(Please note that due to a landslide in 2011 the path between Riomaggioer and Corniglia is partially closed; there are alternative routes though. It should open completely in 2023. Please check the official website for updates: http://www.parconazionale5terre.it/index.php)
Being a New Zealander born and breed, I’ve lived my life surrounded by natural beauty and picturesque locations. Although I’m skeptical other countries have more to offer, I’m always game to explore, and being a gluten for punishment, the idea of a 10 kilometre coastal hike to capture the best of Italian beauty, was too enticing to pass up. So, accompanied by two equally dedicated hikers, I set off for Cinque Terre.
We were under the impression this was Italy’s best-kept secret. Yet on arrival I saw the stacks of fellow travelers, and began to think we were possibly the few left out of the loop. Thankfully, their commitment to the cause was on a slightly lower level than our own, and as the path began to wind its way uphill, the numbers dropped off, until there were only the diehards remaining.
Situated to the east of Genoa, Cinque Terre encompasses the picturesque coast stretching along the Riviera di Levante. It owes its name to the five villages in close proximity – Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore – all perched precariously on the cliff edge. Loosely titled ‘the Italian riviera’, the five villages are all linked by a spectacular walking track, called Sentiero Azzurro (blue track), running parallel to the coast and taking in some of the most spectacular scenery Italy has to offer.
Our guide book described the walk as “a delightful, undemanding day’s outing” and recommended we approach it from the southeastern tip, “because you’ll have the sun behind you”. While this nugget of information was appreciated, they did omit the necessity of sturdy footwear for the ‘off-the-beaten-track’ style sections. But being none-the-wiser at the time, we set off from Riomaggiore, a quaint fishing village serving as the eastern door to the Cinque Terre. From here, it was onward to Manarola, via the famed ‘Via dell’Amore’ (Lovers’ Lane).
The area became recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997, and has since operated a fee to walk this board-walked section connecting the first two villages. Teetering on the cliff edge, with the acqua blue Ligurian Sea below, the walkway is in top condition1. It spans the majority of the length between Riomaggiore and Manarola, and is primarily flat. Flanked on the right is the steep hillside, thriving in vegetation and greenery, while on the left, is the vast, open sea. The cliffside path, passes through a roofed gallery, something of a shrine on the theme of l’amore, and opens up to a stunning view overlooking the charming port of Manarola.
Sheltered in a deep gorge between two dominant headland rocks, a natural swimming hole has formed at Manarola. Years of erosion and weathering on the steep cliffs have given shape to the numerous small peninsulas and bays, jaggering the coastline and enhancing the beauty. We opted for a pausa in Manarola and took the opportunity to test the Meditteranean waters. The swim was a much needed refresher, and if only there’d been half the quantity of salt in the water, there would have been no complaints at all.
From here, our trio continued onward and upward, sporting bikini tops and bare bellies (while the heat was setting in, the shame had diminished). With minimal navigational difficulty we made our way to the third village, Corniglia. The path was clearly distinguishable, but not particularly inviting – it was all up. While the vertiginous cliffs continued flanking the seaside, a brick staircase led to the ridge top, where the sleepy town awaits 100m above sea-level. Perched at the pinnacle of rocky terraces, Corniglia seems untouched by the passage of time, and has avoided the influence of the tourist trade. Similarly, its higher altitude has placed more emphasis on farming than fishing.
The steep hillside descending from Corniglia is filled with terraced vineyards and olive groves, crops for the local dry white Cinque Terre wines. The terrace system up the steep hillside is the only evidence of human intervention for cultivation on the land, and it’s still thriving today. Aside from the occasional bird sighting, there’s not a lot of active animal life, providing ample opportunity for the vegetation to flourish.
By now, lethargy was setting in, and we were stopping to admire the panoramic view more and more frequently. Thankfully the numerous photogenic vantage points provided much-needed excuses for resting.
For us, Vernazza seemed an appropriate lunch spot to soak up the atmosphere and revive our energy. The village is sparsely inhabited, and has retained a unique character – finding a niche somewhere between ancient fishing village, and modern-day seaside township. The picturesque waterfront is littered with colourful boats moored in neat rows. A host of focaccerias are concealed within the narrow, cobbled alleyways and amongst the throngs of tourists, locals are hard to spot. The well-needed rest lingered on, and it was a good hour before we decided to head on to the fifth Cinque Terre village.
The final stage was up-down-up-down, weaving its way northwest towards Monterosso al Mare. I couldn’t help but wonder if attacking the walk in the reverse direction wouldn’t have been slightly easier. By now our conversation had turned minimal, apart from the occasional grunt for something about a prime photo opportunity, and the jandals weren’t holding up too well. Although the beauty of the area hadn’t depleted any, our appreciation of it was dwindling.
It was a relief when we sighted the wide bay of Monterosso, the largest and most ritzy of the five villages. Bordered by classy restaurants with ridiculously priced menus, Monterosso adds sophistication to Cinque Terre. It is the only village with a wide bay and sandy beach, but as with many coastal ‘hotspots’ in Italy, it’s unlikely you can dip your feet without spilling some cash. The beach is largely private, with a small overcrowded public section squeezed in the middle.
But for us, the achievement of completing the 10 kilometres warranted the splurge, and a 10€ deckchair couldn’t be passed up. With our feet up, and a sample of the region’s Cinque Terre vino in hand, the day was completed – maybe not in the “undemanding” way we had anticipated, but undeniably delightful all the same.
By Kylie Groombridge
P.S. The article was written before the flooding that caused the landslide. Please check the blog mentioned on the top for the current situation.