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October 27,  2006 www.IdyllicItaly.com

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Cinque Terre vs Amalfi Coast

Manarola, Cinque Terre Photo by S. Kane

"Where should I go, Cinque Terre or the Amalfi Coast?"  This question is frequently asked by people planning a trip to Italy, debating which Mediterranean coastal area to visit.   Having spent more than a month in Cinque Terre and three weeks on the Amalfi Coast, I am pleased to offer my observations. 

Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast are very popular tourist destinations and are crowded from May to September, especially on the week ends.  Both offer:

In spite of these similarities, they are very different vacation destinations. Cinque Terre is almost a "baby" version of the Amalfi Coast, less expensive, and lacking the cruise ships of Amalfi and Positano and the extensive shopping that is available in several Amalfi Coast towns, especially Amalfi and Positano.   The Amalfi Coast can be the base for touring such historic sights as Pompeii, Paestum, and Capri.  Cinque Terre has no comparable major attractions nearby, except for other beautiful coastal villages such as Portovenere and Lerici.

Cinque Terre is about 100 miles northwest of Florence.  It consists of five villages.  North to south, they are  Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia (the only village not at sea level but perched on top of a small mountain), Manarola, and Riomaggiore. 

The Amalfi Coast, about 100 miles south of Rome (and 40 miles south of Naples), consists of 11 towns. From west to east, they are Positano, Praiano, Conca dei Marini, Furore, Amalfi, Ravello (more than 300 meters above Amalfi), Atrani,  Minori, Maiori, Cetara, and Vietri sul Mare.  The cities of Sorrento and Salerno bracket these towns with Sorrento on the west northwest and Salerno east southeast.

Cinque Terre Attractions

In Cinque Terre, the villages are smaller, the mountains shorter, transportation between them simpler and quicker, and the atmosphere much more low key.  The focus is on hiking, although Cinque Terre can be enjoyed without hiking.  The accommodations and restaurants in Cinque Terre are typically modest,  generally less expensive, with far fewer options than on the Amalfi Coast.  

The attractions of Cinque Terre are mostly the stunning coastal views and walks and the fishing villages with simple multi-story houses built into the hillsides. The houses are modest and appealing with their delicate pastel shades and medium green shutters.  Most have balconies and many have terraces. 

Amalfi Coast Attractions
Positano Photo by J. Kane

The Amalfi Coast is dotted with villas on the mountainsides, some of which are small hotels, and the sea is dotted with yachts. From the 10th to the 13th century, Amalfi was one of the four most significant maritime republics (along with Venice, Genoa, and Pisa).  You don't find villas or yachts in Cinque Terre, but you will find small, open fishing boats there and on the Amalfi Coast.

The Amalfi Coast also offers famous gardens, such as Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo in Ravello, and a beautiful  Duomo and cloister and a paper museum in Amalfi.  The Amalfi Coast also offers performing arts festivals, such as the Ravello Festival, a chamber music series sponsored by the Ravello Arts Society from March through June and from September to early November, and the Ancient Maritime Republic Procession and Regatta every four years (last one held in Amalfi was June 5, 2005). The Amalfi Coast offers an abundance of shopping opportunities with many high-end shops in Positano, an extensive selection of shops  in Amalfi, and, to a lesser extent, in Ravello, with a predominance of ceramic shops. 

Swimming

Swimming is varied in both the Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast.  For the most part, the "beaches" are pebbly or stoney at both destinations and the water temperature is mild. Water temperatures in late September are about 75 degrees Farenheit.  Bring water shoes so you can comfortably reach the water.  Monterosso, in Cinque Terre, is the one exception.  It has a broad, sandy beach and  many concessions that rent beach chairs, towels, and provide changing rooms and showers for a fee.  There is also a public beach with an outdoor shower. 

Swimming is more limited in the other towns. In Manarola, in Cinque Terre, you can swim in the small deep harbor. There is no beach.  Access to the harbor is by means of a stainless steel ladder attached to the smooth rock outcropping, or by diving from the rocks, or by walking down the boat ramp, which is no longer used for launching boats.  Instead, people sunbathe there and children play at the water's edge.   An outdoor shower is installed on the flat, smooth rocks; you can rinse off facing the Mediterranean and gaze at the coastline in both directions.

Amalfi Town and Harbor Photo by J. Kane

On the Amalfi Coast, you can swim in the harbors of Positano, Amalfi, Atrani, Minori, Maiori, Cetara, and Vietri sul Mare.  These towns have pebbly beaches and concessions that rent beach umbrellas and chairs,  provide changing rooms, and usually have an outdoor shower. Most of these towns, including Positano and Amalfi, have small public beaches alongside the private beach concessions.  In Praiano, there are two small coves for swimming and boats available for short excursions. One dramatic cove is the Marina del Praia, with several cafes and restaurants, and a pebbly beach with concessions with umbrellas and chairs as well as a public area.  You'll find a picture here.

Boat Rentals

Kayaks are available for rent in most Cinque Terre and Amalfi Coast towns. Small motorized boats are also available in Positano and Amalfi.  Sailboats with a skipper are available in Cinque Terre and on the Amalfi Coast.

Transportation: Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is easily reached by train from several points in Italy.  You might have to change trains at a station or two along the way, but the trains stop in the village centers, except for Corniglia.  To reach the center of Corniglia, you can climb the 375 broad, short steps (with many intermittent landings that enable you to catch your breath and enjoy the coastal views) or take a van that operates between the train station and the edge of town.  Manarola is a short walk from the train station via a short pedestrian tunnel.

