After nearly two weeks of city exploration I needed some dirty trails without any car engines in the background. I needed to feel sweaty, dirty + elated. I needed to get out into the wilderness…
This is how I ended up at the Cinque Terre National Park in western Italy. I had not even heard of this area until about five days before I showed up at my hostel. I’m even a bit ashamed to admit I did no research on the trails or cities in advance. I found a hostel I could afford + hopped on a train with hopes that someone in the area would know what was up + have some stellar recommendations. The Grand Hostel Manin fit the bill + did all of those things for me!
Well, everything except give me even guestimated distances between the cities of Cinque Terre. Everyone talks in hours in this area, as in ‘it’s about a two hour hike’. Mileage [or kilometer’age?] isn’t really mentioned. It’s understandable why — there is an impressive amount of up/down on these trails that make the mileage a bit obsolete if you’re not used to the terrain. However, if you’re anything like me having mileage is helpful! So, here ya go…
*Levanto to Monterosso [beach to beach] = ~7km / ~4.5mi
Monterosso to Vernazza [beach to city] = ~4.5km / ~3mi
Vernazza to Corniglia [city to train] = ~5km / ~3mi
**Corniglia to Manarola [train to train] = ~7km / ~4.5mi
*indicate route north of the iconic ‘blue trail’
**indicate alternate/detour due to closures on the ‘blue trail’
All of these distances are roughly accurate due to the lack of definite start/finish locations for these route segments. I simply started when my watch got GPS access in Levanto + did a quick stop/start each time I rolled through the cities. Use them all as a grain of salt + be sure to calculate in about 83 flights of stairs up [+ down!] each segment.
Now, for the fun not-so-numbery parts of this little adventure of mine! I took on the trails of Cinque Terre in two segments. On day one I jumped right in with a train ride from Le Spezia to Levanto. I had told Tim, at the hostel, that I was considering an out/back on the iconic ‘blue trail’ + he immediately steered me in another direction. If I wanted more time on my feet he suggested I venture outside the well known areas, so I did.
Levanto to Monterosso
Levanto is the northern most city in the park + the last stop on the regional train. From the train station I headed downhill to the ocean. My instructions had me following the beach with the ocean to my right until I saw a sign that said “Monterosso” on my left, pointing up a flight of stairs.
So began the stairs. You do get a lot of stunning trails while exploring Cinque Terre…but what isn’t beautiful trail is stairs. No joke. There are thousands of stairs linking the coastal towns together + at the end of the day your legs will know every one of them!
From Levanto the trail is quite easy to follow — simply head up the stairs, run along a bit of flat trail, then start down more stairs. Should you question the route, keep an eye out for stripes of white-red-white paint on rocks, trees, stairs + walls. If you see them, you’re on the trail!
These trails are so popular in part because they give you epic views of the coastal towns, which look like they were built from colorful Legos. Along the trail from Levanto to Monterosso you’ll have an option to go up a bit further for a stunning view of all five towns…in theory. The heavy clouds kept me from seeing much of anything.
I spent most of my morning running + hiking through clouds with no coastal views in sight. Rain was in the forecast for the entire day, but I felt all of 15 raindrops. That isn’t to say I stayed dry…the humidity was brutal + I was actually quite thankful for the clouds protection from the sun.
Until I neared Monterosso I had the trails to myself. In the first 4 miles of my morning I had met about 3 people + I was loving the solitude. However, as soon as I approached Monterosso that changed. It was nearing 10am + the masses were hitting the trails after their breakfast. Later I was told this is the ‘slow season’ + the crowds that made me cringe were nothing. Honestly, the crowds weren’t too painful until you came upon the posse of friends that clumped up together. Once you got past them you did have longer stretches of trail to yourself.
Monterosso to Vernezza to Corniglia
The sky cleared a bit as I headed from Monterosso to Vernezza, so when I did wiggle my way past the crowded sections I was rewarded with views of the rocky coast far below me. I essentially hiked my way into Vernezza, walked through town [without any gelato, yet] + hit the trail again to get to Corniglia. Corniglia is the only town of the five that isn’t at sea level + the end of the traditional ‘blue trail’ for me.
Due to flooding + mud/land slides the rest of the ‘blue trail’ was closed so it was time to start detouring. The detour is *not* very well marked at all. Or at least that is my excuse for getting all turned around + ending up at the train station…when the trail actually left from behind a church at the edge of town. Rather than head back into town [up a massive flight of stairs] I opted to hope on the train to Manarola. From there I would back track along the trail to end up in Corniglia again.
Manarola to Corniglia [reverse route!]
It actually worked out really well + I’m convinced that the Manarola to Corniglia direction is the more spectacular option [yea, maybe my opinion in biased…]. The detour trail between Manarola + Corniglia was absolutely amazing. It led you up a massive set of endless stairs. Probably the longest stretch of consistent stairs I had seen all day + that’s saying quite a lot. After the stairs the route flattened out a bit + you followed a trail that wove through vineyards perched on coastal cliffs. It was absolutely amazing. The trails eventually left the vineyards behind + dropped you into a valley green enough to be mistaken for a jungle. Again…absolutely amazing.
If you have to choose one stretch of trail to explore…get on the detour from Manarola to Corniglia. Easily my favorite chunk of trail within the Cinque Terre coastal towns + the trail with the most views + variety.
This entire stretch was a bit crowded, especially in the beginning near Manarola [I believe there were wine tours hiking up to the vineyard?]. But the crowds didn’t bother me. Rather than get frustrated with the crowds I let my trail joy take over + struck up a conversation with nearly everyone. Sometimes it was just a ‘caio!’ but other times we talked about the train conditions, the weather, the views…all the trail small talk. I even met someone who works medical at a ALVI stage race that runs along this trail [then later met the race directors of the SciaccheTrail race that also runs along these trails].
I ended my day back at the Corniglia train station, where I hopped back on the train to return to my hostel in La Spezia…tired, sweat + oh, so happy. I had an amazing day on the trails, indulged in a bit of gelato + broke in my new Vasque Vertical Velocity shoes on some honest-to-goodness dirt ribbons.
Quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting to find such challenging terrain along a coast, so far from a mountain range. You’d think I’d learn…considering I also got my ass kicked by the trails of Croatia. As a mountain runner I forget that you don’t actually need mountains to find technical, rugged trails!
I loved these trails so much I came back for more…taking on the trails from Riomaggiore to Portovenere, which is not part of the iconic Cinque Terre trails but is a route that may even beat out the beauty of the trail from Manarola to Corniglia. That story will be coming shortly!
Bits + Pieces of My Life…As Seen in the Story Above