The Opinionated Hikers on Patrol for You
The Cinque Terre (the Five Lands) are poignantly picturesque Italian villages on the Mediterranean Sea. Each of the five occupies a headland beneath the Monti Ligure (the Ligurian mountains) just north of the macho port city of La Spezia.
In ancient times, the villages no doubt seemed distinctly separate, almost like islands, because the coast is tortuous and steep here. The Monti Liguri begin as wave-washed cliffs and instantly soar to about 550 m (1804 ft). Though the villagers terraced the sharp slopes so they could grow food, and these terraces made foot travel possible, sailing was the preferred method of transport between the Cinque Terre.
During the past twenty years, however, foot travel between the Cinque Terre has surged in popularity—not with the villagers, but with visitors. The Cinque Terre is now such a famous hiking destination that it attracts non-hiking tourists from all over the world.
The Cinque Terre seemed like a secret 20 years ago when we first hiked here, but they’re certainly no secret now. Yet while hiking the area again last week, it was apparent to us that several important facts about the Cinque Terre are not widely known.
You can drive to, and between, all the Cinque Terre villages.
The romantic myth persists. Many people still believe there are no roads along this rugged coast. They assume that to see the Cinque Terre they must either ride the train between the villages (mostly through tunnels), catch a tourist cruise boat out of Portovenere, or hike.
Actually there’s a fourth option: a rental car. If you’re here to hike, you’ll find having a car greatly increases your flexibility. It will also ensure you see much more of the region than do hikers who walk straight through.
The roads linking the Cinque Terre and accessing each village are sinuous and narrow, but the views they grant are striking. From a car, you often attain commanding views of the villages in context. Plus you traverse the fascinating terrain above them. Best of all, the roads access little-known, secondary Cinque Terre trails that afford superb hiking. (See Secret #3.)
If you’re experienced at driving Europe’s slender, snaking roads, you’ll motor from La Spezia to Riomaggiore (one of the Cinque Terre villages) without difficulty. Just outside La Spezia, you can go left to Portovenere, or right to Riomaggiore.
If you hesitate to drive roads so skinny that cars traveling in opposite directions can pass each other only with great care, then avoid the minor (though still paved) roads. Prime example: the road descending Fosso Canaleito to San Bernadino. Stay on the main road contouring around the top of Fosso Re de Mulino, then descend the larger drainage to Vernazza.
The Cinque Terre has an extensive network of hiking trails.
Hikers have been coming here for so long, ticking off the Cinque Terre villages one after the next without venturing from the main trail, that today almost nobody pauses to ask: Is that all there is? Just one trail?
Between Levanto in the northwest, and Portovenere in the southeast, there are dozens of Cinque Terre trails contouring on terraces at various elevations, plus numerous connecting trails running up and down the mountainsides.
Get the excellent, reliable, 1:25 000 map titled “Riviera Ligure: Le Cinque Terre da La Spezia a Levanto.” It’s published by Studio Cartografico Italiano. It will enable you to plan an exciting, original, Cinque Terre hiking tour. And remember, even if you’re driving a rental car to your starting point, you can also use the local train or mini-buses to link trails or villages and further increase your on-foot options.
The main Cinque Terre trail is not rousingly scenic every step of the way.
For example, the 20-minute section south from Corniglia along the train tracks. Or the long section (starting about 45 minutes out of Portovenere) where for 1.5 hours you’re confined to roads (paved and unpaved) in viewless forest.
Parts of the main trail are very scenic, of course, but tranquility is unlikely. We generally preferred the secondary trails, such as trail 4B to Fossola. You’ll find we’ve listed it below as one of our favourites because it gave us a strong sense for what the region was like before the first tsunami of tourists. These less-frequented-but-still-excellent trails are generally high above the sea, but they provide a magnificent, aerial perspective.
The region’s most spectacular hiking is not associated with the Cinque Terre.
As much as we love the secondary Cinque Terre trails, we prefer the challenging trail that rounds the wild, lonely, outer edge of the Portofino Peninsula.
