Stairways to heaven

After the deluge ... Riomaggiore hugs the shore.
After the deluge ... Riomaggiore hugs the shore. Photo: Getty Images

Alison Stewart scales the cliffs of the Cinque Terre and finds villages returning to life after devastating floods.

Shredded and discarded footwear appears like Hansel and Gretel's bread trail along the rugged walking trails of the Cinque Terre. And where there is a tattered sandal, so follows a gasping tourist. But their hardships are insignificant compared with those of the native Ligurians.

This starkly gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage-listed landscape on the north-west Italian coast carries a dark history of floods, sieges and destruction that has shaped the stoic character of its inhabitants who walk only lightly on this land.

It is as if fortitude has been hardwired into the people who toiled for 1000 years to transform the cliffs into fertile terraces for olives and vines, while battling invaders and the elements.

This past year has been no exception. The people of the Cinque Terre (Five Lands) endured floods on October 25, 2011, that took lives and almost destroyed Monterosso and Vernazza - two of the five villages that date back to the Middle Ages. Since then, the area has undergone a miraculous recovery.

Even so, we don't quite know what to expect, and the post-flood words of the Monterosso mayor, Angelo Betta, ring in our ears: "Monterosso does not exist any more."

We've come anyway to this Riviera de Levante, or "working man's riviera", which is wonderfully untroubled by tacky apartments and tourist developments. It's also a hiker's paradise - a linked series of jagged trails, built by generations of Ligurians who walked from village to sea to religious sanctuary, tenaciously eking out their living from the landscape.

The best way into the Cinque Terre is by train, not car. Roads are narrow, steep, access is heavily restricted - you can't drive directly between the villages - and parking is virtually non-existent. The train, on the other hand, runs through the coastal tunnels to link the five villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. It's cheap at €1.50 ($1.90) a person and regular. So train is how we arrive in the westernmost village, Monterosso, from Genoa.

We love it immediately. The light is fading and the bay ripples pink and grey. Monterosso is divided in two - Fegina, the newer, beachy part where you'll find the station, and Monterosso Vecchio, the old town. Built directly on rock, with winding secret alleys, the old town exhibits the true character of the Cinque Terre. It crawls up the San Cristoforo hill, showing little sign of the devastation that left it metres-deep in mud and debris a year ago.

This evening, it shows off its colours of creams and yellows, ochres, dark pinks and reds, the buildings green-shuttered. We're congratulating ourselves, too, on our old-town choice of the Hotel Pasquale. It's small, family-run and beautifully decorated, with sea views from every room.

We can also see the old town and the railway line that runs atop an aqueduct before disappearing into a tunnel. We experience that railway line first-hand during dinner at a nearby seafront restaurant when it seems the hounds of the apocalypse have landed on our heads - it's merely a train thundering over the restaurant roof, which is set directly into the aqueduct.

The hotel is named for Pasquale Pasini, who fell for a local girl when stationed in Monterosso during World War II. Pasquale's daughter Felicita and grandson Marco now run the hotel, with other family members. The hotel is lovingly tended by these generations of Monterossini.

The sounds of the sea (and the odd thunderous train) lull us to sleep and we're up with the sun creeping over the mountain ridges that form part of the Ligurian Apennines, well aware that the steep walking trails are best attempted in the cool.

We can't help noticing as we begin the Monterosso to Vernazza hike that some fellow walkers are playing a bit fast and loose with the terrain. We spot fancy sandals, thongs, no hats, no water that eventually morph into puce faces, broken footwear and gasping fellow travellers collapsed on the rough stone stairs. Mind you, some of the flights are daunting, so steep they're almost vertical and endless, around each bend another stairway to heaven.

There's also the other end of the spectrum - ultra-fit Europeans with bulging calves, walking poles and camel-packs, barging skywards, announcing their arrival in ringing tones to enable you to press humbly against the cliff and allow passage.

In many spots, there are no railings, the paths require single file and periodically there's a precipitous drop with only prickly aloes to slow your plummet. It's fantastic.

The lovely Felicita has given us a trail map and we buy a one-day Cinque Terre card (€6 each) at the station information centre that grants us access to all the park trails. We eye the seven-hour Cinque Terre High Trail (No.1), noting its 40-kilometre distance from Levanto in the west to Portovenere in the east. And what's that - a 516-metre climb? Perhaps another day.

