Hiking Cinque Terre, Italy – A Guide for Beginners

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Isn’t that view breathtaking? This view has been described by Lonely Planet as, “some of the most dramatic coastal scenery on the planet.” 

It is true that most tourists spend time reading guide books, reviews and informational articles or websites about the places they will or have visited. As a traveler, I tend to spend more of my reading time on the backside of a visit finding that it helps make sense of what I have seen or experienced. When I read about something before I see it, for some reason the information doesn’t really “stick.” So, if you’re like me, heed this warning, DON’T GO HIKING IN CINQUE TERRE because what you might think is a class one or two hike is more like class three or four – five being straight-up-a-sheer-cliff-rock-climbing!

I’m such a dolt – such a sucker!  Words like, “its charm is the lack of visible corporate development” make me dropsy with gooey feelings and the rebel in me is convinced I will love it. Everything I read about Cinque Terre before going there had words that pulled me in… “charming, dramatic, romantic…” Here’s how Lonely Planet intros Cinque Terre…

“Set amid some of the most dramatic coastal scenery on the planet, these five ingeniously constructed fishing villages can bolster the most jaded of spirits. A Unesco World Heritage site since 1997, Cinque Terre isn’t the undiscovered Eden it once was but, frankly, who cares? Sinuous paths traverse seemingly impregnable cliffsides, while a 19th-century railway line cut through a series of coastal tunnels ferries the footsore from village to village. Thankfully cars were banned over a decade ago.”

Read more: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/italy/cinque-terre/introduction#ixzz4OphvdK3T

I’m most certainly a jaded spirit and drawn to anything sinuous and “ingeniously constructed,” so after reading these bits and pieces, I was convinced our family would LOVE Cinque Terre. We’d be hiking along the coast and get to see more of that ROMANTIC Italy! What could be better? Running a marathon, being drawn and quartered or burned at the stake, perhaps?

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Our trip to Cinque Terre made me realize my English must not be as strong as I thought it was. What about “rugged, steep, seemingly impregnable cliffsides, ascent of 368 steps…yadda, yadda, blah don’t I understand? Why don’t I know what “ferries the footsore from village to village” REALLY means?

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This charming hike must be Italy’s biggest joke on tourists! They beckon us to visit with their charming farms terraced into rugged rocky terrain, they convince us that we will love a romantic hike through their backdoors and gardens where we can marvel at the Italian ability to build straight up, and promise us a variety of vistas unheard of in most of the world. All the while we are sucking for breath, the Italians are laughing their butts off while sipping Grappa! I can just hear them, “Look at those stupid tourists walking those paths! We don’t even walk up there! And, they paid for this torture as well! Ha, ha , ha, ha, ha!!!”

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Let me set the record straight for any tourist even thinking about visiting Cinque Terre. Let me try to be a bit more clear than the guide books.

