We have collected lots of comments about the Cinque Terre trails on another thread
As promised, I organized posters' opinions, trail by trail. I'm pasting it below, for quick reference. Hope it's helpful.
The Cinque Terre is eleven miles of sheer rocky coastline in northern Italy, terraced hills and vineyards sloping steeply down to the sea. Five little villages are built into the rocks between the beach and the hills. You can hike, swim, drink red wine, and watch blazing Mediterranean sunsets away from the tourist throngs in the Italian cities and the French Riviera. Centuries old footpaths and mule tracks wind about 500 to 1,000 feet above the sea, leading through olive groves and vineyards, orchards and chestnut woods. Each village has its own character; they are a few minutes apart by train. There are almost no cars as the villages are not easily accessible by road.
Between Riomaggiore and Manarola
• The trail from Riomaggiore to Manarola is paved (it is called the "Via dell'Amore" or Path of Love) and is short, only 20 minutes between the towns.
• The path between Riomaggiore (the most southern village) and Manarola is wide, and very easy to walk. Walkers are well protected from the cliffs and the path isn't very high up. This is really more of a walking path than a hiking trail.
• The hike between Manarola and Riomaggiore is really just a stroll - the whole thing is paved and pretty level.
• "The famed "Lover's Walk" between Riomaggiore and Manarola is the shortest and easiest, but it is also the least rewarding (most of it is concrete, there is chain link fencing, etc.)"
Between Manarola and Corniglia
• From Manarola the trail is not paved. It becomes narrow and steep in many places, but the trail never becomes excessively difficult. The walk from Manarola to Corniglia takes one hour. The last half of the trail walks you up a beautiful switchback staircase that goes from sea level to the town up on a cliff.
• I didn't think the Manarola to Corniglia walk was too bad. It is uneven and rocky in spots, but there are railings the entire way, and there is not much of a climb. I saw people stopping and resting along the way.
• I've only walked one section of the CT, the stretch between Manarola & Corniglia in May of 2002. I found it a pleasant walk; took me about an hour at a leisurely pace with a few pauses for photo ops.
• We went from Manarola to Corniglia, up the 33 flights of stairs to the trail, and then on to Vernazza- about 3+ hours total. The stairs in Corniglia have long steps with short risers so they are doable but still annoying!! I was happy with only three hours of hiking.
Between Corniglia and Vernazza
• Having just returned from hiking Vernazza to Corniglia, I wish I'd done more research about the different trails. The one we chose is beautiful, don't get me wrong, but it's almost 100 percent stone stairs UP for 90 minutes (more if you stop to admire the view and catch your breath in the shade). I guess I was expecting a path that took an incline, not a stone stairway. Those stairs get tiring.
At least I was wearing good walking shoes. I saw some poor people-- probably uninformed about the trail, too-- who were wearing flip-flops; even one girl who was barefoot. IMHO, you want to be prepared to walk that trail, with its loose footing and sharp drop-offs.
Had I known better, I would have walked the reverse, beginning in Corniglia, so we were going downhill to Vernazza.
• The stairstep trail between Vernazza and Corniglia is comprised of hand-made rock steps, which are worn slick in most places. The steps would be fairly treacherous when wet.
• We headed up the trail to Corniglia, expecting it to take about 1.5 hours, which was correct. It is a breath-taking walk, in more ways than one. The views are amazing, and the uphill stair stepping takes your breath away, too! Actually, in retrospect, I wish we’d taken the train all the way down to the southernmost town, Riomaggioire, then walked up to Manarolo, and on to Corniglia. Those two walks would probably be less strenuous than the one we selected, which is all uphill and all stairs. However, there were plenty of spots to stop in the shade and view the unbelievably clear water below, and the gorgeous coastline.
• From Corniglia to Vernazza the trail gets more narrow and includes lots of descending as it makes its way along the coast. It takes about an hour and a half.
• I walked the trails in 1996 for the first time and found the trail between Corniglia and Vernazza terrifying. There was an area where there was no vegetation and the narrow trail had a sheer drop to the water below. So when we returned there in 2005 I was very apprehensive about doing this walk again, but it was so beautiful I went for it.
Since 1996 they have made this trail more safe, and the spot where it was a sheer cliff to my left on a very narrow path has either been diverted inland a bit, or has been fenced off. I didn't encounter any areas that would cause you any alarm.
• Walking either direction into or out of Cogniglia is challenging, because it sits on a hill. The views from the trail are beautiful, so if you're fit and in the mood for an uphill or downhill climb, it's worth the effort. And there are places along the trail where you can find some shade, and even sit down on a rock or a stump.
Between Vernazza and Monterossa
• The last portion, from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare, is the longest. It takes about two hours with lots of up and down. I counted 700 steps down to Monterosso at the end.
• I am very afraid of heights and was unable to hike the CT trails. We started off from Monterosso towards Vernazza and I had trouble with the very first staircase. I got past it but couldn't get myself to go up the next. I sent my companions on a little ways to see if the trail got less scary further on, but they came back to say No.
