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Hiking Italy's Cinque Terre - My love-hate relationship with the Parco Nationale delle Cinque Terre

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    • Hiking Italy's Cinque Terre - My love-hate relationship with the Parco Nationale delle Cinque Terre

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      "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."

      I had plans. Big plans. My sister who lives in Italy had been bugging me for years to come visit so we could hike the seaside trails connecting the Cinque Terra, or 'Five Lands' for those of you not versed in the Italian language. From the south, the villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare hug the cliffs of the Ligurian Coastline, AKA the Italian Riviera.

      This was the year that the stars aligned. I cashed in a boatload of frequent flier miles and made an airbnb reservation in Vernazza for one night. We would take the train from her home town of Siena to Pisa, climb that crazy tilting bell tower, then take another train to La Spezia before transferring to the local train that serves all five villages. Once we were checked into our apartment, we would hike from Vernazza to Corniglia then take the train back to clean up for dinner. The next morning, we would hike from Monterosso back to Vernazza, shower, pack up, then hit the southern two villages.

      The Pisa stop worked like a charm. Nice view of the Apennine Mountains from the top of the tower.



      We made it back to the Pisa train station with time to spare and arrived in La Spezia to complete chaos. In addition to the tourists arriving by train, there were three cruise ships docked in the nearby harbor with untold guided tour groups - each one with a leader holding up some type of identifying flag. We crammed into one of the double-decker train cars and counted the minutes until the first stop in Riomaggiore. Enough tourists exited the train that we could finally breathe.

      Three stops later, we arrived in Vernazza and got our first views of our home base.

      Trudgin' along the AT since 2003. Completed Sections: Springer Mountain to Winding Stair Gap NC, Max Patch to Franconia Notch NH and the Gale River Trail to Crawford Notch NH.
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      Our apartment overlooked the main street from the train station to the harbor. Our veranda was just above the drying laundry.



      The interesting part was that the entrance to our apartment was on the back side of the building. We had to walk up a combination of steps and ascending walkways that happened to make up the 'hiking trail' to Corniglia. In other words, our apartment door was five feet from the trail. Our airbnb host met us at the door and gave us some bad news - the trail to Corniglia was closed just outside of town.



      Thus started my hate relationship with the Cinque Terre National Park office. Visitors must purchase a ticket for each day of hiking on the coastal trails. A few Euros more adds train and bus privileges between La Spezia and the five villages. So each cruise ship tourist is paying 16 Euros for the combo ticket even if they never set foot on a trail. We paid 29 Euros for 2-day combo tickets. And where does all of this money go? NO. ONE. KNOWS.

      The coastal trail between Riomaggiore and Manarola has been closed for years due to a rockslide. There is a fee-free trail higher on the cliffs between these two villages but it was getting too much usage due to the closure. The park's solution to the wear and tear was to close it as well. Now it's not possible to hike between these two villages unless you take a half-day detour way up in the mountains.

      The coastal trail between Manarola and Corniglia is also closed due to a rockslide. There was talk of having it opened by this spring but no work has been started. The two trails connecting Corniglia - Vernazza - Monterosso were open as of a few weeks ago, but now we were down to paying to hike just one trail. That's a lot of frequent flier miles for 2 km of hiking...
      Trudgin' along the AT since 2003. Completed Sections: Springer Mountain to Winding Stair Gap NC, Max Patch to Franconia Notch NH and the Gale River Trail to Crawford Notch NH.
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      So, my Day 1 plan was chewed up and spit out. We (my wife, my sister and I) put our heads together and decided that the next best course of action would be... wine.



      Fresh pesto and a crisp local white wine did wonders to improve my outlook. While we were down by the harbor, I decided to climb out on the rocks at the breakwater and take some pictures back towards the village.





      A tourist kept getting in my pictures of the fishing boats. The sailors were even smiling for me but she ruined the shots.



      As I climbed down the boulders, I missed the warning sign and took a tumble.





