Cinque Terre: The Five Town Trek

A view of the Manaroa harbor in Cinque Terre, Italy.

To Hike or Not to Hike, That is the Question

“BZZZZZZZ, BZZZZZZZ, BZZZZZZZ”

I was not ready. It is both a blessing and a curse to be in Europe during the World Cup. Especially if you’re in a front running country. The energy is palpable. The populace exuberant. All annoyances typically reserved for tourists allayed in a cry of “Football, football, football!”

Italian World Cup celebrations and Aperol Spritz.

And the hangovers, prodigious. This is not what you need when you are jolted awake at 7:30am to endeavor on a hike with some of the most picturesque views in the world. Your body says “NO!” but your spirit, your soul, says,”You must.” And so you do. You roll yourself out of bed, stumble around the corner to the bakery meetup place, slam an espresso, and buy a savory pastry for sometime in the next couple of hours when your stomach doesn’t feel like it’s going to revolt against you. “Why’d you feel so bad?”, you say. I have only this and the fact that it was an Italian World Cup match to offer you. Oh, and that Aperol Spritzes exist.

And so my hike in the world renowned Cinque Terre began. Cinque Terre, literally five lands representing a string of five connected seacoast towns, rests in the Northwestern crook of Italy in the Liguria region. Famed for its Mediterranean sea views, the historical fishing town exploded into a tourist mecca. With picturesque frames of colorful housing set against bluer than blue sky and sea, every inch of the town is so quaintly photogenic it breaks your heart. Just as the beginning of my hike was breaking mine.

The Monterosso to Vernazza Footpath

Two of my friends visited Cinque Terre on their trip to Italy, so when I saw it on my tour itinerary, I was thrilled. Italy has been the only trip where my control freak self gave up and placed my trust in a tourist company. With good reviews and a laid back approach to organization, I booked the Highlights of Italy tour with Intrepid. To keep it simple -Intrepid is outstanding. Our vivacious guide Viviana swept you through cities noting all the important landmarks for you to get your bearings, then released you to enjoy the city on your own. But please, come to dinner with her if you wish. Always helpful but never overbearing, I would gladly use Intrepid again.

The view of Monterosso from the Cinque Terre footpath to Vernazza.
Monterosso Beaches, Italy

Technically all the Cinque Terre towns are connected with footpaths creating a famed hiking trail on par with the Camino. Due to mudslides and the government trying to limit the wear on the paths, normally at least one of these legs is closed. We stayed in Monterosso, the largest and northernmost town bursting with tourist hotels, so our hike was to be from Monterosso to Vernazza. At least, this was the portion to be led by bella Viviana, and then you could take your luck with the rest. A local train also connects the towns allowing easy passage back and forth for those only looking to hike a segment (or not hike at all).

The first hour of the hike would be brutal even for the unimpaired. Being that Cinque Terre is basically carved into mountain cliffs, you encounter some significant changes in elevation. Even though the path itself is only 3.5 km, you’ll earn every bit as you stair climb your way to the mountaintop. And then as the hill crests, you can take your time to admire the beautiful view of the town you left and get a teaser of the towns to come.

A view of the port in Vernazza showcasing the boats on the water.
The harbor cove of Vernazza, Italy.

By the time we reached the Vernazza harbor, I had gnawed down my tomato filled pastry with a large bottle of water and was generally feeling better about life. We took our time to play in the harbor and snap photos of the adorable fishing boats before continuing on our journey to Corniglia. From here on out, we took the train, and we, like many other tourists, were tricked into a false sense of security.

Just when you think you’re done hiking, the train spits you out at the base of the city. You can then reach the Corniglia proper by climbing the 377 stairs to the top. Or pay a taxi to drive you there instead. Our crowning moment was cresting the stairs to find a group of tourists spilling out of the van they’d taken to the top. Clutching hiking poles, money belts dangling from their necks, wearing tennis shoes with soles a mile thick to wander the city cobblestones, I took a second to mourn my fellow American tourists with my new Kiwi friends.

Manarola and My Deepest Regret

A plate of various fish tartare in Manarola, Italy.

In Manarola, the next town down, we stopped for lunch. I couldn’t tell you the name of the restaurant, but I could walk you there if you’d like to take me. What else is there to eat in a fishing town but fish itself? A plate of fish tartare with fresh vegetables bathed in olive oil enjoyed with a glass of vino rosso solidified my good health for the rest of the day.

In our hungry haste, we dismissed attempting to find a restaurant overlooking the harbor in lieu of tasty morsels right in front of us . You saw the picture, I have no regrets. However, when we finally made it to the inlet cove, I did have one -the only time bella Viviana misled me. The previous day when describing the trip, she noted that we wouldn’t need to wear swim suits unless we wanted to get bashed against the rocks. Aside from Monterosso with proper beaches, the other towns had only rocky inlet coves you wouldn’t want to challenge unless you were an expert. I’m not, so I heeded her advice.

The crowded thoroughfare ended, and Manarola opened up to the sea. In the center was the perfect swimming hole with Italian patrons laughing away in the water. The Mediterranean’s turbulent waves crashed against the protective boulders craggling out front while a wide channel opened along the side letting a gently splashing sea foam in.

The inlet cove in Manarola Cinque Terre, Italy.
Manarola Cove

I contemplated jumping in immediately. You’ll be wet all day. Meh, it’s hot. It’ll dry quick. What will the Italians think of you? That I’m here to have a good time? I dunno. Decorum won out. I didn’t jump, and to this day I regret it. I’ve had opportunities to swim in Mediterranean seas before and after, but something about that one day in Manarola sticks out and makes wait moan, “If only.” Of course, you can’t stop a girl in Tevas from getting her toes wet.

After I satiated my lust with a quick dip, we continued on to the final city in our trek. Riomaggiore is the terminal town of Cinque Terre, although the footpaths continue on to other villages of La Spezia and similar scenery. In Riomaggiore, we shopped picking out the perfect Limoncellos, olive oils, and almond scented soaps to take back home with us. While we could have utilized the train to make use of our day passes, many in our group chose to take the ferry back for an inexpensive cruise showcasing the scenery from afar.

With spectacular views and delicious sea fare, Cinque Terre is an excellent addition to an Italy trip (if you’re sensitive to overcrowding!). And as much as I dreaded it at the time, you must do one of the hikes.

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