A seagull and hawk dueled in the clear, blue sky directly in front of our noses. Waves crashed but we could not hear them, because they were far too far below.
Was this the land of dreamy dreams? No. Try the Cinque Terre.
The grapegrowers and woodsmen of the old, impoverished Cinque Terre used to be the exclusive owners of the view from on high, from what’s now known as ridge trail #1. That view features not only seagulls and hawks but also stunted pine trees, scalloped scrabble cliffs, and tiered terraces planted with low grapevines and gnarled olive trees. All seem to be tumbling into the Mediterranean.
Nowadays the famous fivesome of Riviera villages are part of the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, an Italian National Park. Their inhabitants are anything but impoverished. There are no woodsmen. The grapegrowers and winemakers drive late-model cars that I could not afford. They ride high-tech monorails up and down the terraces to harvest their grapes, which are turned into an easy-to-quaff, over-priced wine. The seaside villagers are even more prosperous than their mountain brethern, made rich by tourism.
The price locals pay for prosperity is heavy: the area has been thoroughly denatured, luckily without destroying its physical beauty. The Cinque Terre are simply stupendously gorgeous. But this brave new eat-and-run world comes complete with body-to-body outsiders on beaches, and iffy trattorias with menus in English, German and Chinese. Tourism has revolutionized what was the Riviera’s most sublimely isolated stretch.
The classic example is the village-to-village trail #2, now a hiker’s highway year round. A toll is charged by affable park officials, whose writ is to collect enough money to repair the trails the tourists wreck. Backpack-to-backpack with garrulous enthusiasts, many on package tours, hikers account for the bulk of the 2 million-plus visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Cinque Terre are being loved to death, like Yosemite.
The good news is, the long, lonely path atop the crest behind the feeding frenzy-a place of seagulls, hawks and mavericks-gives you a taste of the Cinque Terre of yesteryear, meaning 30 or 40 years ago. Even better, convenient improvements unheard of 40 years ago have been added in the last decade. Trattorias, cafés, hotels and public transportation are lavished on those intrepid enough to head for the hills. The park’s plan is to lure hikers off the seaside route to save it from ruin, and also provide an economic stimulus to those operating hospitality centers above.A gentle warning is in order: the hike up is not exactly a breeze for the moderately fit. But people of middle age like me and my wife Alison seem able to do it without undo trouble. And if you can’t scramble up the 2,400-foot grade to the highest point on the ridge, you can take a bus or a taxi and start at Colle del Telegrafo, site of a dangerously pleasant trattoria operated by the park.
Alison and I have walked the ridge trail three times now in recent years. If it were possible I would walk it daily. I would build a tree house and live somewhere near the pass and the trattoria at Colle del Telegrafo. The pesto is organic and among the most flavorful in the area, the fish is local and fresh, and most of the produce is grown responsibly in or near the Cinque Terre.
On our latest visit we were in high season, but Alison and I were the only animate creatures at the pass, other than the friendly waiter, the chef and six other clients we saw ranged around tables on the trattoria’s shaded terrace. Only one table was occupied in the panoramic dining room. Word has not yet spread, a good thing for us, but bad for business.
Much of the time we hiked along the ridge we could see the colorful inchworm of over-equipped backpackers making their way in the heat and dust far below. Part of me felt sorry for them: they were missing an authentically wonderful experience up top, in a cooler, leafier place with see-forever views.
The other part of me was thankful that the youthful packers didn’t know about the upper trail, or, if they did, had chosen not to take it.
Many people probably prefer the sweaty free-for-all on the shore. In fact, if sunbathing, swimming and socializing is what you’re after, stay below.
If you do take the ridge trail, nothing stops you from dipping down into the villages, or taking ferries or trains among them. You can get up to the ridge at many points, and walk it for an hour or for its entire 40-mile length.
The official starting point of what is usually a 3-day, 2-night hike is Portovenere. This resort has every bit as much atmosphere and is as touristy and crowded as any of the Cinque Terre themselves. As far as I’m concerned, it outdoes them with its craggy Genoese castle and Romanesque church perched over the sea.