Travel between Cinque Terre villages is quick by train and very rewarding on foot. The walk between Riomaggiore and Manarola is a half hour or less on a paved pathway.  The distances between the other towns are quite a bit longer and more rigorous, taking from two to three hours, often skirting the terraced vineyards.  The trains are a great alternative if you don't want to hike or you only want to hike in one direction.  (There is also boat transportation between the towns until the early evening during the summer. The boat schedule depends on the weather and the season.)  You can comfortably use the train to go to dinner in another Cinque Terre village or even further afield.  The train time between towns is about 5-10 minutes. 

Transportation: Amalfi Coast Towns

Amalfi Coast towns are not easily accessible, unless you arrive by train in Naples or Salerno and take a limo to the town and hotel of your choice, or rent a car.  Otherwise, you can count on using two or three modes of transportation to reach your destination.  For example, traveling from Rome, you can take the train to Naples and then change to the Circumvesuviana train line (in the main train station in Naples) for Sorrento.  Alternatively, you can take a train from Rome to Salerno at the southeastern end of the Amalfi Coast.  From Sorrento or Salerno, you can take a SITA bus to any of the Amalfi Coast towns.  The buses run at least hourly.  (To reach Ravello, you must change buses in Amalfi.)  Once you reach the Amalfi Coast town of your choice, you may need a taxi to reach your hotel. 

In the spring, summer, and fall, boat service is available from Sorrento or Salerno to Positano or Amalfi. Note that the bus and boat schedules between the towns do not allow for eating dinner in one town and returning to the town where you're staying, except for the Flavio Gioia bus line that operates within and between Positano and Praiano.  Taxis are available, though.

If the Amalfi Coast is your final destination and you are departing from Naples, consider using a limo for its convenience and reliability.  In 2006, the price for two to four passengers from Ravello to the Naples airport was 120 euros.  For recommendations, see the "Transportation, By Limo" section of this website.

While travel between Amalfi Coast towns is simple, it takes considerably longer than between Cinque Terre villages.  The bus travel time is between 20 and 30 minutes from Positano to Amalfi and from Amalfi to Ravello.   Getting from one town to another on the Amalfi Coast can be problematic using the SITA buses. That's because there is one very narrow road, the Amalfi Coast road, and a great deal of traffic. The SITA buses can be 10-20 minutes early or late, depending on the traffic.  Sometimes the buses are so full you have to wait for the next one. Often, the SITA bus company will add another run if there is a big backup. 

The Flavio Gioia busline, that operates within and between Positano and Praiano, usually adheres to its schedule because the buses travel much shorter distances and therefore encounter fewer delays.

Hiking
Via dell' Amore, Cinque Terre Photo by S. Kane

For Cinque Terre, maps are available for the popular coastal trail that links the five villages and for trails that go to the little villages and sanctuaries in the mountains from the Cinque Terre Consortium offices in all the villages as well as in their office at the La Spezia train station.  Maps are also available on their website.

On the Amalfi Coast, there are wonderful opportunities for hiking.  "Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast" by Julian Tippett is an excellent resource as are the tourist offices in each town.  Hiking on the Amalfi Coast can be a welcome escape from the hundreds of tourists that crowd the very narrow streets of Positano and Amalfi, which are lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants.

Food and Wine

Lemon trees, olive groves, and grapevines are found on the terraced mountainsides of both areas.  The fruits of these trees are made into limoncello and other liqueurs made from citrus fruits, local wines, olive oil, and olive paste.  Outstanding fresh produce, fish, and seafood are available in the local markets.   A pasta dish followed by a grilled local fish with a side dish of eggplant or zucchini is a sublime meal, especially when accompanied by local wines.  You can enjoy such a meal in one of the many trattorie or on the terrace of your rental apartment.

Pesto was invented in Liguria, the region that includes Cinque Terre. In the Cinque Terre, it is often prepared with small pieces of potato and usually served on the traditional pasta, trofie, which is a slim oval shape.

On the Amalfi coast, the restaurants range from simple trattorias and pizzerias to elegant formal restaurants.  Most feature the excellent fresh seafood and local wines.  Other specialties of the region include artichokes, eggplant in many different preparations, and mozzarella di bufala, as an antipasto combined with excellent local tomatoes and in many pasta dishes,

Summary

I find the Cinque Terre a much simpler, smaller, more relaxing place with a focus on the outdoors, especially hiking.  There are fewer accommodations, which are generally less expensive than those on the Amalfi Coast, and many excellent restaurants. Transportation is easy and convenient. The trains are fast and frequent, and the travel time between villages is short, about five to ten minutes from one village to the next.  You can eat dinner in one Cinque Terre village and return home late. 

The Amalfi Coast has much more to offer in the way of "must-see" sights both on the coast itself and close by, such as Pompeii, Capri, Sorrento, and Paestum. This can be an advantage, but it may create a tug-of-war between your desire to enjoy the spectacular Amalfi coast and your desire to visit these "must-see" places.

The Amalfi Coast is generally more expensive, too, mostly because of the elegant accommodations and high end restaurants. Public transportation along the Amalfi Coast can be complicated and problematic, especially the buses. Boat trips between Salerno, Amalfi, Positano, and Sorrento can be a very pleasant alternative.  The Amalfi Coast requires more time to enjoy its many attractions and more careful planning.  But then, you can always return to enjoy those places and activities that you missed on an earlier trip and to visit your favorite places again.

Both are beautiful and rewarding destinations.  Whichever you choose, you'll surely enjoy it.

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