No one comes to Italy to hike, at least not the first time around.  Italy is art, Italy is Renaissance, Italy is food, Italy is the Big 3 of Rome, Venice, and Florence like the big game on some African safari.  Italy is not trails, at least not in the popular imagination.  But it should be:  60 thousand kilometers of marked trails, mountains running up and down the spine of the nation, an extensive network of cabins maintained for nature lovers, not to mention birthplace of the world’s greatest living mountaineer.  But all that gets neglected in the rush to see the Sistine Chapel, the Bridge of Sighs, the Uffizi.

Nowhere reflects this misconception more than the Cinque Terre, a mecca for one-day tourism on a shunt line from Florence.  The towns (which are undeniably spectacular and wonderful) fill up with mass tour groups from dawn to dusk, people elbowing each other out of the way on the “trail” from Riomaggiore to Manarola, when not a quarter-mile away there opens up a world of ancient mule tracks still used as footpaths between villages, sanctuaries, and mountain tops.  You can lose yourself in another world, a genuine mountain world where the traditional Mediterranean practices of olive growing and wine making still predominate.  You can find yourself alone gazing off as far away as Corsica, listening to nothing but hawks, while the buses rev their engines down below and cart everyone else off to their next destination.  There are hundreds of routes.  Let me tell you about one of them.

Levatno Bay ©Douglas Heise

Cinque Terre, The Upper Route:

Portovenere to Levanto (27 kilometers, 17 miles)

This trail begins and ends at the Mediterranean, and in-between offers unparalleled views of the conjunction of sea and mountain that characterizes this area of Italy and has made it world-famous.  Both your starting and ending point are beyond the Cinque Terre, which means that you will have the unique opportunity of approaching these villages from above, unlike everyone else whose first view is usually from the train station.

The beauty of this trail is that it offers you access to everything that is wonderful and interesting about the area in terms of villages, hamlets, churches, and nature, plus the sensation that you are experiencing it the way it once really was.  Once upon a time, the only way to get from one village to another was with your feet.  Roads for car access weren’t built until after the war, and even then, their existence was tenuous: at this very moment, road access between some of the Cinque Terre is blocked because of the damage from last October’s flooding.  The inhabitants of this area, the original Ligurians, have always farmed olives, grapes, and vegetables for subsistence, and while the economy of the region has taken a welcome step forward because of tourism, the landscape has changed little, and hiking these trails will give you the chance to learn exactly what it means to cultivate inhospitably steep hills.

Corniglia from Above ©Douglas Heise

The other advantage of hiking this trail is that at any point, you can drop down toward the sea for whatever you choose.  Want to see Corniglia, the only one of the Cinque Terre situated above sea level?  Just head down an off-shoot of the trail and you’ll be there.  And while you’re there, you wouldn’t want to miss perhaps the most genuine restaurant in the entire region.  Or if you prefer, head down to Monterosso for some beach time and wine-tasting.  Or check out the Marian Sanctuary of Montenero.  Or head for some rock climbing on Mt. Muzzerone.  Whatever inspires you is just below you, and once you’ve done it, you can head back to the upper route and start dusting up your boots again.

Portovenere Waterfront ©Douglas Heise

Since the full distance of the trail demands doing it in 2 days (or more, for whomever is more lackadaisical of pace), you’ll have to bed down in one place or another.  It is important to remember that camping is not allowed anywhere in the Cinque Terre National Park, so you will have to make other arrangements.  There are a few locations where you can sleep in tiny hamlets along the trail (listed below), and of course you can always choose to head downhill to one of the Cinque Terre or once of the upper villages as a resting spot.  One could do worse than Volastra as your destination for the night, with its winding streets, Medieval Sanctuary, and carefully groomed vineyards and olive groves going right up to the village walls.

Very few places in the world give you the chance to hike through civilization and history.  Consider putting this one on your list.

Volastra Trailhead ©Douglas Heise

Useful information:

  • building fires anywhere in the Park is not allowed during the summer months, for risk of forest fires.
  • cooking along the trail is allowed if you use a gas-burning camp stove or similar.
  • in a few places, the trail links up with a paved road for short stretches.
  • you can find places to sleep in Campiglia, Colle del Telegrafo, at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Soviore, or in a few farming guesthouses just off the route, though only Colle del Telegrafo or the above-mentioned Volastra are more or less at the halfway point.
  • you don’t need any gear except for good, lightweight hiking boots, unless you are planning on rock-climbing Mt. Muzzerone.
  • in the summer, the trail is exposed to the sun almost all day, so dress accordingly, bring water, carry sunscreen, and wear a hat.  There are public water fountains at a few spots along the way where you can fill up.  Though it’s rare to find one, if you bump into a sign that says “Non potabile”, it means: don’t drink the water.  If there’s no sign, it’s safe.
  • there are no park fees unless you choose to hike the coastal route (Trail No. 2) from Monterosso to Riomaggiore or any parts in-between, which has a separate entrance fee of 5-7 euros
Trail to Volastra ©Douglas Heise


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