Hiking in Cinque Terre
Italy's five colourful fishing villages on the Ligurian Coast enchant year-round and offer hubs for exploring its challenging routes.
Vacations Magazine, Winter 2023
As soon as hikers begin climbing the ancient stone steps that straddle the mountain between Riomaggiore and Manarola, they’re committed. It’s like Italy’s version of a Stairmaster, ascending 235 metres in under a kilometre, passing terraced vineyards and offering up vertiginous views of the pastel-hued buildings clinging to the seaside cliffs below.
I stop along the route multiple times to guzzle water and wish I had hiking poles for the steep descent that waits after the summit. Hiking in Cinque Terre is beautiful, but it can be a beast.
I’ve travelled to Italy’s northwest coast following a few days in Bologna to repent after feasting on pasta and Parmigiano-Reggiano, all washed down with multiple glasses of Sangiovese. Trekking between the five fishing villages that are part of Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has long been on my bucket list.
Cinque Terre is crowded in summer, so I’ve chosen to come in early winter for this solo adventure. Though regional trains run less frequently between November and March, and there are fewer options for bars and restaurants due to seasonal closures, the days are longer and turn sunny. It’s a wonderful time to visit.
“You’re hiking by yourself?” questioned my mom, not one to travel overseas alone. I tried to reassure her. It was Italy after all and there would probably be places along the path to stop for lemon granitas (there were).
The truth is, I’m far from an anomaly when it comes to striking out alone. A whopping 76 per cent of Canadian women have travelled solo, according to one survey. That number has likely risen since the pandemic. In fact, Google searches for “solo travel” have quadrupled in the past two years.
It’s not just gen zeds or millennials travelling unaccompanied either. Gen Xers are well represented. Like me, 60 per cent of travellers under age 55 go alone because we like the feeling of freedom and independence.
When I make it to Manarola in time for happy hour, my accomplishment hits home. I savour sardine bruschetta and an Aperol Spritz on the patio at Nessun Dorma restaurant and rest my legs as the setting sun illuminates the town.
I’d expected to feel empowered on this trip, but I wasn’t counting on the difficulty of some of the trails. Two of Cinque Terre’s easiest routes are closed and not expected to reopen until 2024. This is why I ended up on the Via Beccara, an “expert excursionist” route, for my first day hike.
The following day, I take the train to Monterosso al Mare, the furthest north village and begin walking south along the easier Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Path). When fully open, it links all five towns in just 12 kilometres. More stone steps arc upwards toward the next village, Vernazza, and I’m soon rewarded with panoramic coastal views.
This trail was originally a mule path dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, when Cinque Terre was part of the Republic of Genoa. It was a vital communication and travel link between the remote villages until the railway was built in 1874. With its cliffside towns that defy gravity, the wide stone paths connecting them, the vineyard plots and olive groves sculpted into the steep hills (held in place by an extensive network of low stone walls called muretti), the entire area is an engineering marvel. It somehow melds seamlessly with the natural environment, rendering it utterly picturesque.
I pause multiple times to take in the wondrous sights around every bend. I capture a rainbow over Monterosso, listen to an accordion player busking along the path and peer down at the waves crashing onto rocks far below.
When I finally reach Corniglia, the middle village perched high above the Ligurian Sea, I’ve walked over seven kilometres and close to 20,000 steps. I collapse into a patio seat at Ristorante La Posada and dig into a bowl of spaghetti topped with fresh mussels, scallops and shrimp.
Knackered, I opt for the train back to Riomaggiore (rather than hoofing it to Manarola first on another “expert” alternate route). I find a seat at La Conchiglia, a trendy sunset spot, and toast a successful solo trip with a glass of the local white blend. I’ve earned it after all.