Cinque Terre from end to end

I am standing in the doorway of our pleasant little apartment on the high side of Vernazza looking down the steep cobbled steps of the laneway, framed by the pastel shaded walls of the houses. The water gushes down the cobbles to the main street beyond as thunder rolls across the dark grey skies and a stiff cool wind drives the raindrops across the slate-tiled rooves. Welcome to the Cinque Terre that is not described in tourist brochures.

We had arrived the day before by train from Rome to the bleak forecast of a week of wet weather - several tracks including the main coastal walk, that is de rigeur for the visiting throng, had been cut by landslides. However, not all was bad - having escaped the masses seething around the train station and climbed up the steep cobbled steps to our accommodation at Rooms Elisabetta, we were delighted to discover that we had our small apartment and not just a bedroom. The views from our terrace over the harbour of Vernazza were superb and as we took them in, the afternoon sun began to emerge from the cloud. It was 4pm, but given the forecast, this was an opportunity not to be missed. We quickly put on our boots and set off on an impromptu walk!

Terrace view over Vernazza on a rainy day

The Two Sanctuaries Circuit (incompleto) 9 km - ascent 540m - descent 540m

The street in front of our Vernazza apartment


With the coastal track closed on both sides of Vernazza, we had little choice but to head inland and upward. Passing beneath the railway track, we left the village and its streets crowded with tourists to follow the cobbled path of Sentiero 8, as it wound its way steeply up the northern slopes of the Vernazola Valley. The humidity was high as the mists covering the higher slopes began to evaporate, revealing the richly green and terraced hillsides across the valley. Soon, we were passing through olive groves, the trees bound together by long rolls of orange netting, and the track's edge lined with a variety of lushly dense herbs, flowering pink, white, yellow and mauve. This was the Cinque Terre of my imagination.

Looking down over the port of Vernazza

Terraced olives and vines above Vernazza

Path between the olive terraces

Shady grove leading to the sanctuary

Climbing up to 330m, we entered a grove of tall trees, the sun filtering through their bright green new foliage. This led us to the Sanctuario di Madonna di Reggio, perched on a small balcony overlooking Vernazza below and across to the green hills sloping down to meet it.

Looking down over valley and hill from Madonna di Reggio

Belltower of Sanctuario Madonna di Reggio

View down the coast to Corniglia and Manarola

Sentiero 9 to Monterosso

Cobbled path and stone walls of Monterosso

Monterosso streetscape

Pushing on, we climbed up to meet a road, where we turned left to follow Sentiero 8a. The 8a led us briefly around the road, before heading bush to traverse a slope of dense flower-speckled heath, with its scrubby oaks and odd pines, at the 400m contour. This was a superb section of track, wandering across several bubbling mountain streams, with immense views opening up to the east, where we could see the villages of Corniglia and Manarola tucked into the rugged coastline. To the west, backlit by the sun, the maritime pines were silhouetted against the blue hills beyond, while the village of Monterosso al Mare hid in the hazy cove below.

Silhouette of maritime pine

The track then climbed and emerged at a wide bitumen road, where it joined Sentiero 1, at 530m the high point of our walk. We joined it too and headed left for a short distance, before dropping down onto a narrower road that took us to the Sanctuario Madonna di Soviori. The sanctuary had a beautifully tranquil setting on its balcony high above Monterosso - light filtering softly through the trees and the only sound the gentle singing of birds.

The tranquil setting of Sanctuario Madonna di Soviori ...

... with its pale pink cloisters

After topping up our water at the fountain there, we turned downhill to follow the steep and sometimes slippery cobbled path of Sentiero 9, down through the olive groves, beneath canopies of oak and pine, past entangled masses of flowering herbs, until we were greeted by the pastel colours of the houses of Monterosso.