From the docks of Portovenere the trail rides a roller-coaster north then switchbacks down to sea level as it enters Levanto, a small town still partly wrapped in medieval walls. Between Portovenere and Levanto the five Cinque Terre nest innocuously below on rocky spurs. They look like toy villages or operetta sets, enhancing the view of sea, mountain and pine forest.
Getting to the ridge is a challenge, but not an insuperable one. No matter where you arrive from, to reach the southern trailhead in Portovenere you need to transit through La Spezia. This lively and authentic rail hub and military port facility is near the Tuscan border. Unsung, it’s worth half a day of your time for the food alone: some of the best Ligurian specialties are here. But it is not handsome, and most visitors understandably rush through it. Like them we tripped across the echoing stone streets of La Spezia’s old town and crossed the so-called “Gulf of Poets” in half an hour on a ferry to Portovenere.
In their early 1800s poetry, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe-Shelley described this gulf’s drop-dead beauty. Fittingly Shelley drowned while swimming across it. Since then Portovenere has morphed from a rough-shod military stronghold hedged by sea and cliffs into a gentrified vacation spot. Its pastel pink, lemon and ochre houses are about 1,000 years old.
Café tables and lazy cats fill the pocket-sized waterfront piazza. By 9:45 am we were having cappuccinos and pastries there. Portovenere’s San Pietro church turned out to be a surprising Romanesque layer-cake of black-and-white stone. It reportedly tops what was a pagan temple at the promontory’s western tip. From its wave-washed loggia we could see our path climbing north toward Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the Cinque Terre.
“Daunting” was the first word that came to mind. The second was “amazing.”
A staircase marked with a red-and-white flag tilts up from the base of the 13th-century castle, runs along its serrated walls, and delivers thrills practically at every step. That makes the climbing even more of a challenge. You’re likely to stumble, because you’ll be dazzled by the views.
Portovenere’s black Portoro construction stone used to be as famous as the marble of Carrara-at least in Italy. We scrambled through broom and tree heather and came across abandoned Portoro blocks and mining equipment. About 20 minutes above Portovenere, the cliff-edge detour marked “1/a” led us to rock climbers dangling like giant spiders on a former quarry face. Normally I don’t fear heights. This was different.
There is no paved coastal road for cars north from Portovenere, making this pine-stippled hogback as close to empty as you can get in Italy. Due west of us, peaky Palmaria Island and its smaller cousin Tino were calved by the mainland. Eastward we could see La Spezia’s port and the saw-toothed, snowy Apennines.
The faint-hearted should probably abstain from this hike. One section we rounded at “Il Pitone,” about an hour’s hike north of Portovenere, was a kind of daredevil’s balcony wrapped around cliffs. Just beyond it, a hardy resident told us he scales the 700 or so steps with no handrails every day to his house in the hamlet of Schiara sited a vertical 1,000 feet below.
Some of Italy’s longest-lived inhabitants are from the Riviera: apparently to survive you develop legs and hearts of steel.
It took us 2 hours from Portovenere to a hard-driven hamlet called Campiglia 1,300 feet above the crashing surf. Another hour of pine needle-padded paths through scented forests with infinity-views brought us to the woodsy Sant’Antonio Abate chapel. Candles burned, honoring Alpine troops who died in the World Wars. The snack bar built onto the back of the chapel seemed heaven sent. Our bottled water was gone and we greedily gulped a liter on the spot, then shot down thimbles of hot espresso. It was one of those only-in-Italy places, destined to lose money, devoted to dead soldier-heroes, and thoroughly charming.
Though it had been scorching at sea level, the weather up top was crisp, sunny and breezy. Reportedly it’s much the same all year, often 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler on the ridge than below.
