Parco Nazionale Delle Cinque Terre
We had seen and heard a lot about Cinque Terre, but it wasn’t until we visited the unique villages that I truly grasped the sheer resilience that was necessary for the development of the townships. Parco Nazionale Delle Cinque Terre, or the Cinque Terre National Park, is unique in every sense of the word. Cinque Terre, which translates to five villages, and the 3,860 hectares that surround the towns are now recognised as a National Park. It is the smallest, yet most densely populated National Park in Italy and special due to the way the landscape has been so deeply changed by human interaction. After nearly 1000 years of inhabitation, the people of Cinque Terre have gradually dissected the ridiculous slopes of the land to form narrow strips for plantations. Today, the pretty towns and their surrounds are recognised by UNESCO and admired by many visitors each year.
It became clear early on there are two ways you can visit Cinque Terre. If you’re feeling energetic (or channelling your inner mountain goat), you can opt to walk between each of the towns. Otherwise, the brilliance of modern engineering means there is a rail network that links each of the towns. There is also a bus service that runs between the towns, which of course means there are roads. Travelling with the adventure-hungry mountain goat you can take a quick guess at which method we chose to explore the town. On reflection, it was amazing to traipse along the paths that were formed many years ago, when the only way to travel between the towns was via land.
The first of the towns we visited, Riomaggiore is named after the Rivus Maior stream that runs under the main street of the town. Viewing the town from the ocean the houses almost look like Lego pieces that have been haphazardly placed across the land. Steep terraces extend up behind the houses and are still growing traditional produce such as olives.
After catching a train to Riomaggiore, the closet town to La Spezia (where we were stayed), I was pretty disappointed when the lady in the office reinforced the closure of the coastal paths between not only Riomaggiore and Manarola but also Manarola and Corniglia. As we were turning to leave she informed us of the other pathways were still open. Equipped with a map and directions, we set off and I will happily admit I was not psychologically prepared for the walk.
What I had thought would be a casual stroll was in fact a solid 45minutes of steep incline, followed by a rapid decline. Blowing harder than a steam train and barely covering any ground, I was cursing the kind lady in the information office. Quick to imply his superiority, Jimmy took off with and I’ll meet you at the top’. He has long since learnt it would be easier reasoning with a toddler than me when I’m walking up hill. I’ll admit, as I have done before, that climbing uphill is not a strength and this path (number 531 from Riomaggiore to Manarola) sure got the best of me.
With that said, we got a lovely aerial view of Riomaggiore. The highest part of the track gave us an excellent vantage point and it was a beautiful spot to stop and admire the incredible scenery. It gave a completely different perspective of the town that we had admired from the waters edge.
Arriving in Manarola after a hellish walk, we enjoyed a quiet snack as the water lapped at the edges of the jaggered rocks. As with Riomaggiore, the township hugs the valley as it rises above the sea. A town of stairs and narrow roads, we were amazed to see a car squeeze along a path I would have considered a footpath. I admire the spatial awareness these drivers must have; although, saying that, many of the cars look as though they have been used as dodgem cars and it seems touch parking is fair game here.
After exploring the town we yet again embarked on an uphill walk. This time we had to ask for directions to the start of the track from a local, who laughed and said ‘good luck’. Armed with that information I was a bit more prepared and we set off. While I still felt as though I had been smoking a pack a day for 50 years (I blame all the second hand smoke we have been exposed to since travelling), this hike (path 506 which connects to 586 in Volastra) was much more manageable. We passed through the small town of Volastra at the top, a beautiful old town with an incredible view.
We returned to Manarola in the early evening after deciding it was the most picturesque spot to capture the sunset. As it would be, many others had similar ideas. While Jimmy was set up capturing the moment, I was entertained by the steady stream of photographers who were continuously arriving with their various ranges of equipment.
Perched precariously on the edge of the cliff, this town boasts the most difficult access to the water and is the only Cinque Terre town that doesn’t have a harbour. Previously, the town was only linked by the narrow pathways we walked along. Now, a single narrow road runs through the centre of the town and links Corniglia with the remaining Cinque Terre. The town itself is beautiful, surrounded on three edges by vineyards and closed in by the ocean on the fourth. I even found the narrow alleyways of Corniglia the most captivating of all the Cinque Terre. A beautiful tiny town and a great place to explore.
Ever budget-conscious, we enjoyed a pre-packed lunch in the town square. I watched as hoards of people wandered past with Gelato, envious of their culinary delight. Unfortunately, my taskmaster wouldn’t entertain thoughts of the sugary treat until we had finished out walking. It wasn’t long until he was, yet again, cracking the whip and insisting we surge forward and start the next portion of the walk. Back on the standard path (592 or the coastal path), there was a notable difference in the pathway. Not only was it significantly easier, it also had some excellent view points just waiting to be exploited.
As we arrived in Vernazza, it was easy to see why this is often considered the most picturesque Cinque Terre village. A natural pier wraps around, creating a safe harbour and the perfect spot to enjoy the town. While we were there a man was entertaining the crowd on his piano accordion, which seemed to somehow suit the atmosphere of the town. This seemed to be one of the busiest towns; perhaps the open square and gorgeous harbour encouraged people to stay a bit longer. The steady stream of people with gelato continued as we enjoyed another pre-packed snack. At least my bag was getting lighter.
We took off on the last portion of our hike, heading for Monterosso, the last of the Cinque Terre villages. As we continued, it became clear this path (also path 592 or the coastal path) was again significantly easier than the first two. This came as a relief to my damaged ego and exhausted legs. With a newfound energy and the promise of gelato at the end, we took off at a cracking pace and demolished the walk. The beauty of the area was not lost on us as we continued along the last pathway, basking in the spring sunshine.
A bit of a relief for all, we arrived in Monterosso. Slightly delirious from the extensive hiking (or perhaps I am just unfit) I failed to absorb too much of the town, instead focusing on the glorious flavours of the gelato and enjoying the end of a great day. The largest of the Cinque Terre villages, it was also the busiest. A beachfront boardwalk lined with shops made Monterosso feel open and welcoming. The perfect end to a great day exploring Cinque Terre.
After quickly realising the accommodation in Cinque Terre not only broke our budget, but also smashed it, we scouted out the neighbouring towns and were lucky enough to stumble across La Spezia. Only a short, 5minute train ride from Riomaggiore we utilised the close proximity and stayed in the bigger town. We spent some time exploring the town, which is a gracious Italian seaside town. We were lucky enough to be there during a festival and it seemed the whole town was present at the fair to see what was on offer. Stumbling around in the crowd, we retreated to the seaside before wandering back to our temporary home.
IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW…
If you are planning on travelling to Cinque Terre there are a few thing worth knowing before you go;
- You need to buy an access card to the Cinque Terre National Park. The Hiking Card allows access to all the tracks for 7.50Euro; The Train MS Card allows access to all tracks and all public transport (the buses and trains) for 12.00Euro. You can also buy a two-day pass for 23.00Euro.
- The track can be pretty treacherous, with odd steps and many loose stones. I’d suggest wearing decent shoes.
- The waterfront pathway was closed and looked as though it had been that way for quite some time.
- The roads are quite narrow and I didn’t see any parking so I think driving would be more trouble than it’s worth.
- I am convinced the Italians lie about the distances between each of the towns. While the distances seemed to be underestimated, the time frames seemed to be over estimated so I suppose they balance out.
- It took us about 6hours to complete the walk from Riomaggiore to Monterosso, which includes the time in each town. We generally stopped for about half an hour to explore at each town.
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