GUEST ARTICLE: Cinque Terre in the Italian Riviera attracts hoards of tourists from around the world.
So what is the Cinque Terre? Cinque means five and Terre means lands. Bring them together and you have five, colourful, small but distinct fishing villages perched on sandstone cliffs stretching over about 10 kilometres of rugged coastline.
The Cinque Terre is protected as a National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A Cinque Terre Pass is required to access the walking trail.
Various types of reasonably priced passes are available from one day to seven days with optional train or ferry inclusions. Passes are checked at various points along the track and can be bought from the ticket office in Riomaggiore.
A bus service run by the Parco Nazionale Delle Cinque Terre can take pass holders to the villages from pre determined pick up points.
Alternatively, regular regional trains running from nearby La Spezia Centrale railway station can also take you into Riomaggiore in less than 10 minutes for less than 2 euros.
Train stations and a walking trail links the five villages – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Montorosso. This means you can spend time in each village sampling the local produce and relaxing.
Check out the website of the national railway network – Tren Italia for up-to-date timetables and ticketing information
Despite its protected status, the walking track is poorly maintained in many sections. The local authorities just don’t seem to channel enough money from ticket sales into the preservation effort.
When I was there in May 2009, many of the dirt tracks were worn out; flimsy plastic fences were erected to keep walkers away from the edge of some sections of the cliff and water was leaking from some pipelines making the track muddy.
The villages formed on the foot of fertile coastal cliffs in a climate prone to weathering and erosion. The locals largely depend on the fruits of their toil on these inhospitable slopes for their livelihood.
Large tracts of planted terraces surround the villages, supplying locals with produce like lemons, olives and fruits.
The first village, Riomaggiore can feel overcrowded, as it’s the easiest starting point for many visitors and tour groups.
But, if you venture off the beaten track into the quiet lanes and narrow passages, you’ll experience the easy paced life of the locals away from the hustle and bustle of the main thoroughfare. I really wonder how they cope with the daily tourist intrusions.
The Lovers Walk Via Dell ‘Amore in Italian is an under whelming short, fenced footpath covered in wall-to-wall ‘I love you’ messages and padlocks.
Unfortunately, many tourists go over board and deface the area by carving their messages onto every surface they can get their hands on including plant foliage, boulders and the ceiling of the small tunnel.
It’s sad that once a world-class sight is discovered, some people always have to graffiti their name or slogan onto it.
You might get away with wearing a pair of sandals or thongs (‘flip flops’) up to this point, but if you want to continue the hike on foot, wear a comfortable pair of sturdy walking or hiking shoes or you’ll suffer.
Ironically, the first shops in many of the villages tended to sell “Scholls” brand foot and shoe pads and bandages for all the walkers with sore feet!
Manarola is an easy 30-minute stroll from Riomaggiore and is often packed with more Australian, Kiwi, American, Canadian and German accents than you can imagine, due to the flatness of the path.
You’d be hard pressed to find a real Italiano amongst the masses, which is a shame as each of the villages seem to have become miniature tourist enclaves with shops, restaurants and hotels designed and priced to cater for tourist traffic.
As you continue along the trail leaving Manarola, don’t forget to take the classic postcard shot of the village, the picture that probably brought you here in the first place.
The stretch of coastline towards Corniglia is stunning, but be prepared to climb 382 steps before you think about putting your feet up and tucking into a slice of foccacia washed down with some Limoncello.
Walking from Corniglia to Vernazza takes a bit longer. Allow about 90 minutes to wind through this part of the track. It is cut through the vegetation of the Mediterranean landscape and can be arduous in some places.
A small sign next to the Farmacia (Pharmacy) marks the path to Montorosso, but it can be hard to spot. The trek from Vernazza to Montorsosso becomes progressively harder, steeper, narrower (from 6 to 12 inches wide) and leafier. Uneven dirt tracks, steps and stones punctuate this part of the path.
On a busy day, I would imagine it would become a bit dangerous and tough to navigate if tourist hoards were shuffling through each way. But don’t let this put you off. People of all ages, shapes and sizes walk back and forth along the track every year.
On the other hand, don’t feel like you have to “Do the 5 Terre” in 5 hours! If you’re staying a few nights, catch the bus or train and resume where you left off.
I laughed at how many people I saw or overheard who looked like they were a contestant in The Amazing Race American reality TV show. Kitted out with their North Face pack, bandanna, and hiking boots they zoomed through at breakneck speed in order to get the 5 villages out of the way, and then “do” Rome in a day.
I took 8 hours to complete the walking trail, spending time in each village for a snack, rest, wandering and taking photos.
As you approach Montorosso, the final village, you’ll catch glimpses of the sandy beach, or on a hot day, be dreaming of a gelato mirage. If this doesn’t entice you onwards, at least by now you’ll have come to appreciate the harsh conditions the locals have had to contend with year round, making the slog in the sun worth every ounce of sweat.
I took the ferry from Montorosso back to Riomaggiore. The ticket was a bit steep at 8 euros, but worth it. It took about 35 minutes and gave me a new perspective on each village.
Ostello Tramonti is located in the tiny hill top village of Biassa, near La Spezia, just outside the Cinque Terre. To get there, catch the small bus to Biassa from Brin Square – do not walk! The road to Biassa is extremely steep, narrow, windy and dangerous for walkers.
With dorms starting at 18 euros per night, Ostello Tramonti is a good choice for budget travelers looking to relax in a real Italian village away from the hordes. Breakfast is extra, but worth it for the view over Biassa down to La Spezia. Lockers, internet access and linen is included.
Just note that the bus runs on a tight schedule and if you miss the last one you might need to look for a cab to get back to the hostel.
Dining options in Biassa are limited. Bar Pizzeria Aquila, a small family run restaurant down the road from the hostel is highly recommended. You can tuck into its authentic selection of pizzas and pasta at prices you won’t find in any of the five villages.
This article has been written by Pranav Bhatt. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Economics and Business at Sydney University. He has an interest in world travel, cricket, politics, technology and the media.
If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution