Recent posts have described our wonderful walks in the Cinque Terre: Monterosso to Vernazza, Vernazza to Corniglia, Manarola to Riomaggiore, and also Levanto and Genoa. In this post I will try to summarise what we learned. Our experience was that it was hard to find detailed information before we arrived and several things remained mysterious the first day or two we were there. Hopefully this will be helpful to other would-be visitors. (Disclaimer: these are my personal observations, which I believe to be accurate, but I cannot accept responsibility for anybody relying on information which proves to be erroneous.)
About the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre are five pretty villages (in order from north to south: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore) located along a stretch of the coast of Liguria in Northern Italy linked by an 11km walking trail, the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail). The section between Corniglia and Riomaggiore is known as the Via Amore (Street of love) and is said to be wheelchair-friendly; the rest of the trail is rocky and involves steep ascents and descents. A unique feature is that the villages are linked by rail: trains on the Sestre Levante to La Spezia line stop at each one.
Is the path open?
We knew that the path was closed in 2011 after torrential rain caused mudslides, but we found it hard to establish what its current status was. The Latest News page of the Cinque Terre portal, which you would expect to be a definitive source, has no information more recent than 2002 (!), while Wikipedia's page refers only to it being partly closed in 2012. There probably are more up to date websites. When we arrived we found a map in the Cinque Terre Office at Levanto railway station which had a handwritten amendment showing that the path was in fact still partly closed: the Corniglia-Manarola-Riomaggiore stretch has not yet (as of September 2015) reopened.
I am not going to speculate why this information is so hard to come by, but it is also worth noting that the signposts, which are generally very good, have not been altered either. As you arrive in Corneglia, for example, there are still signs pointing the way to Manarola and causing confusion and frustration.
Does it matter?
Not really. It is frustrating for completists like me, but it really does not detract from what remains a great experience. Corniglia-Manarola-Riomaggiore is the least interesting section to walk, the villages themselves are still accessible by train, there is a straightforward inland alternative from Manarola to Riomaggiore (just over 1h) and a more demanding one from Corniglia to Manarola (2.5h).
As well as the coastal path, there is a network of paths in the mountainous area inland from the coast (the mountains reach 700 km above sea level). Access to the inland paths is not controlled, but to walk the coast path you have to purchase a one- or two-day Cinque Terre Card (from the Cinque Terre Point at railways stations). These come in two forms: walking only and walking plus train, the latter allows unlimited travel on the trains. There are checkpoints at or near the start of each section of coast path and you can pay here as well.
Trains and maps
The train links provide great flexibility in planning your walks. Most people know that you have to validate your ticket before travel (i.e. have it stamped at a green machine located at various points on the station). The same also applies to the Cinque Terre Card, although it only has to be done once.
When you buy a Cinque Terre Card you are also routinely given a timetable and a very good map (we foolishly bought one which was inferior in a bookshop).
One thing which foxed many people us included was the two screen information displays showing arrivals and departures. It only made sense once we clocked that each train service in Italy has a unique number and by comparing these you can see exactly what is going on.
Temporary path closures
One day we were there the coastal path was closed because of the threat of thunderstorms. We were trying to buy tickets for the next day at the Cinque Terre Point when we found out. I am not sure if there is a system for publicising these closures, but we did find that the excellent Accuweather weather forecast site had information on weather warnings, so this would at least alert you to the need to check.
Where to stay
We stayed in the pleasant town of Levanto, one stop to the north of Monterosso, and travelled in by train each day. This worked very well although lots of other people had the same idea and on the sunniest day there was a long queue for tickets (we bought a train ticket from the machine and a walking card at our destination, which saved some time).
Levanto station: the train was late
We liked Levanto, which has a nice beach and some good restaurants, but I can't make a comparative judgement over the other villages.
North-South or South-North?
I suppose because we were staying to the north of the Cinque Terre, we decided to walk North-South, but clearly plenty of people were coming the other way. One key factor to bear in mind is that at Corniglia there is a massive ascent (said to be 358 steps) from the train station to the village. It certainly makes better sense to finish a walk there than to start one!
Steps down at Corniglia