Riomaggiore to Corniglia
Monday, September 7
After a long and much-needed sleep, we awoke to a clear, warm and sunny Cinque Terre day. Time to start exploring this wonderful bit of coastline.
First, a bit of background: the Cinque Terre (or "Five Lands" in english) covers a stretch of reasonably rugged coastline south of Genoa and north of Pisa, in the province of Liguria, and is considered part of the Italian Riviera. Although there are many little communities scattered within the confines of the Cinque Terre region, it is from five specific villages right on the coastline that the area gets its name. These villages are, in order from south to north: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. The towns and the surrounding hillsides are part of Italy's Cinque Terre National Park, and the area is also a UNESCO world heritage site.
There are no roads that directly connect these towns along the coastline (although each town does have a narrow road that individually connects down to them from a road network in the hills above). This leaves the towns and the stretches of coastline in between in a much more historic, pristine state. Old tracks and paths, used for centuries by travellers and farmers, still remain in place. In modern times, it has become very popular to walk between the towns of the Cinque Terre using these paths, some of which have been officially designated as hiking trails. This was our plan for the next two days: walk between all of the towns of the Cinque Terre, from south to north.
Stephanie and I were up a bit earlier than Roland and Jenn, and we were itching to start exploring. So, we embarked on a short sunrise tour of little Corniglia, along with the added objective of rustling up a bit of food for breakfast.
A cool morning breeze ruffled through the white towels and sheets hanging from our apartment's windows. The streets and alleyways of the town were more or less deserted (just the way I like it). We climbed a short way up the via alla marina to the town's main square, called the Largo Taragio - a rather small space with two leafy trees and a rather zombie-like statue monument to fallen world war I soldiers. We turned onto the main alleyway leading away from the square and towards the seaward end of the point of land upon which Corniglia is built. After a short walk, the narrow, house-lined alleyway abruptly ended at an open space facing the ocean: a deserted terrace (we later found out, not deserted at all in the evening) high above the sea, with a 180-degree view along the coast. From this vantage point, we could see much of the coastline along which we were about to walk.
There wasn't much open before 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, but we did manage to find one shop that was just being unlocked and supplied for the day. The bread had not arrived yet from the baker, and they only had a limited selection of fruit and cereal, but it was enough to get us started. The milk was not on display anywhere, strangely. I had to ask for it to be retrieved from behind a counter.
We then stopped by at a pasticceria for a few pastries, then headed back to the house, where the other sleepy heads were getting themselves ready. Shortly after 9a.m., we were cleaned up, fed, and ready to start exploring.
Corniglia is the middle town in the set of five Cinque Terre towns. In order to start our south-to-north hike, therefore, we needed to skip over to the southernmost village, called Riomaggiore. You may recall that I said there was no coastal highway directly linking the towns, and that is true. What I did not mention, however, is that instead of a coastal highway, the Cinque Terre sports a rail line that connects all five villages (and beyond). You may think, but surely this ruins the natural beauty of the coast and the towns? In fact, it does not, because the vast majority of this railroad is underground, tunnelled through the limestone bedrock, and only rarely makes an appearance out in the open, typically only for a few hundred metres near each town. It was this rail system that we planned on using to ferry us between our start and end points and our Corniglian base.
Way down to the station
For several of the Cinque Terre towns, the train station pops out of a tunnel into a small station in the center of the town and then immediately pops back underground. Corniglia - our home base town - was different. Situated as it is high up on the crest of a ridgeline, there is no practical way for the train to physically reach the town. Instead one must use a long set of bricked, switchbacking steps known as the scalinata della Lardarina. The steps lead from the town all the way down to the coastline (and the station).
As a side note, these stairs are actually part of the Cinque Terre lower coastal path known as the sentiero azzurro, signed trail #592 (and which used to be signed trail #2). Assuming the lower path between Manarola and Corniglia is open, then these stairs form part of the walking route between the two towns.