Late afternoon view over Monterosso al Mare

A final wander through the streets of the town brought us to the harbour and grey sand beach, the end of our walk. The sun was almost setting and the mists had begun to roll in over the hills once again. It had been a superb introduction to walking in the Cinque Terre and we thoroughly enjoyed the large bowl of spaghetti marinara, accompanied by a fine bottle of Cinque Terre Bianco and the lilting strains of Italian songs, that we rewarded ouselves with on our return to Vernazza.

The grey sand beach of Monterosso al Mare

I called this a circuit incompleto, because sadly the coastal track between Vernazza and Monterosso was closed. While our walk was great, it would have been truly superb to add a section of close-to-ocean track along the rocky shoreline. In our opinion, such a track would encapsulate the unique coast / hill / village landscape combination of the Cinque Terre in one great day walk.

Un giorno molto bagnato

We were certainly fortunate to have been able to walk yesterday. This is a very wet Tuesday, with thunderstorms, rain squalls and strong winds. The red flag is up at the Vernazza port and the fishing fleet has been dragged up from the harbour to the square - not a day to be out and about. It is a day for a cuppa in bed, reading a good book with a hot coffee, catching up with chores and listening to the mournful cries of the seagulls as they circle above the choppy waters outside the breakwater. Time to revisit the good parts of yesterday's walk and hope that the forecasters have got it wrong for tomorrow. In the end, not such a bad day after all.

When the boats are in the square of Vernazza the weather is very bad

Vernazza at night - still beautiful in the wet

The high road to Riomaggiore
(13.5 km - 810m ascent - 810m descent)

Thank goodness Italian weather forecasters don't get it right all the time. We awoke to low cloud blanketing the hilltops but no more rain. With the cloud visibly lifting, it was time to head out and, with the coast track still closed, there was again no choice but inland and up to get to our destination of Riomaggiore.

Leaving Vernazza , we headed up the coastal track towards Corniglia, turning off just before the point of closure to start climbing on Sentiero 7. With the high humidity, our shirts were saturated within the first 15 minutes and our foreheads were dripping as the track took us up through the dry-wall terraces lined with olives and vines. The track became increasingly steep as we pushed upwards through scrubby heath to reach the Sella de Comenecco - the first 300m of our climb gained within a kilometre, but tempered with impressive views down the steeply sloping coastline to the south-east. As on our first foray, the track was lined with a rich display of mediterranean flora in bloom.

Section of coast track south of Vernazza
blocked due to landslide risk

An inland valley of the Cinque Terre

Track through the terraces

Country house near San Bernadino

The village of San Bernadino

In the mists near Monte Marvede

We stopped at the saddle to take in the views and wipe our sweaty brows, admiring the greyish sheen of the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the lush green landscapes of the deep valley on the other side. The ridgeline led us to a point where we dropped into the valley and traversed along a narrow terrace to reach the hill-top hamlet of San Bernadino. The terrace below the church, overlooking a sunlit Corniglia perched on its cliffs below, was the perfect place for a break.

Looking down on Corniglia
from the terrace of San Bernadino

Fresh spring growth on the chestnuts
beneath the crest of Monte Capri

Patches of sunlight were appearing through the clouds as we left San Bernadino, again heading upward, this time on a narrow, sometimes overgrown path that criss-crossed the bitumen road several times as it climbed through dripping-wet shrubs. After a while the red and white signage led us up a wide bracken-lined rough earth road into the pine forest.

The track was illuminated by the yellow flowers of broom and gorse as we climbed higher and wafts of cool mist hung in the gullies. The air was distinctly colder now, as we reached the top of the climb and began a steady traverse of the 600m contour beneath the dark pines and oaks to reach La Cigoletta and the intersection with Sentiero 1.

We now followed this path eastwards on its cool and misty traverse along the crest of the coastal range, silent except for the occasional sweet melody of a forest songbird. Reaching the Aia del Cane, we began to climb the slope of Monte Capri, reaching the highpoint of our walk just below its summit at 730m. We were now in an open forest of chestnuts, their spiny seed capsules lining the bare rocky floor and the darkness of their bark highlighting the fresh green of newly forming leaves.

