Off season travel: Cinque Terre, Italy

After the flash floods of 2011, the seaside hiking trail between five scenic villages on the Italian coastline is open again. Richard Mellor visits and manages to combine walking and lazing 

“The train now arriving on platform one is the 13.27 to La Spezia.”  So sounds an English-language tannoy on Corniglia’s spartan station one May afternoon. 

Five minutes later, still no train. I smile, and return to my photo-editing. Part of the charm of this beautiful Cinque Terre coastline is the sluggish, slow-life vibe. Ferries, cheques and chapel bells are rarely on time here; even the few ATMs seem lethargic. But for good reason: it’s hot, steep and scenic – certainly no place to hurry. 

In truth, I’m lucky to be here at all.  In October 2011, flash floods and landslides devastated this Unesco-protected national park and its eponymous quintet of villages. Surging runs of mud and boulders smashed into buildings, killed 13 and decimated tourism.

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 It becomes paradisical: lemon and fig trees, olive groves, burst of wildflowers, waterfalls, the glinting sea, the air scented with herbs

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Millions of euros were spent on repairs, including new barriers and nets to safeguard the Sentiero Azzurro, the seaside hiking route that, along with the lazy trains and ferries, is the best way to get around.

Now, three years on, the whole ten-mile trail is open again.

Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore: the villages’ names trip off the tongue as easily as they seduce the eye. All are colourful clumps of peeling stone buildings, crooked alleys (caruggi), churches and steps, so many steps. 

Vernazza was my first destination. It boasts the buzziest atmosphere. And, it turns out, the best looks, with all its many lanes eventually winding down to the focal harbour.

There, restaurants line the square, a few boats bob on the waves, the bell-tower peals prettily and a permanent circus of people – insouciant locals, bleary hikers, fag-smoking ferrymen – laze on the long harbour walls, or drape themselves like cats across wide rocks.

Sensational views

The well-signed coastal path leading to Monterosso is – like every route here – a tough climb at first, but one alleviated by the sensational views back towards Vernazza town. Then, plateauing, it becomes paradisical: lemon and fig trees, olive groves, burst of wildflowers, waterfalls, the glinting sea, the air scented with herbs.

Having set off at 9am, I arrived above Monterosso at 10.30, with the trail only just beginning to busy. It pays to set off early here.

Monterosso is the biggest, busiest village, and also has the best beaches, albeit still of a soft-shingle variety. After splashing around for a few hours, I took the small ferry back to Vernazza and later headed to Belforte, a restaurant acclaimed for both its fish and sunset-facing views. 

As the light faded and seagulls looked on enviously, I wolfed down the mixed fried fish, swooning in particular over the sea bass. Afterwards, sipping sciacchetrà (the local, honeyed dessert wine) I listened to the waves below in a happy-stomached reverie.

Up early again, I set off for Corniglia. Through a succession of idyllic bays, Corniglia teasingly hovers in and out of sight, huddled atop a narrow, finger-like peninsula. After an hour’s walking, I finally arrived. 

The only village of the five not at sea level, Corniglia feels sleepier than its neighbours. It also seems more lived-in, somehow, more real. 

Along Lover’s Walk

There are far fewer tourists here. Beyond hiking, the only way to get to Corniglia is by train, and then a sweaty climb of 365 steps. 

Having recently descended that very staircase, I’m still standing on platform one, awaiting the phantom train which, eventually arrives – on platform three – and drops me in Manarola, the smallest village, quaint and bursting with boats. 

Then it’s on to Riomaggiore, along a short, paved waterside path. This is Lover’s Walk, as indicated by the padlocks that engulf one section (couples chuck their key into the drink below as a symbol of eternal amore).

After strolling Riomaggiore’s corniche with similar ardour, I grab a scoop of gelato and hop on the last boat north, exhausted but happy.

Chugging into Vernazza’s harbour once more, I’m suddenly overcome with gladness. Glad that I bought that ice cream. Glad that I came here before the crowds and heat of July and August. 

And glad, above all, that this fairytale seaside is so firmly back in business. 

• Airbnb has apartments in Vernazza from £60 a night. British Airways has flights from Gatwick to Genoa from £39. Return trains from Genoa Piazza Principe to Vernazza cost from £28. A two-day Cinque Terre Pass covering all paths and train travel is €23. For up-to-date news on path access, visit Cinqueterre