Cinque Terre In One Day

Full of confidence, the Solo Lady Traveller set out to walk the Cinque Terre in one day (well, parts of it), as a sort of sampler to see if I would want to do a 9-day trek next year. After all, I had been regularly doing walks of 7km to 14 km in length, so a few hours in the Cinque Terre with the longest leg of this particular trek at 4.8km held no fears. With the sublime confidence of ignorance I set out at 8am from Florence on a September day promising yet more unseasonal scorching-hot and extremely humid weather, on a bus with 18 other eager walkers and a cheerful guide. cinque-terre-mapNow, just in case you are one of the 10 people on the planet who has not either been to the Cinque Terre on the north-west coast of Italy, or dreamed of going there, a quick bit of background. The Cinque Terre, or Five Lands, actually consists of 12 small mediaeval villages (only 5 are on the coast) within the Cinque Terre National Park, Italy's first national park gazetted in 1999, and also its smallest at 1,740 hectares (4,300 acres); it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally an extremely poor land of fishermen, the villages are on steep hillsides set amongst groves of their famous lemons, which are sweeter than the norm, and olives and grapes, both of which produce very small fruit of intense flavour. Nowadays the economy is based on tourism, as millions of tourists, like me, flood through at the rate of up to 40,000 per day! to enjoy the lovely villages and countryside, and to walk the Sentiero Azzurro, or walking path running 14.5 km from Riomaggiore in the south to Monterossa in the north. The journey from Florence took almost 2 1/2 hours rolling smoothly through gorgeous Tuscan and Ligurian countryside, past Carrera where the mountains are white with the dust of 2000 years of marble mining, with avalanches of white dust looking like unseasonal snow, and through mile after mile of very advanced tree nurseries at Pistoia, many of the trees pruned and trained to fantastic shapes. We drove through the lovely port town of La Spezia in an area famous for its beauty, and where Lord Byron and Percy Shelley lived (in fact Shelley drowned there), on through steep winding hills past Riomaggiore to Manarola. And still the Solo Lady Traveller experienced no twinges of doubt, no thoughts of "Gee, these hills look steep". cinque-terre-manarolaAbove Manarola we left the bus and took a path down into the pretty little town, population 450, where we marched directly to the train station, beside the sea; unfortunately doing this trek in one day required some fairly brisk movement in this early stage of the walk, because this village beckoned me to stroll and explore, and possibly eat a gelato. However we took the train to Corniglia; our trusty guide Freddie had the train tickets and, looking at the crowding and with his enormous experience of this train, he led us to particular spot on the platform, told us to string together and "hold our ground" to ensure a spot on the train. After a successful military-style operation boarding the train we travelled one stop, about 3 minutes, to Corniglia. From the station we walked straight up the Four Hundred Steps leading to Corniglia village. (Numbered steps seem to be a theme of my recent travel, such as the One Thousand Steps at fabulous Villfranche de Conflent!). The temperature was climbing as we climbed those stairs, low thirties with humidity about 90%. And still I had no qualms..... At the top we barely paused for breath; I would have loved to have a look around the town, a gloriously picturesque village of about 260 people, but again, this one-day "sampler" trek required fast movement. I did not even take a photo until we sat down in the Cecio restaurant on the northern side of the village. cinque-terre-conigliaFor me, the trek really started here. We were seated on a wide shady terrace overlooking the gelato-coloured houses of Corniglia, with the sun glittering off the Ligurian Sea below us, and a welcome waft of breeze to cool us down. Corniglia is the only one of the five coastal villages not beside the sea; it is on a promontory 100 metres high, swathed in terraced orchards and vineyards. The 4 other villages of the Cinque Terre can bee seen from a terrace in the village. It dates from Roman times, and a castle is known to have been there in the 1200s, but its location has not been found. We were given a plate of various seafood delicacies as an entree, including tiny marinated raw anchovies, sardines stuffed with cheese and fried, a potato and octopus salad, baccala, and a crab cake; then spaghetti with pesto alla genovese, in the Ligurian style, with pieces of potato and green beans cooked with the pasta before the pesto is stirred through. Carb loading seemed like a good idea at this time! I drank 4 litres of water and was still thirsty; I later wished that I had drunk more. Note that this is the last opportunity you will have to use a restroom for some time, and Cecio's are very nice. But my usual warning - always carry toilet paper or tissues. Everywhere. Many places run out. cinque-terre-cornigliaAfter lunch Freddie pointed out a small pink building, high above us and far away, as being the highest point of the 4.8km walk from Corniglia to Vernazza, so we set off into the midday heat. The path climbed steadily at first, a loose gravel and stone path affording lovely views back to Corniglia. At times we were walking along terraces through the lemon and olive groves, where nets lay looped around the trees ready to be laid out to catch the olives when they are raked down at harvest time; at other times along the edge of the cliff where, thankfully, there was usually a guardrail, although not always one I would trust with my life. Still, a good psychological prop, if you dislike heights as I do. vernazza-trailAs we moved on the path become steadily steeper, with long flights of stone stairs often with very irregular crumbling treads, and heights up to 60cm per step. Each set of steps seemed longer, rougher, and steeper than the last one, and most of us huffed and puffed a bit, including me, with my pride hell-bent on not being the last at any stage. I have no photos of the worst of the steps because I was sweating, puffing, and using my hands to clamber up the steps. After about 45 minutes we reached the summit, where a little cafe appeared heaven-sent through the trees, selling cold water and slushies made with their incredibly flavourful tangy sweet lemons. I knew from my bush-walking youth that everyone dreads the uphill sections of a hike, but in fact