Portofino is about a 45-minute drive north of the Cinque Terre. It’s a tiny port village near the larger port town of Santa Margherita. Both are pretty enough to make you swoon. Starting in Portofino, you can hike up, then down to the molecule-size harbor hamlet of San Fruttuosso, then up and down and up and down and up to the village of San Rocco, then finally down to the seaside village of Camogli. The section northwest of San Fruttuosso to San Rocco, however, is strictly for strong, experienced, confident hikers who think “steep,” “narrow,” “rough,” and “airy” are invitations rather than warnings.
The Cinque Terre is no secret, as mentioned above.
Crowd-free hiking is readily available throughout Europe—as long as you don’t follow the crowd. (See our previous post, “Hiking in Crowded Europe.”) But you’re definitely following the crowd when you come to the Cinque Terre.
The onslaught begins in late March and continues through October. We wouldn’t even consider hiking the Cinque Terre then. You’d be constantly passing other hikers, or being passed by them. You’d always have to wait or jostle for photo-ops. Find a quiet, pretty place to rest or eat lunch? Forget it. You’d have to post a sentry before stopping to pee.
November through mid-March is the only time your experience here won’t be sabotaged by crowds. Even then, it’s best to avoid hiking on weekends or holidays, because Italians also flock to the Cinque Terre.
Hiking the entire Cinque Terre end-to-end might be a mistake.
Completion freaks will argue with that. And if you value what you accomplish more than you value what you experience en route, they’re right, you should hike the Cinque Terre straight through. But we’ve done both. The first time, we hiked the way we’d been told to: zip, boom, arrivederci. The second time, we hiked in our idiosyncratic, looping, exploratory style, up and down the mountainsides. The second time was much richer: more surprising, more intriguing, more beautiful, more fun.
You have many alternatives. Consider basing yourself in one of the Cinque Terre villages. Vernazza has the most dramatic setting and is the most photogenic. It’s the Cinque Terre poster village. Manarola and Riomaggiore are also appealing, though Rio is busier. Wherever you make your temporary home, you can use the frequent, local train or buses to start and/or end each day.
On our last trip, we based ourselves in Bocca di Magra, past the Bay of Poets, on the east shore of the Montemarcello Peninsula. The advantage of Magra is that it’s midway between the Cinque Terre and the Alpi Apuane Mountains, should you want to hike in both. Magra is also reasonably close to cities such as Pisa and Lucca, which we recommend you visit. The disadvantage of Magra is the two-hour round trip (through La Spezia) each day you go to the Cinque Terre. Driving the road that hugs the port, however, we found it a smooth, easy commute.
Hiking the Cinque Terre is now like driving the Italian autostrade: an expensive, pay-as-you-go privilege.
The Cinque Terre are considered a national park. That wasn’t the case when we first hiked here, so we were curious to see the affects of park status. Our conclusion: no change, except for goddamn fees.
At each end of the most popular sections of the main trail, you’ll find wooden booths where national park toll-trolls lie in wait, demanding you purchase a “Cinque Terre card” for five Euro. It entitles one person to hike anywhere on the Cinque Terre for one day.
We’re so resentful of fees that are obviously cash grabs that, out of principle, we often find creative ways to circumvent them. Not only does this save us money, it usually results in a much more interesting experience. Here, it motivated us to discover all the other Cinque Terre trails where there are no toll booths and the hiking fees are unenforced.
We also discovered that if you start hiking early or late (before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m. in March) you can hike the main Cinque Terre trail fee-free because the toll booths are unmanned. Once you’re past the booth, no worries. The toll-trolls only accost hikers entering a particular section. If you’re exiting past them, they ignore you, because they assume you presented or purchased your Cinque Terre card at the other end.
Bear in mind that, in typical Italian style, the Cinque Terre toll-trolls are casual about their hours. So assess the opportunities; it’s possible you can hike fee-free starting later in the morning or earlier in the evening than we’ve suggested. We also assume the toll-trolls’ hours lengthen along with the daylight in summer and shorten come winter.
