We were on a 3-weeks driving vacation from Central to Southern Italy and Sicily. With so many celebrated highlights within these regions, such as UNESCO sites, cathedrals, vineyards, quaint villages, volcanoes, ancient cities, and national parks, it was difficult to narrow down the choices for our itinerary.
Hiking the 12 km trail, Cinque Terre (five villages), is a natural must do for outdoor lovers, or just anyone who wants to burn off the calories from all the rich Italian meals. Most people do this hike over several days, but we decided to it in one day instead. The entire Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The day before the hiking day, we stayed overnight in the port town of La Spezia, the main transport hub for the area, just to the southeast of the Cinque Terre. La Spezia is one of the six stops for the Cinque Terre train, the other five stops being each of the five villages, from south to north: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso.
We stayed at a guest house at La Spezia with parking for our car, and within walking distance to the train station, in order to have an early start on the train ride to begin our hike.
From La Spezia to Riomaggiore is just 10 minutes by the local train. And between the actual Cinque Terre towns, it’s less than 5 minutes. But keep in mind the train does not run very often, in fact, generally once an hour. It is a good idea to obtain a copy of the train schedule when you purchase the ticket.
You can start the hike from any of the villages. We decided to start the hike from north to south, starting with the first official village of Monterosso.
This village is the most accessible village and is the only Cinque Terre settlement to have a proper beach. It is the most resort-oriented compared to the other villages, with more modern apartments and hotels to accommodate a large number of tourists. There is an underground tunnel that links the new and old part of the village. The old part of town has a seaside castle, a cathedral, Garibaldi Square, the Monterosso Town Hall and restaurant and shops. New Monterosso is north of the seaside Castle. It has a long sandy beach and a seaside pedestrian promenade.
After a quick look around Monterosso, we located the trail head for the hike. There was a sign that said the trail is closed but we noticed several other hikers going into the trail ignoring the sign, so we followed. The trail was hilly and quite narrow at some sections. However, we did not notice any obvious dangers that would warrant the trail being closed. We met several other hikers on the trail hiking in the opposite direction.
From Monterossa, we reached the narrow town streets of Vernazza after 90 minutes of steady hiking. The pretty town was very inviting with bright flowers lining the the streets and store fronts. The temperature was a comfortable 22-25 degrees Celsius throughout our hike.
Vernazza has a small harbour, the only landing point on the Cinque Terre coast. There is no car traffic in Vernazza. It is known as the quaintest, and the steepest of the five villages. A main street links seaside Piazza Marconi with the train station. The town has colorful, antique homes clinging to steep cliffs, an ancient castle and a dramatic seaside church. The village is surrounded by steep terraced olive groves which is supposed to produce some of the finest olive oil in the country.
Our hike from Vernazza to Corniglia was also 90 minutes. Looking back to Vernazza about 15 minutes into this section, we could really appreciate the steepness of Vernazza. Halfway along this section, we stopped at a cafe that serves fresh orange juice, beer or coffee. We enjoyed a well deserved beer with the breathtaking view.
It was early afternoon when we arrived at Corniglia, the only town that is not adjacent to the sea. This is the quiet village that sits atop of a promontory about 100 metres high, surrounded on three sides by vineyards and terraces, the fourth side descends steeply to the sea. From the railway station, there is a 380 steps brick stairway, the Lardarina, that must be climbed to get into the village center.
The path from Corniglia to Manarola is closed, and the alternate upper path would take too long to do, so we took the train for this section.
Manarola is famous for its sweet Sciacchetrà wine. It’s has many priceless medieval relics, supporting claims that it is the oldest of the five villages. It is only 500 meters away from the first village, Riomaggiore, the final village of our hike. The town has many boats for hire, and many good swimming holes. By not walking this section, we had time to enjoy a nice swim near the cliffs outside the Manorola town center.
The last section of the blue trail, the short route from Manorola to Riomaggiore was also closed. We found the entrance to the alternate higher route to Riomaggiore which was also marked closed. Fortunately, another hiker coming in the opposite direction informed us it is not dangerous in spite of the warning sign. We bypassed the warning sign and a gate to access this alternate route.
The hike was quite steep, but not in anyway dangerous. We had wide open spectacular views, both north back to Manarola, or south to Riomaggiore along this higher route. The route also led us close to many fruit filled vineyards.
We arrived at Riomaggiore, the largest of the five village, in the late afternoon. With the brighter part of the sun diminished, it was now an ideal time to capture better photos of the colourful pastel buildings clinging to a steep ravine, the area’s favorite postcard view.
We walked over to the Riomaggiore town center, the busiest of the five villages, and rewarded ourselves with beers and seafood cones.
We wandered around Riomaggiore, enjoying the romantic sights of the colorful peeling building over the tiny harbour from different vantage points. The restaurants and cafes were starting to get lively, with many advertising their happy hour (aperitivo) specials.
Just before dark, we made our way to the train station for our short train ride back to La Spezia.
10 Tips for hiking Cinque Terre in one day: 1. La Spezia is a good overnight base for your hike. You do not need to stay at one of the five villages because the Cinque Terre train stops in La Spezia. 2. Do try to get on the trail early. Like most places with lots of tourists, the earlier you get on the trail the better. This is especially important if you are hiking on the weekend. 3. Buying the Cinque Terre card is worth it as it includes the National Park fee and train rides between the villages. It also saves time from figuring out the machines to buy individual tickets between villages. 4. You don't need to spend money on detail maps if you are only hiking the most popular trails. They are well marked. The map provided when you purchase your Cinque Terre card will suffice. 5. The trails are hard packed dirt or loose stones. You need sturdy shoes, ideally with good support; but heavy duty hiking boots are not really necessary. 6. Check with locals or other hikers regarding trail closures. The open and close status is not accurate on the web site. Anytime you are uncomfortable, just turn around and head for the train. 7. Do keep your backpack light. There are plenty of opportunities for purchasing refreshments during the hike. There are drinkable public fountains with drinkable water throughout Cinque Terre. 8. Bring a bathing suit. Hiking from North to South, you will be in Manarola when the temperature is warmer for a swim in the many watering holes. 9. Be sure to grab a printed timetable from any of the five train stations in Cinque Terre or the La Spezia station. You will want to know the train time should you need to take the train to bypass a closed trail, or how long to linger over a drink or meal before heading for the train home. 10. Walk, even if you are not a hiker. You can still take the train between the villages, walk around the town and have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the views, the hillside terraces and the country side. In fact, you will have more time to take that fabulous photo of the romantic hillside houses, all in perfect lighting since you won't have to worry about timing your hike.