      Mrs. Tortoise wasn't impressed. The left elbow was split to the bone, the right knee was bloody, and my left thigh felt like it had been used for batting practice. As a result, I spent all of my souvenir money at this local establishment:

      Trudgin' along the AT since 2003. Completed Sections: Springer Mountain to Winding Stair Gap NC, Max Patch to Franconia Notch NH and the Gale River Trail to Crawford Notch NH.
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      Being married to a nurse is both a blessing and a curse. She cleaned me up pretty well, steri-stripped my elbow back together, but wanted to put me on bed rest. I didn't come all the way to Italy to sit on the veranda when there there were trails and views calling my name. I demanded that we at least hike south to the point where the trail was closed so we could see Vernazza from above.





      It took a good bit of intestinal fortitude to drag my left leg up and down the steps to this viewpoint. Then again, I completed one hike with cracked ribs and another with pneumonia so a cranky quad muscle wasn't going to ground me. Over dinner, my wife and sister demanded that we abandon our morning plan to hike from Monterosso to Vernazza. I argued right up to the point where I tried to stand up from the table and walk to the train station. Maybe a few extra hours of rest would be a good idea. I limped ahead of my companions so they couldn't see the look of agony on my face.

      It rained in the morning - right at the time we had planned on being on the trail. I congratulated myself for deciding not to wake up early. As a consolation, we did hike north out of Vernazza to an overlook and got to show our 2-day tickets to an official inspector inside his booth.





      Afterwards,we gathered our belongings from the apartment and headed south to Manarola to salvage as much hiking as we could through the rest of the day.
      Trudgin' along the AT since 2003. Completed Sections: Springer Mountain to Winding Stair Gap NC, Max Patch to Franconia Notch NH and the Gale River Trail to Crawford Notch NH.

      The post was edited 1 time, last by StalkingTortoise ().

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      Bummer about the washout of the trails and the fall. We did not get to Cinque Terre, but were in Pisa, Florence, Sienna, and Venice a few years ago. We did not climb the tower, but enjoyed it from below. I walked around to the north side and took this picture from an angle where the tower leans directly away from you. That way it looks straight. I posted it on my FB with caption about how the tower is less interesting since they straightened it. Had a few people fall for it. I also took the obligatory "holding up the tower" shot, but had more fun taking pictures of everyone else doing it. When they aren't lined up with the tower they look even more goofy.

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      I hiked the Cinque Terra in 1985. At the time it was not as well known, so I pretty much had it to myself. No pass required, just a walk. Glad to see the villages still look as stunningly beautiful.

      For some of the hike between the towns I just cowboy camped in the Olive groves. I did get chewed out by one old Italian lady for that, so I guess stealth camping was not cool, even back then. I ate like a king along the way, and the local white wine was great. I would love to get back there someday.
      “Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
      the saddest are these, 'It might have been.”


      John Greenleaf Whittier
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      The trail between Manarola and Riomaggiore is named the Via Dell'Amore (Lover's Way). Although it's closed between the villages, a small section is still open on the Manarola side. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a brief stroll with my wife of 30 years.





      The next stop was an overlook on the north side of the village for the perfect picture postcard view.

      Trudgin' along the AT since 2003. Completed Sections: Springer Mountain to Winding Stair Gap NC, Max Patch to Franconia Notch NH and the Gale River Trail to Crawford Notch NH.
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      I had done my homework before leaving for Italy and found that there was one option for hiking between Manarola and Corniglia. Trail 506 climbs steeply out of Manarola to the mountain village of Volastra. Trail 586 runs side-hill to the northwest at a fairly consistent elevation profile before intersecting with trail 587 which plunges down the mountain to Corniglia. And it's worthwhile to note that there are 382 steps connecting Corniglia with its train station at sea level.

      Option 1: Start at the Corniglia train station, climb 382 steps, ascend steeply for ~0.5 km, hike level trail for 1 km, then descend steeply for 1 km from Volastra to Manarola.

      Option 2: Start at the Manarola train station, ascend steeply for 1 km, side-hill hike for 1 km, then the steep descent into Corniglia followed by the 382 steps down to the train station.

      Option 3: Start in Manarola. Take the bus to Volastra (included in the hiking / train pass), hike 1 km of level side-hill trail followed by a steep 0.5 km descent into Corniglia. Have lunch (including wine) in Corniglia followed by gelato, then descend the 382 steps to the train station.

      Of course we opted for #3. On the bus ride to Volastra, an elderly Italian woman with two grocery bags got off at the last (highest) stop in Manarola and gestured to me to help her with her bags. I carried them to a bench while she spoke to me in Italian about the beauty of her home town - at least that was my sister's translation. She said "Grazie!" and I immediately replied "Prego!" It was such a brief interaction but I'll remember it as part of a great day. Onto the hike!



