A five-star cliffhanger

Rosemarie Milsom works up a thirst hiking the rugged terrain of the Ligurian Coast's Cinque Terre.

We should have packed more water. Taken by surprise by the dry September heat and rugged terrain of Italy's popular Cinque Terre National Park, my walking companion and I drank our last drop 45 minutes ago. It's now just after 3pm, the baking hour, and we've been on our feet for most of the day.

My partner thinks he can see unicorns frolicking in the shimmery heat waves ahead. I reckon he's dehydrated after eating too much pizza in Vernazza, the town we most recently passed through and the second last on our mission to walk the length of the five famous Ligurian coastal towns in one day.

At EUR6.50 ($12.70) it was the best pizza we'd ever eaten - a thin, crispy base smeared with a rich tomato sauce and Genoese pesto served on brown paper and thrown down with a couple of icy cold Peroni beers - but we should have walked away with more than just bellies full of food; bottled water would have come in handy.

Sinewy grey-haired German retirees with pressed shirts and expensive hiking boots bound ahead of us. Heck, even a man wearing thongs and carrying a cherubic toddler on his back manages to squeeze past. It's not until later, when we stumble exhausted onto the train home to our rental apartment in Riomaggiore that we realise the majority of hikers town-hop, breaking the hike up into pleasant bite-sized chunks. What took us five hours to walk, takes just nine minutes by express train.

The railway enables daytrippers to skip the trail and simply meander through the narrow laneways of any of the five towns, which boast lively trattorias, stunning views, historical churches and a stone tower or two. While enjoying our pizza we watched five chubby tabby cats sun themselves at the bottom of a set of stairs leading to Vernazza's main street, Via Roma - a quaint Italian cliche that loses none of its charm in reality.

But our most significant realisation is how deceptive our ancient, nine-kilometre serpentine trail is. Known as the Sentiero Azzurro, or "blue path", as indicated on official park maps , it is one of the most beautiful walking tracks in the world and it's tougher than the guidebooks make out.

We can see our destination, the umbrella-lined beachfront of Monterosso, beyond the sandstone outcrop ahead but getting there is a matter of negotiating a gravel donkey track that winds through the area's impossibly steep stonewall terraces. It is a well-worn trail that attracts hiking enthusiasts, foodies, honeymooners and Italians in their tens of thousands in the warmer months. Weekends are particularly hectic, although mainly at the train stations and particularly in the late afternoon as everyone returns home.

So much of our walk has been broken up by "can you believe the view" moments while we're perched 60 metres above the surging jade Ligurian Sea. Amid the endless rows of the famous terraces we spot wild sage, borage, long-forgotten olive and peach trees, abandoned grapevines and lemon groves, as well as prickly pears, pines and sleek brown lizards sunning themselves.

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In this rugged terrain, open, flat space is at a premium. The five towns, which are more like villages, seem to cling to the hillsides and the simple, boxy homes are condensed into the smallest of areas.

In the main town, Riomaggiore, the location of the National Park office where all visitors must buy a Cinque Terre Treno (park access and train ticket), open space is in such demand that many homeowners use their flat rooftops as play areas for their children and dogs; some have even built small platforms for the same purpose.

Wherever you go in the Cinque Terre (Five Lands) you need your stair legs - whether it's wandering down for a swim at one of the pebbly beaches, or making your way from the railway station to your accommodation.

After a week in the park, our calves are tanned and toned. The weight hasn't fallen away because it's impossible to stop eating and having only just enjoyed pizza, we're already planning a return visit to Vernazza - by train next time - to sample the one laden with locally salted anchovies.

But all our focus isn't on food or water. When tackling the trail, it's impossible not to reflect on the back-breaking determination of the locals who essentially reshaped the landscape to enable their existence.

As park guide Matteo Perrone tells me later, "The stone walls appear simple but are extremely complex. There is no cement, just layer upon layer of specially chosen stone. The human energy required to rebuild the terraces would take 2500 people fully employed all day for more than two centuries."

The Cinque Terre may be beautiful but it is harsh. Local producers, dating back to the 12th century, have overcome strong seasonal winds, poor soil quality and steep, uneven land to eke out an existence that centres on olives, grapes and lemons. That people remain here is testament to the resilience and determination of their ancestors. But it is the sweat required to maintain the terraces that is threatening the future of the very feature that attracts two million tourists a year.

The last thing that local Gen X and Y-ers want to do is labour all day; opportunity knocks in the cities so they are packing their bags and deserting the family farms and orchards at an alarming rate. Or else they are busy setting up businesses to cater for the tourists.

"For each new restaurant opening, a plot of vineyard is lost," observes Perrone.

And this is where the Parco Nazionale Delle Cinque Terre and its 150 staff have stepped in, to reclaim abandoned land and maintain the terraces. The park has also developed with local producers a line of organic products such as wine, pesto, jam and olive oil as well as a skincare range. It is a unique program that relies on the proceeds of the park tickets and product sales.

The day after conquering the Sentiero Azzurro we meet olive grower Renzo Bordone whose pale blue eyes sparkle as he demonstrates how a centuries-old olive press does its job simply and efficiently.

As the large, smooth stone turns quietly, the 60-year-old explains that the oil mill, close to the ancient village of Groppo, high above the five villages, is free for all residents to use. Sadly, that number is decreasing as the back-breaking task of harvesting is left to the region's ageing residents.

"We are getting less and less oil," he says flatly. "The young people don't want to do it - they want to work less and earn more money."

Fifty years ago Bordone had 303 hectares of olives. Now, the grower has 81. It's all he can manage. When asked about the future, he points out the small window to a section of the area's famed stone terraces overrun by towering pines. The silvery olive trees, many older than the portly Bordone himself, have been abandoned.

"That's what will become of my olives," he tells us.

Not if tourism has anything to do with it.

The writer was a guest of Parco Nazionale Delle Cinque Terre.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

A four-hour train trip from Rome to La Spezia is EUR32 ($62) one way; change at La Spezia for one of the frequent local services to the villages. See trenitalia.it. If you drive, you will have to park on the edge of towns as they are car-free.

Staying there

Hotels don't really exist. Tourists rent privately managed rooms or apartments that vary from shabby to neat and tidy. If you're after luxury, you're in the wrong place.

Eating there

For a romantic dinner perched on a cliff above surging waves, grab a table at Bar dell'Amore, a 15-minute stroll from Riomaggiore on the way to Manarola. Corniglia's character-filled wine bar Enetoca Il Pirum offers EUR3 glasses of "vino locale" . Across the lane is Gelateria Artigianale where you can grab a scoop of sorbet for EUR1.50. For pizza head to Vernazza's Pizzeria Fratelli Basso on Via Roma. Enetoca Ciak in Monterosso stocks local fig jam, anchovies , limoncello and pesto rossi.

Further information

The Cinque Terre National Park, see www.cinqueterre.it and www.parconazionale5terre.it

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