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Walking Liguria’s Fragile Five-Star Landscape

Rudston Steward is the adventurist founder of Maremma Safari Club, guided walking trips to unexplored corners of Italy for curious travellers.

Captivated by the coastline

With almost 8,000km of coastline Italy is blessed with a catalogue of spectacular seascapes, where the land tends to come crashing down dramatically to an immaculate cobalt sea. The Amalfi Coast is the most obvious example, but there are many more scattered around the peninsula’s perimeter, some wild and inaccessible: the Gulf of Orosei in Sardinia, Sicily’s Aeolian Islands, the Gargano in Puglia, parts of the Tuscan Archipelago. But the most poetic, perhaps, is Liguria’s Cinque Terre.

The five villages

The five villages strung out along this short and startling stretch of coast—Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore—are described by one guidebook as “the concentrated essence of Liguria at its most tenacious.” Indeed, the land still supports widespread wine production on the impressive dry-stone terraces that scale the slopes, using custom-built rail cars to achieve what must be one of the world’s most vertical wine harvests.

Until recently fishing and seafaring remained a part of the local livelihood—not surprising if one recalls the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s description of these waters: “We sail along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world.”

Preserving Cinqueterre

The flip-side of the Cinque Terre’s achievement in preserving its traditional character, however, is rampant overtourism. With cruise ships disgorging thousands of day-trippers in the nearby port La Spezia, who then overrun the local public trains, the area has become a victim of its own success. During the high season the five tiny towns get completely swamped by crowds—bulldozing the fragile charm of this enchanted coast into oblivion.

Hiking path through the grapevines in Cinque Terre.

Take a hike

So, what to do? My usual solution in desperately overcrowded spots is simply to walk away—and then keep walking, for a few hours or days or weeks. It’s amazing how quickly you leave the crowds behind, silence the hubbub, just by taking to the hills on foot.

In the Cinque Terre, however, this doesn’t quite work. It’s such a popular hiking destination that loads of other people are taking to the hills too (many of them woefully unprepared—so much so that the local park authorities had to officially ban flip-flops from the hiking trails, to cut down on the never-ending expensive rescue missions to save injured day-trippers).

Just walking is not enough: you have to go higher. One of the saving graces of the Cinque Terre’s network of trails is that there are numerous ways to get from point a to b; the higher and more challenging route you pick, the less people you’ll encounter. So instead of trundling along the easy “official” coastal routes check-by-jowl with the bucket-list hordes you can opt to ascend to over 700m between each town. Mount Malpertuso, for example, rises to 815m above sea level, and can be included on a route connecting Vernazza to either Monterosso to the north or Corniglia to the south. 

Colorful “Gozzo” boats rest in the Harbor of Vernazza.

Timing is everything

The other crowd-busting weapon is timing: if you have the luxury of travelling out of season the experience is entirely different on the ground. I last walked the Cinque Terre on the cusp of October and November; it was an utterly memorable trip all round—mostly due to my off-season travel dates. Few people in the towns, almost no-one on the trails, no cruise ships, cool autumnal weather perfect for walking, and finally a sea still pleasant enough—if somewhat brisk—to swim in at the end of each day’s walk.

My most vivid memory of that trip is the stunning descent from Malpertuso all the way to Vernazza’s iconic harbour, without seeing a single soul or flip-flop. I started in the sub-tropical mists of the summit, came down via the vertiginous views of pastel-coloured houses perched upon a sparkling sea, and finally plunged into the bright cerulean water. That, in my opinion, is how to walk Liguria’s fragile and poetic five-star landscape.

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