Hiking Italy’s Cinque Terre

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Hiking Italy's Cinque Terre

Hiking Italy’s Cinque Terre – View of Manarola

Hiking Italy’s Cinque Terre

By Stacey Wallace

A crisp early morning in the middle of the European summer, and I am sitting on an east-bound train weaving along the jagged coast of the Italian Riviera. I sit transfixed as I watch the yellow sun peak over the horizon, lighting up the infinite stretch of water in front of me. As the speeding train darts through dusky tunnels hollowed out from the rugged mountainside, I press my cheek to the cool window and attempt to see around the curvature of the carriages − because judging by the few sun-kissed locals who are already gathered at the exit doors, ready to disembark − my destination must be just around the bend. And then I see it. Set against the dark coastline, a brilliant flash of yellow, pink and white architecture draws my attention. The steep cliffs that I have sought for many years are finally here.

Gloriously threaded along 18km of jagged cliffs in the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre (directly translated to ‘Five Lands’) is one of Italy’s purest treasures. Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso – the five scattered fishing villages set like dazzling jewels into the coastline that make up Cinque Terre − are cut off from civilisation by magnificent mountains teaming with olive grove vineyards and rich plantation, where farmers have sweated out a humble living under the harsh Italian sun for many centuries. Cinque Terre became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, and this title has thus spared the uniquely-landscaped area from the tainted propaganda of trivial souvenir stands and environmental destruction. Cars and motorbikes are forbidden in the steep-street villages, and unless you are fit and brave enough to make the two hour trek along the steep hiking paths that connect each of the five adjacent villages, the only way the towns are connected is by the local train and ferries that run three times daily.

As I shoulder my backpack and disembark from the train at Manarola, I am immediately greeted by a brigade of toothless smiles and a quiet murmur of buongiorno (good morning) from the ageing locals who pass the hot summer days by sitting on a long wooden bench at the shaded and breezy train station, welcoming wide-eyed tourists like me to their magnificent humble abode. With a smile of my own, I return the villagers greeting and begin the treacherous trek up the steep road of Manarola to my accommodation. Breathless and exhausted, I reach the summit of the small town and under the shade of a towering local church I meet middle-aged Carlo, who fetches me a glass of water almost immediately as I drop my bags in the reception area. After such a steep climb, something tells me that Carlo is all too familiar with dehydrated tourists reaching the doorstep of his lodging in need of a cool beverage. Carlo checks me in and spreads out of colourful map of the five adjacent towns that make up Cinque Terre, detailing every hiking path that I must complete before I depart in two days’ time.

At the crack of dawn the following morning, the echoing church bells chime in a new day, and I rise from my bed with purpose. In a small backpack I pack three bottles of water, bandages, sunscreen, my camera, Carlo’s map, some dried biscuits and nuts and more water. The Cinque Terre villages are interconnected by over twenty different hiking trails. Some trails run flat and can take as little as thirty minutes to walk at a casual pace – these are usually the trails that directly connect the townships – but other trails rise with the steep mountainside and can take more than two grueling hours to reach the summit. Because I am a sucker for punishment, and because Carlo reminded me that there is no point coming to Cinque Terre unless you see the views from atop the cliffs, I decide to hike the hard trails.

View of Corniglia on Italy's Cinque Terre

View of Corniglia on Italy’s Cinque Terre

Setting off at a brisk pace, under the harsh morning sun with little cloud-cover, I soon realize this hike will not be an easy feat. The narrow path (path 6 and 6d) leading to the top of the cliff is made up of steep stairs carved out of the hard soil, lined with alternating smooth and jagged stepping stones. I stop on many occasions for water-breaks in the shade of wispy olive trees, giving the universal smile and nod to other ambitious hikers attempting the same treacherous path as me, but I promise myself I won’t look back at the scenery behind me. I am saving the final view for when I reach the top. After one hour and fifty-four minutes, I reach the summit of the trail 6d. And what I see is breathtakingly beautiful in every sense of the word. The colorful village of Corniglia is directly below me, the tiny town cut into the coastline, suspended between sea and earth. Further along the coast I spot the sandy beaches of Monterosso and catch glimpses of swimmers drifting out into the deep blue. After today’s exhausting hike, I think I will soon join them, but first I must retie my boot laces, take another swig of precious water, and continue my hike to reach my final destination.

The next trail I decide to tackle is narrow and situated dangerously close to the cliff side (trail 7 and 7a), but it’s the fastest way to get to Vernazza, the next village on my itinerary. I meet up with a charming English couple in their fifties along the way, and we agree to look out for each other along the way. Michael and Rose, from Cambridge, have visited Cinque Terre three times since they married eleven years ago, but this is the first time they have hiked the trails.

“Isn’t the point of coming to Cinque Terre for the awesome views from up here?” I ask the couple as we weave our way through thick shrubbery.

