5 May 2022
The Cinque Terre has a way of distracting you from reality. Emphasized in the brochures about the area are the 377 steps that one must climb from the train station to reach Corniglia. However, once trekking the higher trails of the park, these 377 steps look like child’s play. The uneven stone steps, twists and turns, ups and downs, and narrow pathways found along the higher trails are the reality.
Today I’m walking the track from Manarola to Corniglia. This 2-mile trek is considered of high difficulty and reaches a maximum altitude of 1312 feet. The day is cloudy and cool, perfect conditions for a strenuous hike.
Once again, the easier, shorter route is closed due to a landslide. The mountains provide a huge watershed and water is determined to reach the ocean. It’s forceful path can be through town and over pathways, whichever is of the least resistance. Flooding and landslides are pretty common. So, it is the high trail for me. The best advice that I have read is to take the minibus up to Volastra, a tiny village some 1100′ above Manarola. This shortcut eliminates the worst of the climb. I may be determined to hike but I am not a glutton for punishment – I take the bus.
The path begins next to the small church of Madonna della Salute. The church is a good starting point in which to say a few kind words before challenging the upcoming trail through terraced vineyards and across another mountain.
The first section is a narrow dirt track dotted with rocks. The trail passes through olive trees and vineyards and along old rock walls. It is just me and the birds. And then there are the views! Looking back, I can see Manarola 1200’ below me. The Liguria Sea stretches to the horizon. Waves crash into the rocky beaches below. To the north, sitting on a high cliff jutting above the sea is Corniglia. The distance between the two villages is but a 2-minute train ride or a 2-hour walk.
Truly this is a trek among the farmers’ vineyards. It’s just me, the birds and an occasional farmer working in his garden. It seems that nothing is too narrow to terrace and plant vines, veggies, or citrus and olive trees. The rocks removed from the gardens are used to build and maintain the walls of the terraces. But I proceed with caution as the path narrows to under three feet and if I don’t watch my steps, I may land below in a farmer’s vineyard. My walk proceeds to the next view, next collection of wildflowers, the next vineyard where the grapes are tied and beginning to grow.
The hike becomes more challenging as the ubiquitous uneven steps climb higher, the path narrows still more with a rock wall on one side and a precipitous drop on the other. There are few guard rails. There is an occasional hiker coming my way. It seems we both politely step aside but I suspect it is more an excuse to catch our breath. And the views of the hills and sea are spectacular. More steps, more climb. I am very thankful that I am only ascending about 250′ today. Bless that bus to Volastra.
The last part of the hike enters a forest canopy; I can hear streams of water tumbling down the mountains. There are many more rocky steps and I meet more and more people coming up from Corniglia. There is much huffing and puffing and fewer bird tweets. There is the occasional cat but they seem a bit stand-offish. Perhaps they are trying to figure out what the silly humans are huffing and puffing about.
The forest opens to a spectacular view of Corniglia. Its pastel houses wrap around a rocky spur high above the sea. I descend a couple hundred feet via several flights of uneven, rocky steps to emerge next to the Chiesa di San Pietro as its bell tolls 11am. I peak inside the 14th century interior which is quite ornate. I pause to appreciate both my back and my knees which remain strong. Church to church, the hike has taken about 2 hours.
Below San Pietro is a welcoming cafe where I and other hikers are either beginning or ending their trek of the day. Coffee, bruschetta and a rest restores my energy. It is moments like these when I love to ruminate about my experiences. It is when the strangest thoughts tend to pop into my mind.
Like: villagers must possess buns of steel. There cannot be cellulite on local asses here. The villages are 100% charm, 90% stairs.
Like: 50 years ago this month, for the first time I headed for Europe for my grand tour. It changed my life.
Like: my pants are looser. If I could stay here a month, eat caprese and pasta everyday, limit the Prosecco and gelato, I would trim off all those Covid pounds.
Like: I am reading the historical non-fiction Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. It is a devastating account of the mass murder of millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and Slavs between 1939-1945. It is a story of why Ukrainians fight for their lives and why Putin has got to be stopped. Why do I read this here? Because, amidst this tranquility and beauty, evil can raise its ugly head. We can never forget that, nor ignore it.
I decide to stroll town, find where I will be staying when I return on Saturday, and forestall the 377 steps a bit longer. Corniglia is tiny with less than 200 inhabitants. It is the only village of the Cinque Terre without access to the sea. Basically it is one narrow, twisting, shop-lined, tourist-clogged street – Via Fieschi.
Perhaps Corniglia’s biggest claim to fame is the Scalinata Lardarina, a long brick staircase composed of 33 winding flights with some 377 to 382 steps, depending on who counted. With Corniglia over 300′ above sea level, and its train station at the bottom of these steps, it is hard to totally avoid their use.
While it is pleasant walking down to the train, with each flight, I promise myself that upon my return, with my backpack, I am taking the shuttle. Again, I am no glutton for punishment.