The tree-clad hills of the Cinque Terre

View across the valleys to the hill village of Volastra

The sun was now breaking through and the odd blue patches joining to drive the clouds away. We followed the crest of the range, looking down through the chestnuts to the red rooves of distant inland villages before crossing the saddle again at the Menhir di Capri (but where was the menhir?) to commence a slow descent along the coastal side of the range. Not long after the Sella La Croce, we left Sentiero 1 to descend steeply down Sentiero 01 (no, not the same as 1) along an old disused vehicle track, reduced to a narrow overgrown pedestrian path by invading broom and other shrubbery.

A picturesque little waterfall

Terraced hills near Manarola

Clock tower in Manarola

Through the trees we could see the pastel-coloured houses of Volastra perched on its hilltop across two valleys, and below the impressively high viaduct across the Rio Maggiore - technology creeping in!

The hill (or valley) village of Groppo

The track brought us to a wide flat dirt road (used as a mountain bike track) that traversed the 400m contour, past two beautiful little waterfalls tumbling down toward Rio Maggiore. Pines were now taking over from the chestnuts of the rockier heights, as we left the road to pick up Sentiero 02 on its steep descent down a narrow, overgrown path, first through the pines, then down through the terraces of vines. Ahead the village of Manarola began to appear, framed on either side by terraced hillsides. Knees a little jellified by 600m of steep descent, we wandered into the village and down to the harbour for a late but well-appreciated lunch.

Looking down from the hills to Manarola

The washed pink and cream houses of Manarola

Descent of Sentiero 02

An old stone bridge

Cliff section of the Via dell'Amore

Manarola is at one end of the famous Via dell'Amore - a short section of the coastal track that, when opened, enabled the youth of Manarola to fraternise with the youth of Riomaggiore for the first time and the graffiti of unrequited or requited love from times past makes for interesting reading, as do the many locks attached to the fencing with the names of lovers linked for eternity (a quaint local custom picked up by tourists). Too bad the modern graffiti-ists feel they have to add to this historic record!

The Via dell'Amore was the only part of the coast track open and is a wide paved masterpiece of engineering that crosses the sheer cliff sides between the two towns. Uninteresting to walk on, but still with spectacular views, we followed it around to Riomaggiore beneath a full hot sun for the end of a spectacular walk - made more special by the great turn in the weather from what was expected.

Terraced hills at the rear of Corniglia

Route of the Via dell'Amore

The rugged coastline near Riomaggiore

Breakwater at Riomaggiore

Looking northwards from Corniglia

The piazza of Corniglia

Shady narrow streets of Corniglia

Catching the train, we stopped off at Corniglia for a 2 km mini-circuit, climbing 125m up the road to reach this cliff-top village and explore its narrow streets, piazzas and superb setting. With all three walking tracks into the town closed, it was the only way we could visit and it was definitely worth it; Corniglia became our second favourite Cinque Terre village after Vernazza. The icy-cold gelato we had in the piazza beneath a spreading chestnut certainly helped.

One last 5-minute train trip brought us back to Vernazza for a well-deserved Peroni on the terrace in the late afternoon sun, looking out across the rooftops to the sea - this certainly was how Cinque Terre should be.

Portovenere Circuit (by boat and on foot) (13 km - 820m ascent - 820m descent)

After the currently closed coast track, the walk between Riomaggiore and Portovenere is one of the most popular walks in the Cinque Terre. A great way to complement it is to include a ferry trip along the rugged coast of this peninsula to make a circuit. Having moved our base from Vernazza to Monterosso in the morning, we caught the ferry from this, the most northern of the five Cinque Terre towns, calling in at Vernazza, Manarola and Riomaggiore, before heading off toward the sunshine in the east and Portovenere.

The rugged cinque Terre coast from the sea - Corniglia ....

..... Manarola .....

