Cinque Terre was my first true Instagram destination. Having spotted photos of this collection of Italian coastal villages online, I took the opportunity to visit this must-see tourist mecca on a recent road trip in the area. Would my first Instagram inspired voyage to be a total be a flop? Or would this over photographed colourful slice of coastline be even more impressive in real life?

As we made our way out of the train station at Riomaggiore, high on anticipation and low on caffeine – thanks to our Airbnb not having the requisite tools – the first pangs of apprehension started to set in. The walk from the train station to the town centre takes you through a decidedly dingy tunnel. A blackened cave beside the train track with no first impressions to make of Cinque Terre other than: “what’s that smell?” A question which my travelling brother and sister – fresh off the plane from Australia – would ask me regularly.

Anyone who has ever travelled in Europe knows that it can be a bit grotty. It’s all part of its charm. Those grotty sections make its beauty feel more charming, more authentic, soothing almost. It’s like a well-worn glove that gives immediate comfort. Here, unfortunately, we found minimal charm and little authenticity. There was, however, a used glove on the ground.

The fact that some of the five towns that make up Cinque Terre lack some authentic, Italian charm is not that surprising. Suspended on cliffs between sea and land, the earliest inhabitants of the town carved out a brutal living here in the 11th century. Used as a defence against the Turks in the 17th century, the region only escaped isolation in the 19th century, with the creation of the railway between Genova and La Spezia. Although the railway brought easier integration it also saw many locals leave, abandoning their traditional olive growing existence to emigrated overseas. Since tourism opened in the 1970’s and Cinque Terre achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997, the locals are now battling a different demon.

Finding our feet in Manarola

Around 2.5m tourists pile into this tiny stretch of coastline every year, fueling speculation that the government would impose limits on annual visitor numbers. Walking around Riomaggiore it appears this speculation is unfounded, at least for now. Hordes of tourists throng to the narrow walkways, and the local cafes and restaurants cater to them accordingly. After walking around town, we found the marina and the familiar picture perfect Instagram opportunity came in the focus. The pastel hues of the narrow building lining the cliffs, almost look like they are leaning into the ocean from this vantage point. It’s a truly beautiful site and wins the best location to view Riomaggiore from, with a comfortable margin.

After a quick coffee admiring the views from the Riomaggiore marina, it was back down the tunnel and onto the train for our next town.

Sometimes when you’re travelling it doesn’t take much to turn your day around and stepping off the train at Manarola did this for us beautifully. The town has a decidedly more atmospheric setting than Riomaggiore and a walk up the steep staircase on the western side of the harbour displays this Italian gem in all its glory.

At the top of the staircase and positioned with breathtaking views across to Manarola that other restaurants could only dream of, we found Nessun Dorma. A sleek and friendly wine bar stretching along a strip of gardened terrace, offering an excellent wine list and supremely tasty food. Their innovative bruschettas are an obvious crowd favourite judging by the steady stream of waiters delivering them to customers. We opted for their equally impressive focaccias, prepared with love and presented with style. If there’s one thing I love about restaurants it’s when they create simple, thoughtful food using fresh local ingredients delivered with passion. Nessun Dorma did this with ease, and with their enviable position – arguably the best spot to eat in Cinque Terre – it’s forced us to look at this tourist mecca with fresh eyes. Gone was the InstaRemorse, long forgotten was that Riomaggiore tunnel. Here was travel bliss, delivered in the form of a crunchy focaccia, delicious local wine, and superb views.

There seemed like no better way to cap off a fantastic experience than to go for a dip in the harbour in the local swimming spot in town. We climbed onto the rocks, descended the ladders into the water and took a sharp intake of breath. The water is certainly refreshing but once you acclimatise, swimming in these crystal clear Mediterranean waters with the beautiful Manarola peering down on you, is a fine way to take in this beautiful destination.

There are many very famous walking paths in Cinque Terre, unfortunately, at the time of our visit, the main section from Riomaggiore to Corniglia was closed due to a heavy storm that had wiped the path away. The rest of the path, from Corniglia to Monterosso was open and a provides a fantastic way to get out of the town and see more of this rugged coastline.

The walk from Corniglia to Monterosso – around 2 hours, 30 minutes – takes you far away from the towns (and their tourists) and is a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. The path at times clings to the cliffs giving you beautiful views out to the ocean, and at other times meanders through forests for cooling relief from the sun. The various ocean-side bars along the path mean you have regular vantage points from which to take in the view while sipping a well-earned drink. It’s in these slightly isolated local bars where you can really appreciate this landscape and the hospitality that Cinque Terre has to offer. Surprisingly empty for such a famous path, they offer no-frills service, plastic chairs and some of the most spectacular scenery you’ll ever see.

Heading along the path as the sun sets is a cathartic experience. From this point, a calmness seems to descend over the whole area. The sea turns a deep grey-blue and the towns below you take on a faded golden glow. Looking down from your favourite vantage point is like watching a toy village that you might have built in your bedroom as a kid.

The towns come into their own from the path. Like an ageing rock star who can only be photographed from one side, the walk offers the best points from which to see them. Far from the maddening crowd and framed perfectly by sea and land, Cinque Terre takes a familiar pose. The pastel hues of the old buildings, crumbling and worn from the years, finally tell a story. It’s like looking down on a postcard. Or your Instagram feed. But better.

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Trip Tips

Train tickets between towns cost €4 for a single trip (one town to the next). If you plan on doing the walking paths, you can buy a Cinque Terre Card Train which includes access to the walking tracks, plus unlimited train travel between the towns for €16 per day. Prices vary from season to season so check the prices online for the latest information. If you are only hiking you can buy a Cinque Terre Card (€7.50 per day) which only includes access to the walking paths and some local shuttle bus services.

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