Last year, when we were coming back from Sicily, we had a long chat with one of the ground staff from Alitalia in Rome airport whilst waiting for our flight to Israel. This came about partially because there was no one else there and partially because she has a friend in Bet Shemesh - she recognised this name in my wife's Israeli passport. There have been stranger connections.
Anyway, she recommended that we visit an area called Cinque Terre in North West Italy. This looked interesting when we looked at it, but its location seemed problematic. Even when I knew that I would be coming to Florence, it seemed almost impossible to get to. There is a coach trip from Florence to CT, but this leaves early in the morning, returns in the evening and requires walking. I did some research on the internet and discovered that someone had written about how to travel there by train: it takes about two and a half hours each way.
There is a train from Florence at 8:30am and one at about 10am; the first would have been ideal but it was too early. So we left just after 10am on a train to Pisa; there we would change to a train going to Milan, via Monterosso, probably the most accessible of the five villages. On the first train, the conductor pointed out that I hadn't validated the tickets but did not make an issue of this. Once at Pisa, I found the appropriate machine and validated our tickets for the second half of the journey.
When the second train came, we boarded and sat down, only to be told by someone that we were sitting in their seats. I hadn't realised that the tickets were numbered - the whole purchase process in Florence was somewhat traumatic and I hadn't really looked at the tickets. When I now looked, I saw that not only did we have specific places, but that they were also in a first class carriage. I don't recall being asked by which class we wanted to travel, but then I did say that the purchase process was traumatic.
We found our seats in the very first carriage - very nice. The trip from Pisa to La Spezia was unremarkable, but after this last station, the rest of the journey - about ten minutes - was within a tunnel. There were brief moments when we exited one tunnel before entering another in which we could see our surroundings - beautiful sea on our left. One could here sounds of encouragement and groans of frustration from surrounding compartments as the sea appeared and disappeared. The Norwegian couple sharing our compartment said that they had visited Monterosso fourteen times in the past eleven years!
Once we arrived and we got our bearings, we discovered that the new town of Monterosso has a sea front promenade: a familiar sight. Our first task was to eat (it was now about 1pm): several promenade restaurants seemed full so we were lucky to find a table in a shaded courtyard. We had fish and chips - a very tasty meal - in a restaurant called Cantina di Miky: highly recommended.
After lunch, we walked along the promenade, enjoying the sun and the sea, on the way to the old town. We passed a gelateria; their mint ice cream, whilst not as good as that in Sorrento, was excellent, even though it was missing the chocolate chips, .
The old town, maybe a kilometre from the train station, is everything an old Italian town should be: an imposing church, small alleyways, colourful vegetation and small shops. One could say that this was much like San Gimignano, although more compact, less crowded and more sympathetic. We very much enjoyed our few hours here.
Come 4:30pm, and it was time to return to the train station. Another traumatic experience with the automatic ticket machine ended with the machine not accepting my credit card; in retrospect, I think that I put the card in backwards. It didn't help that there was prompting from those behind me in the queue. With time running out before the 5:05pm train to La Spezia arrived, I finally managed to buy the tickets, saving 20 euro by not buying first class; I validated the tickets and the train arrived a few minutes after we got to the far platform.
After alighting in La Spezia, we had a few minutes to decant then find when the next train to Florence would be - in a few minutes, from platform 6 (of course, the furthest away). The train was waiting at the platform but would not leave for another five minutes. Two hours later, we were back in Florence.
So: a day trip from Florence to Monterosso is definitely doable. This means, though, that only one village can be visited. Probably had we left earlier in the morning, then there would have been enough time to sail to one of the other villages. There are trains which stop at the other villages, so this needs to be carefully planned. On the other hand, four hours in Monterosso is definitely enough.