Taking the High Road on a Quiet Day in the Cinque Terre

The five picturesque fishing villages of the Cinque Terre have been so inundated with tourists (2.5 million annually) that the Italian government has announced a controversial plan to limit tourism as early as this year. Here’s the skinny on what has happened and when/how to visit.

In early medieval times, the villages were developed as part of the Republic of Genoa’s defensive system against Turkish pirates. Reachable only by boat or on foot for centuries, the Cinque Terre stayed isolated and frozen in time until trains tracks were laid (19th century) and a small road was built (20th century) Mass tourism began developing in the 90s with the latest addition being continual busloads coming in from cruise ships arriving in from La Spezia.

The “tourist crisis” along with devastating flooding in October of 2011 has threatened the fabric of the tiny towns and the surrounding ecosystems as well. The Italian government responded with a plan to slash the annual number of tourists by a million using an advance reservation system and counters to stop more than a maximum number of tourists from entering. Despite widespread media coverage, the plan will not actually be put in place in 2016. Stay tuned…

The good news is that even without the government plan, you can still see the area without being in packs of tourist. Just choose the right time and place. (In this article, I have numbered the towns 1-5 going south to north.)

On a slightly overcast April Saturday, I took the train to Levanto, changed to the newly instituted “5 Terre Express” (from Levanto to La Spezia every half hour) and then continued to Manarola (2). (If you arrive by car, park at either La Spezia (south of the 5 Terre) or Levanto (north) and take the train or the ferry boat from there.)

5 Terre Map copy

I stopped in for a cappuccino and a brioche in a cafe in Manarola (2) tucked into the pink building in the center of photo below, just above the port, then, began my ascent up the #506 trail

(NB: The Sentiero Azurro–the Blue Trail—that runs along the sea from Riomaggiore (1) to Monterosso (5) is closed from Riomaggiore (1) to Corniglia (3) (#592-1 and #592-2 ) because of disputes about which entities will pay for needed repairs.)

Manarola porto

The path to the “high road” between Manarola (2) and Cornelia (3) is steep, passing at first through the town outskirts, then, the famous terraced vineyards…
path up
Manarola (2) became smaller. Looking down, I saw the ferry boat arriving. In good weather, it runs from La Spezia to Levanto, stopping at each town except Cornelia (3), which is too high up to be easily accessible.

Manarola high

UNESCO named the terraced vineyards a World Heritage site. Hundreds of thousands of man hours were devoted to carving them out and building dry stone walls (no cement) to hold them in place.

pergola vines

The trail kept climbing up and up and up…
path up2

It ended in the village of Volastra, whose name derives from “Villaggio degli Vicus Oleaster ” (Village of the “Vicus Oleaster–type of olive tree). The first written records of the church date back to 1240. where hikers can stop for a coffee, a beer or glass or wine, or a simple meal at a local trattoria, Gli Ulivi (The Olive Trees). Opening hours vary by season.

From Volastra, the #586 trail (formerly 6D) continues toward Case Pianca, connecting with the #587 (formerly 7A) to the middle town of the Cinque Terre: Cornelia (3).

volastra sign

At the crest of the hill, a long traverse began through vineyards that hug the curves of vertiginous slopes above the sea.
vineyard hillside sea

In an especially steep part, a natural fence had been built.
Natural fence

The trail winds along about a thousand feet above the sea.
vineyard path

I passed only one person on the trail until this section where a group of about a dozen passed me coming from the other direction. There was nothing else but sea, sky and the rugged terraces planted with vines and olive trees.

I hiked down, down, down to go out onto this rocky point to see Corniglia (3), high on a rocky promontory. It’s name derives from “corno” meaning “rocky spur above the sea”. The dominant building in the village is a church finished in 1351.
Corniglia above
There, about a ten minute walk outside the town, I found the entrance to the Sentiero Azurro, the path along the sea to Vernazza (4). Walking on this path requires purchasing a ticket for 7.50 euro/adult and walking with more people on the trail.
sign to Vernazza
Closer to Vernazza (4), I looked back to Cornelia (3) in the distance.
Corniglia close
About a half an hour later, I came to the Bar Torre (which also rents rooms), perched on the hill above Vernazza..
Bar La Torre

With tables on terraces that hang hundreds of feet above the sea.
bar hillside

I happened to find this table available but recommend calling in advance to reserve if you want it.

After hiking since late morning, it was relaxing to have an aperitivo overlooking Vernazza (4) and the sea before walking down to catch the train back to Levanto.
vernazza from above

For more information on the Cinque Terre, Porto Venere or the islands of Tino, Tinetto and Palmaria or on traveling elsewhere in Italy, write Eleanor or see Uncorked In Italy Travel.


May, 2016

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Tags: Cinque Terre, Hiking, Italy, Liguria
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    • Ava
    • May 2, 2016

    Extremely useful information. Thank you!

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