Thirty minutes past the Alpine chapel and in time for a late lunch we trooped into the famous trattoria at Colle del Telegrafo. Admittedly I was at first miffed to see a regular municipal mini-bus from Riomaggiore. Buses serve the crossroads. It straddles a pass at about 1,700 feet. Several well-heeled tourists, clearly not hikers, alighted and ate joyfully, though not as joyfully as we did.
Over lunch a friendly park ranger shared our table. After the pesto and seafood, he poured out lethal doses of the Cinque Terre’s lemon-based Limoncino liqueur. The area was northern Italy’s main citrus producer once upon a time. Park authorities have replanted lemon trees, and the liqueur business has started up again.
We’d noticed umpteen crumbling terraces on our walk. About 1,250 miles of dry stone walls keep the 250 tiers of Cinque Terre terraces from sliding into the Mediterranean-or used to. “That’s longer than the Great Wall of China,” the ranger remarked. “They’re built of dry stone because there’s no cement,” he explained. “It’s environmentally sound and traditional. It took centuries of backbreaking work to build them, and they’ll take decades to restore.”
The park has reconverted a dozen abandoned hillside houses and churches into restaurants and hostels. One of them, the Sanctuary of Montenero, was our next stop.
An hour’s walk downhill toward Riomaggiore on twisting trail #3 brought us to the sanctuary. We’d reserved dinner and a room but were too early to check in. Lower than Colle del Telegrafo at about 1,400 feet, this 14th-century former convent with a pink and lemon-hued belfry still seemed airborne. There is no paved road here either. A cogwheel monorail that looks like a funfair ride shuttles steeply from the sanctuary to a highway and bus stop a quarter mile below. The monorail is used primarily for luggage, since most guests are hikers. But the managers admitted that some people ask for a ride up.
We left our backpacks at the sanctuary, walked down to the bus and rode part way to Riomaggiore. At a crossroads we got off and walked up half a mile to another hillside hamlet called Groppo, headquarters of the modern, spotless Cinque Terre Cooperative Winery. In the tasting room the co-op’s president lustily poured three single-vineyard white wines made from Vermentino, Bosco and Albarola grapes. They were dry and pleasant, evoking citrus and honeysuckle.
“A century ago 4,000 acres of grapevines grew here,” the president told us with a sweep of his callused hands. “Now we have 250 acres. The co-op’s 160 growers’ average age is 75,” he sighed. “The park hasn’t solved the basic problem of an aging population, and young Italians don’t think working the land or making wine is fashionable.”
Some of them do. On the way back up to the sanctuary by bus and on foot later that afternoon we met an enthusiastic young park employee, Francesco Franceschetti. “Since the national park was created in the year 2000 there’s no unemployment in the Cinque Terre,” he said. “We’ve reclaimed over 25 acres of terraces. Organic basil for Genoese pesto grows alongside the grapevines. There’s enough work to keep us busy for decades!”
Back up at Montenero that evening we savored more of the same delicious pesto made with the co-op’s basil, and more fresh seafood, this time in a vaulted dining room from centuries past. When it came time to head to bed, the sanctuary’s laconic managers handed us flashlights.
“We’ve put your backpacks in Teodora,” said one cryptically.
Somehow we thought we had booked a room inside the convent. No. We were to have our very own cottage.
We saw no boars in the beams of our flashlights but had a fun time finding our way in the dark on a steep, narrow, tangled path through terraced woodland. “Teodora” turned out to be a reconverted winegrower’s hut the size of a one-car garage. The back wall was carved from a gray rock face. We clambered onto a tiny loft and slept lulled by the waves breaking 1,400 feet below. It was so quiet that we could actually hear them-and the grunting of boars, which have invaded the Cinque Terre and the rest of the Ligurian coast.
Our next morning’s walk was on the meandering Via dei Santuari, an old mule path and pilgrimage route. It ran about 7 miles and took us maybe 3 hours. Riders on horses, a horse-drawn carriage and several mountain bikers passed us-making us feel crowded. A handful of grapegrowers returned greetings from their suspended terraces. The discourse had a surreal quality.
