Cinque Terre Trails Part 1: Corniglia to Riomaggiore

I came to Cinque Terre to hike. I expected late September to be warm but not hot on the Ligurian coast. I had not anticipated things to be unstable, with a front coming in that promised some steady rain, or at least some good thunderstorms. Normally, I’d be excited by a some storm activity, but I really wanted to hike. It’s actually illegal to hike the Cinque Terre trails in the rain. The trails close at the checkpoints that sit on the edge of each village. So, on my first morning in Corniglia, I was up early, hoping to get on the trail and beat the incoming storm to the neighboring town of Manarola. Based on local radar and satellite images, I figured I had a couple hours. I decided to make a run for it – as much as you can ‘run’ up a steep, rocky trail that takes you up nearly 1000 feet.

Looking northward along the Cinque Terre coastline on a cloudy day in late September.

Corniglia and Manarola are not that far apart. There is a coastal trail that heads south from Corniglia but it has been closed due to landslide for at least a couple of years. That meant I’d have to take the much longer, much steeper, high trail over the hill and down to the next valley. It would be about five miles in total. I was ready.

Corniglia at 7:30am is lovely. Locals make their way through the narrow streets on their way to work. Shopkeepers are busy tidying up from the night before. There were only two other tourists out and about at that hour, and I drank my cappuccino d’soia and ate my Nutella croissant next to a rack of postcards in the center of town. The sky was grey, but layered with clouds, so the lighting was uneven, and a steady breeze rattled the leaves on the grapevines as I made my way out of town.

I hadn’t expected the trail to go up quite as much as it did. One thousand feet to Volastra, the mountain village (but still ocean-adjacent) famous for it’s grapes (wine, specifically) and olives. But I still had the trail all to myself at 9 am, and except for one local making his way into town, I didn’t see anyone else for the first 45 minutes while I trudged uphill.

The first part of the hike up out of Corneglia was a bit wild. I loved every minute of it, no matter how steep. My feet didn’t hurt at that point, and I felt full of energy (I’m such a nature girl.)

The trail eventually flattened out and wound along steeply terraced vineyards. I felt a bit nervous walking along the edges of the terraces, as the terrace below dropped at least 10 feet. But the views were outstanding, and I felt so accomplished for having hiked up so far on my first day in Cinque Terre. At some point, the trail started winding down again. Down along cobblestone paved stairs past olive groves where the tree branches hung heavy with ripe black olives. (I had heard that raw olives are really bitter, so no, I didn’t try any). Eventually the trail flattened out along a river and took me straight into the back side of Manarola.

Manarola, on it’s rocky perch above a glassy harbor. What you can’t see here are the swarms of tourists in the streets.

Manarola is sometimes touted as the prettiest of the Cinque Terre villages, with it’s palette of multi-colored houses that rise up along the cliffs above a tiny, rocky harbor. I’ve probably seen it on screen savers and the backgrounds that come with your computer. Walking into town from the land-side, I found myself gasping around every turn at the colors, the windows, and the glimpses of the sea. The closer I got to the harbor, the more people I encountered. It was nearing 10 am, and day-trippers were coming off of the ferries and the train in droves. I grabbed a piece of focaccia at a tiny local bakery with a gruff salesman, took a few photos of the harbor, then found myself having to make a decision.

I could wander around town a bit more, then hop on the train back to Corniglia and get back before the storm hit. Or I could race along the trail another two miles to the town of Riomaggiore. From the radar, it looked like I still had another hour or two before the rain hit. (How did we ever make decisions before smartphones?) Again, I would be scrambling up a steep trail on a strenuous stretch, but that seemed preferable to the hordes of people in town. So I made my way to the edge of town and began what was truly a rock scramble up a very steep trail. One mile and about 800 feet up, and one mile down. But the rain was holding off.

Halfway up I came upon a woman taking a break. “Hey, it looks like you’re hiking alone,” she called after me as I started up the trail, “Wanna be my hiking buddy?” And that’s how I met June from Canada. In her early 60’s and full of energy, we somehow managed to chat all the way up the hill between the moments when we were trying to catch our breath. Both of us had plenty of experience with steep hikes at high elevations, but this hike made us feel like newbies.

The trail descending to Riomaggiore.

I love how traveling can spark ‘mini-friendships’, as I like to call them. Sometimes you might not even know the other person’s name, but your conversations go deeper than they do even with people you’ve known for years back home. By the time we came down the back side of the hill into the town of Riomaggiore, I felt like June and I had known each other for years.

Along the harbor in Riomaggiore.

And true to form, it started sprinkling just as we stepped off the trail onto the street in town. But it wasn’t raining hard, and we decided to wander through the town then grab lunch at a fancy restaurant, soaked as we were in sweat and covered in dust. When you’re traveling alone, you tend not to eat in the fancy places so much – the waiters are likely to stick you in a corner (or sometimes say they’re full when they’re obviously not). So when you have a friend for the day, you want to make the most of it! After lunch, our mini-friendship having run it’s course, we went our separate ways. I caught the train back to Corniglia.

Overall, I had hiked more than 7 miles on some very rough terrain and had a pretty spectacular day in one of Italy’s most beautiful places.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, where I share my adventures on the trail north of Corniglia!

3 thoughts on “Cinque Terre Trails Part 1: Corniglia to Riomaggiore

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