A Photographer's Guide to the Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is a dream. It is a gorgeous and stunning part of Italy that will likely capture your spirit and imagination quickly - but you have to be ready for it. Being there requires some serious walking up and up and up, but it’s so worth it (it's doubly hard lugging an overstuffed suitcase and a camera bag that is super heavy!). You will get into great shape while you down the local focaccia bread and wine. You will wander the streets and love every minute of it. You will dream of selling all your stuff and moving there. It’s a wonderful place to visit and I highly recommend it if you have the time and the inclination, even if you are not a photographer. It's just awesome.
I had seen photos for years of Cinque Terre and always dreamed of visiting it and taking some shots myself. When the opportunity arose, I was all over it. So I started looking into each of the 5 villages in Cinque Terre (Cinque Terre = 5 Lands) and quickly realized that although there are a lot of great shots from here, nothing was very clear about how to shoot it, and which village is which, and so on and so forth. It all seemed very confusing.
You see, until you get there and dig in a little bit, it seems like every village is stacked up against the sea with all these colored little houses hanging around. But the truth is there are only 3 of the 5 villages that are like that: Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Vernazza. While I am sure there is plenty to enjoy in the other 2 villages (Corniglia and Monterroso al Mare), this list is going to focus on the 3 villages that I believe you are most interested in photographing.
Here's a handy map of the Cinque Terre...
I did spend a day in Monterosso al Mare and found it to be rather lovely. It’s the flattest of the villages and the only one with a true beach. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't high on my list of photography spots. I did not even go to Corniglia, as it is actually not on the sea, but rather on the top of the mountain. I decided that my limited time there in Cinque Terre was going to be focused on photographing the villages along the coast, since that is the main draw of the area. Let's face it - that's what we are there to see.
The three most photogenic villages all look pretty similar, especially to the untrained eye. There are colorful, pastel-colored houses lined up near the sea, almost stacked up next to it, and a jetty or rock outcropping curving out from the shore. There are some boats tied up there. Generally, it's a dreamy scene, photographically speaking, though the three are easily confused. Trust me though that once you get there and see them, you will quickly get a feel for them, their differences, and also quickly learn how and where to set up for your shots.
Also note that there is a reason that many of the photos you see of the various villages are somewhat similar: because of the small towns and tight spaces (and the fact that they end at the sea), there is not a lot of opportunity to vary your view. In other words, a lot of the compositions that you are see are similar because there are not a lot of choices. For example:
- In Riomaggiore, your best bet is likely standing on the rocks that sort of ring the harbor, because it gives you a great view of the town. There is also a tiny plaza up above town that offers a pretty sweet view.
- In Manarola, there is a trail that leads up above town and gives you a bit more opportunity to vary the view because of the length of the trail, but in short it’s still pretty much the same composition all along that trail. There’s not much of an opportunity to get down in front of the town because of how it is positioned.
- In Vernazza, you can either stand along the promenade that rings the harbor, or climb up the trail for a higher view. But note that along the trail with the higher view there is really just one or two decent spots to see the town. If it’s taken, that’s too bad (and that’s what happened to me).
To be clear though - even with all that, it is well worth shooting because it is beautiful. I loved every bit of it, even though my shots are not very unique.
Having just said that there are limited views, you could definitely get inventive, move around a bit, clamber around on some rocks and more - and end up with some possibly unique views in each town. I am never one to say it can't be done. But honestly, I didn't do it. I didn't really have the time. If you have a week or so here, you could likely discover quite a few interesting views of each of these three villages, just by walking around. Just be prepared to be exhausted. There is a serious amount of vertical going on here! My legs were just spent!
So although I strive to capture my own vision of a place, and with (hopefully) unique views, I felt like I was taking the same photos as everyone else does in Cinque Terre - but at least I know why, and I am completely at peace with it. The truly unique and "off the beaten path" type views are going to require some time investment, quite a bit of climbing/exploring, and good shoes. :-)
Nonetheless, I was completely taken with the beauty of the area, and am very glad that I was able to spend some time photographing it. It’s absolutely beautiful. Here's the proof...
A few things to know about visiting the Cinque Terre...
- Be sure and stay in one of the 3 villages I have mentioned: Riomaggiore, Manarola, or Vernazza. As a photographer, this puts you in the middle of the action without having to drive in from somewhere else. I would not stay anywhere else, period.
- If you are renting an apartment or hotel, note that many of them advertise that they are in the Cinque Terre, even if they are not actually in one of the 5 villages. It helps them sell rooms. In reality, if it is any town named something other than Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza, Corniglia, or Monterosso al Mare, skip it. It's not in the Cinque Terre, and therefore you have to find a way to get to the Cinque Terre, even if it's "only 5km away". There are a lot of hills and windy roads, so 5km could take a while. No one wants to mess with that on a holiday.
- Do not bring a car. These villages are stacked up next to the sea, and are small and kind of crowded. There are no cars in these villages (especially the main 3 that I recommend). Everyone walks around town. There is no where to put a car. There may be parking up on the mountain above the town, but who cares? You can easily take a train into these villages from other large Italian cities. Don't get a car. Trust me. It will just sit there.
- Trains are your best friend. Trains into the Cinque Terre are easy from all over Italy (the closest "big station" is at La Spezia), and trains between the Cinque Terre villages are easy, cheap, and fairly frequent. From Riomaggiore to Monterosso al Mare (the first and last villages along the coast of the Cinque Terre), the train takes 20 minutes or so. The train stations are fairly central to each town, and it's all super easy. There are two train tracks, one in each direction. You can figure it out quickly and easily.
- Trains don't run all night. Be sure and check the schedules. Take a photo of them with your phone so you don't have to remember any of it. I almost got stuck in a neighboring village one evening and barely caught the last train. If I had missed it, I would have had to walk a few kilometers home, and I don't even know where the road is. There are no taxis, because there are no streets with cars on them. I assume there may be that stuff "up on the mountain", but down in the villages, it's either a train or a boat from town to town. Plan accordingly.
- If you are there during warm weather, take a snorkeling tour along the Cinque Terre. We spent a day doing so and it was one of the highlights of our entire time in Italy. The coastline is stunningly beautiful, and swimming in the cold, refreshing sea is absolutely breathtaking.
- There are many little cafes and restaurants in each village (serving all sorts of Italian food), and some tiny little markets as well where you can buy produce, water, beer/wine, and just about anything you need to make a meal yourself. You will not go hungry or thirsty unless you are just not trying very hard. ;-)