Cinque Terre— you’ve either never heard of it, or it’s sitting at the top of your travel bucket list. Cinque Terre is a cluster of five picturesque, coastal towns in northwestern Italy. Though the towns themselves are an attraction, the hiking trails linking the villages truly draw the crowds. The Blue Trail, specifically, connects all five (cinque) “terres” (lands) for an estimated 5-hour adventure. Many have recently discovered the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so much so that Italian officials have issued a million-person tourist cut. Lucky to have been able to visit before the implementation of heavy restrictions, I was awe-struck, empowered, and appreciative while hiking in Cinque Terre. It is one of my favorite travel experiences to date.
My friends and I woke early and took connecting trains from Florence to Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost town of the five villages. Many recommend ending the hike in this town with its accessible beach as a post-climb reward, but because of the mid-March weather, we would be skipping a dip in the Ligurian Sea. Research also revealed this end’s leg to be the most difficult, yet had the most beautiful views, so we decided to tackle it first in case unforeseen circumstances changed our plans for the day. Our anticipation was not wasted, for we discovered that two of the four legs of the trail— the last two, opposite the end where we started— are closed indefinitely for safety reasons. After a traumatizing hole-in-the-ground, no-toilet-paper bathroom experience (go before you go!), and a confusing start (exit the train station below and continue left for at least ten minutes), we began our Cinque Terre hike on the Blue Trail.
Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza
True to tales of travelers before us, this leg of the hike took about an hour and a half to complete, up vertical stairs, through vineyards and groves of lemon trees, and offering views of both Monterosso al Mare, and the next town, Vernazza. Though I was thoroughly enjoying the scenery, I was enjoying my fellow hikers almost just as much. The people on the trail were friendly, helpful, and courteous. There was a sense of community, like we were all in this crazy endeavor together, and everyone wanted to assure that everyone else was having a good time, because each traveler deserved a once-in-a-lifetime experience. People aside, it was nearly impossible not to enjoy yourself with the warm weather and fantastic views (that is, what you could glimpse between each strenuous step).
When we arrived in Vernazza, the town was alive with lunchtime activity. My friends and I bought some fruit from a small, local shop and sat at the port for a snack.
Vernazza to Corniglia
Our next, and unfortunately final, leg of the hike was another hour and a half. Though not previously reported, I felt that the second leg was equally as difficult, if not more difficult, than the first. Also, contrary to what I had read, I felt that this section of the hike had better views than the first. Specifically, from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, there were great views of the towns, but Vernazza to Corniglia presented sights of the sea, my personal favorite.
It was late afternoon when we reached Corniglia, and, because of the closures, the end of our hike. In need of a sweet treat, my friends and I stopped for some refreshing gelato and wandered around the town. Covering all of Corniglia did not take long, but it was the perfect place to wind down post-hike. Those who entered the town via train or bus, however, were underwhelmed. We heard many non-trail visitors mumble, “Really? This is it!?” while walking into town. Cinque Terre is by no standards my home, but even I was offended at the other tourists’ musings. I found it hard to believe that anyone would scoff at spending time in a post-card, Italian town on one of the most beautiful days of spring. For me and my friends, each town was like a utopia. The hike was a beautiful journey, and the village was the relaxing reward, earned with my own two feet. I suppose it is this difference that caused these polarizing perspectives.
The next time you visit Cinque Terre, consider maximizing your experience by adding even the shortest length of the Blue Trail to your itinerary, for you will appreciate your adventure even more.
Corniglia to Riomaggiore (by train)
With pre-booked train tickets back to Florence from Riomaggiore, the southernmost town where we had planned to finish the full hike, my friends and I snuck onto the train from Corniglia and took it two cities to our departure location. With a few extra hours before our train home, we explored Riomaggiore, watched the sunset from a cliffside bar, and enjoyed a decent meal after our long day.
When the sun went down, however, so did our good fortune. With wonderful weather, a happy hike, and too-good-to-be-true towns, our good luck was bound to run out.
The journey back to Florence required three train transfers. We arrived at the Riomaggiore platform for our first train 15 minutes early, just to find that it was delayed 50 minutes. We did not have enough clothes, or enough patience, to stand outside in the cold after a day of travel, hiking, and sun. Quick thinking and convenient timing allowed us to take an earlier train to the same, first station. Crisis averted— or so we thought.
Arrival at the second station revealed that our connecting train had the same 50-minute delay, corresponding with the first. With no way around this hurdle, tired and weary, we accepted the wait in the train station. It wasn’t long, however, before the station closed, and we were kicked out of the building onto the open-air platform at 9:30 p.m. Despair set in when we overhead fellow passengers discussing itineraries to Florence; the third train would not be delayed as the other two had. It would leave as scheduled from the station at 10:30 p.m., and the next train to Florence would not leave until 1 a.m. If we waited for our delayed train, we would miss our final train, and would have to once again stand by on a platform until the early hours of the next morning. After our full day, my friends and I were broken and disheartened. Our sweat had dried, chilling our bodies in the nighttime breeze, leaving us low-spirited and lost.
As if a response to our feeling of rejection, a girl approached us with a group of friends. She explained that they were in the same situation as we were and would we like to combine groups to maximize the seats in a taxi and split the fare back to Florence. With this plan, each person would be paying close to 50€, so we declined. We would be losing money on the tickets for the final train, in addition to the new taxi cost. She then pointed out that if we left immediately, we could drive the hour to the next station to attempt to arrive in time for the 10:30 p.m. train to Florence; half of the ride would mean half of the price. This proposal was more appealing. It only took five seconds of my friends and I staring at each others’ fatigued faces confirmed that we were prepared to pay for the hour-long taxi ride and gamble on the possibility of making it to the station in time. Racing against the clock, the Italian taxi driver sped through the streets, carrying three American girls and five South Koreans to their destination. We all but threw our cash at the driver and sprinted through the station, pausing only to find our platform, and leapt up the steps two at a time with fingers crossed that our train would be there. On our last bit of good luck for the day, the train had not left yet, and we made it home, on time, only 20€ poorer. Though slightly miserable at the time, it is now a story that I can look back on with bewilderment and amusement (and it was perfect preparation for the Amazing Race— we got this, Mom!). What a day in Cinque Terre.
- Just go with it. The joys of travel come with the stresses of logistics, schedules, and the unknown. Even with a seemingly perfect plan, problems can, and usually will, arise. Deal with them as they come, using calm intelligence to guide you towards smart decisions and peace of mind.
- Cinque Terre
Pace, Amore, Cinque Terre