Just north of La Spezia where the Apennines tumble down into the Mediterranean, five tiny villages, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarolo and Riomaggiore cling to the rocks around minute ‘harbours’. Thousands of vines scramble along the terraced hillsides above. This is known as the Cinque Terre, dear to those who love vigorous hill walking – and tunnels, and local trains and, in spring, wild flowers. And it is where we have spent the last week.
Only the Italians would have built a railway on the very edge of the sea – at least 70% of which had to be tunnelled through the cliffs! But Italians are very good at tunnels – just try driving the Autostrada del Sole between Bologna and Florence (opened, amazingly, in the early 1960s) – or the stretch between Genoa and La Spezia, to get to the Cinque Terre.
Mind you, as far as the Cinque Terre is concerned, if you choose to stay in Corniglia, the middle and by far the least touristy of the villages which is perched high on a cliff, you have 385 steps to walk up from the train station to the village!! But, although I would not care to do it carrying a large bag of shopping, the steps are so well raked that, if you go at it steadily, they are really quite easy….
We did, on good advice, choose to stay in Corniglia and were glad that we had. The other four villages are delightful and extremely picturesque but also very full of tourists – and this was only mid May so I dread to think what they would be like in the high season. Corniglia, on the other hand, was invaded by keen hikers brandishing their walking poles and weighed down by bulging backpacks during the day, but at night was deliciously peaceful. Just a few restaurants and gelateria, no noisy bars, indeed no noisy anything at all after about 10.30 when everyone had gone to bed!
Well, that is if you discount the storms! We were there in the ‘stormy season’ and although we received commiserations all round, in fact it was perfect walking weather. The hills are, as you can see, pretty steep and the paths can be challenging so pleasantly warm but rather overcast weather was perfect. And since the storms were kind enough to wait till the evening to erupt, we did not get wet once – but we did get to enjoy some fairly spectacular lightening and thunder and the subsequent downpour at 2am.
Keen swimmers, which we are not…., staying in Corniglia would also have to climb another 300 odd steps down the face of the cliff to get to the sea – but I understand that if you do, the swimming is wonderful. But be warned, nearly all of the swimming is from the rocks – no miles of sandy beaches. And, no – not even the keenest of swimmers would really have been for a quick dip in this!!
However, what we had gone for was to walk and not to swim – and walk we did. Complete, I must admit, with hiking poles to which I am an enthusiastic convert. Not for walking around Hampstead Heath but for anything which involves climbing or rough or difficult terrain. It is amazing how much help your arms can be in heaving you up the steep bits and the poles really do act as an extra set of legs, providing balance and that vital support when you miss your footing – all too easy on tiny mountain paths.
Our first treck was east to Vernazza with its mediaeval tower.
This is the main coastal track between the five villages add you do have to pay to use it. The whole area is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and the money is used to help maintain the paths (which are pretty good and well signed) and the thousands of kilometres of dry stone walls which support the vineyard terraces. However, there have been number of rock falls recently so that you may find some of the path closed.
The path was pretty busy (once again, I dread to think what it would be like in high season) and had some quite steep climbs but the view over the village was worth it when you got there. Because the village was so crowded we walked back up to this terraced restaurant overlooking the village – brilliant view but very uncharacteristically grumpy waiting staff and disappointing food. The only time we met either!
The path led one up and down through holm oak woods with regular views out onto the coast. Even though this was the one day on which we got some blue skies and a bit of sun, the sea was still, as you can see, pretty rough.
Our second long day’s walk was up from Corniglia through the terraced vineyards and back down to Manarola, the next door village to us. You can just see it down on the right of the image.
These terraces are quite extraordinary – several thousand kilometres of dry stone walls holding back the precious soil which would otherwise be washed into the sea. But what horrendously hard work to maintain!
As the Cinque Terre has become more popular with visitors, so the temptation to exchange the backbreaking work of tending the vines for the easier option of tending the tourists has meant that many of the vineyards have fallen into disuse. But of course, it is the wonderful terraced hills that are the attraction for the tourists…. Not to mention the excellent local wine. So the focus is now on bringing as many of the vineyards back into production as is possible. Here you can see some of the beautifully tended vines we walked through on our way to Manarola.
Other walks involved train rides to the the start of the walk – always quite exciting as you need to catch a train which actually stops at all the tiny local stations, not one of the many fast ones which will whisk you straight past your station and on to La Spezia and further! Since the timetable information is distinctly unreliable in this respect, you need to get matey with a local pretty fast who will, volubly and almost incomprehensibly, direct you when to get off and which train to get back on!!
We took one more walk from Framura to Bonasola (lots more precipitous cliffs and pounding seas) and one from Campiglia towards Portvenere (even more precipitous cliffs and even more pounding seas and a howling gale!!) – all villages just outside the Cinque Terre ‘proper’ but with the same backdrop of tree covered mountain. All lovely walks – much to be recommended!
However we also made a side trip (we had a car which made this easy) to Portovenere, a delightful old fashioned, rather upmarket, seaside resort with a ruined castle, a 13th century church, a harbour and a ‘front’!
This was the view through the castle ramparts to the massive limestone cliffs that line the coast at this point and which we had walked along earlier.
Portovenere was delightfully uncrowded, although I must admit that it was blowing a force 10 gale while we were there so maybe this is not really a true indication of what it might be like at the height of the season….
I have just realised that so far every image I have included in this blog is of thunderous seas and lowering clouds, so just to inject a bit of colour into the scene. Here is Riomaggiore looking almost sunny…
…and here we are coming down the path to Manarola….
…and a rather lovely collection of wildflowers we saw on the way to Vernazza….
… and finally some pink poppies….
Facts and figures:
We flew to Genoa and hired a car to drive to the Cinque Terre. Lovely autostrada to La Spezia, very pretty but narrow and winding road from La Spezia to the villages. Not good if you are nervous driving abroad or do not like heights, especially when the cloud comes down on the mountain and envelopes you in pea soup!!
We stayed at Casa Vacanza Il Gatto in Corniglia – a very comfortable apartment in the middle of the village looking out onto the sea and the vineyards. We ate mainly at Il Pirun and Café Matteo – and the gelateria!!
If you are going to walk, I do advise good walking boots and socks – and hiking poles! We were leant one of the excellent Sunflower walking guides for the Cinque Terre which we found try useful – lovely walks and easy to follow.
NB. Gluten-free food on offer in most places (some better, some worse), dairy free harder to obtain.
There were no supermarkets in Cornelia but Alex, who was in Italy at the same time, did vista a supermarkets and found freeform to be gratifyingly prominent. See his blog here.