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Cinque Terre Italy: Travel Tips for the Old But Slow

Posted: 09-26-2016
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Cinque Terre, Italy, is wildly popular among Americans these days. I know because I just came back from visiting all five (Cinque) towns strewn along a rocky portion of the Italian coast (Terre). We heard more English than Italian. Everyone seemed to have a copy of Rick Steves Guide to the Cinque Terre tucked somewhere on their person. Even the hotels we stayed at had copies of Steves’ guidebook and one hotel offered a 10% discount if you showed them your copy.

vernazza from trail

View of Vernazza from the trail

The towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, dating back centuries and clinging precariously to the steep hillside, are certainly worth a visit. . But the main reason my husband and I and two other couples traveled to Cinque Terre was to hike the 12 km (7.5 miles) foot path that connects them all. For centuries this rocky trail was the only connection between the villages. The arrival of train service and adjoining roads has reduced the importance of the trail to everyone but “i turisitci” (tourists).

At my age (68) I wondered if I had the stamina to complete the trek. After scouring reviews of the trail, I concluded I could hike it as most reviewers said the trail is challenging but manageable. Even the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, caretakers of the trail, rank the difficulty of the trails as “low.” I should have checked the age of these reviewers. They clearly are not part of my “old but slow” cohort.

cinqueterre-trail-surface

The trail surface

My husband and I intended to do the trail section by section, day by day. On Day 1 we hiked the 2.1 miles section between Monterosso and Vernazza. I consider myself in fairly good shape for an old person. I walk a lot, favoring flat park trails or the treadmill at the gym. None of this activity prepared me for a trail that is very rocky, narrow and steep and features hundreds and hundreds of rock hewn steps. Going up was difficult but coming down was equally challenging. I gingerly negotiated steep, uneven rock steps carved into the mountain. There are no level parts. I often grabbed my husband’s hand not from love but from fear I was going to trip. (My husband is in much better shape than I am)

I truly enjoyed the vistas. They are the perfect excuse to stop, gasp for air, wipe the sweat from your brow and gulp lots of water. I am going to write Rick Steves to suggest a nice trail accessory for older hikers like me would be a defibrillator

Many times I heard footsteps behind me as younger, fit hikers approached. Moving to the edge of the trail to let them pass was challenging because the trail is only 18 inches wide in places. Step too close to the edge and you will find yourself ensnared in grape vines or dangling from the branch of an olive tree.

After successfully hiking the section from Monterosso to Vernazza, we tackled the second part (Vernazza to Corniglia) on Day 2. The 2.1 mile trail was somewhat easier but still steep, still rocky, still lots of steps. As I struggled to catch my breath while enjoying a dazzling vista of Corniglia, the sea and vineyards, I met a gasping older couple from Seattle. They too had heard the news from park administrators that section 3 and 4 of the rail were now closed due to rock slides. We looked each other and proclaimed at the same time, “THANK GOD!”

Even with sections of the main Cinque Terre trail closed, we racked up a lot of miles just exploring the hill towns and adjoining paths. According to my pedometer, we walked over 5 miles sight-seeing in Riomaggiore alone. In nearby Manarola, 374 steps and ten landings connect the town center to the train station. (There is a shuttle for wimps)

Even hotel accommodations have lots of stairs. My husband and I stayed in a room at the top of 60 steps (no elevator). We expected sympathy from our traveling companions who stayed nearby but got none since they had to climb 120 steps.

Despite all this exercise, let me quickly say I still gained weight. Too much pasta slathered with pesto, too many generous portions of homemade lasagna and too many glasses of vino accompanied by cheeses with names like “fragole” and “pecorino pienza.”

The best way to appreciate the history and landscape of Cinque Terre is on foot. But the terrain is difficult on and off the trail. Of the thousands of steps I took, I would guess only 1/3 were on level ground. I would advise my fellow “old but slow” peeps to get in shape before visiting Cinque Terre. If you are not physically fit, here is an important bit of advice that you won’t find in Rick Steves’ guidebook:  the medical emergency number in Italy is 811.