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Several Steps to Gelati Heaven


The ground levelled out briefly before a sharp descent into the brightly coloured port of Vernazza. I’d struggled up from Corniglia, the previous village, cursing my day pack and blistered heels, cheered only by passing “Buongiorno!”s from fellow walkers approaching from the opposite direction. As I stopped for a breather and a gulp of by now nastily tepid water, I squinted, convinced I’d been sweating so much it was starting to blur my vision. Coming towards me were two well-built guys, effortlessly transporting enormous rucksacks in which myself and most of my immediate family could have comfortably spent a long weekend. Barely out of breath, one turned back to the other and said, with a definite note of disappointment, “Geez, that climb wasn’t half as tough as yesterday, mate.” Australians, I knew it.

Manarola

Thankfully, there’s no need to spend weeks at the gym before a visit though, the 11km long path connecting the five villages of the Cinque Terre on Italy’s North West Ligurian coast isn’t just for Aussie iron men. Offering spectacular views as far as France to the north, and out to Corsica and Sardinia on a clear day, it’s popular with everyone from backpackers and German tourists kitted out in full hiking gear to the odd ill-prepared Italian signora in high-heels and a leopard-skin leather jacket.

The epitome of quaint, the villages are made up of houses painted in bright yellows, oranges and pinks. Shoe-horned into the tiniest coves, they creep steeply back up the hillside providing a challenge for unsuspecting tourists with bulging suitcases. Each of the five “terre” has its own character.
Riomaggiore, the starting off point for most walkers, is a hive of activity. The station is decorated with murals showing the toils of the men and women who worked so hard on the land. The next stop along the coast, Manarola, is tiny. Painted fishing boats line the harbour whilst retired locals take their knitting out into the sun to catch up on village gossip and cast aspersions on passing tourists.

Vernazza

Corniglia is perched high up on a promontory jutting out into the sea, the balconies of its narrow stone alleyways festooned with the weekly wash. Vernazza is the prettiest and most sophisticated of the five. Just over half way for brave souls tackling the path, it’s a popular lunch stop. Those with expensive tastes can dine on such delicacies as stuffed anchovies, lobster and swordfish in upmarket restaurants along the quay; whilst others like myself, with shallower pockets, have the chance to gobble down slices of foccaccia with home made pesto from a kiosk around the corner.  Monterosso, a more than welcome sight for exhausted walkers who start out from Riomaggiore, is the largest of the five. Although it feels more touristy than the others, I was glad of a paddle on the pebbly beach, a chocolate ice cream and a chance to rest my aching calf muscles.

Having made it to Monterosso on foot, the question of how to get back to my room in Riomaggiore was a pressing one. Walking back again was frankly not an option. Thankfully I let the train take the strain. Little more than a continuous tunnel running between all five villages, it took just 22 minutes to retrace 5 hours worth of walking.

Most visitors are day trippers content to spend their time walking the main path or relaxing on the pebbly beaches. It can get very busy in high season, particularly on public holidays when the walkers push past, shoulder to shoulder. Although path number two, between the villages, is the main attraction, most people either don’t seem to know or care that there are plenty of much quieter paths with views which are just as good if not better. Each of the villages has a religious sanctuary perched high up on the hillside, such as the Madonna di Reggio looking down over Vernazza.

Sentiero

Walking up through the terraces gives a real feel for the history of the area. Much more than just a cliff top path with fabulous views, the unique, entirely manmade landscape of the Cinque Terre, now a National Park, was recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. For generations locals have been reclaiming the wooded hillsides for wine production by constructing over 7,000 km of hand-built dry stone walls creating steep terraces perfect for vine cultivation. Now aided by rickety one-wheeled trains which creep along almost vertical tracks and are full to bursting with precious grapes during the autumn harvest, it’s impossible to conceive of the back-breaking day-to-day work involved before such technological innovations. Although it’s a tough uphill struggle, there’s a distinct feeling of smugness at reaching the cool tranquillity of the top, whilst those on the path below are jostling for space.

Spending all day struggling up hills under the weight of a heavy rucksack isn’t for everyone, Australian or otherwise, but after all that Italian gelato, walking the Cinque Terre is a beautiful way to ease the guilt of all of those extra calories.

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