschetta followed to start, and as a main I had gnocchi with fresh pesto (delicious), and my friend had tagliatelle with mushrooms and parmesan. This may all sound VERY bog-standard Italian fare, but trust here – this was simple, but made with love. The tagliatelle was one of the best pasta dishes I have ever tasted – everything in my mouth tasted incredible. Looking around the tables near us, all the locals were eating it too –
Elsewhere in the town we discovered the local deli, which also doubles as a local grocery store. Wandering around investigating Italian biscuits in the back, we noticed a small (and very old) Italian woman making pesto in the back –
wandering up to have a look, her daughter (who was also in the back baking biscuits) had a good chat with us, and introduced her mother – the pesto maker – who was also borderline deaf. She told us to come back tomorrow, as there would be an Easter parade for Palm Sunday. We watched Mama pesto work before politely slipping off (she must have found us a little odd) –
Also of interest in Corniglia is a small pottery boutique, amusingly named “Fannys Bazaar”. Whilst the music playing in the store was horrendous Italian RnB, the pottery itself was delightful – very brightly coloured and a little bit camp. Everything had sea creatures, grapes, olives or flower scenes on. Hideous to some I’m sure, but also quite a nice splash of Mediterranean colour to others –
Sufficiently charmed by Corniglia, we grabbed an ice-cream (top tip – fig and ricotta flavour is divine), and went off to explore a nearby beach we had read about…
GUVANO BEACH, CINQUE TERRE
Despite being on the Italian coastline, the Cinque Terre region is not famed for its beaches. Its a very mountainous region, with most of where the seas meets land being cliff and rock. We had google beforehand however and discovered there was a beach located almost directly underneath where we were staying (Prevo), situated somewhere between Prevo and Corniglia. We had been told to look out for a sign on the hiking trail which led down to the beach, which was famed for being quiet, and rather beautiful (and also a naturist beach). We found the sign on our way to Cornigila, so upon leaving we followed the trail back –
This was the sign that led to the beach. So we went off the hiking trail and started walking down the cliff, following a very faint track that had been left. We fallowed was a borderline TERRIFYING experience following a very feint, steep and often ridiculous path down the mountain to the beach. Rustic is definitely the word. I would not recommend this for anybody vaguely unfit or out of shape, I’m a pretty good hiker and I found parts completely insane – the path literally disappeared at times just leaving you with a huge drop down to the bottom of the mountain in front of you, and a ledge to shimmy across. It felt like I was in a brush-forest level of Tomb Raider.
The trail takes about 20 minutes-half an hour, and boy were we glad when we eventually seemed to join onto a basic road. In rustic Italy you are lucky if you get a signpost at all (there definitely wasn’t one here), so we followed the road down the mountain to what we assumed would lead us to the beach. Another five minutes walk, and after a reasonably traumatic hike we were there!
Luckily for us, all the effort was worth it. Guvano Beach was wonderful. This was my first time on a naturist beach, and being a self-concious Brit I sadly didn’t join in with the nudist fun. There were several other people on the beach in swimwear also, so don’t be too concerned about offending local Italian naturists – nobody seemed to care.
You quickly learn on a naturist beach the etiquette applicable to the beach you are on, and on Guvano Beach it seemed that staring is a-OK! Myself and my friend couldn’t really help but gawp, even when we weren’t intending to – some of the people on the beach were VERY relaxed with their bodies (I definitely saw more anus than I was intending to that day), but fair play to them if they have the balls to do it. Almost everybody on the beach was gawping at each other – some of the people on the beach clearly enjoyed it, with some strutting around like peacocks. It was a very fun and interesting experience, I’d definitely consider going to a naturist beach in future – this one was very clean, quiet and relaxed.
I decided to have a wander – the beach is halved by rocks in the middle, with a cove section on one side and a more normal rocky beach on the other –
It was reasonably warm the day we visited, so we decided to have a dip in the sea. Despite being April the water was definitely a swim friendly temperature – you just have to get through the initial shock of entering the water – although this can be tough, once your body adjusts the water was lovely, clear and smooth –
After several hours on the beach, several swims and making several friends (one of which seemed a little too keen to try and convert me to his staunch cause of naturism), my friend and I decided to head back home before darkness was upon us (in Cinque Terre when it gets dark it gets VERY dark). Not really wanting to go back the way we came, we decided to try a different route to get back to civilisation and had a walk around eventually coming to a big old railway tunnel – people seemed to be walking around and about the opening of the tunnel, however when we got there we saw a big sign on the wall saying entrance is forbidden. With signs being so rare in this part of Italy, we took this as being very important, so decided the tunnel couldn’t possibly be the way out.
What happened next was genuinely quite terrifying.