We choose instead the allegedly more benign coastal path, the Blue Trail (No.2). We plan to walk this five-hour, 11-kilometre coastal stretch of the Cinque Terre but Felicita has warned us that a short stretch from Corniglia to Manarola is still closed due to flood damage.

In fact, the entire Blue Trail is currently closed for work after a rock fall in late September on the Via dell'Amore (the Way of Love) between Riomaggiore and Manarola injured four Australians and again tested locals' resilience. It is no wonder the Monterosso-born Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale described his Cinque Terre world as one of defeat and despair where only nature possessed dignity.

All trails are expected to open by March and the start of the walking season.

It's clear we're walking into history as we leave Monterosso and begin the 250-metre climb between the cultivation terraces that typify much of this landscape. When Saracen raids ended in the 12th century, locals carried in the stone on their heads and shoulders, building the dry-stone walls that support the terraces. They planted the vines and olives, lemons and figs on land once precipitous and stony. It took about 200 years to build the entire stone-wall network whose length equals that of the Great Wall of China.

All around us are the shades of the Mediterranean - the silvery olive trees, pale green vines and darker lemon groves. The terrain means little machinery is used and cultivation and harvesting is a hardy exercise done manually, though tourism, specifically walking, has surged ahead of agriculture.

As the day warms, the air fills with the late-summer scent of lemon, rosemary, thyme and lavender. The beauty of the Blue Trail is that the villages appear long before you reach them, quaint peach-coloured buildings pressed together within coastal inlets. The trail gives a bird's-eye view of Vernazza whose houses are built up the sides of a rock spur that hides village from sea. Here, memories of the floods are still raw, with photos in the town showing the scale of the devastation.

The next section, a 90-minute, four-kilometre walk to Corniglia, is probably the trail's toughest, with a near-vertical climb out of Vernazza. Soon we are looking down on it, and oncoming walkers are warning of steeper stairs ahead. The path is narrow and stony, and there are few handrails, but it's a wild, exhilarating walk.

Corniglia is the only village built on a high promontory rather than at sea level and, with the town in view, we wind through bougainvillea and fragrant groves to the little main square where we sit at corrugated iron tables for an icy beer and pesto focaccia from Bar Nunzio.

Cinque Terre cuisine draws heavily on the sea and it's hard to go past the sublime fresh acciughe (anchovies), with lemon, olive oil and fresh, crusty bread - quite different from the harsh, salt-cured ones. Liguria is the birthplace of pesto, generally served with trofie or another local specialty - focaccia. Meat lovers beware, seafood dominates - vongole, octopus, crab, lobster, seabass, whitebait and the famed anchovies. Meat is rarer. The Monterosso butcher even suggests you "order your roast chicken for Sunday".

With the Corniglia to Manarola path closed, we run down the 365 steps to the station, grinning at the puffing climbers, to buy tickets to Manarola. Remember, validate your ticket before boarding or risk a hefty fine. By now, only mad dogs and the odd Englishman are still walking, so we head past Manarola's busy harbour swimming area and find a quieter waterhole where locals swim and picnic.

On subsequent days, we test our calves with a 90-minute walk on path No.9 up behind the village to the sanctuary of Santuario Nostra Signora di Soviore, the most ancient of the five hilltop sanctuaries; we each buy a €25 ferry ticket for a hop-on, hop-off day trip to the villages as well as to nearby La Spezia, Lerici, the Gulf of Poets and Portovenere; we visit Monterosso's lovely Church of San Giovanni Battista, with its striking striped marble Gothic facade. And we simply laze around, plundering the local supermarket for parmesan and prosciutto picnics.

And without fail, after each walk, we visit either La Cantina del Pescatore for a cup of icy tart granita di limoni di Monterosso or Gelateria Golsone for a chocolate gelato to die for. Our aching muscles assure us that this is truly a guilt-free pleasure.

Alison Stewart travelled with the assistance of Singapore Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

- Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Milan via Singapore. Return economy fare from $1778 from Sydney and $1910 from Melbourne, including taxes. Phone 13 10 11; see singaporeair.com.

- Trenitalia intercity train from Milan to Monterosso, from €9 ($11) direct, each way.

Staying there

Hotel Pasquale in Monterosso has double rooms with a sea view for €150 a night, with breakfast. Email pasquale@pasini.com or see www.hotelpasquale.it.

Walking there

For up-to-date trail information, see parconazionale5terre.it.

Comments