07 July 2011

Best Things: Blue Trail, Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre of Italy's Ligurian coast must be one of the most beautiful places on earth. These small, peaceful towns offer great views, kind people, delicious food, and lots of tourists! And, as an aside, I am in no way anti-tourist, hell, I usually am one, but these are small towns and the many tourists are the main drawback. I heard a lot of Italian being spoken as well, so it is perhaps a favorite regional destination, as well. If you go at an off time -- September was my favorite -- and perhaps during the week, the crowds will be smaller.

I have now been there twice, staying in Monterosso al Mare, and had the pleasure of wandering the towns both times. There are many trails around the CT, and many smaller towns that may not be as crowded as the main five, but I think you would be remiss to go to the area and not spend one day on the Blue Trail.

Most books I've seen have you starting at the most southern town of Riomaggiore and hiking north. I am not quite sure why, but I haven't seen many (if any at all) that have you start in Monterosso. I guess this would ease you into the hike, as that direction starts out rather flat, and that may be a plus for some people. I have started both times in Monterosso, which I think is the better way (there may be bias).

One thing to know is that you must have a pass to hike the trail. It is a protected park, and the locals are doing their best to sustain it. There are several passes and several ways to get them -- at the train stations, at the entry gates in each town, and I believe at the tourist offices of the neighboring towns like La Spezia. Both times I have gone, I have purchased the one-day, trail + train pass at the Monterosso train station (need to go upstairs to the special office). In April 2011, this card cost 10E, and could only be paid for in cash. This pass allowed us to get on trains or hike for the entire day, which was ideal. They told me I needed to validate it at the train station, so I obliged!

A few pointers...wear comfortable clothes, and LAYERS! Have a bottle of water in your day pack, and a few snacks. Eat a good breakfast before you head on the trail, and leave early. Oh, yes, and make sure to bring sunscreen and reapply during the day.

We started early, hitting the starting gate at the top of Monterosso by 9am. It was already heating up! The gate guards checked our passes to make sure they were valid, so be sure to not lose them and keep them handy. It should be noted...in my opinion, this stretch between Monterosso & Vernazza is the most challenging part of the trail. I am in good shape, and it was still a good workout for me. You go through quite a steep altitude change, so make sure to take your time as you hike up. I've seen very old people on this trail, so I know it can be done, but slowly. This trail can get very narrow, and there are often hikers on there with huge hiking poles that will not cede the right of way. Be prepared.

Arriving to Vernazza from this direction affords a stunning view of the little cove town. Once you enter the town, you continue to follow the trail right down to the water. This is a great time for a gelato and to dip your feet in the Med. The path is pretty clearly marked, and takes you back up through the town, past the train station, to the trail towards Corniglia. (this second time, we took the train from here on out... it started training and we'd heard this trail was closed; turns out it was the Corniglia to Manarola part.)

Corniglia is the only town not accessible by water. It sits perched on the hill, and even if you take the train, you may have a bit of a hike ahead of you...there are 382 steps from the train station to the town. There is a bus that will take you up there, included in your pass. We didn't realize that until it was too late! Since this town is all on a hill, you'll get a bit of a workout just walking around. It is worth it to walk all the way to the top and look out at the vista; it's pretty amazing.

Soon, you'll want to head to Manarola, another very picturesque town (and I think my mom's fave). If you head to the bottom, harbor area, you may find sunbathers lounging along the rock walls. It's another opportunity to dip your toes in the Med, or simply look straight down into the clear water and check out the fishies.

After Manarola comes the easiest part of the trail -- Via dell' Amore. This is a flat, 20-minute walk is a celebration of love, and decorated with lovers locks. Local lore tells us lovers go and hitch their lock to parts of the trail, then throw the key into ocean, sealing their fate as a couple forever. I find this so endearing...but it doesn't explain some of the combination locks we found. I wonder if there is a huge pile of keys right along the coast?

Both times I've visited Riomaggiore, it has been at the end of a long day, so I am not sure it gets the fairest shake from me. I am sure it is a lovely little town. For me, it has always been a welcome site that my day's journey is almost done.

Doing the walk + train took us about 4 hours. Doing hiking only, one way, is about 5-6 hours depending on your pace.

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