Here are our favourite Cinque Terre trails, plus more details about the Portofino Peninsula trail.
Campiglia – Fossola
12 km (7.5 mi) / gain & loss 272 m (892 ft) / 4 to 5 hours
Drive northwest of Portovenere to Campiglia. Park here, at 400 m (1312 ft). Hike trail 4B northwest, passing two junctions where you ignore paths descending to Schiara. You can detour to Schiara later, as described below.
For now, continue right, through forest, on trail 4. You’ll see parcours exercise equipment near Palestra nel Verde. Immediately after passing Santuario Antonio and a picnic area at 508 m (1666 ft), go left, descending an ancient, cobbled path— trail 4C—to Fossola. Intersect a small road at 300 m (984 ft). Continue descending through the village, past garden terraces. A good place to rest is on the bench at the chapel below the locals’ parking lot.
Just below the chapel, go left on trail 4B (pronounced “Quattro Bee” in Italian). Follow it southeast, contouring on very narrow, terrace walls. At the 270-m (886-ft) junction with Monesteroli, you have the option of descending another 100 m (328 ft).
Continue ascending trail 4B to the fountain of Nozano. Go right toward Campiglia. Or, very soon, opt for a detour: descending 170 m / 558 ft on trail 4 to Schiara. It’s on a dramatic promontory. But before lengthening the trip in that direction, consider that you must already ascend 164 m (538 ft) from Fossola back to Campiglia.
Volastra / Corniglia / Manarola
13 km (8 mi) / gain 360 m (1181 ft) / 4 to 5 hours
From Riomaggiore, drive the main road northwest. Pass the turnoff to Manarola. Park alongside the road near Volastra. (The parking lot is for residents only. We parked in the first pullout on the left, a couple hundred meters beyond the village.)
From the church in Volastra, at 335 m (1100 ft), follow trail 6 D northwest. It contours a steep, terraced mountainside and grants views southwest to Manarola.
At 4.5 km (2.8 mi) reach the 370-m (1214-ft) highpoint and a junction with trail 7A. Descend 7A to Corniglia. Walk the unpleasant stretch of the main Cinque Terre trail past the train station and along the tracks. After 1 km (0.6 mi) it’s more pleasant. The wide trail is then beside the sea and only 10 meters above it.
Reach Manarola in 3 km (1.8 mi). From the parking area just above the village, follow signs on the right side of the road: trail 6 to Groppo and Volastra. The final ascent to Volastra is on a beautiful, ancient, stairstepping, cobbled path.
Above Vernazza / di Soviore / Monterossa
18 km (11.2 mi) / gain 542 m (1778 ft) / 5 to 7 hours
Drive the main Cinque Terre road northwest, passing the turnoffs for Riomaggiore and Manarola. From the dwellings at Foce di Drignana, drive the descending road signed for Vernazza. In about 2 km (1.2 mi), park in the grassy pullout at the tip of a tight hairpin turn, at 400 m (1312 ft). It affords a spectacular view of Vernazza below and the sea beyond.
While admiring the village, consider that this hike will require you to ascend from Vernazza to this hairpin-turn trailhead at the end of the day. Note the broad, switchbacking, stone path rising past the mausoleum. That’s the route. It’s not as taxing as it might appear.
Initially hike west on trail 8B toward Madonna di Soviore for 4.5 km (2.8 mi). This section is a narrow, dirt trail that generally contours and affords glorious views. Upon reaching the road at il Termine, elevation 542 m (1778 ft), you could return the way you came, but we urge you to continue.
Proceed left (northwest) on the road for 1.3 km (0.8 mi). Watch left for signed trail 9 descending left. It’s just before the Soviore nunnery—a huge, rectangular, pink building at 465 m (1525 ft). Walk across the nunnery terrace, then turn left again, still on trail 9. A long descent ensues to Monterosso al Mare.
