Cinqueterre. Cinquestair-re. Cinquemontagnegiganti. Cinqueeverythingwillhurt.
Apparently it is possible to get PTSD from looking at a flight of stairs.
On October 26 and 27, a few of my friends in my program and I decided to do the famous Cinqueterre hike. The trek is amazing, and the coast legitimately looks like Crayola puked on a mountain— it’s gorgeous.
Vernazza, La Spezia, Italy. Fourth town from the bottom (starting at Riomaggiore).
Unfortunately for us, the main trail going from Riomaggiore to Corniglia (through Manarola), is closed because of mudslides and complications with fallen rocks. Or something ridiculous like that. So we decided to start in Manarola and take the alternate trail through the mountains. This path would provide us with the next best views, and it wasn’t so hidden inland as the Riomaggiore-Manarola alternative.
Although we had heard of its difficulty, we figured it was best to get the most exhausting trail over with at the beginning, before the midday sun and fatigue settled in. There were no clear markings we could find that told us how to get on this alternative trail, so we went the only direction that made sense: up.
I don’t know if it is even possible for me to accurately and completely express to anybody that has never done this particular trail before how “up” we had to go. I grew up outdoors, so hiking, especially on volcanoes (having lived in the Pacific Rim of Fire for 18 years of my life), has always been a part of my life. This was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, simply because of the sheer “up-ness” of the trek. The path was straight up and at the steepest angle one could go before having to actually climb the mountain. Unlike the Philippines, where any uphill would be a beaten track, this trail was made up of steps; it was essentially staircase upon staircase upon staircase, with steps so large that someone of my stature (specifically, 5’2, 5’3 on a good day) had to pull some serious legwork to get up even one. Major knees to chest action.
Manarola to Corniglia: view from the first quarter of the way up. Yes, quarter. If even.
The second you thought the stairs finally ended, you would get to the top and realize that the next flight just started, around the corner and out of sight. I mean, it was absolutely beautiful and the views were worth it, but we were all pathetic puddles of sweat and exhaustion by the time we got high enough to even begin moving in the direction of the next town. I think one of the only things keeping us going was the guarantee that, after this godforsaken trail, at some far-too-long-awaited point, we would have to go down.
The “path” going towards Corniglia. Still not at the top of the mountain.
On the bright side, the views were quickly becoming even more spectacular, and as adrenaline and coffee from that morning kicked in, the trail became less arduous and slightly more about how great our asses might look after the pathetic one or two day period when we wouldn’t be able to sit on them.
This part of the narrative has not even gotten to Corniglia yet.
The trail unexpectedly curved into a forest— a strange and unprecedented twist no doubt a unique aspect to this alternate, non-coastal path. It was amazing how, in the span of about a minute, we went from an edge-of-the-mountain goat path to a cool, forest hike. Thankfully, one without stairs.
This lovely path eventually opened up to our first glimpse of Corniglia herself:
This shot doesn’t do the town justice at all. It made all the stairs, all the exhaustion, entirely worth it. It also served as a little reminder that there were still two more towns after this one to go. At the very least, however, we figured that seeing how the usual tourist trails were clear and open from Corniglia onward, this meant the last of the StairMaster chronicles. We were 100% absolutely mistaken.
We spent about an hour and a half in Corniglia, recovering and eating lunch. While some of us went and bought local food to eat, the few of us playing the role of poor starving college student (a.k.a. the five of us who sneakily squeezed into one hotel room as part of our cost cutting game-plan) ate slightly rock-hard bread covered in cheese, leaves, and turkey slices, cunningly stolen from our dining room the day before. I also bought a 20-cent orange for the hike, which I eventually ate like a barbarian, unable to peel it properly and separate the slices, as a civilized human being is wont to do.
This was also the stop where we went on a major gelato-hunt that involved a 33-flight, 382 step staircase (which we ran both down and up), a back road that pleasant odor of cat feces and old grass, and a complete full circle back to the square we had eaten our lunch in. If you ever do go, look for Alberto’s Gelateria (Via Fieschi 74). Here’s a tip: it is NOT down the Lardarina set of stairs, no matter how much the map says that it is, or how much an over-eager amateur guide/co-hiker (read: total tourist) is 100% convinced that it is.
Vernazza, though apparently the least touristy of the five towns, was completely packed with people (probably due to the first two trails being closed and others’ reluctance to take the alternate routes). A few of us decided to run and check out the view from the Doria Castle (1.50 euro). We had about 20 minutes to spare as we were trying to make it to the Monterosso beach before catching an early evening train. It was another hundred or so stairs to get up there and for a long while I was on the fence as to whether or not it was worth it. In hindsight, it was. At the time though…
Coming into Vernazza from Corniglia. The teeny tiny tower is called the Doria Castle – it’s bigger than it looks.
On the trail to the last town, Monterosso, we started passing a lot of other hikers. We got a couple, “HAMMERS OR YOU’RE NOTHING” calls from fellow Ultimate players on the path, and some “GO IRISH” from a surprising number of Notre Dame fans reading my friend Tom’s shirt. There were also plenty of people who, as we passed them huffing and puffing from the hundreds of steps we just climbed, would give us sympathetic looks that clearly said, “oh you poor souls, you are not done yet.” They weren’t wrong.
Skipping forward another hour and a half in the narrative, we finally made it, albeit barely, to the end goal. After watching the “trail markers to go” count slowly make it down to zero, after nearly 6 or 7 hours of stair training disguised as a hike, we were at the beach.
8:30 in Manarola || 16:00 in Monterosso, quite a bit redder, and it varying states of undress.
The entire experience, for every step that it was, was worth it. It was incredible, it was beautiful, and it was once in a lifetime. How many opportunities will I have to run off for a weekend – no, to run off for one single night and spend the day hiking the legendary Cinqueterre route? The hike isn’t even the whole story. There was the Tavern of Metal in La Spezia the night before (I am not joking even a little bit). There was missing our train and finding solace in McDonalds. There was the line of half naked male models jogging the path from Monterosso to Vernazza. It was a day of marvels, and a trip my ass may never forget— or fully recover from, I am convinced.