Italy: Trekking the Cinque Terre

June 12, 2016.  One of the goals for our Italian vacation was to log several hours basking on a beach.  Both to counteract the effects of Norway’s cool and cloudy spring (I am so over taking vitamin D tabs), and because we were in desperate need of down time after long, stressful weeks at work.  According to Rick Steves, Cinque Terre fit the bill, promising plentiful sunshine and few “sightseeing musts” that might otherwise tempt us away from our slothful mission.  

Terraced back in Roman times, the hillsides above each Cinque Terre town host extensive vineyards and olive groves.
Terraced back in Roman times, the hillsides above each Cinque Terre town host extensive vineyards and olive groves.

Probably most of you have already heard of this once-sleepy part of Italy, but just in case, here’s a brief recap of its history.  The name Cinque Terre means “five lands” and refers to five little villages that cling to the Italian Riviera’s fjord-ish ravines like limpets on a rock.  Most of the towns have Roman roots, but they really got their foothold during the Medieval era by providing wines, olive oil, and fish for their feudal overlords.

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Car traffic is restricted throughout the Cinque Terre, but a small train line services all five towns. Beware, however; the schedule becomes increasingly delayed throughout the day, as it can take ten minutes or more per stop to stuff the cars with tourists, like anchovies in a tin can.

While agricultural products are still primo exports today, tourism has taken over.  Millions of visitors come every year to check out the colorful panoply of picturesque buildings that seem to tumble down the cliffsides and spill out into the sea.  Even better, the villages give the appearance of isolation, since they’re best reached by boat or by interconnecting footpaths just perfect for a day-hike.

Vernazza has the only natural harbor, which is dotted with cute fishing boats and a few tiny tourist cruisers. The other towns have more creative strategies for accessing the sea.
Vernazza has the only natural harbor, which is dotted with cute fishing boats and a few tiny tourist cruisers. The other towns have more creative strategies for accessing the sea.

Trekking from beach to beach seemed like a great way to work off all the liquid calories that we intended to consume while lying around soaking in the sunshine.  (Hello, my new friend, Aperol spritz!)  So we picked Vernazza, the central town, as our home base.  Our plan was to start each morning with a hike, catch lunch along the coastline, spend the afternoon on the shore, explore a new town each evening, and take the train back to our hotel at night.

I'm eager to down some Pastis and dive into a plateful of the local delicacy -- toast covered with fresh "acchiughe" (anchovies).
I’m eager to down some Pastis and dive into a plateful of the local delicacy — toast covered with fresh “acchiughe” (anchovies).

Vernazza
Upon our arrival, we made a beeline for the harbor cafés, where we staked out a table and ordered glasses of Pastis to wet our parched throats. After watching kids play on a tiny spit of boat-dock sand for awhile, we meandered upwards through town, popping our heads into the local Gothic church and checking out little grottos where cute shops and art galleries took shelter from the sun.

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As we’d witnessed during our honeymoon many years ago, the entire coastline of Italy is dotted with brooding stone towers built during the Middle Ages to keep watch for invading Turks.

Eventually we found the steep, winding pathway that led to Castle Doria, a grand name for a simple stone tower that stands out on a promontory above the town.  Long ago, it was one in a string of Medieval watchtowers intended as an early-warning system for approaching Saracen pirates.  Later it served sentry as a Nazi lookout.  Today, it provides a great viewpoint over Vernazza and the gorgeous Mediterranean.

We snapped this shot of peaceful Vernazza from the trail leading to Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost of the five towns.
We snapped this shot of peaceful Vernazza from the trail leading to Monterosso al Mare, which is the northernmost of the five towns.

Our attempts at ending our walk with sunbathing didn’t quite work out, however, as a recent landslide had buried the beach.  Strike one.  So we ended up having a leisurely supper at Ristorante Belforte (fabulous seafood and dreamy seaside views), and ambling back down the hillside, where Matthew attempted to lure the locals into a game of foosball at the harborside table.  Finding no takers that first night, he settled for an after-dinner stroll with me and a nighttime photo session out over the twinkling town.  (Click on the gallery for bigger pics of Vernazza and some side stories.)

