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Walking the Cinque Terre Villages in Italy

Every holiday should have an element of adventure and challenge. If your bungee jumping days are over (or like me never arrived) then walking between the villages of the Cinque Terre could be for you. The Cinque Terre in question are five coastal villages embedded in rocky cliffs along one of Italy’s most scenic stretches of coastline in the Liguria region of Italy. Since 1999 they have been organised and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, with a bit of calf-aching exertion, it is possible to spend a day walking and climbing between these beautiful villages and enjoy some spectacular scenery along the way.

We arrived by train from Genoa and based ourselves in La Spezia, a town 65 miles southeast of Genoa and linked to the Cinque Terre by a railway. Such is the popularity of the Cinque Terre that there is a dedicated tourist office at La Spezia central train station where we bought our one day passes including unlimited train travel

Then came a very important choice. If you want to ease into the 8 mile walk and start with the easy bit, begin your journey at the village of Viamaggiore and walk west. You’ll start with a fairly gentle walk before building to a strenuous hilly hike. We wanted to get the difficult bit out of the way first so we caught the little train to our starting point, the village of Monterosso al Mare.

The route between all the villages is handily marked by chalk drawings of the red and white Ligurian flag painted on stone walls and pavements. We followed the first couple of flags out of Monterosso in a small group of fellow tourists. Very quickly the long ascent started and we climbed upwards on ancient stone steps enclosed by dry stone walls originally intended for mules transporting goods between the villages. The climb took us up 1000 feet above the sea until Monterosso shrunk in the distance. We were surrounded by the sights and smells of olive groves, vineyards, orchards and chestnut woods. Criss-crossing the path overhead were the monorail mechanisms that the region’s wine growers use to transport grapes.

Passing fellow trekkers walking the other way provided an interesting cross-cultural study. The Italians seemed to have an enviable ability for tackling the rough stone steps – something which I definitely missed out on. Young, old and even heavily pregnant, they all overtook us walking up and down the paths in flip-flops or high-heeled sandals. The rest of us took it slower especially as the temperature was bordering on 40 degrees C. There is limited shade on the walk so hats, sun cream and water are essential as are walking shoes/boots for the less sure footed.

The Monterosso to Vernazza section of the walk is less than 2 miles long but took a good 1½ to 2 hours. For the last half mile Vernazza appeared around each corner then disappeared from view as the path wound around the mountain. Eventually we reached the very quaint harbour and stopped for a lunch of pizza, a glass of wine and some people-watching with a brilliantly blue sea view. Vernazza is the only natural port of the five villages and therefore historically the wealthiest. The architecture is more elaborate with some interesting buildings to explore if you can spare the time.

On to the next village Corniglia, a longer walk at 2½ miles and only slightly less hard-going. The July Italian sun was relentless. A bar appeared in the middle of this stretch like an oasis. We pressed on until we saw the welcome sight of Corniglia in the distance balanced precariously along a ridge high above the sea. Again we felt we had earned some refreshment so headed for the gelataria for ice cream and refreshing lemon granite. If you are in need of something stronger, many shops were the selling the local peach, lemon and mandarin liqueurs.

The hard bit was definitely behind us now and we set off to Manarola with a spring in our step. The path was much more developed, even paved in parts and only the odd steps to climb up, perfect if walking with small children. Behind our cheerful ‘Buon giornos’ to the walkers in the other direction there was a certain smug satisfaction that they still had the worst to come. The Corniglia to Manarola stretch offered some of the best views of the water below. We ploughed straight on to the final destination of the village of Riomaggiore, a short 30 minute stroll along the paved ‘Via dell’ Amore’ (Lover’s Lane).

Dirtier, more sunburnt and drained of energy we boarded the train back to La Spezia. This same train line links all of the five Cinque Terre villages so, if you wanted to, you could travel the more difficult routes by train instead of walking. You could also split the walk over 2 or 3 days and spend some time exploring the narrow streets, churches and restaurants of the villages. But that really wouldn’t provide the same sense of achievement -- cause the same aching feeling in your calf muscles the next day!

If You Go
How to get there: -- Cars are not allowed into the Cinque Terre so the easiest way to reach them is using the Genoa-La Spezia railway which runs every 15-30 minutes. The cost of any journeys between the villages is included in the Cinque Terre card price available from the National Park offices. In the summer it is possible to get a boat from Genoa to the Cinque Terre.

Where to stay: -- The four star Hotel Ghironi in La Spezia offers a free shuttle service to the train station and the port. Accommodation is limited in the Cinque Terre villages particularly in summer. Try the Hotel La Spiaggia in Monterosso.

Further Information: -- for more information visit Cinque Terre.

Kate Averre is an organisational psychologist and freelance writer currently based in Jersey in the Channel Islands. She has travelled extensively experiencing many different countries and cultures, most recently to Central America and Northern Europe. She's lucky enough to have a husband who is a photographer so doesn't ever have to carry a camera around!

© 2009