Path master: Liguria's five-star short cut
Hikers beware: Italy's most celebrated walk – the route through the Cinque Terre – is closed indefinitely. Happily, there is an alternative...
Five Lands, one problem: the Cinque Terre comprise the most ravishing strip of Italian coastline, a handful of pretty villages ranged along the spectacular Ligurian shore. No road can penetrate the jagged nine miles between Monterosso and Riomaggiore, making the path linking the Five Lands into a world-class hike. Unesco praised the "harmonious interaction between people and nature to produce a landscape of exceptional scenic quality" and popped it straight on the World Heritage List.
So popular is the the trail beside the azure Med and beneath blue skies, known as the Sentiero Azzurro, that you have to pay a €5-a-day fee. The optimum time to tackle it is right now: spring is in full flourish, young lemons dapple the orchards and gardens along the way, and the crowds have yet to arrive.
Tempted? Tough luck. Almost the entire path is chiuso – closed for repairs. Four sections of path link the Five Lands, and all but the brief final segment are out-of-bounds indefinitely after landslides. Evidently, terra is not as firma as it might be in the Cinque Terre.
You could instead take the train. A railway bores its way between the five villages. Yet "bore" is the right verb, because most of the journey is tediously confined to tunnels, with only occasional tantalising glimpses of the villages and crumpled coastline. Instead, I have devised and tested (almost to self-destruction) a "Plan B". So long as you deploy a modicum of planning, this trio of individual hikes along the coast east of Genoa combine to form a five-star Ligurian rhapsody that guarantees three great days of walking. You could, if sufficiently fit, even contemplate the whole lot in a day, but you may need an ambulance waiting at the far end.
Italy may well be the finest country in Europe in which to hike. Untangle yourself from the tagliatelle of traffic that constricts the average Italian town and city, and you soon find yourself in delicious scenery, usually with the coast in view. The friendly locals compensate for shortcomings in signposting; with implausible frequency you stumble upon some timeless gem of a chapel; and, as the fertile land through which you toil testifies, you can look forward to a feast at the end of each day.
Oh, and it's cheap and easy to get there. An "open-jaw" ticket will fly you out to Genoa, close to the start of the sequence, and bring you home from Pisa – easy to reach from the end of the hikes.
Elsewhere, every journey may begin with a single step, but adventures in Italy usually with a battle of wits against Italian railways' ticket machines. So it proves at Genoa's Brignole station. When you finally procure a single ticket, step aboard and sit on the right for fine views along the Golfo di Paradiso.
At the far end of the Gulf of Paradise stands Camogli, a pretty resort. Its tall, pastel-painted townhouses clamour for attention, while high above a Benedictine monastery smiles down on the port. Attractions include a maritime museum, a rest home for gente di mare ("men of the sea") and the chance to to enjoy an ice-cream overlooking the pretty harbour. Conserve your energy, and the daylight, by smartly following the twin red dots that indicate the start of a hike to San Fruttuoso – inaccessible by road or rail.
The trail begins besides what looks disappointingly like a drainage ditch, but soon ascends to the Promonotory of Portofino: a rough, rocky peninsula about six miles by three that juts into the Mediterranean. On the map, the obvious path is the one embroidering the coastline; but soon enough you discover an Ordinance from the Genoa Harbour Office banning all human activity within 500 feet of the shore because of the risk of rockfalls. Plenty of other paths thread through the promontorio and some of them even have signposts. Two red triangles, like hand-painted Give Way signs, provided guidance for the next stretch.
Even if your idea of a walk is once around the local park, the hike to San Fruttuoso will enthrall you. The surface is mostly springy – autumn's leaf fall still cushions your boots – while beech and pine provide shade, tranquillity and an aroma of spring. Now and again a short, sharp stretch of uphill rewards you with startling views down to the shore: who put that lonely stone house on an outcrop down there?
