Walking Italy’s fabled Cinque Terre trails isn’t something you should simply tick off your list. Let yourself be swept up in the romance of the region and immersed in the colourful culture, is the advice of Intrepid’s local leader extraordinaire, Federico Campoli…
“Cinque Terre means literally ‘five lands’ and is a place known as one of the most beautiful and evocative in the world. A mix of many delightful natural and cultural ingredients make the Cinque Terre, a little corner of Italy in the Liguria region, absolutely unique, even in the eyes of the most routinist traveller.
Some people visit the ‘five lands’ because it is a renowned UNESCO World Heritage site, others simply for the beauty of the sparkling cobalt sea and charming pastel-coloured villages along the coast. Some travellers come to enjoy the exquisite, traditional and healthy food of the area, while others want to experience a little part of everyday life with the Ligurian fishermen. But whatever your reasons for being here, the best way to appreciate the true essence of this place is to walk through it.
Many paths, wide and narrow, famous and unknown, crisscross along the coastline and up through the mountains of the Cinque Terre National Park. Walking the Cinque Terre gives the perfect opportunity to see breathtaking panoramas from cliffs high above the sea. The paths also take you inside the vineyards and olive groves nestled in the hills or next to the cliffs and you can enjoy getting truly close to local life in the little villages. You are surrounded by nature with the sea, the hills and the mountains so close, but can also visit monasteries, castles, churches and ancient cemetaries of incredible beauty: all within a relatively small region.
The itinerary of Intrepid’s ‘Cinque Terre Self-guided Walk’ is a trek which I have had the fortune to do many times while working and researching for Intrepid. I live not far from here, so I have enjoyed walking it alone and with groups, in winter and summer, and regardless of the weather each time it is the same – at the end of one day I can’t wait for the next and I instantly forget drops of rain or an aching knee, because the excitement of the experience is overwhelming.
Moving from the north to south of the Cinque Terre, the trekking takes you through all the ‘five lands’: Monterosso Al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, then continuing south to Portovenere. I still cannot pick a favourite because they have similarities and together make up the beautiful picture of the region. But these places have been isolated for ages so any single village also displays its own charm and character which can be seen in the coloured architecture, enjoyed in relaxed lifestyle or simply tasted in finest wine and olive oil – I am sure they have a annual competition to see who make the best pesto!
The walk starts in Monterosso, the perfect place to appreciate the local environment and atmosphere of the Cinque Terre. This village is attended more by locals than tourists and is the only one to have a large sandy beach (by Italian standard)s, as well as good restaurants and lively bars. In Monterosso it is immediately obvious how isolated these lands are and how packed they are between sea and hills. Also how ‘weird’ (it seams but it is not) were my fellow-countrymen deciding to settle villages in such a place, yet how clever they were to fit a huge and comfortable railway with trains connecting all the ‘five lands’ in less than 10 minutes from station to station.
The walk to Vernazza is quite long compared with the following days, but it’s very enjoyable. Exploring the town is fascinating; there is a little main street and it is all there. Going down the hill it is easy to notice piles of coloured little boats no longer in use, old women at the window drawing up their clothes, parlours of food next to more modern bars and delicatessen shops and you are already at the port. How inspiring it is to face the Mediterranean Sea, to breathe the salinity coming out from the waves crashing on the big rocky barrier of the port and imagine that the ancient Saracen tower at your left and the old Renaissance church to your right have played the same roles for a very long time.
The inland path connecting Vernazza and Corniglia is the perfect place to notice how, due to a lack of land, ingenious people invented their way to grow grapes, other fruits and vegetables in terraces. Corniglia is the only village up hill and indeed to reach the town coming from Vernazza you need to climb many steps, but the rewards are plenty in this very unique village.
The walk to Manarola and Riomaggiore could be done in one day, because the distance between these two villages is very short along the coast. Since they are close together, it’s not surprising that the architecture of these villages is similar. Yet Manarola is small and quiet with her little houses, squares and cemetaries, whereas Riomaggiore is the bigger of all the villages and the most animated. Many shops, a few bars and the finest restaurants around are in the busy main street. Venturing away from the main street is where you can discover the real beauty of Riomaggiore. The village is settled up to 400 metres (1312 feet) above sea level. From the cute little port and the rocky beach nearby, it is very nice to get lost in the hundreds of tiny alleys and stairways going up hill and suddenly reaching a square with an incredible view, an old huge church, a castle or even a cemetary.
A long way up through the hills and mountains is the last walk to get to Portovenere. This walk is the most wild of all because of the nature along the path. Portovenere is an ancient port-village in a bay of beauty which inspired many poets: the place is actually called the Gulf of Poets. Strategically located, Portovenere is full of reminders of the past. A massive castle guards the village from above and an isolated church on overhanging cliffs let you imagine you are back in the past or in the scene of a movie. Portovenere is also a very prestigious and elegant city and the perfect place to end this beautiful fairy tale walk of the Cinque Terre.”