The Cinque Terre…. A beautiful coastal trail that links five picturesque villages on the Ligurian coast .
So lets start with the basics… Where exactly are the Cinque Terre? This National Park lies on the coast, between Genoa and Pisa, where the peaks and forests of the Apennines tumble into the azure blue waters of the Ligurian Sea.
And what does Cinque Terre mean? Cinque Terre means ‘5 lands’ and the main trail along this coastline links 5 fishing villages – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. There are other higher level routes along the coastline, but we walked along the main tourist trail, which is also known as Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail).
The whole of the area is linked by a frequent train service; indeed cars have limited access to the heart of these historical towns and villages. We boarded our train in Levanto and made the short trip to Corniglia - due to rock falls along the paths, we were unable to walk from Riomaggiore along the section called Via dell’Amore (Lovers Walk). The train runs mainly through tunnels, with only the stations along the way allowing glimpses of the dramatic coastline we were about to walk along. As we left the train at Corniglia, I knew that this was going to be a spectacular walk!
It was easy to find the path from the station towards Corniglia, there were many signs and quite a few people – it was a sunny Sunday after all! The village of Corniglia itself doesn’t sit directly on the coast, but perches somewhat precariously on the top of a landmass which juts out into the sea. So our walk along the trail started with an ascent up a concrete stepped path - this is certainly one way to warm up the legs and get the blood pumping! Make sure you take the time to turn around and admire the view behind you (gives you time to get your breath back, all under the guise of taking a photo!)
The path soon levels out and we entered our first picture postcard village. Entering the village from the station side there are a few cafes dotted around the square, although you don’t appreciate the precarious balancing of the houses until you leave the village and turn once more to look behind you. As you leave the village and continue following the main walking trail, you will see amazing terraces, filled with vines. Make sure you look out for the ‘mini roller coaster’ – I assume is used at harvest time to move the crate loads of grapes up and down the steep hillside.
After paying to enter the trail, its an easy walk as the path winds its way along the headland. The path itself is well maintained and fairly wide at this point as it takes you past the vines and into the olive groves. The olive trees give some very welcome shade across the path too! It was a really hot and sunny day when we went!
Just when you get used to walking in amoungst the trees, you will suddenly find yourself back out in the open once more, with sharp drops down the sea and its crystal blue waters. Although these drops are not always fenced off – so good to have a head for heights! It is worth noting though that these are never sheer vertical drops – my advice would be to stake your claim alongside the wall on the right and get those walking in the other direction walk by the edge! We are on the continent after all, so ‘driving; on the right is the norm! Again – don’t forget to look behind you!
The path varies though and at times is wide and fenced, with poppies and other wildflowers bursting out of the walls with colour. About halfway along there is a small collection of houses – Prevo. Here there are a couple of cafes which serve very welcome ice cold drinks! Sal opted for a freshly squeezed lemon juice, whilst I had an iced green tea. There is also a terrace where you can rest a while, admire the view and rehydrate; this is definitely a café with a view!
Cold drinks in hand, we continued our walk along the path. Whilst the path may seem to be the same – olives, vines, ascent, descent – the view is ever changing and never fails to amaze. I don’t think that there are words to truly sum up its beauty and drama. Boats cut white lines through azure blue seas. The sea is so clear that you can see the rocks at the bottom through green/blue water, even from the height of the path. I am not a water baby in any way shape or form, and maybe it was because it was a sunny and hot day, but even I longed to be closer to the sea to be able to dip my toes in the crystal clear waters.
Soon we catch glimpses of our next village – Vernazza – which lies right on the coastline. Vernazza is larger than Corniglia and has its own natural harbour. It is also traffic free and so remains true to its fishing village roots. A 15th Century castle still guards entry to the town and harbour. There was a lovely hustle and vibe in Vernazza and many places to either sit down for lunch, or do as we did a buy a sandwich to take out and sit by the sea. Many a happy hour or two could easily be spent soaking in the atmosphere of this beautiful town and exploring its narrow windy streets.
Soon our lunch stop was over (I had a set train to catch in order to make my return flight home) and so we set off once more, with a climb back on to the cliff tops. This is one part that you really must look begind you for the beautiful view of Vernazza!
Once more the path rises into the olive groves with their welcome shade. Parts of this path are very narrow, with space for one person only. Again not all of the ‘drops’ are fenced – so remember to stick to the right! Also be aware that not everyone walking the other way seems to be happy to wait where there are ‘passing places’! I usually erred on the side of caution! That said, I personally didn’t feel too exposed or ‘on the edge’ along the path - but I heard many people commenting as they walked along the path – so thought I’d mention it! This section of the path also has some cute little brick bridges over streams – the cool water helping many a hot head!
Soon our final destination – Monterosso – came into view and we began our final descent of the trail. Monterosso is the largest of the 5 towns along the famous Cinque Terre trail.
Even from a distance, you could tell that this was different from the other two towns we had visited. Corniglia - perched high on a cliff top, Vernazza - protected by its castle and natural harbour and Monterosso with its long and wide sandy beaches. Sal is a true water baby and I think the smell of the ocean and the promise of a swim meant that our pace increased as we were lured to the water’s edge – well Sal was, I had a train to catch! And so for me my brief visit to this stunning coastline was over. I understand that Sal did love her swim in the sea!
Is this the walk for you?
This is a very popular trail, so if you are looking for solitude, then this is not the walk for you – unless you go in deepest darkest winter, which is probably not to be recommended due to the weather! But if you like stunning coastal views, which amaze every moment and enjoy walking among the vine s and olives, exploring quaint (almost!) traffic free fishing towns and villages – then this is definitely the walk for you!
The route is easy to find, with good signs though the towns in order to find your way along the trail. Generally the paths are pretty good, although there are some parts which are more exposed than others and some slightly less well maintained. However these sections are few and far between. The paths are mainly wide, with fences and in good repair.
What tips and hints can I provide?
Make sure you have good footwear – not necessarily hiking boots (my feet roasted in mine!), sturdy trainers/hiking shoes will be fine. We passed people in flip flop and heels – not really appropriate!!
Make sure you have lots of water, especially on a hot day. Some of the ascents/descents are quite open, so really hot on a sunny day. There are places along the way to replenish liquid supplies – either to stop and enjoy or to take out and drink along the way.
Make sure you have plenty of space for photos on your camera/phone! You will want to take a photo at almost every twist and turn of the path.
Don’t forget to turn and look behind you – especially when ascending out of the villages.
Stick to the right along the exposed parts of the path!
Take your time – relish in the atmosphere at the towns along the way. Enjoy a drink and people watch for half an hour or more. Wander the streets and absorb the character and the history.
Breathe in the scents of olive, vines, sea, lemons and flowers.
Don’t forget you are in Italy, enjoy a gelato by the sea!
All in all the Cinque Terre is a gorgeous place, with beautiful towns and an amazing trail high up on the coastal cliffs and terraces and right along the sea front. What’s not to love?
Words and photos by Rachael Murfet - one small cog in the Hiking Adventure Team wheel!