Italy has so many treasures that it is easy to overlook the wealth of natural attractions. Atop my list of these wonders is the splendid Cinque Terre hike. Cinque Terre translates as ‘five villages’, which are (from east to west): Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. This eight-mile jaunt passes through everyone, and four are marvellously perched upon the rocky Mediterranean coast. The beauty is so stunning that I suspect it is a sin to forget your camera!
Unfortunately, our attempt to stroll the trail (spring, 2012) was on the heels of horrific rainstorms which triggered massive mudslides. Several villages were in the midst of serious repair during our visit, and the trail was closed from Vernazza to Manarola. The benefit for you, dear reader, is that trains stop at all five villages and trail closures made us keenly aware of locomotive options.
You are welcome to buy a ticket for each train segment, but it we found it far easier purchasing the ‘Treno’ pass. At a minimum you need to purchase a trail pass and by upgrading to Treno, you may hike and ride the train all day between Monterosso and La Spezia (a larger town just east of Cinque Terre, which is a convenient place to set up base camp).
Our trek began in the largest (and most touristy) village of Monterosso. That is by no means a criticism, as we found ourselves enchanted by the town’s lovely beaches and pastel-painted houses, draped in vivid trailing vines and flower boxes.
The Monterosso-to-Vernazza stretch is reputed to be the most difficult, but we did not find the going rigorous, albeit there was plenty of up and down and several spots where the path got narrow. Nothing perilous– any steep drop was secured by a fence or railing. The trail was beautiful, plenty of shade and wonderfully aromatic with honeysuckle. Views alternated between hillsides terraced with vineyards and rocky shores framing a very blue Mediterranean Sea. There was a booth just outside Monterosso where a government employee asked to see our Cinque Terre hiking passes.
A little over an hour into the trail we rounded a bend and Vernazza came into view. We shortly reached Vernazza, but were slowed down by constantly having to pick our jaws up from the ground – the wonderful view of this village on the sea was beyond alluring. There is a steep descent into Vernazza (no worries, mostly stone steps) and we were immediately greeted by a buzz of activity. It was far too evident that repairs for last fall’s mudslides continued and the town was still struggling to recover. We lingered here for lunch and I should add that exploring every town is a treat – each has its own collection of shops and restaurants, exuding unique personality and charm.
The trail was closed beyond Vernazza so it was time to take to the rails. After lunch, we headed to the train station and rode to
Corniglia, the sole constituent of the Cinque Terre lacking any beach. Rather, this small jewel is nestled in the hills and quite different in character. And it is still a hike from the train station. You follow a paved pathway for a way before reaching a grand stairway, which the guide book claimed was “400 steps”. Of course, I counted and shortly after ticking off #100, heard a guy behind me say “there’s one hundred”. Once we acquired the top and I had counted 378 steps, I turned around to ask the guy what he had come up with, but he just smiled and said he gave up around two hundred. Then I noticed a sign stating 382…dang! There isn’t much to this sweet little village (population 240) beyond a few cafes and stores, but the views are exquisite.
Then it was on to Manarola, the most visually stunning village, with brightly painted structures nestled on cliffs. The final stretch of the Cinque Terre trail re-opened here – it is the acclaimed Via
dell’Amore, or Lover’s Lane. This isn’t a trail at all, simply a pleasant paved walkway which takes roughly twenty minutes to span. As lovely as the panorama was, I did get weary of all the graffiti and “locks of love”. At night the path is lit by floodlights, and purchased passes are not required after 8PM.
At the end of Via dell’Amore was Riomaggiore, the final stop for Cinque Terre and one last indescribable village. The official trail ends at the town harbour by their train station, but the heart of the town was through a pedestrian tunnel. We ducked in after emerging back into the sunlight, were greeted by the main drag with plentiful shops and restaurants. A lovely day in Italy!