“Sometimes the anticipation of an event can outweigh the actual act,” Rose quips with a knowing smile. “Your young generation always wants to experience the world now now now.”

As I sidestep Michael and work my way to the front of our pack, with a cheeky smile I quip back to Rose, “I was never a very patient child.”

Cinque Terre Hiking Trail 8

Cinque Terre Hiking Trail 8

Our group reach Vernazza in an hour and seven minutes. As we wander through the main street, admiring the unique and colorful architecture, I check my watch and see the hand is nearing midday. I suggest lunch, and Michael and Rose agree, just as long as Michael can score a cool pint. We dine out at one of the locally-owned restaurants further up the main road from the center of the small town, sitting outdoors under the shade to watch the world go by as the Cinque Terre locals care to do. After my hunger-inducing hike, I dare to order the areas freshly caught fish, marinated in locally produced basil and garlic pesto with plump hand-picked lemons to sweeten my dish. There is laughter and merriment all around the table and of other guests dining in the adjacent restaurants too. The vibe is relaxed, as though I am out to lunch with a large group of friends, even though every face around me is a stranger.

After the enjoyable local cuisine is settled nice and low in my stomach, I part ways with Michael and Rose − the older couple have had enough adventurous hiking for one day − and I purchase three more water bottles and follow the signs to my final stage of hiking. Trails number 8 and 8a are off the beaten path − and judging by the lack of foot traffic of fellow hikers – are not as popular or well-traveled as Cinque Terre’s other famous trails that run parallel to the coast. But I decide to hike 8 and 8a because Carlo told me that these two particular trails offer the hiker the serenity and beauty of the natural coastline. As the blisters start to form on my feet as I begin the mountainous ascension, I weave past beautifully-scented olive groves and vineyards in the middle of harvest season. Chatty and mostly older Italian workers comb through the endless vineyards, carrying buckets full of produce on their hardened shoulders to an old pick-up truck already bursting with more equally full buckets. The many olive trees shade this wide hiking trail from the hot sun, and I am very grateful for a bit of respite from the heat. I sit in the shade for a while on a few smooth boulders and watch the workers move together with beautiful synchronization. I can tell these local men and women have been doing this job for decades. They have the mechanics of harvesting down to a fine art.

Cinque Terre olive trees ready for harvest

Cinque Terre olive trees ready for harvest

At the end of hiking trail 8a, I come across the church of Santuario Madonna di Saviore, a grand structure overlooking the town perched high atop the cliffs. I stand for a moment in silence and admire the lightly-paved church and courtyard before I begin my slowly descent down into the last village of Monterosso. The sun is thankfully heading down over the west, and the heat of the day has passed its most damaging.

It takes another hour to reach Monterosso, and by this late stage the cooling waters of the ocean are far too tempting to pass up. I head straight down to the bay, strip off my shorts and shirt, and dive head first into the freshening waters of the Italian Riviera. Children and adults alike splash around in the water, and I even spot Michal and Rose further along the beach, lying face up on the sand, trying to tan their reddened skin. I decide to let the couple be, because I have just spotted a bunch of teenage boys nearby performing some acrobatic acts that I would very much like to attempt. So after some adventurously-stupid cliff diving down in the crystal blue waters of Monterosso Bay to lazily waste away the late afternoon, I dry off and ask other beach-goers for the train station. They direct me to the back of the town and I take the 5.34pm train back to Manarola.

When I reach my hotel, Carlo is in the small kitchen, preparing the meal of another couple waiting to be served out on the terrace overlooking Manarola. I order the scampi fettuccine for 7pm and head to my room to shower away the ocean and dust from my hike and to relive some of my amazing photos. With the fierce sun setting over the sea, transforming the sky into mixed blends of blue, orange and pink, I take a seat out on the deserted terrace and watch as the local fishing boats bob up and down with the calm tides down in Manarola Bay. Carlo serves my meal on a huge plate and leaves me to admire the view alone. With aching legs from hiking and swimming all day, I put my feet up and twirl my fork around in my pasta. The flavor is magnificent, just like everything else in this part of the world. With the chime of the church bell on the hour, I glance across at the tiny town of Manarola. There is just as much vibrant color in the buildings perched on the side of the cliff as there is when I gaze out across at the fading sunset. Cinque Terre is truly a colorful spectacle of the world.

If You Go:

Getting There − Pisa International Airport is the closest main airport to Cinque Terre, and from there trains leave hourly for Monterosso.

Permit – In order to walk the paths, you must first buy a Cinque Terre Pass from the tourism centre in the villages
train stations. This allows you to cover all trails and free train travel between the villages. Cost: 5 euro.

Itinerary – Many hikers start at either end towns (Monterosso or Riomaggiore) and hike their way east or west past all 5 villages in one day.

Duration – To cover all 5 villages in one day hiking the difficult trails, plus ample time to enjoy the individual villages, lunch and scenery, will take approximately 6-7 hours, depending on your level of fitness.


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