..... and Riomaggiore

Cliffs of maroon and white marble

This section of coastline is the most rugged of the region, with houses clinging to steep slopes, sheer cliffs of white and maroon marble and a jagged ridgeline. The entry to Portovenere was spectacular, the narrow strait between mainland and rocky island guarded by an ancient castle and, beyond, the narrow houses of the town clustered together like a pastel-striped cassata.

Rugged coastline south of Riomaggiore - the Muzzerone cliffs

13th century church of San Pietro at the entrance to Portovenere

The pastel-coloured houses of Portovenere

There was time for a cappucino in the sun on the promenade taking in the ambiance of this very pretty town, before setting off to the Piazza and the start of Sentiero 1, our route to Riomaggiore. The track led steeply away from the town, following the tall, grey stone walls of the 12th century castle up to the terminal spur of the range.

The views over the entrance and beyond to the protected gulf and distant La Spezia were superb, opening up even more as we climbed the rocky track up through the lush Mediterannean flora beneath Monte Muzzerone.

View over Palmaria Island out to the Ligurian Sea

Climb alongside the 12th century castle walls

Looking down on the entry to Portovenere

Skirting beneath the mountain top to the east, with views down through the trees over La Spezia, we eventually met a vehicle road that guided us gently down past a marble quarry to a low saddle. By now the sun had disappeared and the distant rumbling of thunder began to deliver on its promise, as a steady light rain began to fall.

From shorts to ....

... rain gear in five minutes

From the saddle, the track turned into the thick coastal scrub, climbing upwards on a narrow and winding path of rocks and slippery clay, before levelling out to traverse the wet brush beneath the rocky knob of Monte Castellana, looking straight down into the Mediterranean Sea, 300m below. As we traversed the steep slope, the views out to sea were spectacular even in the rain, with grey ominous clouds hanging low over an oily sea and the odd passing ship in the distance.

Several times we stopped as groups of walkers coming from Riomaggiore filed past - we got the impression that most people did the track in opposite direction to us. The traverse brought us out to a road at Bocca del Cavallo and, having rounded the mountain, we found ourselves climbing through the pines of the ridgeline up to the quiet hamlet of Campiglia.

The spectacular Muzzerone cliffs

Yes, that's the direction we're heading!

In the thick brush below Monte Castellana

The hill village of Campiglia

Refurbished 14th century windmill

The beauty of trees

Old dry stone walls lining Sentiero 3

From Campiglia, the climb continued up the spine of the range, the cold sea wind sheathing through the pine canopy above. The rain had stopped, but we were now climbing into the mists and the forest took on an ethereal look. The last of the walking groups from Riomaggiore had long past and we felt splendidly isolated in the mists.

Alone in the mists of the coastal range

From our high point of 560m, we dropped off onto the leeward side of the range, following the track beneath silently dripping chestnuts to reach the Valico de Sant'Antonio and its curious obstacle course used for a sport called pantathlon (a type of cross country event). From here, the route gently undulated through the misty forest to Colle di Telegrafo, where we left Sentiero 1 to follow Sentiero 3 gently downward along the line of telegraph poles that give the col its name.

Cloud hanging over the coastal ranges above Riomaggiore

We quickly found ourselves beneath the cloud again, where patches of sun shone on parts of the coast below. Descending through a series of dry stone-walls of abandoned terraces, reclaimed by the forest and its dense understory, we then passed through isolated farmlets and steeply planted vines to reach the pink- and yellow-domed Sanctuario di Madonna di Monte Nero, perched on its balcony overlooking Riomaggiore.

Menhir at Colle di Telegrafo

The dome of Madonna di Monte Nero

Sanctuario di Madonna di Monte Nero

A curious light on the slopes of Cinque Terre

Old stone road leading down from the sanctuary

The sun returns -cliffs of Riomaggiore

From here we followed the old rough stone road that wound its way around the valley and along the rushing waters of the Rio Maggiore itself. We were finally walking in sunshine again, but just before reaching the town, one final heavy shower passed by - a nice gesture from the Cinque Terre - and then the sun returned for good.

