Trails are marked by red-and-white painted stripes, visible on fencepoles, buildings, rocks or any flat surface. Megan Kopp
By Megan Kopp
Five cliffside towns perched near the top end of Italy’s rugged Mediterranean west coast with hiking trails connecting them all – how could I resist? But books, web research and chats with fellow hikers didn’t begin to paint the picture my husband, Brad, and I uncovered as we explored Cinque Terre National Park’s Sentiero Azzuro (the Blue Path) and beyond.
Cinque Terre is pronounced cheenk-kway tehr-ray.
Shouldering our travel backpacks as the train roared away, the walk from Manarola’s sleepy station was my first clue that this hike might be a little more than I’d envisioned – steeply uphill, then down, then up again to our rental apartment off the narrow main road to our “street”, a cobblestone pathway. Lemons hung by the dozens off backyard trees, blooming roses sweetly scented the air, and faint streetlights hinted at the compact charm of our base for the next few days of exploration.
With sunshine streaming across the vineyards and olive groves clinging precariously to the tiered hillsides, we sat on our balcony, cappuccinos in hand, watching overnight visitors struggling to control roller-wheel suitcases while descending the street path. Personal vehicles are not allowed in the national park which is part of its unique appeal. The only way into town is aboard a shuttle buses from the hilltop parking areas, or by taking a train, catching a boat, or walking.
There are five villages in Cinque Terre National Park, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Running roughly southeast to northwest are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. The small hiking map we had picked up estimated a hiking time of five hours (9 km) from Riomaggiore to Monterosso. While based in Manarola, we thought we would easily do in an evening the short 20-minute (1 km) section going south to Riomaggiore, then we’d do the rest of the trail heading north in one day and still have a day to relax.
Rock-terraced vineyards and cool pine forests give way to dry, cactus-loving slopes heading west from Manarola to Monterosso. Megan Kopp
Before setting off on the trail, all hikers need to purchase a Cinque Terre card. At the train station/park headquarters next day we learned the trail between Manarola and Corniglia was closed due to a rockslide. But, we were assured, there was an alternate route.
Heading back uphill, we left the square with Manarola’s Clock Tower at 11:30 a.m. and arrived in Vernazza almost six hours and 13 km later. Yes, it should have been only two hours and 40 minutes according to the map, but without the closure detour we would never have seen Volastra or experienced what lay beyond our scheduled Blue Path walk.
High above the Blue Path, the upper trail near Volastra wanders through active vineyards as our author discovered. Brad Kopp
So named because of its proximity to the ocean and direct link to all five villages, the Blue Path is the most popular of trails in Cinque Terre, but there are dozens of other trails in the national park. The stiff climb up to Volastra took a bit of route-finding skill in a couple of locations, but it wasn’t long before we could spot the red-and-white, trail-marking stripes from a distance. After the steep downhill plunge to Corniglia, we discovered that a short section of this next leg of the Blue Path was also closed for repair.
Hiking up the asphalt road detour with the masses quickly wore thin. Taunting us with every step was a high pass, studded with a large cathedral. As the group headed down to the open section of the Sentiero Azzuro, we continued uphill. The quiet road wound up the hillside and within half an hour we reached the village of San Bernadino a blissful cliffside sanctuary half way between Corniglia and Vernazza.
Trail markers led us through town, along a seldom used section of No. 7 trail, and on down to Vernazza without another soul in sight. However, the trail was tortuously steep in sections with loose rock that required carefully foot placement. Short sections were heavily overgrown. Reaching Vernazza, we called it a day and hopped on one the plentiful regional trains for a ten-minute ride back to Manarola.
The co-op market was small, but the fresh pasta and pesto in the refrigerated case at the back of the store had our mouths watering. Along with the sparkling white wine our landlord had left as a welcome gift, we savoured our meal on the balcony. Both turning 49 in 2011, we congratulated ourselves on successfully meeting the physical challenges of a pretty rigorous day.
A delicious trail snack from a small restaurant in Corniglia. Megan Kopp
Catching the morning train, we flew through the tunnels to Monterosso to begin the last segment of trail, heading east towards Vernazza. As we strolled along the oceanside promenade, stacks of sunchairs were being hauled out and shutters rolled up on tourist shops bursting with beach toys, sandals, and sunscreen.
We followed the trail to where it split, curving around the base or climbing steps to the summit of San Cristoforo. Always curious, we went up to discover the clifftop abbey with its cemetery and family tombs built into the heart of the fortress that once protected citizens from marauding pirates. Dropping back down to the weekend fray, we started the narrow climb to Vernazza. In places, the one-lane trail became a bottleneck as groups heading in opposite directions jockeyed for position. Finally, we gave in to the crowds and enjoyed people-watching between sea views.
Monterosso’s second beach lies below an abbey. Brad Kopp
There were hikers in sandals carrying a single plastic water bottle, others with full-leather hiking boots, walking poles and bulging packs. We saw seniors and teens, couples and families, some physically fit individuals trotting up the trail and others grunting down the hill, red in the face. Reaching Vernazza an hour and a half later, we lounged on the concrete pier, enjoying a gelato and soaking up the sunshine until our ferry arrived for the 20-minute journey home.
Ferries are constantly on the move, transporting locals and visitors between the villages. Megan Kopp
Yes, home. I quickly became possessive of Manarola, our quiet little village. That evening, we strolled the Via Dell’Amore, the Lover’s Path, to Riomaggiore. Unlike some of our rugged trails, this walk was wide and hard-surfaced. Together with families and visitors, we strolled past plaques, memorials and locks locked onto locks placed by couples as a symbol of their passion for each other.
The smell of lemons picked fresh off the tree, the sweat it takes to tackle some trails versus the ease of others, the taste of vine-ripened tomatoes topping an evening salad, the sound of the waves hitting the dark rocks of the coast, or the peace of standing on a hilltop sanctuary are all part of the magic of Cinque Terre. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, even steep alternate routes — there was nothing I didn’t like about hiking in Italy.
Local shops carry inscribed locks for those that want to lock in their love on Via Dell’Amore. Megan Kopp
On Italy’s rugged west coast, Cinque Terre, the five lands, is a group of five picturesque villages surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, and woods. The villages can be reached on the train that runs between La Spezia and Genoa or by ferry from La Spezia, Portovenere, Levanto, or other Italian Riviera villages. Check for full tourist information.
The Cinque Terre region is very popular and crowded in summer. It is a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site selected because it represents “the harmonious interaction between people and nature producing a landscape of exceptional scenic quality that illustrates a traditional way of life that has existed for a thousand years and continues to play an important socio-economic role in the life of the community.”
There are plenty of hotels and rooms for rent in Monterosso and Riomaggiore, but book well ahead if you plan to stay in Manarola. We enjoyed Da Paulin (apartments and rooms) where payment is in cash.
A one-day Cinque Terre card includes train and shuttle bus transportation and costs 5 Euros weekdays, 6 Euros on days before holidays. A two-day card runs 9 Euros. The ferry price varies depending on distance travelled.
Caption: Our “hometown”, Manarola, in the glow of sunset more resembles a painting. Megan Kopp
Based in Cochrane, Alberta, Megan Kopp is a freelance writer whose specialties include outdoor and rural travel. When not paddling rivers, hiking mountain trails or getting ready for another adventure, she is blogging about the outdoors (www.brooks-range.com/brblog) and publishing travel articles and non-fiction children’s books. Megan also teaches a continuing education travel writing course every spring and fall at Mt. Royal University in Calgary. www.megankopp.com.