Logically we decided that if we couldn’t get back using the bottom of the road we joined onto when we first came down the cliff to the beach (the tunnel is at the bottom), the way back must be at the top of the road.
So we proceeded to walk back up the road further and further up the mountain.
The road soon became a path, which in turn became a winding trail.
The winding trail started to get more and more sketchy, and we were getting higher and higher with no clear end in sight.
Eventually we came to a wooden sign saying “Guvano Beach, Welcome!” despite the path being somewhat bizarre, this gave us a flicker of hope we were on the right track back, so we carried on, despite the trail getting steeper and steeper, thinner and thinner.
Eventually the trail just STOPPED.
The trail just stopped. There was no indication of anywhere to go. We were basically faced with an entirely blank cliff edge with nothing but a very steep drop to the other side in front of us.
I thought I could see the trail continue a bit higher up, and we had come so far, I really was not in the mood to admit defeat and turn back now.
So despite that we hadn’t seen any form of human life in a while, and that I had a sheer drop directly below me, I proceeded to try and climb vertically up the cliff to the “continuation of the trail” I thought I could see.
Clearly this was no trail, and very rapidly the sand and soil beneath my feet started sliding down the cliff and I had to hold onto a branch a bit above me to stop me sliding down the cliff edge with the soil.
Looking back my friend looked absolutely petrified, and looking down there was pretty much nothing below me apart from sheer cliff edge.
This was the moment I realised this probably was not the route back to civilisation, and perhaps now would be a good point to swallow my pride and admit defeat.
I managed somehow to slide back to safety (cutting my leg in the process), admitting the whole journey had been a huge waste of time, we decided to walk back where we had come from, and perhaps attempt the walk back the route we had come initially down the mountainside (although NEITHER of us wanted to do this at all).
However on our way back, we noticed a small slim olive grove truck had appeared on the road below. This was very bizarre, we couldn’t understand how a truck could be here when there was absolutely no obvious or connecting route to the beach other than the trail down the mountainside we had earlier taken. We decided to approach the truck and ask where we were supposed to go (something we probably should have asked somebody earlier), and maybe try and grab a lift back to Corniglia.
Unfortunately, tired, sweaty, bloodied and more than a little fed up of this damn mountain we reached the beach again…and the truck was nowhere to be seen. Rather frustrated and confused we luckily saw a young Italian couple walking around the area, so quickly ran to them and asked them where the hell we were supposed to go. Their English wasn’t great, but we did understand one word…”TUNNEL”
Guvano Beach railway tunnel…it had been in front of us the entire time.
The tunnel is actually a disused railway tunnel that leads from Corniglia railway station straight to Guvano Beach, sheesh if ONLY we had known about this earlier. The tunnel however is not a quick stroll. Its about a 1.5km walk in pitch black darkness to the other side. Only do it if you have a torch, or torch on your phone, or enough phone battery to light your way for the whole journey (about 15-20 minutes). This tunnel is PITCH BLACK. I’ve never experienced absolute pitch black, unable to see anything at all before in my life, and despite the tunnel being reasonably safe (I assume), turning your torch off and trying to walk forward is a truly bizarre (and terrifying) experience – you feel like you are moving backwards, or not at all – do it for long and I imagine you’d just fall over, you really feel utterly powerless.
Another strange quirk of the tunnel is that trains still ruin either above, across, or alongside this disused tunnel. At one point there was a huge scream of engine, flash of light and whoosh as you realise a train has just done something very close to you, but being in pitch black you can’t quite work out what. Still to this day I’m not sure where the train was (it may have been crossing the tunnel!), so beware! Don’t get run over by a train.
After a very bizarre couple of hours and a pich black walk, we eventually returned to civilisation and daylight. This is the REAL entrance to Guvano Beach, and the route you should take if you want to go there (and bring a torch) –
The entrance is located down a curved street (more like an alleyway) across the bridge from the train station (I think there was some graffiti with an arrow saying Guvano Beach).
Unfortunately for us, our ordeal was not yet over. Having arrived back in Corniglia we were actually at the very base of the mountain (the village being located at the top), meaning we had to climb the unexpectedly VERY steep steps all the way back to the town. There are 365 steps from the train station to the town (one for every day of the year apparently) and they are very (unnecessarily) steep. Give yourself a good 10-15 minutes to climb upwards (groaning all the way back up).
Eventually having made it back to Corniglia, and not facing a further 45 minute cliff hike back to Prevo (in what was becoming darkness on the mountainside), my friend made enough fuss of herself in the local shop until a friendly local offered to drive us back to Prevo as he was going that way too. NEVER has a ride in a car been so sweet.
Exhausted, but very happy, we proceeded to spend a second evening drinking wine under the stars watching the sea disappear into the night…