Cinque Terre Trails Part 2: Corniglia to Monterosso

I woke up feeling utterly wiped out. My swollen and sore calves felt like they had extra weights attached to them. But when I saw a patch of blue sky, I decided to make my way north from Corniglia, along the trail to the village of Vernazza. The hike along the coastal Cinque Terre “blue” trail is advertised as strenuous and dangerous, as it winds high up along the cliff faces. Any threat of rain will close the trail.

A morning thunderstorm out over the Ligurian Sea, off the Cinque Terre coast.

When the church bells in Corniglia chimed at 9 am, I found myself the only person embarking on the trail, past the still-empty checkpoint where rangers will look at your trail pass and make sure you have decent shoes. There were still puddles from the rain the night before, but the dry earth on the trail drank that water up quickly so I didn’t have to pass too many muddy spots. I had heard that there can be a conga line of people along this trail by midday, so it was sweet to have it all to myself. There was a thunderstorm out over the ocean and I wondered briefly if I was doing something dumb, but the forecast had shown everything shifting southward, so I decided to chance it and make a dash to the next village.

The trail going north from Corniglia wound along terraced olive groves.

While the hike involved some serious climbs, and precipitous drop-offs to the ocean below, it did not feel dangerous. Given the number of people that pass through each day, Cinque Terre National Park has made a great effort to ensure that the trail is in good shape, and any spots with steep drop-offs are protected by fences and chicken wire. In fact, it felt quite tame compared to the hike I did to the south, which involved much more elevation gain.

At 9:30am, the trails along the coastline are still very quiet. As you can see, it’s fairly well maintained, and no worries about unprotected drop-offs.

The hikes between the Cinque Terre villages are touted as some of the best in the world. As someone who has hiked in some rather spectacular places – Norwegian fjords, the backside of Yosemite’s Half Dome, the heart of the rainforest in Monteverde, Cajas Park along the Andean continental divide – I would agree that this hike is up there with the best, especially when you have the trail mostly to yourself. As the morning went on, I encountered more people, but not until I got closer to Vernazza, about two miles away.

The trail was enchanting, winding along the steep hill slope, past more terraced vineyards and olive groves perched above cerulean waters that sparkled when the sun would peek out from the clouds. Occasionally I passed a farmhouse, or an abandoned stone hut, and I felt like I had stepped back in time. Or into a fairy tale.

Sometimes I come across places that look like magic portals and I wish I could just step inside and see where they take me.

The first sign that I was coming into Vernazza was a restaurant built into the hillside along the trail, then a glimpse of the remnants of a castle on a promontory jutting out over the sea. The town, from above, looked like a large Easter basket full of pastel-colored eggs that wrap around a small harbor with gray walls. The stone tower is part of the remains of Castello Doria, built initially in the 11th century as a lookout to protect the village from pirates. Apparently, it was also used by Germans as an anti-aircraft station in WWII. The tower remnants and the winding steps that lead you through the maze of narrow streets give the town a medieval feel. The Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia (also over 1000 years old) hovers next to the harbor, and tourists sit with beer and wine under a field of umbrellas that pop up like wildflowers along the promenade.

Vernazza’s promenade sees its share of tourists every day – even when it’s cloudy and a bit cooler than people are expecting on the Italian Riviera.

It was mid-morning by the time I arrived in Vernazza, about an hour and a half after I left Corniglia. I treated myself to another chocolate croissant and cappuccino to fuel up and sat along the harbor for awhile, watching the tourists flooding into the streets from train and ferries. It rained lightly for a bit, then cleared quickly, and despite my screaming calves and blistered toes, I decided to continue the hike to the northernmost Cinque Terre town of Monterosso.

The view looking back at Vernazza, on the trail north to Monterosso.

I was not disappointed by more spectacular coastal views. But the trail was getting quite crowded at this point, and I began to experience a bit of that ‘conga line’ I had been warned about. Also, this hike attracts a lot of people you wouldn’t normally see on such a strenuous trail. The long-time California/Colorado hiker in me cringed when I passed a woman in a red cocktail dress. At least she was wearing running shoes. Another woman wore a long, flowing, perfectly white sundress with Teva sandals. Her husband trudged along in flip-flops. I’m not sure how they got past the trail checkpoint. Another woman wore a black cashmere sweater with a long, flowing black and white print skirt. On her feet: beige suede cowboy boots. As I stomped along in my day hiking shoes, with my classically unstylish zip-off hiking pants and sweat stained hiking shirt, all covered in Cinque Terre dust, I began to wonder if I was underdressed.

The beaches of Monterosso in the distance. I was just in time to see the water turn blue as the sun emerged from a passing cloud deck.

The trail was a bit steeper than the part I had traversed in the morning, and I wondered if these people who were clearly decked out for the more leisurely activities of the Italian Riviera really knew what they were getting into. I never ceased to be amazed at thow many people, from all walks of life, are attracted to these beautiful natural places. It just reminds me how much we all seek to find awe in nature. However disconnected from nature we may be in their day to day lives, there is something, maybe just under our consciousness, that keeps us seeking out natural beauty. I suppose that’s encouraging when I think about how important that connection to nature is when we are trying to mobilize people to do what they need to do to adapt to climate change. I just wish we could find the switch and turn that connection on at will.

I didn’t spend much time in Monterosso. It felt like a sprawling metropolis after the other Cinque Terre villages, not that it was any less beautiful. The town covers a flat area that extends into two parts with a large hill in between. Each part of the town is lined in long, wide grey beaches, dotted with umbrellas that were closed up when I got there with the threat of rain in the grey clouds drifting overhead. While I know Cinque Terre can be quite warm in late September, it wasn’t quite the idyllic beach day at 70F. But it was perfect for hiking.

In my sweaty Colorado hiking attire. Maybe a bit underdressed for the Italian Riviera? I don’t really care.

After Corniglia and Vernazza, sightseeing in Monterosso felt like a bit too much work to do in one day, so after a celebratory gelato, I caught the train for the seven minute ride back to Corniglia, realizing along the way that I was speeding beneath the rocks that I had just spent the morning traversing on foot.

One thought on “Cinque Terre Trails Part 2: Corniglia to Monterosso

  1. What a beautiful part of the world that is. So glad you got to go there and share it with us. Can’t imagine how long it took to build all those stone trails.


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