A cold moretti at the marina of Riomaggiore

With the bright blue sky, it was hard to believe this was still the same day - the weather here is indeed curious. We wandered down the pastel-housed streets, stopping briefly to buy a couple of cans of Birra Moretti to take down to the marina and celebrate completing this spectacular circuit. A cold beer in the warm sunshine by the Ligurian Sea. Now there is a good way to end a day.

Monterosso to Levanto (9 km - 460m ascent - 440m descent)

We awoke to our last day on the Cinque Terre to a weather pattern as confused as the day before - white cloud, sunshine, grey cloud, a shower or two and finally an impressive thunderstorm that we watched from the shelter of our terrace high above Monterosso. The thunderstorm cleared the skies and by mid-day, stability and sunshine had returned. We would have a fine afternoon for our last walk - crossing the high saddle of Punta Mesco to Levanto, thus completing a strangely convoluted trek along the full length of the Cinque Terre, from Portovenere to Levanto.

Watching the weather from our terrace in Monterosso

The beach at Fegina with Punta Mesco in the background

Through the pines to Fegina

Descending the steep narrow steps of our street, we wandered through town and the tunnel connecting Monterosso to its more resort-like neighbour of Fegina. A stroll along the promenade separating the hotels from the beach - a long strip of fine grey sand - brought us to a long set of stone steps leading upwards on Sentiero 10, through the higher houses of Fegina and into the pines above.

After a perspirational climb we emerged at the ridgeline and followed it out to the ruins of the Ermito di Sant'Antonio at the end of Punta Mesco, 310m above the Mediterranean. From here, you could see all five towns of the Cinque Terre, dotting the rugged coastline that stretched back eastwards.

The five villages of the Cinque Terre in one photo (trust me!)

The ruins of the hermitage of Sant'Antonio

Backtracking to the junction at the saddle, we followed a rocky path up the ridgeline to join our old friend, Sentiero 1, and commence a steady descent of the north-westerly slope through a drier open pine forest. The rocky path dropped for while, then traversed the steep slope below Monte Ve, crossing a few small streams, 250m above the (now) blue waters of the Mediterranean. The views out to sea and, occasionally through breaks in the vegetation to the rugged coastline beyond were spectacular.

Heading north from Punta Mesco

Cliffs below Monte Ve

Descent into a shady gully

A peaceful path above the cliffs

Suddenly we found ourselves rapidly descending a cool, shaded gully to emerge on a track that traversed along steeply sloping olives, vines and fruit trees; houses perched on the edge of the precipitous drop-off into the sea below. A short section of paved road, followed by another old and narrow stone-stepped pathway winding around the slope brought us to Levanto, with its postcard setting on a grey sand beach backed by an impressive mountain.

High above the Mediterranean

View north of the Ligurian coastline
We passed the remains of a 13th century castle to reach the beach via a set of narrow winding steps and wandered around to the main piazza, the fitting place for this very picturesque walk to end. The only (and very minor) downside to it was that the train station for our return to Monterosso was another kilometre away through the streets of Levanto.

A typical Ligurian church tower in Levanto

The beautiful setting of Levanto

Sunset over Vernazza harbour
- farewell to Cinque Terre

When we got off the train at Monterosso, the bodies beautiful were all out sunning themselves on the sands of Fegina Beach - what a turnaround since we arrived!

It was a great way to finish our time in the Cinque Terre and, having sampled the fresh anchovies, squid ink taglieterri, pesto and other local dishes, we decide to buy some fresh local ham, pecoroni cheese, olives, a bunch of sweet cherry tomatoes, with chocolate and fresh strawberries for desert, accompanied of course by a cold Cinque Terre Bianco and farewell this great part of Italy, watching the sun fade on the pastel-coloured houses from our terrace.

Arrivederci Cinque Terre!!

It wouldn't be the Cinque Terre without
at least one photo of a cat

Over the five days here we had managed to achieve our goal of walking Cinque Terre from end to end, if somewhat obtusely. To have experienced the full gamut of local weather in that time was, in hindsight, a bonus.