  1. If you hike it, prepare to feel like you are dying – heart pounding will not stop the entire trail, your lungs will feel like they will explode and the feel of nausea may last for days after the “hike.”
  2. So, because of number one, if you are not in EXTREME SOLID physical shape, don’t even think about walking the trail. If you drink two glasses of wine a day, forget about it and buy a train ticket to each of the villages. If you smoke, go straight to the wine bar and wait for your family members. You will hear rescue helicopters all day on the trail if you go.
  3. Plan on sweat. There is NO WAY you can walk this trail and not sweat profusely within the first one hundred steps UP. Don’t be fooled by the maps – trails on paper look flat! These trails go first up, then down, then up…through 5 villages.
  4. Speaking of steps up – there are THOUSANDS of them. You will go up a rocky path that ascends hundreds of “steps” then go down a similar number and repeat for as many villages as you want to see. (A NOTE about “STEPS” – they are not steps in the conventional sense. These steps are made of rocks and some of the rise/run dimensions are the height of a healthy son of a basketball player.)
  5. Plan to wear pants that stretch. This kind of hiking/step walking requires your knees to be able to touch your nose. If you can hold any of the yoga “Warrior” positions for five or six hours, you will love this hike!
  6. The hike WILL take 6 hours. If you are a fast walker, you might think you will do this hike in a third of the time, but you won’t.
  7. Get a good picture of what 6 hours really means. Picture 6 hours in your day – think about brushing your teeth in the morning and then on to lunch. Then think about all you get done during that HUGE amount of time. Now imagine feeling the way I describe in point NUMBER 1 above for that long. If you think you can do it, 99% of you are kidding yourself. You can’t.
  8. Note that the trail passes through terraced vineyards with shriveled dried grapes on the vines – a huge CLUE that not even the Italians traverse these trails. No, they are not a raisin producing area.
  9. Because you will sweat so much, you must plan to carry a heavy pack with water. Don’t think you can be the cool minimalist packer on this trip. You may even want to consider hiring a sherpa or good mule to carry your water supply.
  10. If you don’t completely dehydrate yourself, you might need a bathroom, but they are non-existent on the trail. That is not the same for fellow tourists, so plan to pee in company.
  11. Finally, if you are fool enough to think you can make this hike, know that the trains stop in each town, so you can plan your exit strategy.

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Beautiful and stunning, yes. A marvel of agricultural architecture, most definitely. A romantic hike – certainly not! This hike is HARD.

As you can imagine, I did not make it through this hike. We camped north of Cinque Terre, up the hill from Deiva Marina, then took the train to the most southern village (Riomaggiore) with the intention of walking the trail through all five of the towns. At the last town, Monterosso, we would take the train back to Deiva Marina.

I wore jeans and packed three apples, one for each of us, thinking it all perfect and sufficient. I have to pee a lot, and don’t like carrying anything too heavy, so water didn’t make the cut. Jeff never said anything about packing anything, so what to bring was my decision. There was no discussion. I don’t think the thought to bring anything occurred to Max as he had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. He’s along for the ride with little vested interest, typically. All he wants to do in Europe is ride a bullet train.

When we left in the morning it was cold, so in addition to jeans, I wore a t-shirt, lightweight fleece and down puff coat. Max had a sweatshirt and Jeff had his flannel over a t-shirt, but fortunately, they both wore shorts.

By the time we got forty steps up and out of Riomaggiore, we were all drenched. The sun was now nearly overhead and the torturous exercise brought on sweat and nausea. I had all my layers tied around my waist, and the skinny jeans no longer the comfortable easy-wear clothing item I love. With sweat, the jean fabric became stuck to my skin and completely inelastic. Every step up required me to use an arm to help lift a leg. In the few places where there were handrails, I used those to pull myself up. Those of you who know skinny jeans and have ample butts like me also know that if the jean leg goes up, the ass cover will surely go down. If it weren’t for the coat tied around my waist, all the travelers behind me would have known that I wear thong underwear with little pink flowers! Basically, the jeans prevented my legs from being able to stretch high enough to reach most of the steps naturally.

For some reason, since trails on maps are flat, I think I thought that once we reached the top, the trail would continue on some upper ridge above the towns. As we continued the endless hike up out of Riomaggiore, I tried to convince myself that it would be better once we reached the top. I figured this was the tough part, we’d have a few slight ups and downs then descend at the last village.

When the pain got nearly unbearable, I started to look to Jeff for reassurance. It was then that I wanted to sit back down with the guide books, I wanted to know EXACTLY how far to the “top,” and I wanted to know precisely what to expect on the rest of the trail. Every question I asked came back with one of his positive reassuring ideas, “It’s just around that next wall.” Or “We’re almost there.” Or “I think it’s just a little further.”  I should note that the “steps” up this first hill usually go straight up, but occasionally take a sharp turn to the left or the right leaving the hiker looking up to falsely believe that in twenty more steps they will reach the top. Over and over, we would see another steep climb up that appeared to end in a flat path. But when we got to the top, just around the corner was another steep set of steps going up twenty, thirty, forty at a time. This hike is a psychological brain (excuse my English) fuck.

