Hiking in the Cinque Terre and Portovenere
In my opinion, Italy has some of the most spectacular coastlines in the Mediterranean with the section from Portovenere to Monterosso in the province of La Spezia (Liguria) being my favourite. This Ligurian coastline spans approximately 25km and includes the well-known Cinque Terre, or “Five Lands”, comprising Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare.
Portovenere and the Cinque Terre are popular with tourists, thus access is easy for avid hikers and beach bathers alike. Whether it’s a day trip or a longer stay, the region will not disappoint.
In August 2016 I was staying in Parma, about 2 hours north of the Cinque Terre. I made 2 day trips to La Spezia – because after the first day it was clear that 1 day wasn’t enough!
La Spezia or Levanto are the two closest larger towns with best access by car or regional train. I caught the train from Parma to La Spezia.
Train to Cinque Terre
From La Spezia Central station it’s a simple 5 minute train ride to Riomaggiore, the first of the “5 Lands”. This same train also connects the remaining towns of the Cinque Terre and Levanto. Trains leave every 15 minutes in the high season; a daily ticket enables you to hop on and off as much as you please.
Bus to Portovenere
There’s a frequent bus connection between La Spezia and Portovenere.
Certainly one of the most picturesque ways to see the coastline is by boat! Take a ferry from La Spezia Marina (15 min walk from the La Spezia train station) to Portovenere. From there you can take another boat/ferry stopping at all of the 5 lands.
Day 1: Hiking the Cinque Terre; Riomaggiore to Monterosso al Mare
Another way to see the Cinque Terre is by foot. If you get tired or aren’t an active person, then you can catch the train but you’ll miss some magnificent views between the villages.
To walk from Riomaggiore to Monterosso, through all the 5 towns, totals about 12km or 4-5 hours depending on the route you take (there’s the blue coastal route, or the red ‘high road’ that takes you through the hills). There are sections that are quite easy and flat but also expect many hilly, rocky sections sure to get your heart rate up. There are always plenty of people along the way so it’s hard to get lost.
Make sure you pack plenty of water, wear decent walking shoes & clothes, and bring your togs because after your hiking efforts you’ll undoubtedly want/need to cool off in the deep blue of the mediterranean waters.
The main (blue) path between Riomaggiore, Manarola and Corniglia is straight forward – flat, beautiful views, perfect for a beginner. This path, however, was closed on the day that Valentina (a friend I made in Parma) and I went, so we took the high road through some vineyards. To Valentina’s dismay, it was quite difficult, as she expressed to me on several occasions that she “thought she was going to die” (perhaps a bit of an exaggeration haha).
After reaching Manarola, we decided to take the train to Corniglia, to have a little rest. We then enjoyed a moderate 4km hike to Vernazza along which we made friends with Sarah and Louis from France. By that stage, Valentina had had enough with the walking so we jumped on the train to Monterosso where we bathed in the cool, cool sea (watch your feet – the pebbles on the beach are painful).
Our seafood lunch was only too appropriate for our beach views, after which Valentina swam and sunbathed again while I hiked back to Vernazza. The views on this particular stretch are breathtaking, particularly as you come down into Vernazza. I even met a fellow Aussie along the way, Karan, who’s conversation distracted me from the difficulty of the most challenging walk yet. Vernazza met us with welcoming waters for another blissful swim and more friends in Dutch twins Sterre and Lieve-lotte. Valentina followed by way of train. As the sun began to set on a beautiful Mediterranean summer’s day, the group of us “toasted” new friendships and the Cinque Terre with well-deserved Gelato!
Day 2: Riomaggiore to Portovenere
I took myself to the La Spezia again, this time to walk the OTHER WAY; south from Riomaggiore to Portovenere. This trail also totals about 12km or 4-5 hours but there are no trains/buses along the way, so once you start, you’ve got to keep going!
Unlike the blue Cinque Terre trail, this path is much less popular, seeing only a handful of people the entire day. The AV5T route begins behind Riomaggiore along a small pilgrim trail to the Montenero Sanctuary overlooking Riomaggiore and the Cinque Terre.
Behind the Sanctuary the path follows the coast, passing several vineyards, abandoned homes, chapels and even a tiny cafe before reaching the tiny village, Telegrafo. At this point, the scenery quite instantly changes and I welcomed the shade of a coastal forest as I continued towards Campiglia. From Campiglia, it’s more-or-less downhill to Portovenere with some absolutely spectacular panoramas of its fort and neighbouring island, Palmaria.
Be careful on the descent into Portovenere, the gravel-y surface can be slippery and some clambering may be needed.
Portovenere welcomed me with shady streets to wander through, an abundance of restaurants and cafes for refreshments, an ancient fort to explore and a number of, albeit rocky, places to swim. Portovenere was a favourite place for poet, Lord Byron, who frequently visited and meditated on the rocks, and even swam across to Palmaria to visit his friend Percy Shelley.
While cooling off, I actually struck up a conversation with an Italian woman called Simona who, as it turned out knows a friend of mine back in Australia. Goes to show how SMALL this world is! After swimming, exploring and refreshment-ing, I decided to take a boat back to La Spezia to appreciate the view of Portovenere from the water before then returning to Parma.
There are a few places where the path splits, but just follow the signs for AVT5 (3/3a) path towards relevant villages and you’ll be right. There are also waymarks along the way (red/white painted rocks and flags pointing you in the right direction). Walking Europe also provides a great description of the path and turns to take.
Waymarks along the way to keep you on track: