In the region to update the Rick Steves Italy guidebook, I’ve gotten the latest scoop on the Cinque Terre. Here’s a sneak preview of what you’ll find in the next edition of our book…before it’s even fresh off the press.
Crowds. Looking up from my breakfast croissant at an al fresco café in the sleepy town of Manarola, I saw this surprise tidal wave of humanity rushing down the main street. The Cinque Terre has gone from “undiscovered” to “manageably popular” to “borderline miserably crowded.” Locals report that the biggest headaches are caused by day-trippers and cruises: packs of 40 or 50 people desperately trying to stay together with a guide as they pile on and off of the trains. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t come to the Cinque Terre — just that you should expect crowds — and take crowd-beating tips very seriously. The most important strategies come down to timing: If possible, try to visit in the quiet months of April or October instead of the busy months of June or September. But if you can’t avoid being here during peak times, be aware that crowds on the trains and trails will be worst mid-day. Before about 10:00 or after about 18:00, you’ll have the place to yourself. Stay in one of the Cinque Terre towns, hike early or late, and plan to hit the beach (such as in Bonassola, described later) or find a lesser-known trail when the cruise passengers are in town.
Train Changes. It was recently reported that the Cinque Terre rail line was the only profitable line operated by the Italian Railways. And so, in perfect Italian fashion, they decided to monkey around with it. Starting just a few weeks ago, Trenitalia is running the “5 Terre Express” — departures on a predictable schedule every 30 minutes between Levanto and La Spezia, with stops in each of the Cinque Terre towns. The results have been mixed: Trains are often delayed by 5 or 10 minutes. And, because other fast trains also use these same tracks, the increased frequency can create ripples and lead to more delays and more cancellations. Locals grumble that overall, there are fewer options for connecting to destinations beyond the Cinque Terre without a time-consuming transfer. And anecdotally, the new schedule has failed to address the single biggest issue: the crowds at peak times. It remains to be seen whether the new timetable will stick. In other news, Trainitalia plans to start gouging tourists who take the Cinque Terre trains: Starting in mid-May, it will cost €4 per ride between CT towns, whether you’re going one town or four. (Locals will still pay the old price, which is about half that much.)
A Taste of Opera. Little Vernazza now has its own summer opera series, where a big-name maestro from Lucca brings talented singers to town twice weekly to show off to an appreciative audience. Performances fill the small oratory tucked behind the town’s big church (find the steps up and around, next to Ananasso Bar), which was beautifully restored specifically for this purpose. The program typically consists of several arias — both crowd-pleasers and deep cuts — by mostly Italian composers (lots of Puccini). The performances begin at 19:00 and last about an hour and a quarter — strategically timed to squeeze between a late-afternoon aperitivo on the harbor and a 20:30 dinner reservation (€13 in advance or €15 at the door, April-Oct Wed and Fri at 19:00, book tickets at Cinque Terre Riviera office at #24 on the main street, tel. 0187-812-123, email@example.com).
Bonassola. I’m putting together a “crowd-beating tips” section for the next edition of the book. So I asked every local their favorite way to escape the crowds on busy days. One word kept coming up: Bonassola. It’s a charming little beach town just north of the Cinque Terre, an easy walk or pedal from Levanto. He’s my write-up for the upcoming book:
The small beach resort of Bonassola (boh-nah-SOH-lah, pop. 950) swirls like a peaceful little eddy, tucked just off the main train line on the cove north of Levanto. As far as Riviera beach resorts go, Bonassola is a Back Door gem. With a low-key vibe, a tidy grid street plan that feels almost French, and a picturesque dark-sand beach hemmed in by jagged bluffs, it’s worth considering as an alternative to other beaches in the area (including the Cinque Terre’s small, overcrowded, and — frankly — underwhelming beaches). And the next best thing to a beach day in Bonassola is getting there: A level, easy, rails-to-trails path cuts through the mountain from Levanto — enjoyable by foot, but even better by bike.
Getting There: Local trains run between Levanto and Bonassola (hourly, 3 minutes — these require a change from the Cinque Terre line). But I’d rather take the promenade. At the northern end of Levanto’s elevated beachfront road/parking lot, you’ll find a level, 2-km path neatly divided into bike and pedestrian lanes. Most of the route is through well-lit former train tunnels, with brief breaks overlooking the sea (and hikes down to secluded beaches). The walk takes about 25 minutes, with long stretches through the tunnels (at least it’s a cool break from the heat); but by bike, it’s less than 10 minutes.
Orientation: Bonassola’s beach is separated from the town center by its elevated road (shared by bikes, walkers, and a parking lot). The inviting beach has mostly private sections, with a few free/public areas. The town itself — with manicured promenades and piazzas — is worth exploring. [$$] Caffe delle Rose, facing the elevated road, has good gelato, food, and drinks. Several foccacerie and other eateries cluster at the far end of town.
For a scenic walk/hike, head to the far end of the beach, where a promenade snakes along the base of the rocky cliff (with rocky perches for sunbathing and swimming). For higher views, find the stairs up near the flagpole, then follow the steps up on the right side of the yellow church. Popping out at the top, turn left along the scenic, private road as it curls around the top of the bay, with great views back on the town and beach; you can take it to the end of the road, the blocky little chapel of Madonnina della Punta.
Optional Continuation (Best for Bikers): From Bonassola, the path continues another 3 km to the town of Framura — a settlement made up of five hamlets scattered across the hillside. Because this part of the route is almost entirely through tunnels, it’s boring for walkers — but quick for bikers. You’ll pop out overlooking Framura’s rocky little harbor, behind its train station (no direct access — don’t count on taking your bike back on the train). Hike down to the harbor, or up to the village — or simply enjoy the views, then turn around and pedal back to Bonassola and Levanto.