Every vineyard, we noticed, is surrounded by handmade tree-heather fences. The climate is mild in the Cinque Terre, one man explained, but winds are often strong. “Without the windbreaks the grapes won’t ripen,” said a stooped, wizened woman busy cutting and weaving heather.
At noon we walked into the compact, perched village of Volastra. The park has funded blanket restoration and every house seemed to have been freshly painted in the requisite operetta-set pastel pink or lemon. Riomaggiore stretches about 1,000 feet below.
The ancient Romans called Volastra “Vicus Oleaster,” meaning a place where olive oil was made. It still is. Twisted olive trees sprout everywhere. Appropriately the village trattoria, also run by the park, is named Gli Ulivi-the olive trees. In the blissfully cool dining room painted with rainbow stripes on the walls, we feasted on half a dozen fresh fish antipasti, some of them drizzled with Volastra’s own light, fruity oil.
Feeling no worse for wear, we picked up trail #6/d in front of a weathered church that was roofed and faced in Riviera slate, with a belfry covered by scale-shaped slate tiles. An easy hour of level contours led through vineyards, olive groves and kitchen gardens hovering above Manarola, Corniglia and Vernazza, the next 3 Cinque Terre villages far, far below.
The grade to the ridge on trail #7/c brought back memories of the crazy climb up from Portovenere. It took us an hour to reach 2,000 feet, gulping air all the way. Once up we spent the next 4 hours marching on the crest through tilting chestnut groves and cloudbanks. Keyhole views of the coast or Apennines alternated as the path shuttled from one side of the ridge to the other. Luckily, when evening started painting the pinnacles around us, we tramped into the Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Soviore, above Monterosso.
Soviore is still a working convent. Bells rang. Nuns came and went. But after 8 hours and about 16 miles of up-and-down, we were pleasantly fatigued. The best we could manage was to gaze in a daze at the miraculous Madonna in the convent’s gold-encrusted church, the object of pilgrimages, then head for the refectory. After a surprisingly sumptuous meal in the vaulted dining room, in the company of jolly pilgrims and other hikers, we tumbled into bed.
Anyone unused to very large, very heavy bronze church bells should bring industrial earplugs to Soviore. The convent’s campanile rang on the quarter hour through the night.
After breakfast a solicitous nun assured us that switchback mule paths dip from Soviore down to Monterosso, the northernmost and biggest of the Cinque Terre, in about 90 minutes. “See the crowds on the beaches?” she pointed, beaming proudly.
But our lonely route pointed north to Levanto. We followed the rocky ridge trail up and over hulking Monte Focone to Punta Mesco, an impressive headland. A ruined hermitage and lighthouse there provided more of those see-forever views, enabling us to retrace our zigzags from Portovenere via Montenero to Soviore. As if on runner’s high, I felt strangely invigorated. The final 2 hours of cliffs, forests of live oaks, and terraced olive groves were a breeze. They eased us down to the walls of Levanto, and our afternoon train to Genoa.
Triumph takes many forms. Ours was a minor, but rewarding one. Not only had we done 40 magic-mountain miles in three days. We’d also helped the local economy, and seen and enjoyed the Cinque Terre without running into a single human traffic jam.
An American author and journalist based in Paris, for the last 25 years David Downie has been writing about European culture, food and travel for magazines and newspapers worldwide. His nonfiction books include Enchanted Liguria, Cooking the Roman Way, The Irreverent Guide to Amsterdam, andthree critically acclaimed volumes of travel, food and wine in the Terroir Guides series: Food Wine the Italian Riviera & Genoa, Food Wine Rome, and Food Wine Burgundy. Downie’s travel memoir Paris, Paris: Journeys into the Heart and Soul of the City of Light is being reiussed in 2011 by Broadway Books. His latest books are Paris City of Night, a classic thriller set in Paris, and Quiet Corners of Rome (spring 2011). Please visit David Downie’s website, DavidDownie.com.