Cinque Terre: Suspended between Sea and Sky
29 November, 2017
The Cinque Terre is a bit like the Amalfi Coast in some circles. Like, if you’ve been to Italy and haven’t been there, have you even been to Italy?
Nicola tells me with a degree of resignation that Vernazza, the fourth of the five spectacularly colourful villages spilling off the higgeldy-piggedly cliffs of the Ligurian coast (counting south-north), is routinely ranked as one of the most Instagrammed spots in the world. True to form, we see more than one pair of 20-somethings in designer rags lugging camera equipment, pouting, and strutting along the path from Monterosso, where we started our walk.
And at the yoga retreat I worked at over summer, a day trip was one of the weekly excursions on offer to guests. On more than a few occasions though, guests skipped it because they’d ‘been there, done that’. Residents themselves feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers now visiting and have petitioned to put measures in place to limit the number of visitors who can access the area.
But put any snarky scepticism aside: there’s a reason more than 2.5 million people visited last year. That its nearly-vertical, painstakingly maintained vineyards are UNESCO heritage listed. That these ancient villages with their breathtaking views have gained notoriety and fame: it is because suspended between the sea and the sky, the rest of the world seems a mere fiction.
The wildly beautiful coastline is juxtaposed sharply with the vivid smatterings of buildings that punctuate it and despite the frenzied masses that leave the villages heaving from April to October, once you trek up calf-cramping sets of stairs and hills that afford the famously panoramic views, you’re so close to the sky that you can’t help but feel totally blissed out. This is paradise.
Wedged precariously over the ocean between the Apennines and the end of the French Alps, the Cinque Terre are cut off from the rest of the world and the terrain is so pure that its produce, including wine, fruit, vegetables and cosmetics, is in high demand.
I first visited the Cinque Terre eight years ago when the Via Dell’Amore (closed in 2012 after a rockfall and still closed today) was still open and there was a big sign with a crossed through stiletto. As a 25-year-old it made me laugh, the idea that anyone would tackle this reasonably tough series of trails in heels, but it’s less laughable now than ever (see above re: Instagram).
It’s unfortunate that this part of the trail hasn’t reopened: the 1km path from Riomaggiore north to Manarola was the easiest path and afforded a near-universal degree of accessibility. From Manarola through to Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso you enter the Cinque Terre National Park and an pass is required from April to November. The €16 fee is payable on entry or online. You can buy the passes either for trails alone, or inclusive of public transport which is either a train to any of the five villages, or shuttle buses between them: info here.
THESE ARE TRULY LIVING VILLAGES: WE SAW LOCALS WISHING EACH OTHER HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SHOPPING FOR GROCERIES, PLAYING SOCCER AND TENDING TO VINES AND OLIVE TREES.
The day we visited, the coastal section between Corniglia and Manarola was also closed. Luckily we had advance knowledge and Nicola had planned to take us up to Volastra, which meant a bit of a climb. Once you tackle the first 20-30 minutes uphill from Corniglia, a shady path winds through forest and spits you out right on the coastline again, where it feels as though one precarious step might send you over the edge into the Ligurian Sea below.
This is an intimate part of the trail: it takes you through vineyards to backyards; from residents tending caringly and slowly to terrace walls and gnarled vines to a path between a house and its front garden with kids playing soccer, before you descend 382 stairs to Manarola's town centre. To walk between the villages is to be more than a tourist here - because you are quite literally immersed in day-to-day life. While it seems unfair to play favourites in country like this, I hold a soft spot for Corniglia (and not just because it has, reportedly, the best gelato). While no less beautiful, it is a little more understated; calmer, and the only village set off the sea.
These tracks aren't for the faint-hearted: we were surprised at how sore we were in the days afterwards. Knowing that you can stop and take a gelato/foccacia/spritz break at the next village makes is comforting. Water is a must and is available everywhere.
Having now walked the Sentiero Azzuro (the trail's official name) both ways, north to south is my preference. Meandering through the olive grove and taking the panoramic route to Manarola is fairytale stuff - even with Justin Bieber as a soundtrack to the olive harvesting going on (you can't make this up!) To wander through as locals tend to the vines and trees is a privilege. This is harsh country. There is no fast way to get this job done. It's difficult to imagine exactly how these villages were formed in the first place; even more backbreaking would have been the work that went into building the stone walls and vineyards.
Poet and Manarola resident Eugenio Montale described the interplay between the area's natural beauty and natural resources like this:
Every moment brings new leaves to you,
amazement overwhelming every other
fleeting joy: life comes on headlong waves
to this far garden corner.
Now you stare down at the soil;
an undertow of memories
reaches your heart and almost overwhelms it.
A shout in the distance: see, time plummets,
disappears in hurried eddies
among the stones, all memory gone; and I
from my dark lookout reach
for this sunlit occurrence.
All I can say is that even on a second visit, it is one of the most beautiful hikes I've ever done.
· The Cinque Terre (means: five lands) are five colourful coastal villages perched on the Ligurian coast.
· Trails: The section from Riomaggiore north to Manarola (the Via Dell’Amore) is closed. Other routes can be closed due to weather. Info on that here.
· Tickets: The Cinque Terre sits within a National Park and access from Manarola to Monterosso costs €16 for adults – info on various ticket options inclusive of public transport are available here.
· Accessibility: no cars are allowed in the villages. Most trains connect to La Spezia, where you can change for any of the five villages at the cost of a few Euro. Sections of the trail are liable to close without much notice and a reasonable level of fitness is needed to tackle them. Remember to always validate your train ticket on the platform in Italy and allow plenty of time for transfers. Ferries as well as private charters run between nearby Portovenere and the villages.
· Accommodation: airbnb and bed and breakfasts are readily available, as well as some out-of-this-world houses (at out-of-this-world prices) with incredible views across the sea.
· When to go: it's busy all the time. March and November give the best trade-off between battling crowds and getting a chance at good weather. The higher trails are always quieter but no matter what time of the year it is spectacular
· Swimming: at Monterosso only - or wherever you can scramble down a cliff, but do so at your own risk.
· Please: respect the locals and be patient if you are visiting in busy months.
Photos: Nicola Merciadri.