One afternoon at work I walked past a colleagues screen and stopped, they were lost in Google images of the most postcard pretty pictures of little pastel villages backing onto lush hills, scooping above turquoise bays. If I was in a Disney cartoon, my eyes would have turned into hearts, I just had to ask where this place was.
She was looking at the five incredibly scenic fishing villages that make up the famous Italian Cinque Terre region, these UNESCO World Heritage site iconic images are ones you have probably seen before, but did not know where they were.
Of course, my summer travel plans were immediately rearranged to work around travelling through this region even though Croatia was our actual end destination…who can say no to that much beauty?
It’s not a cheap place to visit, so we aimed to do it on a budget from our first location in Genoa. We travelled down from there on the fantastically efficient and often very affordable Italian trains and based ourselves in a gorgeous Air BnB (our host and apartment were lovely – highly recommend) in La Spezia (south of the villages).
Staying within the villages themselves is hard to do on a budget and the limited hostels we could find were further outside of the villages, adding precious time to what little Italian time we had. From La Spezia it’s super easy to get to the first village Riomaggiore by train. Got to say, the Italian train system is so easy to use.
When thinking of journeying through these gorgeous picturesque villages under the scorching Italian sunshine in July, what did we come up with? Hiking!
Clearly we are a bit mad, but we’re both really active, not afraid to try an oddball idea here and there and also keen to see things in a way that makes us more travellers than tourists.
This we were told is one of Italy’s most scenic routes, which was a huge yes in our book.
When we arrived at the farthest south village, Riomaggiore, with gallons of water, a packed lunch and everything else we needed for the hike we found out that the blue coastal hiking route (which is pretty much a flat route that hugs the coast from village to village) was mostly closed, due to a landslide – which I think was in 2011 – clearly, the re-build was working on Italian time.
We took to the red route, which we quickly realised gave us something to get our teeth into, like deep stone steps rising vertically upwards, taller than us. Yikes!!
At the highest point we climbed 1200 feet above sea level, pretty much straight up all the way. My health app said at the end of it all that we climbed 184 flights of stairs and yes it felt like that when we were bent over trying to get our breath back, drenched in sweat like middle aged women, not the so-called fit things we were. Have you peed in a bush on a hiking trail before? That was a first for me, while one of us looked out for passing walkers. I have never weed in a state of mild panic before!
Our thighs screamed, our lungs burnt and our water supply started disappearing far too quickly. Luckily other travellers had told us there were a few fresh fountains dotted along the way, but sometimes it was a long stretch between them. It was about an hour and a half from the first village Riomaggiore to Manarola and it’s not for the faint hearted.
Just at the point where we were overheated and laughing at our madness and wondering quite what us lunatics had gotten ourselves into, the path turned and views like this opened up not a single other human being in sight around but us to drink it all in. Magnificent mother nature, she’s a little bit bad ass.
Those burning lungs (and shoulders) suddenly seemed so worth it, we spent 4 hours on the trail, following it as it cut deeply up through the hills out of one village, scooped along the coast and dropped sharply back down into civilisation. Up and down.
As we dropped down into Manarola from up high in the cliffs, a throng of tourists taking selfies greeted us, which shattered the beauty of the place if I’m honest. We necked our lunch in the shade, eye balling the tourists with disappointment and headed back deep into the lush quiet of the hills and the beauty, escaping the throng of people below.
We made our way along fields of crops stacked in layers along the coast, through wooded cliffs with babbling streams below – I mean I could make this stuff up, but I’m not – and after almost 3 hours on the trail we found our way into Corniglia. In true first world problem style, we had a small window to do the five villages on this hike before we had to meet our Air BnB host to collect the apartment keys back in La Spezia. Uh oh.
Having to ditch the hike, we hopped on the train at Corniglia and sped along to Monterosso to cool off in the over crowded beach, where you can’t put a beach towel down without paying a beach charge.
It made us huff and shuffle along to the slither of ‘free’ beach, crammed in with everyone else like sardines in a sun drenched tin. The crisp cool water more than made up for it and we realised we weren’t tanned, we were just filthy dirty and dusty little walkers! We actually came out of the sea another colour giggling.
The hike is the best way to see the Cinque Terre coastline, forget the train. If you’re able bodied and up to it, get your trainers on and hike it out. The images of the villages from up high will imprint their beauty on to your mind, it’s Italian perfection.
You’ll want to go back, I know I do.
- Train from Genoa to La Spezia: £19.00
- La Spezia Air B&B: £45 per night (only £22.50 each – winner!)
- Hiking Pass/ All Day Train Pass: £13.00 (not sure why we needed the hiking pass, it was all free).
- The views – priceless!
The 24 hours cost us £54.50 each.