Cinque Terre Card
Once at the station, we popped into a park information kiosk to purchase a set of Cinque Terre multiservice cards. These cards are a combination park pass and multi-day transportation ticket: they allow you to use the park trails (for which a per-usage fee applies if you don't have this card), and they allow you to freely use the trains and buses within the boundaries of the national park. For the entire length of our stay in the Cinque Terre, this cost us 24 Euros (per person). Quite reasonable.
Armed with our CT cards, we waited for the next southbound train to arrive (typically the trains arrive every 10 to 30 minutes). Once on board, it was a short fifteen minute ride south to Riomaggiore. These towns are not very far apart.
Once off the train in Riomaggiore, we had to walk through a long tunnel to get to the main part of the town. The tunnel opened out onto Via Columbo, Riomaggiore's main promenade. It was immediately apparent that this was a much larger place than little Corniglia: the main street was much larger and had far more people streaming up and down it. Roland and I waited curbside as Jenn and Stephanie did some gift and postcard shopping.
Being larger isn't always bad, of course, and the larger town offered many more nooks and crannies to explore. We visited the church of San Giovanni Battista, built in 1340 and partially modified in the late 1870s. I especially liked the white carrara marble rose window in the front facade - a part that survives from the 14th century.
Riomaggiore Fruit and Veggies
From the church, we walked along a laneway that traversed on the level, but partway up the town's hillside. As a result, this laneway - called the via telemaco signorini - provided nice views out over rooftops to the sea. It also went past the sun-drenched and mural-clad city hall buildings, with various images depicting artisanal artifacts and activities and [presumably] prominent figures in the town's history.
the via telemaco signorini continued its horizontal contouring, soon reaching a point above the coastline and then bending north towards the train station. This stretch of the street provided some nice coastal views along the Cinque Terre coast north of town. From here, we could also see the start of the main inter-town coastal path - trail 592 (ex #2) - also known as the sentiero azzurro.
Normally, the coastal trail (#592, ex #2) would have been the path upon which we would have walked out of Riomaggiore, bound for Manarola - the next town to the north. However, we already knew from pre-trip investigations that this was not going to be an option for us; this stretch of path was closed, due to damage from severe storms in 2011 that had caused rockslides, landslides, flooding, and much damage to the Cinque Terre area. Presumably they are working on repairs, but as of September 2015, this stretch was off-limits to walkers.
Coastline near Riomaggiore
Riomaggiore Train Station
Fortunately for us, the sentiero azzuro is not the only path that provides foot traffic access north out of Riomaggiore. There is a whole network of trails in the Cinque Terre, and upon close examination of the trail network, we could see a way, although it would be longer and require us to climb up into the hills above town.
We knew the trail started off somewhere above the train station, which we could see directly below us from our viewpoint along the via telemaco signorini. We continued along this laneway, which seemed to be the most logical traversing route towards the hill sloping down from above the train station. When the laneway intersected the Via de gasperi - the only car road in town, we chose to turn off, following the roadway uphill for a hundred metres or so. It turned out to be the right choice, for before long we arrived at the red-banded trail marker sign indicating the start of trail 531 to Manarola.
Upper Path to Manarola
The trail briefly ran under the shadow of the roadway for a minute or so and then turned left, crossing over (on a very rustic old stone bridge) one of the many little creeks that drain the steep slopes of the Cinque Terre. Once on the other side, the trail began climbing steeply, heading up through cultivated, terraced hillside. It was nearly noon, and a combination of a steep climb, clear day, and a southward-facing slope meant one thing: lots of sweat!
Climbing out of Riomaggiore
After about fifteen minutes of hot, intense uphill, the grade moderated as we reached the crest of a sloping ridgeline. From here we began to have panoramic views of the sea, along with associated cooling breezes. The trail began following the crest of the ridge, still crossing through vineyards and groves. The footing was rough and a little loose in spots, but nothing overly unmanageable.