The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
9. CINQUE TERRE CLASSIC
Distance: 12 km
Time: Half a day
I can still remember the sound he made as he fell. My wife Yvonne and I were in northern Italy walking a meandering piece of the Cinque Terre Classic trail high above the warm waters of the Ligurian Sea, following the fence line along the perimeter of a centuries-old farm on a path that was really more of a goat track than a trail. It was then that a man raced past us only to lose his footing a few metres on before tripping and falling in a tangle of limbs down the hillside, coming to rest with a thud against the trunk of an olive tree. He screamed in pain, and as his friends came to his aid and placed each of his arms around their shoulders, lifting the weight off what was a severely sprained ankle, all I could think of as I stood there unsympathetically was: ‘Now why would you want to rush a walk like this?’ The Cinque Terre is a fragile landscape, susceptible to slippage and erosion after heavy rains, which means you need to watch your footing even when the sun is shining. The views are of course a welcome distraction, but can be an occupational hazard, too. On a clear day, you can see as far as Corsica.
People have been living here long before the earliest historical records dating from the 11th century came down to us, and the trail you see now is not unlike all those that went before it and are still here in various states of repair, used by generations of farming families who have waged long battles with a hard soil to make it and keep it fertile. It is a land of terraces - an astonishing 7,000 km of dry stone walls if they were all laid end to end - a complex assemblage providing precious level ground for grape vines and olive trees and a bounty that sun-drenched, south-facing Italian hillsides are so adept at producing.
CINQUE TERRE CLASSIC
Photo: Thomas Shahan
These days the trail we call the Cinque Terre joins five villages along a dramatic 16-km-long portion of this sloping coastline. The villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are the embodiment of what you come to expect from rural Italy, all full of colour and shuttered windows, its buildings almost Dali-esque in the way they lean ever so slightly so that one almost seems to prop up another beside it. The villages of the Cinque Terre are blissfully automobile-free, and the most time it will take you to walk from one to the other is less than two hours, which makes for a delightfully segmented day’s walking. And they are accessible too, thanks to a nearby train line that passes through them all, making it easy to begin your walk from whichever village most takes your fancy, so you can walk as much or as little of the trail as you like.
The trails that once spread around them like a spider’s web were not built for recreational purposes but to link working farms and communities, to provide pilgrims who came here to worship with access to hillside sanctuaries, or donkeys with a path to transport produce. Land here is at a premium, and nothing is wasted. Herb gardens, garlic, chestnut trees, oranges, lemons - even wild asparagus - have been grown here for generations. As you walk by you are so close to them it’s hard to resist the temptation to reach out and grab yourself an impromptu snack.
Though there is more than one path, the most popular, the one which nine out of ten visitors here take, is the coastal Sentiero Azzurro, the famous ‘Blue Path’ (there is also the Sentiero del Crinale, the ‘High Path’ which is three times the length of the Blue Path and follows a route that is slightly more inland, and therefore not as popular as its coast-hugging cousin). My wife and I, like most, began in Riomaggiore, the easternmost of the five villages that quickly had us on what is probably the trail’s most famous stretch, the Via dell’ Amore, the ‘Street of Love’, constructed in the late 1920s to provide access to a tunnel on the Genoa to La Spezia rail line. The second village, Manarola, is reached after walking barely 1 km, easily the shortest of the four sections. From Manarola it is 2 km to Corniglia, the village least affected by tourism because it’s the only one of the five that is set well back from the ocean. On the way to Corniglia you’ll need to climb the 33 flights and 382 steps of the Lardarina stairway, which take you up to the plaza Largo Taragio. From the plaza we climbed a further two sets of staircases to the ruined remains of an old Genoese fort and sat in the shade looking down the coast back towards Manarola.
The 3.2 km from Corniglia to Vernazza, one of the most beautiful villages in all Liguria and the most ‘medieval’ of the five, takes you higher still, through forests and and over promontories with stunning views out over the Cinque Terre Riviera before your descent into a village that tumbles its way down to the water’s edge and is impossible to walk through without stopping, with its many cafes and restaurants providing views over its tiny port. It’s also worth visiting the remains of the Castillo dei Doria, built to protect the town from invading Saracens. The last section, just over 3 km to Monterosso al Mare, involves a climb of around 150 m from Vernazza’s port and opens up to some of the trail’s finest panoramas with views back down to Vernazza. This final section, which will have you crossing several old bridges and passing under evergreen oaks and junipers, will take you a couple of hours. But the advantage of walking the Cinque Terre east to west is that you can end your day soaking up the sun on Monterosso al Mare’s Fegina Beach, a sand beach - a rarity for this part of Italy - and once named by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s ‘sexiest’ beaches.
Unlike other coastal trails that can involve a lot of ‘up and down’, the Cinque Terre’s Blue Path is remarkably flattish, maintaining a more or less constant elevation with the only real exceptions being the descents to its villages. And while the distances involved might suggest it takes around four hours to traverse, a full day should be its bare minimum. And two days? Even better.