Day hikes are the appetizers and desserts of trekking aficionados. When I can’t get away for a week or more, the next best thing is a jaunt that still requires a backpack and provisions, a destination, and some great scenery. And the Cinque Terre, literally ‘Five Lands,’ is the perfect place to spend a day on foot and rack up some numbers, traversing the five small towns that form a colorful string along the rugged Ligurian coast of western Italy. We did just that to top off our Tour du Mont Blanc circuit hike one summer.
Uno: We based ourselves and started our walk in the busiest and northernmost of the Cinque Terre towns – Monterosso al Mare. Here there are many accommodations, restaurants, and even a beach, all set in irregular stone streets that surround the seashore and harbor. The town is famous for pesto, anchovies, and lemons, and we loaded up on pizza, pasta, and limoncello as a well-earned reward for our long Alpine hike and, in my case, the rigors of driving a little stick-shift car on the outrageously steep and twisted roads into the region.
Due: After a hearty breakfast the next day, we set off for town number two: Vernazza. This fishing village is the most picturesque of the group, and we were very lucky to get a beautiful approach shot before a morning rain shower swept us into the harbor and onto the main plaza. Fishing boats bobbed in the curved waterfront (and rested in the village streets), an old castle loomed in the background, pastel-colored buildings haphazardly climbed the hills, and villagers and tourists alike crammed under the few awnings and overhangs in the piazza for protection from the short-lived squall. With the passing of the mini-tempest, the old men went back to untangling their fishing lines, the adolescent boys to ogling the scantily-clad young female visitors, and we to our hike.
Tre: We climbed out of Vernazza on a series of winding stairs and terraces, feeling almost voyeuristic as we passed private patios and stereotypical lines of laundry dangling off skinny houses.
We were now on our way to Corniglia, the only one of the five towns not directly on the water. Perched high on a rocky hill and surrounded by vineyards, Corniglia was the quietest of the villages, and we decided to stop here for a relaxing lunch amid flowering bushes and old stone walls.
These two first sections were the toughest – close to 4 miles overall of steep hills up and down – and we hit the highest point of the day on the way into Corniglia.
Quattro: The smallest enclave, Manarola, was the fourth stop, following a relatively flat and easy route of just over a mile after lunch. Like its big sister, Vernazza, it is a jumble of vibrant facades that spill down the hill into the harbor. It is bright and busy, filled with shops and boats and locals, but has a smaller, more relaxed ambiance – the ideal time and place for an ice cream stop and whiling away some time just people-watching.
Cinque: By late afternoon, we had arrived in Riomaggiore on a cliff-side trail, dubbed Lovers Lane, that overlooked the brilliantly-blue sea.
Farthest to the south and east, Riomaggiore is the largest town of the five and feels more accessible to the outside world than the other villages. Here, those same painted buildings form a V around one final scenic harbor, and the railroad provides an easy return to Monterosso, just in time for more limoncello and pizza.
More Numbers: The Sentiero Azzurro, the Cinque Terre’s most popular walking trail, covers about 7 miles overall and can be walked in either direction. Most people walk south to north, starting flat and easy, but we did it backwards. In recent years, the path has been closed in some sections; heavy rains have washed out parts of the route and rock slides have blocked the path in and out of Corniglia. In addition, the Italian government is limiting the number of hikers to 1.5 million this season (a high of 2.5 million trekked the trail last year) to protect the area, so I’m glad we got there when we did!