Vineyards, olive trees, lemon groves, and postcard views greeted us all along the trail to Corniglia.
Vineyards, olive trees, lemon groves, and postcard vistas greeted us all along the trail to Corniglia.

Corniglia 
We set off early the following morning for a two-hour trek to Corniglia, a workaday town just south of Vernazza in the Cinque Terre chain of villages.  The initial climb up out of Vernazza and to the main trail-line proved pantingly steep, but the heady smell of wildflowers and pine trees heated by the sun made all the sweatiness worth it.  Eventually the path leveled out, and better views of the sparkling Mediterranean kept unfolding around each bend.

Corniglia roosts atop a rocky spur that likely gives the town its name. ("Corno" means "horn" in Italian.)
Corniglia roosts atop a rocky spur that likely gives the town its name. (“Corno” means “horn” in Italian.)

By the time we reached Corniglia, we were ready for that seaside dip, but no such luck.  It’s the only one of the five towns not on the ocean.  Strike two. Instead, it perches high above on a hilltop, leaving fishermen to hoist their boats down into the water far below.  So we contented ourselves with touring the bewitching little town and grabbing a delicious lunch at La Lanterna, where we had to fight the restaurant’s resident tomcat for a seat at the only remaining table.

If you squint, you can see the rock-strewn, cliffside trail we would have taken to Riomaggiore had the landslide not occurred. Beautiful view, though.
If you squint, you can see the rock-strewn, cliffside trail we would have taken to Riomaggiore had the landslide not occurred. Beautiful view, though.

Riomaggiore
After our lunch in Corniglia, we’d planned to hike our way to the next town, but unfortunately, a recent landslide had closed the trail.  Instead, we took the insanely steep staircase down to the depot platform, where we waited more than an hour for the next train.  By now we were rather desperate for a dip in the ocean and nap on the shore, so we headed straight to Riomaggiore’s beach.  Just as Rick Steves’ had warned us, it was made up of football-sized rocks.

A few brave souls attempted the frigid waters and sharp stones. We heard lots of shrieking and shouts of, "There's blood in the water -- should I be worried about sharks?"
A few brave souls attempted the frigid waters and sharp stones. We heard lots of shrieking and shouts of, “There’s blood in the water — should I be worried about sharks?”

We took some time to reorganize the boulders into something slightly less likely to cause chiropractic issues, then headed down to the water.  Ice cold.  And impossible to wade into because the boulder formations were covered with an odd mixture of sharp mussels and slick seaweed.  Plus, a brisk wind had sprung up, and dark clouds loomed above the mountaintop.  We settled for huddling beneath a blanket for a short siesta, then we toddled back to town before the monsoon broke.  To be fair, I guess we’d call this beach moment more of a foul ball than a strike ….

Though manmade, Riomaggiore's harbor is still picturesque. (Click on the photo to see it up close.) When they know a storm is coming, fishermen work together to roll the boats up the steep launch ramp and into town.
Though manmade, Riomaggiore’s harbor is still picturesque. (Click on the photo to see it up close.) When they know a storm is coming, fishermen work together to roll the boats up the steep launch ramp and into town.

The brief squall blew itself out fairly quickly, giving us time for a short walk through the charming village.  We snacked our way down the street, sampling local specialties like focaccia, farinata, and seafood caught fresh that morning by Edoardo and fried up by his wife, Laura, at Il Pescato Cucinato.  While we ate, we watched local kids cliff dive into the chilly harbor waters and come up screaming from the cold.  And we got a chance to admire quaint little fishing boats that had been hauled up and onto the town streets in advance of the storm.  Definitely a place to kick back and watch how daily life unfolds for folks lucky enough to have been born along the Italian coat.  Three villages down so far, two more to go, and each as alluring as the next.

Matthew joins the end of the line on a death march down one of the many steep staircases we encountered on the trek to Monterosso al Mare.
Matthew joins the end of the line on a death march down one of the many steep staircases we encountered on the trek to Monterosso al Mare.

