Well, strictly speaking I only visited four of the five villages so do with that what you will. I arrived in Manarola, the second (from the south) of the five villages, by train from Genova at 9:45 in the morning, with 15 minutes to go find my hostel before it closed for the middle of the day. My map of the town didn’t have any of the street names so I had to ask directions and at first made the mistake of trying to ask for the street of my hostel, which puzzled the kindly woman trying to help me. She ducked into the tiny grocery shop for help and the guy there knew what she was talking about. “L’Ostello?” he asked. She turned to me. “Si! L’Ostello,” I replied. She nodded confidently and rattled off a long string of Italian ending with a strong gesture at the bell tower about six stories above our heads. I thanked her and headed up hill. The street (note: that’s a a definite article – there is only one street in town) is built over a rushing watercourse and head up at a 45 degree angle. Sure enough when I reached the bell tower square (a place wide enough for two cars to pass) there was a sign for the Hostel and I found that it’s “street” was actually a little alley with stairs about 30 feet long. No wonder she didn’t know it. I got checked in, dropped off my bags, grabbed out a few things including a hat but forgetting my sunglasses and set out again.
My first stop was back down to the train station where I’d past the tourist information pass and understood that I needed to buy a park pass to walk the trails between the five tiny cliffside towns which make up the UNSECO World Heritage Area that is the Cinque Terre. Much to my chagrin I was told that the trails are closed for the winter (and for landslides) and so I didn’t need/couldn’t buy a pass. But all was not lost. The “upper” trails are open all winter AND not charged for. I took the proffered map and set out to find my way UP to the first trail head. I followed the road up through town and to the parking are (cars are not allowed to drive into Manarola normally) and found a very well marked footpath splitting off, blazed with red and white stripes of paint. The first part of the hike (two hours) were almost entirely stairs going up so I took it slow, making many stops to shed, gloves, coat, and sweater and then to put on a head scarf as sun protection. The views were compensatorily stunning though and I really enjoyed the exertion.
In the tiny, high hamlet of Volastra where I stopped to eat a sandwich, a small cheery dog came to greet me and cheerily insisted that I pet him vigorously, which I was happy to do. He dashed off and then came back several times for more scratches as I caught my breath. When I set off along the trail again he came with me, not following so much as leading, dashing along the path ahead of me and then coming back to check on me if I took too long over a photo or breathing at the stop of a many story climb. I worried at first that I might be leading him astray (he had a collar tag marked Puck and clearly belonged to someone) but eventually stopped bothering since he new the path so well and I was hardly the first hiker to ever pass through his home territory.
I stopped for a focaccia in Corniglia and chatted with an Australian woman who was hiking the other direction, then set out again, this time on the sea-side path (which I’d been told by the barkeep was actually open for walking). He said that the paths between some of the other towns were really gated shut but this one was open and still much in use by locals. And hikers, as I discovered. I passed half a dozen other tourist parties on the way to Vernazza (a stark contrast to my tally of ZERO non-locals on the high path in the morning). The lower pass was easier but by no means easy (this is a stretch not recommended to day trippers even in the summer when the paths are all open). But I won myself many more stunning views of ocean as well as up along the terraces of vineyards and olive groves on my way. The sun went behind clouds as I descended into Vernazza and I decided I was pretty much all hiked out after 6 hours of strenuous walking (around my breaks) so I wandered the town and then made my way to the station where a short wait brought me a train which zipped through blasted tunnels under the hillside and took me back to Manarola in about 10 minutes.
The next morning I walked in the other direction to Riomaggiore (braving clouds and a few rain drops) hiking up the hill to the road and then down what seemed a thousand steps through vine terraced hillsides into the town. At midday I again took the train back to my home base, picked up my bag for a scenic lunch by the water and then headed on to my next stop, Bologna. Stay tuned for future updates.