By Hour Three, the path to follow is indicated by a pair of vertical lines resembling a pause button. Don't stop. You drop quickly on a rough cattle track and then a set of treacherous steps. I had set my night sights on an agriturismo above San Fruttuoso itself, and was already savouring the locally-sourced feast that might await.
The gist of the sign on the farmhouse door was "if it's not April yet, and it's not a weekend, then go away". Oh well, with daylight dwindling faster than an EU olive-grower's subsidy, I would have to take the second choice: a "restaurant with rooms" overlooking the harbour.
As the end of a superb if strenuous hike, the attributes of San Fruttuoso are almost uncountable. They start with a 10th-century monastery, spirituality in stone, guarding the harbour; a huddle of cottages that appear to have sprouted from the beach; and an array of exactly the kind of restaurants that replenish the weary traveller with pasta and Chianti as the sun sinks. However, I stopped counting at that point because the aforementioned sun had set almost an hour ago, and the promontory was cloaked in darkness. One reason for the shortage of illumination is that San Fruttuoso spends the winter as a ghost village. Despite the bright skies earlier in the day, mid-March still counts as winter.
The nearest settlement that might offer bed and board was a hour's hike away on now-treacherous paths for which a fragile crescent moon offered little support. Before all light and hope was extinguished, I found pinned to a noticeboard on the quayside, an invitation to phone Andrea. He is the water taxi man, and when I called him to ask to be rescued, could have exercised his position of considerable commercial muscle rather more than he did. For my most-distressed-travel purchase of the year, a 20-minute ride across the inky Med back to Camogli, he charged €70. As a penance for poor planning, that struck me as very fair.
I did not feel I quite qualified for a place at the rest home for men of the sea, so I hopped on a train to the next town, Santa Margherita. She sounded to me like the patron saint of entry-level pizzas, so I found a seafront ristorante, the Palma, and hungrily devoured one.
The tougher the walk, the tastier the food and the more soundly you sleep. That is excellent preparation for the second hike, which begins a short train hop away in Levanto. The sixth land, I call it, a most agreeable resort that pales only because of its proximity to the Cinque Terre in all their loveliness. Levanto railway station has a signpost directing you to Monterosso. Here, the symbol for Sentiero 2, the pedestrian superhighway to the far end of the Cinque Terre, is an equals sign in red and white. The waymarkers' good intentions soon crumble like past-it parmesan, leaving you to wander around a concise and modest town whose main attribute is a handsome lido painted peach. Just beyond it an unlikely-looking stairway begins, with that elusive two-tone =.
You soon lose count of the stairs, because so much else demands your attention, such as an ancient castle that is humbled by its humdrum modern surroundings. As you climb, look back to the patchwork of terracotta roofs pierced with a church tower in zebra stripes; look forward, and you soon spy the Mare Mesco – a house and garden bedecked with sculptures whose raw material comes from the beach below in the shape of shells. A five-minute spell along a road reminds you that this is Italy in 2011, but as soon as you pass the Giada del Mesco hotel you shed the centuries to a time when Romantic poets roamed these hills.
Terraces of vines decorate the path, devouring the sunshine from the clear Ligurian sky. You pass ruined houses and thriving farmsteads, olive groves and grapevines – but not quite in glorious solitude. The closure of the Cinque Terre walk means you will be far from alone: the serious walkers who have come this far are darned if they are not going to walk. Start early, and you can play "guess the nationality" as they conform steadfastly to to stereotypes: hearty Germans will greet you as early as 8am, while the French chime in after no doubt enjoying a second café au lait, and the Italians finally start showing up around elevenses. Presumably if you started late enough in the day, you would miss everybody, except the odd inept travel journalist.
"Here you can drink home-made wine" promises a home-made sign beside a garden. Don't be tempted, because the last section is wobbly enough already. Eventually the path gives a final swerve to reveal a first view of the Cinque Terre. Imagine an ordinary stretch of shoreline, maybe 20 miles long and punctuated by fishing villages, scrunched up to less than half that length.
