Cinque Terre: on the trail of Italy’s famous five
“After storms devastated Italy’s Cinque Terre three years ago the paths joining the area’s picturesque towns are open again. Our writer swoons over these amazing coastal hikes
In the late afternoon, the small, medieval town of Vernazza, on the Italian Riviera, is as perfect as Italy gets. With the daytrippers gone, the scene is impeccable, a Hollywood filmset, rolling every gorgeous, romantic Italian cliche into one. Up in the hills, winegrowers tend to their vines. In the piazza, flat-capped farmers, swept into corners by the last rays of sun, gather to talk and smoke. Pizza cooks over a wood fire in a restaurant. The town florist bursts into spontaneous operatic song. A couple kiss on a street corner. It’s so romantic, so iconically Italian, that it’s surreal.
In late 2011, the view from my seat on the seafront would have been very different: more Apocalypse Now than La Dolce Vita. On 25 October a flash rainstorm emptied itself over this little Ligurian coastal community, causing the main river to break its banks and rediscover its natural course, straight through the middle of town. Raging from the hills that rise almost vertically above the town, it brought with it a landslide of mud, vines and boulders that powered through every house and business along the main street. Medieval cobbles were ripped up, parts of the centuries-old vineyards and olive groves were devoured, the town’s utilities were cut off; roads, bridges and railways were blocked. “In one hour, we were destroyed,” Vincenzo Resasco, Vernazza’s mayor, tells me over dinner on my first evening.
Had it not been for an empty school bus creating a jam upstream, buying the villagers an extra 10 minutes to escape, more would have perished. As it was, 13 people died in the storms, three of them in Vernazza itself. The neighbouring town of Monterosso was also flooded, and other parts of Liguria and Tuscany were affected. But it was Vernazza, the less showy little sister of glamorous Portofino, 50 miles up the coast, that bore the brunt.
The town is finally recovering from its ordeal. More than €8m (£6.6 m) has been spent restoring it to its former beauty. The houses, built in the classic tall, thin palazzata have been repaired, businesses have reopened, streets re-cobbled and the chapel rebuilt. In the hills, vineyards and olive groves have been painstakingly replanted, dry-stone walls remade, roads cleared, and barriers and nets installed to protect the town from further landslides.
Later this year, a project volunteered by British architect Richard Rogers is due to start, and will include tree planting and further street repairs. Vernazza is close to Rogers’ heart: he has taken his summer holidays here for the past 50 years. His son Bo was caught up in the floods and died from a seizure the following day.
Crucially for the area’s beleaguered tourism industry, Vernazza’s walking trails, which have been accessible only sporadically since the floods, are due to reopen for their first full season. I have come to walk them.
Vernazza is one of five small, pastel-hued towns that make up the Cinque Terre national park, a Unesco world heritage site near La Spezia, halfway between Pisa and Genoa.
The towns are strung along a 10-mile stretch of rugged coastline, and none is more than a two-hour walk from the other. A convenient train service links them, making this one of the most accessible walking regions in Europe. And with road access limited, each town is gloriously car-free.
I opt to hike the three main routes from Vernazza: the Sentierro Azzurro (blue path) – north-west along the coast to the small town of Monterosso; the same coastal path south-east to Corniglia; and the “8” that snakes inland to Vernazza’s hilltop sanctuary. It’s easy to strike out on your own, even if you’re a bad map reader; the paths are well-marked, and it’s usually a case of keeping the sea to your left or right. But there’s nothing like a local expert to point out things you may otherwise miss, so I am joined by Marco Brizzi, one of the region’s most experienced guides, with 12 years of path-stomping under his belt. The author of a popular hiking guide to the area, his knowledge of the history, architecture and wildlife of the area is encyclopaedic. He tells me how his bookings dried up following the disaster, with many big travel firms cancelling their tours, but should pick up again now the paths are open.
Now, if you think the trails sound easy, think again. Each begins with a long climb up dozens upon dozens of steep stone steps; a hiking holiday here will do wonders for your bottom, though not for your knees. Yet it is, without doubt, the most joyous and uplifting coastal walking I’ve done, with gasp-inducing views that compensate for a bit of cartilage-erosion.
To one side are Tiffany-blue seas, where dolphins and whales flap and frolic, and where, on a clear day, it’s possible to see Corsica and the Tuscan archipelago. Inland are steeply terraced vineyards that are still farmed by traditional means, the only modern addition being monorails used to haul baskets of grapes down to cellars. Ahead of us winds the graceful footpath, decorated with cherry blossom, iris, lilies, violets and poppies, and flanked by dry-stone walls that are garlanded in wisteria, jasmine and valerian.
In the far distance, a new village always beckons, its lofty, colourful buildings leaning drunkenly on each other, its narrow alleyways – caruggi – promising cool breezes and a respite from the midday sun. It’s the kind of setting that could turn a girl to poetry, had she not got several dozen more steps still to climb.
As we walk, Marco tells tales of Vernazza’s piratical history – before progress is slowed by our own gluttony. The trails are a wild and natural larder, where fruit and herbs flourish with abandon. Every few minutes, Marco hands me a new treat – wild asparagus, garlic, figs – and I’m rarely without one herb or other squashed against my nose.
“Not an inch of ground goes to waste,” he says, explaining that the temperate weather, good drainage and a sunny aspect make the risks of farming this perilously steep terrain worthwhile. We walk in the shade of olive trees, oaks and chestnuts, and pass walled gardens studded with huge lemons and oranges that are, temptingly, within arm’s reach. I wonder if scrumping is illegal in Italy.
That this is one of the most romantic hiking regions in the world is affirmed by lovers’ graffiti inscribed in cactus and rock faces along the route. Fences are lined with padlocks, left by couples to symbolize their everlasting love; the keys are thrown into the sea.
Our hike inland to Vernazza’s 13th-century Reggio sanctuary takes us along ancient donkey tracks, past tiny shrines and chapels. It’s a peaceful contrast to the coastal paths that, in season, get very busy. A bench in the church garden proves the perfect place to soak up the sounds of Vernazza echoing around the valley: birdsong, distant church bells, a train whistle, farmers’ energetic conversations – and the constant clack-clack-clacking of dry-stone walls being artfully put back together. It’s a potent reminder of the resilience and patience the locals have mustered to rebuild their community.
By the end of my stay, I have explored all five Cinque Terre towns. I’ve drunk limoncello and eaten focaccia on virtually every cafe terrace, slurped gelato perched on piers and rocks, and sipped local white wine in tiny trattorias, all the while deliberating which town is my favourite.
Quiet Corniglia, huddled on a hilltop, nears the top of the list. Manarola, which seems to lean into the sea, makes for great photographs. Monterosso is the liveliest, and then there’s Riomaggiore, with its colourful harbour. But, in the end, it is beautiful, brave Vernazza that steals my heart.”
By Suzy Bennett, the guardian