An intro to… the Cinque Terre
Gillian Price’s Walking Italy's Cinque Terre is a collection of 16 breath-taking routes described in tempting detail. Here, Gillian answers the questions that visitors frequently ask about this magical part of the world.
What exactly are the Cinque Terre and where on earth are they?
They are five villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – strung along a spectacular near-vertical rocky coastline in northwest Italy. This is the Liguria region and we're talking about a mere 12km stretch between the towns of La Spezia and Genoa.
Why does everyone rave about them? What's the big deal?
The actual villages are a photogenic jumble of tiny tower-like houses constructed in medieval times on morsels of rocky terrain. In some cases, they're hardly a wave's spray back from the sea, although flights of steps and a maze of steep alleys lead up to higher buildings perched on headlands.
Communications were once by boat and, more importantly, by a network of mule tracks climbing inland and linking the inhabitants to their fields. To be honest 'fields' is not exactly appropriate for the Cinque Terre as we're talking about minuscule handkerchiefs of land, painstakingly levelled over the centuries to form shallow terrace upon terrace of cultivated plots supported by dry stone walls and embankments. Cascading down the slopes, they follow the contours of the land and form a breath-taking landscape that is immediately recognisable as the Cinque Terre. The great news for walkers is that there are marked routes that follow these age-old trails passing between rows of carefully trained grapevines, olive groves and even vegetable plots.
Can I drive there?
Can we have the next question please?
OK, the Cinque Terre do have road access but we're talking about narrow and remarkably steep roads that are essential to residents and suppliers alike. The few car parks available to outsiders are located well above the villages and charge heavily for the privilege of parking. Bottom line: take the train. That in itself is a unique experience as the line – which dates back to the 1870s – burrows through the mountainous coast, emerging every couple of kilometres at one or another of the villages. The platforms themselves extend into tunnels.
I've heard it's difficult to carry luggage into the villages. What's the best option?
Carry as little as possible as you'll be the one lugging your bags up and down gravity-defying flights of steps and squeezing along alleyways on the way to your accommodation. Lifts are virtually unheard of. Most railway stations have left luggage facilities so, needs be, you can leave excess stuff there.
How does the 'closed visitor number' system work?
Despite widespread rumours to the contrary, there is no limit on visitor numbers.
Is it really as crowded as people say?
Yes, but it's quite manageable. You have to be aware that it can get pretty crowded, especially on public holidays and weekends. Not really surprising seeing as the Cinque Terre are on the whole world's bucket list. But fear not. The villages begin to fill up with day trippers mid-morning and start to empty late afternoon, so walkers should plan to be away early on the paths. But remember that you're part of the crowd, too, so enjoy it with everyone else… If lots of people are not your thing, go out of season – between October and April.
How long should I stay in the Cinque Terre?
As long as possible! You can hardly get the feel of this unique area in a single day. As far as I'm concerned, a week is the absolute minimum. And even then you'll be scratching your head trying to make up your mind between the choice of walks. Give yourself time to settle into your accommodation and wander around the village. If you need a rest from walking take a ferry trip to admire the Cinque Terre from the sea or go swimming or canoeing.
Where should I stay?
Definitely in one of the Cinque Terre villages – as opposed to La Spezia or other larger places on the outskirts. It's a real privilege to stay in one of these unique spots and there's a huge range of accommodation, including rooms and apartments. Waking up in the Cinque Terre will undeniably be a memorable part of your holiday.
Is Porto Venere in the Cinque Terre?
Porto Venere (not to be confused with Portofino – another Ligurian beauty spot located west, past Genoa) is not strictly one of the Famous Five. But the charming waterfront village lies a short distance south and is linked into the Cinque Terre path network.
A bonus for visitors is the nearby island of Palmaria – with a walk of its own.
Do I need to book to walk the famous Via dell'Amore?
Booking path access is never necessary however this route (which links Manarola and Riomaggiore) is currently closed as it is being reconstructed after storm damage. The Cinque Terre Park website gives up-to-date info about paths.
Is there a charge to use the paths?
The only route subject to a fee is the Sentiero Verde Azzurro – SVA – which links all five villages. However, at present only two sections are accessible. In any case you can buy a day pass at the ticket booth where the walk starts. The Cinque Terre Park uses the proceeds for path maintenance. Multi-day passes including train travel, WC and local shuttle buses are also available. See the Cinque Terre Park website.
Are all the Cinque Terre walks day routes? Are there any multi-day treks?
While most of the routes in Walking Italy's Cinque Terreare day walks, you can easily put together a superbly rewarding traverse by stringing together six of them. Trek from Levanto all the way over to Porto Venere on the Gulf of La Spezia in 3–4 days. Along the way you stay in a different village each night and get a wonderful idea of the Cinque Terre as a whole.
Does the Cinque Terre close down in the winter?
Many of the accommodation providers and eateries close in the winter months for maintenance as well as holidays, although by no means all. While at this time of year the Ligurian coast can be battered by storms, wind and rain, there are also brilliantly crisp sunny days when you'll have paths to yourselves. Late winter is when the tree heather blooms on a vast scale, transforming the hillsides into a sea of white, which looks like snow from a distance.
What if the path I've chosen is closed?
Choose another one. Under no circumstances should anyone venture onto a path that has been closed by the local authorities.
You are putting your own life and those of the emergency services at risk if you need rescuing. The local authorities take risk very seriously – as should all visitors. In the aftermath of strong storms and heavy rain paths are often closed off – sometimes as a precaution as rockfall and landslides are a constant threat. Fire danger in high summer is another reason. All closures are listed on the Cinque Terre Park website.
How can I avoid hilly terrain in the Cinque Terre?
This one's a bit hard to answer. Suggestions welcome…
What should I do about a toilet stop?
Remember to go before you set out on your walk – all the railway stations have a WC, as do most cafés. However, along the path walkers inevitably need a nature stop. In recent years the dramatic increase in visitor numbers has meant an awful parallel increase in unsightly toilet paper and tissues (and worse) left behind trees and in spots hidden from the main pathways. Please be considerate when making a toilet stop. Nobody likes seeing what other people leave behind. If you really must use paper then carry it away with you – the small plastic bags used by dog owners are suitable. Then dispose of it properly when you reach the trailhead. It's that simple.
Are all the walks difficult?
Absolutely not, although they don't rate as strolls either due to the nature of the terrain. There are plenty of short loops around and above villages such as Riomaggiore and Manarola that can be done at a leisurely pace.
Is it OK to walk in sandals?
Yes, if you plan on spraining an ankle or tripping and fracturing a leg. The terrain is uneven and rocky and you need footwear with good grip and some ankle support. Lightweight walking boots are the best bet, although quality sports shoes will be OK.
Will I need trekking poles?
This depends on knees and individual preferences, but I can personally guarantee that if you take a pair of trekking poles with you to the Cinque Terre you won't regret it. Level terrain is unheard of, gradients tend to be steep and never-ending flights of stone steps appear out of nowhere. Telescopic lightweight poles are perfect on such routes. Remember, though, that if you're flying to Italy they're not allowed in cabin baggage so need to be in checked into hold luggage. You can always buy a pair of poles at an outdoor store in places such as La Spezia, but then what will you do with them?
Are there any quiet walking routes?
You bet there are! Several jaw-dropping (and knee-challenging) paths can be found in the southernmost section near the mountain hamlet of Campiglia, including the spectacular stone stepped way down to Monesteroli.
Buone camminate! Happy walking!
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