      Looking down on Manarola


      First view of Corniglia






      Corniglia is getting closer!


      Arriving on the first paved road in Corniglia with Manarola visible to the south


      We had lunch at a placed called KM0 (KM zero), with the insinuation that all of the food ingredients are sourced locally. This was one of the times that having a native language speaker really came in handy. As we approached the outdoor seating area, a waitress all but growled at us in broken English. The table was wet from rain and the chairs were leaned into the table to prevent rain from pooling on the seating surface. She told us that we could sit there but that she was not going to dry anything off for us. As she disappeared back into the restaurant, my sister followed to see if there was any indoor seating. She spoke to the waitress in Italian and asked if she was OK. All of a sudden, we weren't ignorant tourists anymore. The two of them struck up a conversation and we received top notch service for the entire meal. The waitress even asked if she could take English lessons from my sister via Skype! The food was great, the local white wine was tasty, and the gelato from the Alberto Gelateria really hit the spot. Those 382 steps weren't so bad on the way down.

      Trudgin' along the AT since 2003. Completed Sections: Springer Mountain to Winding Stair Gap NC, Max Patch to Franconia Notch NH and the Gale River Trail to Crawford Notch NH.
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      Just to make it official, we took the train from Corniglia to Riomaggiore and went for a quick stroll through the village. The skies were turning black and the occasional drizzle we had endured was ready to turn into a full-fledged downpour. I didn't even take one picture in Riomaggiore. Bought a magnet for the fridge to complete my set of five, grabbed a Coke Zero for the walk back to the train station, then we huddled in the tunnel at the end of the train platform as the rain began to fall. Caught the first train back to La Spezia and successfully made the transfers at Pisa and Empoli on our way back to Siena. My sister's boyfriend was kind enough to pick us up at the train station and even cooked a light dinner for us. The hardest part of the evening was dragging my left leg uphill to our airbnb apartment.

      My fall on the rocks turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving. After walking ~20 km around Rome on Saturday, we survived the 10-hour flight to Dulles on Sunday. At home, I removed my compression socks (a very good idea for long flights) to find my left leg in distress. The knee and ankle were purple and the shin was a nice share of red. My wife explained things in simple terms: I could go to bed and die from a blood clot that moved to my brain, or I could agree to go the the ER and have it checked out. Dying at 55 with 76% of the AT completed didn't sound like fun. Having a stroke didn't sound like much fun either. So we spend three hours in the ER while they performed imaging and X-rays on my leg.







      Left with a script for Cephalexin to treat possible cellulitis and instructions to keep my leg elevated as much as possible throughout the day and night.
      Trudgin' along the AT since 2003. Completed Sections: Springer Mountain to Winding Stair Gap NC, Max Patch to Franconia Notch NH and the Gale River Trail to Crawford Notch NH.
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      Cinque Terre Wrap-Up

      My sister told me I have no choice but to return so I can hike all of the coastal trails once they are opened. My daughter wants to visit the Cinque Terre so we can make it a family affair. She has been to Italy twice but never made it to the Ligurian coast.

      I loved the 586 trail. In fact, I would do it again but skip the descent into Corniglia. The views of Manarola and Corniglia from the terraced vineyards were outstanding, with the Mediterranean ever-sparkling in the background. Start at the cafe in Volastra, hike the 1 km out & back, make another visit to the cafe, then head down to either seaside village for lunch and wine. Always wine.

      The longest hike between the villages is ~2 km. The hardest hike would be considered moderate by most AT hikers. Every town has water fountains with potable water, not to mention restaurants, stores and gelaterias. It's possible to hike all four coastal trails in one day, but the better plan is to spend two nights in the region so you can get off the beaten path and see some of the hillside villages like Volastra. Every store clerk spoke enough English that you don't have to rent out my sister as your translator. Learning 10 Italian words and phrases will get you a smile as you interact with the locals.

      Trudgin' along the AT since 2003. Completed Sections: Springer Mountain to Winding Stair Gap NC, Max Patch to Franconia Notch NH and the Gale River Trail to Crawford Notch NH.