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When I mentioned to friends I was planning a trip to Italy, just about everyone who had previously been to Italy uttered the words, Cinque Terre.

I did some research on Cinque Terra UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the region looked amazing! Quaint villages (in Italian, Cinque Terre translates to “5 Lands”), beautiful crystal clear blue  water, beaches, and a national park offering unique hiking trails…it all looked totally worth adding to the travel itinerary.

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La Spezia, a working man’s town just within reach of the beautiful region of Cinque Terre ended up being the starting point for this leg of the trip, only because by the time my husband and I decided to make this part of our itinerary, the lodging opportunities in Cinque Terre were completely sold out.

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We settled on the historic Hotel Firenze e Continentale, based on positive reviews and the train station being literally steps outside the hotel front door. This made it extremely convenient to catch the regional train to the villages that make up Cinque Terre.

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Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost town of Cinque Terre was the first on our itinerary for the day. The historic village dates back to the 11th century, and is split between two distinct areas; a medieval historical center and a modern residential and commercial district scattered with hotels, storefronts, and quaint cafés overlooking beaches of the Ligurian Sea. Monterosso has the largest number of  tourist accommodations in Cinque T erre, most being small boutique hotels and apartment rentals situated on the hilly streets. The region was just one room short for us!

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The best beaches of Cinque Terre are found in this village and this makes it the most visited town in the area. Chairs and umbrellas line the beach and a $30.00 per person charge is levied to use.  There is a “free beach” in the middle of all this tourist offering, where you can bring your own and find a spot along side locals and visitors who don’t want to pay for the amenities!  If you could look beyond the wall to wall umbrellas, lounge chairs, and bodies, you would see a pristine bay with azure water. Beyond the commercialization of this town, the beach scene is stunning. Beyond the beaches, Monterosso is also known for the sardines found in the local sea!

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-buIt’s also a great starting point for a hike between the other four towns that comprise Cinque Terre. From Monterosso we headed south to Vernazza on a narrow rural trail which offered incredible ocean views throughout the 2.5 mile trek.  With much-watched Rick Steves’ videos describing this day hike, we felt pretty educated about the extent of this challenging trek, but somehow in video, Steves failed to mention the 1,000’s of bun-burning natural rock stairs necessary to climb in order to get to Vernazza.

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The uneven rocky steps led up a steep incline that seemed to never end. Finally, the “finish line” of this hike was an amazing view of the unbelievably beautiful and colorful village of Vernazza from a vantage point high on the trail. It was so picture perfect it was almost unbelievable; now I understand why it was the opening picture on my old handheld GPS screen!

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The entrance into the village from the trail head led directly through the narrow cobblestone alleys of the main residential area towards the harbor. It was there we had some amazing Kodak moments of the sea, the rustic, and quaint homes with laundry hanging from the window sills.

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We spent time dangling our feet in the cool water of the bay watching swimmers enjoying the calm sea. Everything seemed to move in slow motion in this town; the residents, visitors, and even the dogs and cats. I suspect there is no rush to get anywhere anytime quickly for most of the locals. For us, the next leg of the hike from Vernazza heading toward the only village without water access; Corniglia, which sits high on the hillside towering over the other villages, was going to be long, so we said good bye to this memorable little town and vowed that one day, we will visit again.

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We had not actually planned on hiking this next leg, instead we initially thought to opt out and take the train, because our video friend, Rick Steves warned it was a more challenging hike than the one we had just finished. He didn’t lie. It took us a lot longer to finish, but we are glad we pursued the grueling hike, as this trail wound up and through rows of beautiful vineyards and olive groves on the hillside.

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Not sure if it was the heat or the intense climb, but we were completely spent by the time we arrived in the quaint village of Corniglia. This village lies at the top of a promontory overlooking, and providing incredible views, of the Ligurian Sea, and is home to the Cinque Terre DOC which produces a variety of wines, including the very popular and sweet Sciacchetra. Let’s just say even though this wine was way over the top in the sweet category, it did the trick to quench our thirst after this leg of the hike.

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At the furthest end of the village is a gorgeous 180 degree view of the ocean from a landing hanging over the cliff.

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It didn’t take a lot of time to explore this village so we hopped a tram that took us down the windy roads of Corniglia to the sea level train station for a short ride back north to the first village in Cinque Terre we visited, Monterosso.

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We sat seaside in a little outdoor café, watching the world go by while resting our sore “everything” and enjoying some of Monterosso’s famous sardines.  For those of you who think these are gross little creatures, sardines (and anchovies too), are actually delicacies in Cinque Terre and they were cooked to perfection in a simple garlic, lemon, parsley, and olive oil sauce. Amazing!

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After a beautiful lunch, we  wandered into the sea to sooth our sore feet and stopped for a moment to take in the natural beauty of the region.

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We also visited by train, the village of Manarola. It’s a tiny town with colorful homes spilling down from the hillside to almost the sea’s edge. A beautiful crystal clear cove is located in the bay, where kids can be seen jumping off the steep rocks. We sat by the water’s edge peering out to a completely clear bay as a snorkeler handled a large octopus snagged from the water and displayed it for the local village kids and tourists.

Exhausted, we decided to skip visiting the last of the five villages of Cinque Terre, Rigomaggiore. It’s clear we did not give enough time to explore this amazing region in Italy.  Suggest if you plan to visit you give two full days to accomplish what we did in a little over 24 hours.

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Back in La Spezia, we enjoyed a wonderful bottle of Chianti and an amazing dinner al fresco in a large central piazza that was filled with more locals than tourists. We watched for hours (and were not rushed by the waiter), as the young and old appreciated the simple pleasure of doing nothing more than enjoying good food, wine, and each other’s company.

Seems like we could take a lesson from this scene and learn to control our normal complicated lifestyle in order to truly enjoy the Cinque Terre vibe.

Ciao!