After suffering a few of these illusions, I began to realize that hiking Cinque Terre is the best trick played on tourists ever! I figure Italians must be so tired of tourists mobbing their every charming nook and cranny that this is their way of getting back at us. Promote the hike as charming, build a national park around it, charge a fee, then sit back and watch them suffer. I suspect the aperitivo is a daily activity on all of the Cinque Terre balconies where Italians gather over olives and a bottle of wine to watch the late afternoon tortured tourists struggle through the terraced hills. The real kicker is that when you get to the “top” and look out over the terraces, you will see the little motorized carts they use to transport themselves through the vineyards!

Once we got to the actual top of the first hill, I realized that my interpretation of the maps was utterly incorrect and all hope dashed. Rather than proceeding along some sort of flat upper ridge of the hillsides, the now easy to see trail led straight down to Manarolo, the next village, and right back up the hill opposite our vista. This would be six hours of grueling up and down in tight pants that wouldn’t give, without water or hope. Mr. Positive led the way directly to the train station, bought me a ticket, kissed me and said, “I love you.”

I went back to Deiva Marina barely able to walk and Max and Jeff completed the hike. Nearly six hours later over our own aperitivo we talked about the brutality of the Sentiero Azzurro (“Azure Trail”) and laughed about how the section from Riomaggiore to Manarola is called the Via dell’Amore (“Love Walk”). Ha!

 

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8 thoughts on “Hiking Cinque Terre, Italy – A Guide for Beginners

  1. Beautiful & Stunning is right! What a fine trip I just had with the map! Thanks for your great report! Wow, I’m nearly out of exclamation points! Love, Poppy

    PS. Hey Max, can you fix me up with a digital map that is marked with your route? What a trip!

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  2. Here’s how my aunt, who is much better at hiking recommends to do this walk:

    She says: I have to agree with you that I sometimes prefer to read about a destination after experiencing it, but in case you’ve scared everyone off hiking the Cinque Terre, I have to present the other side.
    This is one of Mark’s and my favorite hikes in the world, but you don’t have to tackle the whole thing in one day (and I’ve learned that I need snacks and water on every hike). You hike from one town to the next, stopping often to catch your breath and look down at the gorgeous coastline or the lemon trees or the wild artichokes. When you get to town you have some pizza and wine, and then take the train back to your hotel.
    Then the next day you take the train to where you left off and start again. We had the added bonus of passing large groups of children on field trips who would each greet us in the language they thought we spoke. We returned the greeting in a variety of languages.
    So thanks, Sarah, for bringing back such good memories and providing lots of laughs! 😄

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  3. Oh dear ones, I laughed and laughed, twice you note …because our family endured one such taunted trek in two different countries. Yah, we never learn. Once in England we bypassed Stone Henge in order to see the Falls, don’t listen to those English who hate Americans. Another such hike was in China where we walked up Mt. Taishan, ten thousand stone steps carrying our photography equipment. A large rat eat a hole
    through the sweater of the girl sleeping in the next compartment at the peak. You may not believe it yet but those two stories are among the most memorable of our journeys!

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    1. Well, you know me, Martha – I’m good at complaining! It is better to look back on now – much more funny than when we were in the midst of it all! Funny thing is when I went back to Deiva Marina I thought I got on the wrong train and got off in Levanto – didn’t remember having gone through Levanto so thought I was much farther north than our campsite. Turns out it was the right train and I just needed to stay on it! We also travel without maps…very ill-prepared sometimes! “Just Do It” is our motto.

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  4. Sarah, your hike of Cinque Terre reminds me of our Path of Gods hike in the other beautiful, romantic, Italian cliffside village, Positano. Yes, we ran out of water, sweated off half our body weight, mentioned God several times (not in exultation!), and wondered just how many people have to get rescued on the cliffs each day. Remind me to tell you how it ends with my “Limoncello” story next year when you return!

    Glad to finally be on your blogsite!

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