From Monterosso, walk the main Cinque Terre trail to Vernazza. (fee required, as explained above in Secret 7, unless you arrive after 5 pm). You could also opt to train to Vernazza. The train runs about every 20 minutes and costs about Euro 1.30.
From Vernazza’s main piazza at the harbour, a stairway climbs through a tunnel generally north. Ascend it, then turn right. Find the stone path climbing past the mausoleum to San Bernardo. This ancient, well-constructed path climbs gently but steadily all the way to the paved road above. Strong hikers will complete the ascent in 45 minutes. Others might take 1.5 hours.
Turn left into a playground and picnic area beside a chapel. Then ascend a few more switchbacks on trail to intersect the paved road. Go left, round a corner, and in about 300 m (330 yd) arrive at the hairpin-turn trailhead.
14 km (8.7 mi) / gain 800 m (2625 ft) / 4.5 to 7 hours
Hiking around the outer edge of the Portofino Peninsula is not for the inexperienced or acrophobic. Despite starting in the lovely, eminently civilized village of Portofino, and ending in the equally cultured village of Camogli, this trail dwindles to a very rough, steep route traversing steep cliffs through wild, lonely terrain. It requires strength, stamina, and skill.
You’d prefer a moderate, two- to three-hour hike? Follow the directions below only as far as San Fruttuosso, then catch the shuttle boat back to Portofino.
Regardless of your hiking intentions, from Santa Margherita, drive the coast road toward Portofino. Park at (or beside the road near) Castello. From the Castello parking lot, walk out to the road, turn right, and within a few meters find the signed, cobbled path to Portofino. It rises above the road then contours the hillside for about 2 km (1.2 mi).
In Portofino’s harbourside piazza, turn your back to the water, and angle right to pick up the path (marked by two, red circles) ascending past the church. Go in the direction of San Sebastian. Don’t let the scooters and three-wheeled mini-trucks fool you. This does eventually become a genuine trail.
Follow frequent signs for San Fruttuosso, basically west-northwest. About 45 minutes from Portofino, after passing terraces and a house on a promontory at 235 m (771 ft), follow the dirt path contouring the high, steep slope to Base 0.
About 10 minutes farther, drop to cross a stream, ascend, then contour again. In another 35 minutes, from a 260-m (853-ft) ridgecrest, begin a steep, switchbacking descent (still on good trail) through forest to San Fruttuoso. It’s a tiny harbour where a few buildings cluster around a beautiful church.
To continue hiking to Camogli via the outer edge of the peninsula, bear left in San Fruttuoso, pass the church, and resume on the double-red-circle trail. Tight switchbacks ascend sharply from the sea. In about 40 minutes, crest a ridge at 275 m (900 ft). From here on, the quality of the trail diminishes and the excitement increases.
Descend to 60 m (197 ft) in Vallone Cala dell’Oro, then ascend southwest in woods to 190 m (623 ft). In this 1.5-km (0.9-mi) stretch the route crosses gnarly outcrops as it aims for La Baracca, on Punta del Buco. Chains bolted to rock offer assistance on the exposed sections. Accept the offer; hang on. A fall here could result in traumatic injury.
Descend again to 80 m (262 ft), then climb back up to 200 m (656 ft). The route traverses yet another cliff-bound gorge, where you must remain cool and balanced while descending and ascending very steep, rough ground. Beyond, negotiate still more exposed sections. All are strung with safety chains that you can and should cling to while traversing.
Moving quickly, it took us about 1.5 hours to hike from San Fruttuoso—through all the challenging terrain—to the first picnic table near the Batterie. Some people, however, might require 3 hours to safely cover that distance.
From the Batterie, an increasingly comfortable trail contours north-northeast to the village of San Rocco. This is where you re-enter civilization. It’s possible to catch a bus there or in Ruta (the next town northeast). Time and energy permitting, however, continue hiking. Follow the steps descending to Camogli. Catch a train or bus back to Santa Margherita. Then catch the bus to your vehicle near Portofino.