Swimming in the Ligurian Sea and Taking in the Cinque Terre

Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with KidsAhhhh, the Cinque Terre.  If you’re a Rick Steves fan, you’ve probably heard of this place.  I find it rather ironic that the man that makes a living selling guides to Europe’s back doors has opened the floodgates for the Cinque Terre.

Not that I have anything against Rick Steves – just sayin’.

Rugged and breathtaking, these five villages cling to the rocky hillsides and offer an eye-popping welcome to the jewel-toned Ligurian Sea below. The “five lands” of the Cinque Terre include Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.

You’d be hard-pressed to visit all five in one day; you really need more than an hour or two in each to savor the sights and soak in the sea.  We made it three, and that was overdoing it.

The towns are virtually inaccessible by car.  Visitors must arm themselves with hiking boots and railway timetables, or fight for top-deck real estate on the ferry.

Unfortunately, flooding and landslides in late 2011 severely damaged some of the footpaths between villages.  The two easiest and safest walking routes for families (Riomaggiore – Manarola and Manarola – Corniglia) were still closed during our visit in August 2013.  To save time, we opted to travel by train.

Word to the wise – avoid the Cinque Terre in August if at all possible!  Trains were packed tighter than Moscow subway cars at rush hour.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with Kids

First stop – Riomaggiore.  I found this “land” rather touristy, and we encountered mostly foreigners here.  When you get off the train, and head to your right through the tunnel with the blue plastic roof.  You’ll find shops and a quaint harbor on the other side.

Manarola

Manarola

We spent the better part of our day in Manarola at the rocky harbor.  We aren’t beach people, so the idea of sea without sand was rather attractive.  The area surrounding the water was filled with Italians of all ages and shapes working on their tans.  We plunked our junk on the concrete, staked out an area with beach towels, and headed in to the water.

I had previously read (probably in a TripAdvisor forum) that some tourists enjoyed watching the children swim in the Manarola harbor.  “Children” must have meant “teens” because unless your kids are fantastic swimmers or have rafts, they aren’t going to venture out into the deep and rocky harbor.Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with KidsThese crazy cats were jumping from the cliffs into the water below!

These crazy cats were jumping from the cliffs into the water below!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with KidsBig Foot didn’t mind the gentle waves as long as he was safe in his daddy’s arms.  My older boys, however, were uncomfortable with the pull of the tide and the depth of the water.  After struggling to gain their trust for the better part of half an hour, we finally gave up trying to get them to face their fears and fed them lunch instead.

After a hearty picnic, we walked toward Corniglia in hopes that the path had miraculously reopened (it hadn’t).  We did, however, catch a glimpse of the next town and discover a playground with an excellent view of Manarola.  You can also find bathrooms and shaded picnic tables here.

The playground at Manarola.

The playground at Manarola.

View of Corniglia from Manarola.

View of Corniglia from Manarola.

As I watched the swimmers and sunbathers from above, I decided I‘d rather swim without the boys than allow their fears to tie me to regret.  As we ventured back to another area of the harbor (calmer albeit deeper water), I coaxed T-Rex into giving the sea another go, and by the end of the afternoon I had both boys in the water.  Yay!

Here's where we ended up swimming.

Here’s where we ended up swimming.

If you plan on taking a dip at Manarola, I’d highly recommend aqua socks.  There’s a high probability you’ll cut yourself on the jagged rocks getting in or out of the water.  If a traditional sandy beach is what you’re after, head to Monterosso instead.

After rinsing off in the free freshwater showers, we picked up a few slices of focaccia (try the local specialty – pesto) and elbowed our way onto the train to Corniglia.

Steps up from the train station to Corniglia.

Steps up from the train station to Corniglia.

The middle “land” is different from the other four.  To get to Corniglia from the train station, one must either climb 365 steps or meander along an equally steep road.  We took the road up and the steps down.  Don’t do that.  The steps are more of a hike but a shorter overall distance.  I believe there’s also a bus option, but we (obviously) didn’t take it.Thrifty Travel Mama - Visiting the Cinque Terre with KidsSince we popped in at the end of the day, we were too tired to really appreciate much of Corniglia’s charm.  It is noticeably quieter than Riomaggiore and Manarola, the shops quainter, the restaurants cozier.  From the edge of Corniglia, you can just make out Monterosso to the right and Manarola to the left as you face the sea.

T-Rex checking out Manarola from Corniglia.

T-Rex checking out Manarola from Corniglia.

Beat from the masses and the heat, we headed back to La Spezia where we had left our car in the free parking lot (Piazza d’Armi) on the west side of town.  From the parking lot, it’s an easy ten minute walk to the train station.  If you need to grab some snacks, there’s a supermarket on your right as you cross Viale Giovanni Amendola.

Some Italians prefer to park in Levanto because getting in and out of La Spezia is a real pain in the you-know-what.  In addition to the volume of traffic because of the port, much of the main road has no lane markers which means it is either 1 or 2 in each direction, depending on how drivers feel at the moment.

Until next time...

Until next time…

Despite the crowds and traffic, we absolutely loved our day in the Cinque Terre.  I look forward to our next visit when we can hit up Vernazza and Monterosso.  Until then, ciao!

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!Signature-MarigoldI’m linking this post on the Cinque Terre up to the #sundaytraveler. Don’t miss a great mess of posts from the hosts and other travel bloggers. You can find this week’s links here.

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23 thoughts on “Swimming in the Ligurian Sea and Taking in the Cinque Terre

  1. This is starting to get creepy…you’re an expat in Europe, you have small kids, your husband is a scientist (my husband was a chemist for 9 yrs before recently switching careers), you love and will hunt down Mexican food, you do frugal travel (and admitted to being lazy cheapskates!), you like to plan rather than fly by the seat of your pants, you enjoy the irony of Rick Steves’ back door philosophy and his books that mess up all the spots he features, and now you tell me you are not sandy beach people. We might be related. Oh yeah, and we are starting to get into castle ruins…

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  6. Your photos are lovely and make me want to go back again to the Cinque Terre. I’ve been to Vernazza a few years ago and loved it and I live only a few hours away but this part of the world is just so beautiful that there’s not enough time to get everywhere! I’m working on it though!! I found your lovely blog through #SundayTraveler linkup.

  7. Ohhhh man, we skipped this on our 5 weeks in Italy as it was November, but I am so going to get there one day. I even have those dorky aqua socks ready 🙂 Thanks for linking up with is to #SundayTraveler!

  8. Thanks for an excellent overview of this beautiful region. Cinque Terre has been on my bucket list like forever, and the worst thing that I don’t have a real excuse for not visiting it already. It’s less than 6 hours drive from home. However, hopefully we’ll manage to visit this coming spring. Beautiful photos! Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler.

    • Frank, well I guess 6 hours isn’t exactly in your backyard, and your backyard is quite gorgeous anyway 🙂 But definitely make it over there (just not during the August holiday season if you can manage).

  9. I was in Cinque Terre in August 2013 too! I just shared my post about in on my blog too. I didn’t mind the crowds, but we walked between the towns where we could, and only took one train. You are right – I don’t see how people say you can do it all in one day when there is so much to see! Thank you for sharing 🙂

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