Monterosso al Mare
Our last full day in Cinque Terre gave us one final shot at summertime fun … we hoped.  We hit the northward trail to Monterosso al Mare early, since the day promised to be a warm one.  Humpback bridges, riotous wildflowers, and jaw-dropping panoramas of seaside cliffs kept us motivated as we meandered along the two-mile trail.  More rugged than yesterday’s hike, the path climbed up and down sharply, making me wish I’d worn something other than my Birkenstocks.  Huge groups of sweating, cursing tourists — most of whom were clearly not in suitable shape for such a strenuous adventure — clogged the path, forcing us to step aside so the long chain gangs could pass.

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This confused tourist has a WTF moment, wondering if he’s hallucinating the dude who’s minding his lemonade stand along the steep trail.

At one point, a rallying cry went through the crowds and word began to spread, “There’s a lemonade stand around the next bend!”  Surely a mirage caused by the sultry heat.  But no, an entrepreneurial gent had set up a table beneath the shade of an oak tree and was busily squeezing lemons into a pitcher.  And as if that wasn’t enough encouragement, about a half-mile later, a gypsy band comprised of a fiddler, guitarist, and an accordion-player serenaded the herds in hopes that hikers might lighten their backpacks by a few coins.

Wiser hikers than we brought rain gear with them in preparation for the deluge.
Wiser hikers than we brought rain gear with them in preparation for the deluge.

But of course, just as we reached the edge of town, a torrential downpour let loose, giving us barely enough time to reach shelter beneath the umbrellas of the closest restaurant.  We sat there for almost three hours, staring forlornly at drenched beach chairs and runnels in the sand (yes, real sand, not rocks!!!) created by the raging runoff.  Strike three, we’re out.  We watched our last chance at some tan lines recede into the distance, along with the setting sun.  The rain eventually relented just long enough for us to take a late-afternoon tour of the photogenic town before we headed back to our hotel to dry off.  Note to self:  next time we visit Cinque Terre, schedule a full week to allow ample hours for hiking, sunning, rain showers, and simply soaking in the ambience of the atmospheric towns and vast seaside vistas.

From the hilltop above Manarola, you can see three other Cinque Terre towns.
From the hilltop above Manarola, you can see three other Cinque Terre towns.

Manarola
That evening, we boarded the train for nearby Manarola, the last of the five coastal sites.  A light drizzle continued as we explored the sleepy village.  The place seemed almost deserted, but in the dim light, we passed by rustic fountains, a few kids playing soccer in the churchyard, an ancient waterwheel, and the fleet of small fishing boats hauled up and into the streets to protect them from another oncoming storm — enough charm to make us decide that this peaceful place would be home base for our next Cinque Terre trip.

We finished the night sitting harbor-side with a group of photography students as they tried to capture the incredible lightening storm out at sea.  And we decided that even without sunburns and a markedly increased freckle count, we’d have still selected to spend our vacation in Cinque Terre.

 

4 thoughts on “Italy: Trekking the Cinque Terre”

  1. Hope your next visit there will be sunnier, as ours was in 2005. There are also some other good walks you can do to extend your trip there (e.g. Near Santa Margharita, you can hike down to Portofino, among other destinations. Boat trips are pleasant along the coast,too. And at other end (Riomaggiore and Portovenire) ,the island of Palmaria (?sp.)has nice hikes, with tiny native orchids when we were there in May. Isn’t It beautiful hiking through the terraced vineyards and olive groves, looking down on the deep cerulean of the Mediterranean? The Cinque Terre is indeed not the best place for swimming beaches, but surely is a visual and other-sensory treat ! Also it serves some of the best seafood cuisine I’ve had any place in the world.

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    1. Hi Nancy,

      So sorry, I somehow missed the ping that you’d left a comment. Yes, the food was awesome, and the wine was equally fabulous. I’m making notes of your suggestions on other locales, as we hope to take some time off in October — we’re both in need of more sunshine before we head into the dark months here. We’re also maybe thinking Malta — have you been there? If so, any recommendations? It’ll be our first time, and there’s no Rick Steves’ Guide to give us a preview. What will I do without Rick as our pocket tagalong?

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    1. They are amazingly comfy and surprisingly great for hiking! I’ve got plantar fasciitis in one foot, and they’re the only thing that I can walk in when it’s acting up. Otherwise, I’d be on crutches. Not so cute, though, but super popular as a fashion statement in Europe right now.

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