The first stop on my Alpine trekking adventure was actually not in the mountains, but on the coast of the Ligurian Sea, in the beautiful and justifiably famous Cinque Terre National Park on the west coast of Italy. I had heard so much about Cinque Terre that, if I had the chance to travel anywhere close by, I knew I would try to visit for at least a couple of days. I spent two full days in the region, and it certainly lived up to its reputation.
My outbound journey involved three flights, beginning in San Francisco and changing planes in London and Munich before arriving in Genoa. After collecting my luggage I took an airport bus to the main train station in Genoa, followed by a train to Cinque Terre. I had booked a room in Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five towns that make up Cinque Terre. The reception staff had provided good walking directions from the train station: walk through a tunnel and uphill on Via Colombo, the main street. Almost exactly 24 hours after leaving home I began a typical Cinque Terre experience: trundling my luggage up a steep cobblestone street.
The kind young woman at the reception informed me that my room was a little ways back down the hill, followed by, in her words, “stairs – many stairs.” I’m not sure I ever counted them, but there must have been at least 50 stairs from Via Colombo to the door of my room. I made two trips to carry my luggage. Once in my room I opened the heavy shutters to see what was outside and was greeted by a delightful view of colorful pastel buildings on the steep hillside a few blocks away. This began what was to become a tradition of my trip: a series of “room with a view, or view from my room” photos.
I originally had planned to spend both days walking the famous coastal trails between the towns of Cinque Terre. When I learned that two of the four sections were closed I decided that I would see if I could visit all of the towns in one day and explore the area via an inland hike on the second day. To see the layout, an overview map is helpful. On this map the brown area denotes the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, which has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The five towns are indicated by red stars on the map; from north to south they are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The green star at the south end of the small peninsula at the bottom of the map is Porto Venere, the destination for my hike on the second day.
Trail users in the National Park are required to have a Cinque Terre Card; I got the version that includes local train service between the towns. My plan for the day was to take the train from Riomaggiore to Monterosso, walk the two northern sections of the coastal trail to Vernazza and then to Corniglia, take the train to Manarola and explore a bit there, and take another train back to Riomaggiore. My GPS tracks are shown in blue here.
Although the coastal trail closely follows the coastline, it is far from a level trail! My total mileage for the day was about 9.4 miles, with an elevation gain of over 2200 feet. There was so much to see that I am writing three posts in all (see here and here for the other sections). This post covers the first section, from Monterossa to Vernazza, which was 2.8 miles with 825 feet of elevation gain. The elevation profile covers the longer continuous section to, and slightly past, Corniglia.
As soon as I disembarked from the trail I knew I would be in for a treat. The day was clear and sunny, and the nearby beach was set up with rows of colorful beach umbrellas along the waterfront. At frequent intervals ferries arrived at the dock to allow passengers to disembark and embark. I noted a group of snorkelers swimming just offshore from the cliffs, with their position denoted by a bright red inflatable with a red flag. Interesting and colorful buildings perched on the steep hillsides that rise up from the Ligurian Sea. Though not in this view, there is a large cement sculpture called The Giant, which projects from the cliffside at the north end of the beach.
Much of the town is spread up the hillside from the harbor/beach area. This view shows the upper part of town and the higher inland terrain. It is no wonder that the small towns and villages near the coast were, for centuries, cut off from the rest of Italy, requiring a long journey by boat as well as overland. Up the hill there is a bridge associated with the coastal highway, which seems to alternate between bridges and tunnels. I didn’t get up to the road, but I bet it’s a spectacular drive.
The trail is well-marked, both with signage at junctions and with occasional red and white painted blazes on rocks. The painted blazes are a national standard, and I would see many of them later on in the Dolomites. In many places the hillside drops off steeply, and there is rarely a guard rail. Fortunately the trail is generally a bit wider than single-track, so hikers can pass each other. The trail passes literally right past the back yards of local residents. Many parts of the hillside are covered with tiny vineyards like this one.
I encountered several types of wildflower, and was initially surprised that some seemed identical to wildflowers I’ve seen in the United States. In addition to Mediterranean types of flowers, like bougainvillea and fuchsia, I found other flowers that I’d seen in Wisconsin, definitely not a Mediterranean climate! Some of the Midwest flowers included bergamot – or perhaps its European cousin – and chicory (Cichorum intybus).
About 1.9 miles from the start, in the high section around 500 feet elevation, I was happy to re-encounter an American couple with whom I’d had a long conversation at the Riomaggiore train station while waiting for a train. They had ridden to Vernazza and were hiking only the section to Monterosso. As we had chatted earlier in the morning we were surprised to discover that we live less than 10 miles away from each other!
In several places there were stunning views southeast along the coastline. Here Vernazza can be seen perched on a small promontory, or point (punta), with several more in the distance behind.
I turned around frequently to view the coastline to the northwest, back toward Monterosso. The distinctive promontory is Punta Mesco. In the foreground note how steep the hillside is as it meets the sea. The towns of Cinque Terre are connected by boat, footpath, and more recently by railway. There are very few vehicles in the towns, and the only vehicle access to the towns is inland from a single highway that runs parallel to the coastline.
Not long after passing the high point about 2.2 miles from the start, as the path got closer to Vernazza, there was a wonderful birds-eye overview of the town. The trail then descended steeply, with a 19% average grade approaching town.
Just as I happened to be in a location where I could see the train tracks below, I heard a train approach and was able to whip out my camera in time for a quick picture. Evidently the northbound and southbound trains have carefully coordinated schedules, since there are only single tracks in many areas. Note the vineyards higher up on the hillside.
There was also a great view illustrating the exceptionally clear water, as swimmers rested on rock towers that rose just above the water line.
As the trail descended into the town of Vernazza there was an interesting view across a tiny bay toward the buildings that seemed attached to the promontory almost like colorful cake decorations. In the foreground is the parish church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia, and in the background is one of the towers that were part of the fortification system. Both of these buildings likely date from the 13th or 14th century.
After a short break in Vernazza I embarked on the next segment of the coastal trail to Corniglia, described in the next post.