the downhill is much harder; so fortified with ice-cold lemon and sugar, we set off down the trail. It quickly became obvious that the steps were steeper and more irregular going down to Vernazza, and often with nothing to get a grip on. One of our group, Chris, a nice young man from Florida, just walked up to me with a big stout stick and said, "Here, take this". Believe me, I was grateful and used it all the way down to Vernazza. The climb down was pretty gruelling, extraordinarily hot and humid, very steep, and seemed to go on forever. Well, perhaps another 45 minutes, but much slower going than the ascent; it is much easier and more dangerous to fall going downwards than climbing up. Our guide, Freddie, was alert to everyone's progress, and at one stage hovered near me a bit, but as he pointed out I was not the last of our group, there were several behind me. Ah, the vanity of a Solo Lady Traveller of mature yIMG_3036ears! But we have learnt endurance. I gave  40 years to some of the members of the group, and at least 15 to all of them. At length we emerged onto a small rock platform with the most picture-book view of Vernazza, in fact every travel article you read on the Cinque Terre has a photo from this exact spot. Unfortunately mine has my thumb in the corner. Oh well. It was still another 10 minutes down into Vernazza, another gorgeous village,  which has no car traffic. It dates from at least 1080, and is a village of steps rather than paths or roads. We had a little time to look at the beautiful little harbour, which in mediaeval times was apparently used to protect the coastline from pirates. cinque-torre-vernazzaIt is still a genuine fishing village, with boats lying in the street (whether for storage of for picturesque value I am not sure) although its real income is almost entirely from tourism. The train line arrived into Cinque Terre in 1874; before this they were only accessible by boat. Oddly enough, even though the villages were still crowded although it was mid-September, they all had quite a laid-back relaxed atmosphere, with people chatting to strangers, eating ice crams, shopping, and just sitting. We took the train onwards to Monterosso, the north-western-most village of the Cinque Terre where we actually had almost an hour to roam the town. This is comparatively large, with a population of 1,500, and a lovely long beach which some of our group swam at; in fact Anna and Chris lost track of time and nearly missed the train on to Riomaggiore. Monterosso and the other Cinque Terre villages are well-known for their white wine, the Cinque Terre DOC which is made form Albarola, Bosco and Vermentino grapes. Sciacchetra is also produced in the area; this is made from grapes which have been allowed to dry on the vine, producing a sweet wine to be consumed with cheese. The train station and beach are connected to the town by a long tunnel shared by pedestrians and cars. In the late afternoon we took the train back along the length of the Cinque Terre to Riomaggiore, the point of entry for most people into the Five Lands, being closest to La Spezia. It is the starting point for the Via Dell'Amore, the shortest and easiest section of the Sentiero Azzuro from Riomaggiore to Manarola. Unfortunately it is closed due to some collapses of the path in 2012 which seriously injured several Australian women. cinque-terre-riomaggioreThe train station and beach are connected to the village by a tunnel several hundred metres long, which has fascinating mosaics and tiles work all along its sides; giant starfish, tumbles of natural stone, tiles, glass, all very beautiful and tactile and a fantastic deterrent to graffiti. The charming young Australian woman on our tour and I both kept running our hands over the mosaics and murals; it would be hard not to because of the textures. IMG_3041The village is tucked down into a cleft by the sea, with short streets and staircases angling into one another, and lots of cafes and restaurants selling paper cones of fried fish, as well as the usual pasta and pizzas of holiday fare. Several of our group ate dinner in Riomaggiore at about 6.30 as we would not be back at Santa Maria Novella station in Florence until 8.30, and I do not think anyone felt that they would want to go out again after getting back to their hotels and showering. I ate a really good gelato, €2 for two scoops, a bargain; that and (blush) a margherita did me for dinner. At 6.40pm we caught the train to La Spezia where our bus was waiting with the trusty Salvatore at the wheel, ready for the 1 hour 45 minute drive back to Florence. I have to admit that I was not looking forward to the 25 minute walk back to my hotel, but it was fine, I quite enjoyed the stroll. So would I do it again? I was not so sure when I reached Vernazza! but in hindsight, yes I would. It was fairly gruelling, but mainly because of the appalling heat and humidity, and the fact that we had to cover a lot of ground in a short time. I loved the trek, with that endorphin flush that you get after a solid workout. But be warned; if 400 steps, followed by a 1 1/2 hour workout on a stepper machine in the gym (with really really steep steps) does not appeal, this may not be the trek for you. I enjoyed the group of people, a delightful Latvian purser on big yachts, some Canadians, several Australians, ranging in age I would guess from about 20 to about 50; all very congenial company. And of course, Freddie, our ever-cheerful ever-helpful guide, who did not wave an umbrella or a cute sign, but still managed to get us everywhere happily and on time for a fairly tight schedule. Facts Cinque Terre Trek with Walkabout Florence, €100 including transport to/from Florence, entry to the park, train tickets and lunch. If you are not travelling in a tour, a one-day pass to Cinque Terre, the Cinque Terre Card, currently (September 2015) costs €7.50 but this varies according to the number of sections of the trail which are open. It is valid from moment of purchase until midnight, not for 24 hours, so best not to buy it in the afternoon. There is also a special ticket which allows unlimited travel on the train between La Spezia and Levanto (i.e. the entire Cinque Terre Line) which costs an extra €5. The Cinque Terre Card also allows free bus travel, usage of wifi, and free entry to some museums. Here is a nice article about someone's experience in the Cinque Terre. with details on restaurants and hotels. Wear good walking shoes! This is not the place for flip-flops or nice sandals. And as always, carry toilet paper.      
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