• We survived the cliff line walk from Vernazza to Monterosso, which was a very, very long and rugged walk. Often the footpath was only a foot wide, with nothing separating us from the sea floor but air. Along the way there was this old, old man selling water and grapes for a buck or two. How does he manage to carry all his stuff along these trails?
• We hiked from Monterosso to Vernazza and it was anything but easy, quite difficult in fact. It took us exactly 1 hour and 45 minutes, and we stopped for scenic views but also to catch our breaths. We were too tired when we arrived in Vernazza to do anymore hiking.
There were many people on the trail, some with no manners at all, as PJK has stated, so be careful. And as he said, plaster yourself against the inner wall when the throngs come at you. I would not attempt this hike with a large backpack. We also had the hot sun in our faces (June 7th). Even considering the difficulty, it was a hike with nothing but incredible scenery and breathtaking views everywhere.
• We had read on one of the boards that hiking from Vernazza to Monterosso was easier than going from Monterosso to Vernazza. I have to agree. The portion of the trail is a little rigorous as you go up and down the trail, often without any railing between you and the sea or mountain below. Anyway, at the end of the trail going into Monterosso are stairs. It is not a big deal- but I would imagine starting with the stairs would be more difficult.
• Next time, I think I'd do the bottom portion, from Riomaggiore to Manarolo to Corniglia. Then on to Vernazza, if I felt up to it, and the weather was good.
• There is really only one "main" path that connects the villages. All the places except Corniglia are at sea level, so the path follows the coastline longitudinally but has some good climbs. Remember though that there are other smaller villages and farms further up the mountainside, and before the road was put in they were all connected by trails. So there are trails that run from the water up the slope and trails that interconnect once you're up the hill. Even though you are within park boundaries those trails may not be repaired very often and show as secondary on the map.
• Our favorite by far was from Levanto to Monterosso. We then took the train back to Levanto, after spending some time in Monterosso. It was beautiful.
• However, the issue of wet trails needs to be addressed as well as level of difficulty. Early the morning we hiked, it poured the rain for quite a long time, and there were several places where I found the trails somewhat unnerving because of how slippery they were.
• There were a few places where there were drop-offs without any guards that made me leary, but for anyone who has a genuine fear of heights, be warned there are a few places that might make you uncomfortable. We hiked early in the week, and a lady I met who had hiked on the weekends (and is an avid hiker) said that there were lots of people on the trails who were less than concerned about giving "right of way" or common courtesy to others. If I heard someone coming when we were on a narrow area with drop-offs, I always stopped, plastered myself against the inside and played the courteous one so that I didn't have to be on the edge. I think there is some unwritten rule about giving the person going up the benefit of the doubt, but of course I always tried to get to a place where it didn't really matter.
• It will take you about seven hours to hike the entire distance from Riomaggiore to Monterosso. Part of the trail is fairly rigorous and that timeframe does not include actually looking at the various towns-- seven hours is actual hiking time. We are photo freaks so we wanted time to look at stuff and take a bunch of photos. Everyone we talked to who had walked the entire trail in one day had sore calves the next day, or they had abandoned the walk along the way.
• It is very simple to take the train and the ferry between the towns (assuming the ferry is running when you're there). You can just choose which you want to take, according to the weather, the crowds, and your preference.
• It’s really important to wear comfortable, supportive shoes with a good sole. Not necessarily hiking shoes, but at least good cross-trainer type walking shoes. Definitely no flip flops!
• Definitely the two best hikes are from Monterosso to Vernazza, and then from Vernazza to Cornelia. Gorgeous views! But these two hikes are about 1.5 hours apiece, IF you are a steady walker and in pretty good shape. And it was so worth it. If you are going to do these (which I would if you are fit enough to), I would wear some type of sneaker because it really hiking.
• The hikes between the towns are just that - hikes! Some of the paths are pretty narrow and in a few areas are close to an edge. The large majority of the trails are steep but not really on a 'cliff edge'.
• I hiked the whole trail, broken into two days: Monterosso to Vernazza first day, and Riomaggiore to Vernazza second day. I also suffer from acrophobia. The difficult part for me was Corneglia to Vernazza where it was a sheer drop and narrow, rock strewn path.
• I walked the Cinque Terre in both directions, starting from both Monteresso and Riomaggiore, and also took two different trails from Levanto to Monterosso with no problems. It was beautiful and perfectly safe. Yes, it was high (made for some amazing views) but most of it has railings and/or fence along the way.
• We were enjoying the beach at the end of the trail in Riomaggiore when what seemed like a thousand people descended on Riomaggiore all at once. We hightailed it back to Manarola and hiked the upper trail to Volastra to get away from the crowds. The upper trail is a little more difficult to follow. Some times you are in fields and stairways, other times you are on the highway. The route indicators, painted red and white stripes, are some times hard to find. We stopped in Volastra for a beer and peanut break and then went from Volastra to Corniglia.
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The Cinque Terre trails: a compilation of Fodorites' comments
We have collected lots of comments about the Cinque Terre trails on another thread