Hiking, Not Biking, But Who's Complaining?

The village of Vernazza as seen from high on the trail to Monterosso al Mare.

One of the many advantages of living in Prague is the ability to travel just about anywhere in Europe. I never tire of spending long weekends in places that most people have to sacrifice two weeks' vacation and a month's pay to visit. Rome. Vienna. London. Scotland. Ireland.

I am a lucky man.

Daisy and I just returned from three nights in Vernazza on the Cinque Terre, the name given to five minuscule, barely accessible, villages on the Italian Riviera, between Genoa and La Spezia. It was our second trip to the Cinque Terre in as many years.

That's why I haven't posted anything here for the past five days or so.

No, we didn't do any cycling, though the idea did cross my mind. But since it's my blog, I thought I'd share a few photos and tips about the area. (I think you can bike in the region, but the villages of the Cinque Terre are perched so precariously on the cliff sides that I can't imagine cycling up from one to get to the next.)

We flew from Prague to Bergamo's Orio al Serio airport (near Milan), spent the night in central Bergamo, then took the train (www.trenitalia.com) the next morning from Bergamo to Milan, Milan to Sestri Levante, and then from Sestri Levante to Vernazza. It was about five hours on the train.

The great thing about the Cinque Terre is that the five villages encapsulate almost everything you dream about when you dream about Italy. Sun. Sea. Great food. Cool, crisp local wine (in this case white). And ridiculously picturesque villages that, from afar at least, you would be forgiven for believing are as yet undiscovered. Villages that, seen from afar, make you feel like a traveler, rather than a tourist.

They're far from undiscovered, however, thanks in large part to a certain travel writer whose name is on the lips and whose guidebook is in the hands, I swear, of almost every person strolling the streets of Vernazza.

I'm not sure if the five villages should erect a statue to him or burn him in effigy. Then again, I'm not sure if I'd even heard of the Cinque Terre before he made it famous, so I guess I should keep my mouth shut and just appreciate that I know about it at all.

But the great thing about the Cinque Terre, and Vernazza in particular, is that there never seem to be enough people to really spoil things. Many of the tourists disappear in late afternoon, heading off to larger town or cities, perhaps, where it's easier to find a room.

Those "travelers" who remain imbue the village with a certain energy and vitality. It's just fun to be there, to sip a glass of white wine and watch the sun set while nibbling at a plate of the local anchovies drizzled in lemon and olive oil.

In other words, there are many "life-is-good" moments when traveling in the Cinque Terre.

In addition to the food, the wine, the sun, and the sea, the other prime attraction of the Cinque Terre is, for us, the hiking. A narrow, rocky path snakes along the cliff sides, linking each of the five villages -- in order, from west to east, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.

The hikes between Monterosso and Vernazza, and Vernazza and Corniglia, are the most challenging, and each takes about 1.5 hours in one direction.

You'll work up a nice sweat, and some of the steep stair climbs will leave you breathless. The paths' biggest attraction is that they make you feel like you've earned your pasta, wine, and gelati at the other end.

We've yet to hike from Corniglia to Manarola. Both times we've been there, the trail has been closed for various reasons. So I'm not sure how that hike compares with the other two.

The hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola is a cakewalk, but lovely, nonetheless.

A local train makes frequent runs between each of the villages, so you can hike from one village to the next and take the train back to where you're staying. Or do as we did and hike both ways in a day, with a sumptuous lunch in between.

Corniglia, as seen from the path connecting it to Vernazza. That's Manarola, clinging to the cliff in the far distance.

Though the region is currently experiencing some rain and clouds and coolish weather, we mostly lucked out during our visit. We hit some heavy showers on Sunday while hiking from Monterosso back to Vernazza, but the lightning and thunder only made the scenery feel that much more dramatic.

The rest of our visit was blessed with blue skies and sun.

Where to sleep

On this trip, we booked a large room with lovely antique furniture and a view and private bath for two nights at Nicolina's for 70 euros a night.

Sadly, Nicolina didn't have a room for our third night because we'd booked so late, so we moved to a small room overlooking the harbor that had been recommended by the owner of another pensione in the village. The view was spectacular (that's the view from our room above), and the price was right at 50 euros a night, but the room was barely bigger than our bed, and we had to share a bath with the apartment's charming owner, Lilli.

In our previous visit, we stayed at Francamaria, in a cute room that also overlooked the harbor and harbor square (that was the view from our room in the picture at right).

We also had to change rooms after two nights during our first visit, too, and ended up in a large, very pleasant series of room overlooking the main street at Rosa Vitali (rosa.vitali@libero.it).

Where to eat

We had some wonderful meals in Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, and gelati to die for in Corniglia. I convinced my friend Brewsta (who's been doing some traveling of his own) to let me post a few lines about Cinque Terrean cuisine on his Prague food blog, Czech Please. You can find my food post here.

Daisy and I in a self-portrait somewhere on the trail between Vernazza and Corniglia.


Heidi said…
I stumbled across your blog and am enjoying it. Prague is on my list of places to visit...keep the pictures coming!
Anonymous said…
Thank you for the excellent info and pictures. We will be visiting Cinque Terre next spring. Grazie. Mari & John
Mette Lassen said…
I also stumbled across your blog and enjoy learning about places through more personal settings such as your blog. I am new to traveling and after wanting to backpack for a while am finally doing it. I am visiting Italy early November. Heard the Cinque Terre was a must, but am curious as to how long you would think it would take to hike the whole chain of villages. Are all the hikes between villages about an 1 1/2 hours?
Grant Podelco said…
Hi, Mette. Yes, the hikes between the villages all take a couple of hours. You could actually hike through all five in a day, if you didn't stop much. But you're in Italy. You've got to stop to eat and have a gelato and take in the sights! But they really are gorgeous, those villages. Amazing.
Stumbled across your page and enjoyed the read. My husband and I are traveling to Cinque Terre this summer and I can't wait!
Heather Brown
Grant Podelco said…
Hi, Heather. Thanks for writing. You guys are going to love it. Get on the trails and escape the crowds! (Or most of them, anyway.) Let me know how it goes!
Denise said…
Grant, thanks for your lovely Cinque Terra blog, both the hiking and dining; I am going in July 2011 and can't wait to sample some of both! I'll let you know if we make it to any of your dining recommendations.
hope we do!

PS.You are one lucky guy!

New Rochelle, NY
Grant Podelco said…
Hi, Denise. Please let me know how your trip goes. I know you'll have a fantastic time! Thanks for reading. ;-)

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