This crumpled continuum, fading into a spring mist, provides an heroic background. But in the foreground some modest catastrophe has afflicted the final stage of the walk: charred trees are strewn in disaster-movie fashion across the hillside and the signposting gets even worse than usual because some felled signs are pointing vertically up or off the edge of a cliff.
On the descent to Monterosso, gravity provides a surge of power, while your muscles ease off and allow you to appreciate the surroundings: a picture-postcard view, hearing only the crackle of twigs beneath your feet and your own breathing.
After all that effort, you'll be hungry: as soon as you reach ground level in Monterosso, you will see a pen full of camper vans on your right, and, more relevantly, the Focacceria Antonio dispensing sandwiches to the left. And look, there's the station. It has an official Cinque Terrace on the platform selling passes for a path you can't walk upon, and a booking office selling tickets for a train you can travel upon.
Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola are names that could have escaped from a menu. In fact, they are the first quattro of the cinque villages whose ancient thoroughfare is closed, and the names on the register of stations that the coastal train rattles through. The railway allows you briefly to admire the beach at Monterosso, the straggly main street at Vernazza, the hilltop church of Corniglia and the tiny harbour at Manarola – where cottages in peach and lemon and cherry compete for fruity supremacy.
Here you are finally allowed to walk from one of the Cinque Terre to the next – this is the last stretch of the sentiero, and has a title of its own, the Via dell'Amore. Lovers' lane begins unromantically with a walk through a grafitti-filled tunnel and up a metal ramp. But once on the gently graded path that curls around the coast for a mile or so, you understand why landslides will never close this section of the walk. Any earth that chose to tumble would fly straight over, because the trail is basically a notch in the cliff.
The overhanging rocks are constrained with metal netting, to which hundreds of padlocks have been attached by lovers keen to demonstrate the permanence of their amore. As the iron succumbs to rust, the power of nature prevails, in the geometric anarchy of rock strata in neat ranks that point straight at the sky after some geological cataclysm.
When the sheer cliff face abates, the strata of human communication are revealed. In a world where nature can thwart the best (and worst) plans, a choice of escape routes is always good. Besides the path at sea level, there is the railway drilled through the rock, the old Via Aurelia snaking through the hills and an autostrada swerving even higher. And if all else fails, here is the number you need: 00 39 333 435 2502, for Andrea's water taxi.
Travel essentials: Liguria
* You can fly to Genoa from Gatwick on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) or from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com). Returning from Pisa, the options are the three main London airports: BA serves Heathrow, Ryanair serves Stansted and easyJet (0905 821 090; easyjet.com) serves Gatwick. Simon Calder paid £170 for an "open-jaw" ticket on BA from Gatwick to Genoa, returning from Pisa to Heathrow.
* Trains are cheap, frequent and reasonably reliable. From Brignole station in Genoa to Camogli takes about half an hour, for a fare of €2.40. Camogli to Levanto takes 45 minutes (€4.10). A ticket from Monterosso to Pisa airport, which allows you to stop at all the Cinque Terre as long as you complete the trip inside six hours, is €5.80. Schedules and fares at trenitalia.it
* A double room, with breakfast, costs €96 at the excellent Hotel Jolanda in Santa Margherita (00 39 0185 287 512; hoteljolanda.it). A good place to stay on the second night is on the climb out of Levanto: the Maremesco B&B (00 39 0187 808154; maremesco.it), which charges €35 per person per night, including breakfast.
* At present there is no indication about when the closed sections of the coastal path through the Cinque Terre might re-open. Local sources suggest that the stretch from Monterosso to Corniglia may be ready next month, but the Corniglia-Manarola link is likely to remain closed until July. See the National Park website page that shows the status: www.bit.ly/eOXA7a
* The helpful Levanto tourist information: 00 39 0187 808 125
* The less-useful Ligurian region tourism promotion office: 00 39 010 530 821; turismoinliguria.it
* The apparently often-absent Cinque Terre tourist office: 00 39 0187 817 506
* The Italian State Tourist Board in London: 020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.uk
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