We started our Italian Easter holiday with two days of hiking in Cinque Terre along the rugged coast of the Italian Riviera. The ‘Five Lands’ is composed of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola (where we slept), and Riomaggiore. The villages are connected with trails which wind through olive and lemon trees and vineyards growing on terraces which have been built into the cliffs over the centuries. The area has become such a popular tourist destination that it was made a national park in 1999. We would highly recommend Cinque Terre to anyone headed to Italy and can offer the following advice.
1. ‘Closed’ does not Mean ‘Closed’
In October 2011 the park was badly damaged by floods and mudslides, and unfortunately some of the seaside trails were still closed a year and a half later during our visit. The five villages are connected by the fairly easy Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail) and by the more challenging Cinque Terre High Trail (Red Trail) further inland. We were told by our hotel manager and the park’s information desk that the entire Blue Trail was completely closed. The first day we stuck to the Red Trail between Manarola and Corniglia, but the second day we mistakenly found ourselves at the start of the Blue Trail between Corniglia and Vernazza. There, a parking attendant told us that although the trail was technically closed many people were still hiking it. He cautioned us about David’s sandals, but said we could duck under the barrier tape and give it a try, if we dared. So of course, we dared.
The trail was fairly busy, although not packed, and was entirely passable. In a few spots we had to tread carefully as there had clearly been rock slides in the not-too-distant-past. The views were amazing, and because the trails were ‘closed’ we did not need to pay the normal entrance fee. After lunching in Vernazza, we again walked past the CLOSED signs and continued on the Blue Trail to Monterosso. Later we confirmed that the two Blue Trails between Riomaggiore and Manarola and Manarola and Corniglia were fully closed.
2. Minimize Train Travel
Since some of the easy trails are closed, one may be tempted to rely on the trains to travel between villages. A note of caution here, the trains run only about every 3o minutes, and are often so late that it can be up to an hour between trains. This means that it is very difficult to plan around the train schedules and a lot of time can be wasted waiting for trains. My advice here is to minimize train travel by strategically riding out to one village and hiking back or vis versa.
3. Weather is Everything
Our first day in Cinque Terre was less than ideal due to an incessant downpour. Not wanting to waste any of our precious time, we decided to hike anyway. Whilst hiking through the olive groves was enchanting, the trails themselves were a muddy mess and in places became full-fledged streams.
About halfway through the hike the rain had completely soaked through my raincoat (thanks a lot North Face!) and David’s umbrella was basically ineffectual due to the whipping wind. By the end, we were happy to arrive in Corniglia and slurp up drinking chocolate! Of course weather is impossible to control, but it may be good to check on average rainfall and temperatures when planning a trip.
4. Eat your Heart Out
The food in Cinque Terre was some of the freshest and most delicious that we tasted anywhere in Italy. The region is known for its fresh pesto, seafood and local wines, which did not disappoint. Our favorites included grilled octopus, anchovies with fresh lemon, lobster and mussels with linguine, and pesto on homemade pasta.
5. Sleep in the Village
Although slightly more expensive than staying outside of Cinque Terre, we chose to rent a room in Manarola for our stay. This ended up being a great choice since although hotels in La Spezia might advertise themselves as being only an ‘8 minute’ train ride away, those 8 minutes would probably be preceded by an hour wait for the train. Sleeping right in the village enabled us to take some night strolls along the coast to enjoy the sound of the crashing waves.