Discover “The Way of the Sanctuaries”: The Mystic Path of the Cinque Terre
Many paths criss-cross the Cinque Terre, among them one named “The Way of the Sanctuaries” (La Via dei Santuari or alternatively, La Strada dei Santuari). As the name suggests, this path connects together the villages’ special sanctuaries, adding a spiritual element to what is already a breathtaking hike.
The History of the Sanctuaries
Fishing can be a treacherous business. It was even more so serious centuries ago, when boats, made of simple wood, were unequipped with GPS or weather forecasts. It’s not surprising, then, that all centers of population on every coast of the globe have their own strong traditions of devotion, often so ancient it’s impossible to track down their origins.
The Cinque Terre are no exception. Here, in addition to the dangers of sea life, people needed protection from enemies on land. When you have to scrape every bit of farmland with enormous effort from sheer cliffs, in the process building 7000 kilometers of dry stone walls without using a single drop of cement, your life may feel rather precarious. Accidents and landslides were very common. Invasions of pirates and of various barbarian populations were also a normal fact of life.
Consequently, each village built its own sanctuary dedicated to the veneration of Mary, calling upon her to protect the villagers from the dangers of both sea and land.
The Way of the Way of The Sanctuaries
Since each village has long been connected to the others via multiple paths, it was only natural that a trail would develop connecting the sanctuaries as well. Hence developed the Way of the Sanctuaries, which takes walkers on a wonderful pilgrimage through nature, devotion, art and history. It can be covered on foot, bike or even horseback, and it’s gentler than the Sentiero Azzurro or the Alta Via, so it’s also more suitable for children or lightly-trained walkers.
From North to South
A good starting point is the center of Monterosso, from which the trail immediately begins a climb to the first Sanctuary, Nostra Signora di Soviore. This wonderful church, surrounded by centuries-old holm oaks, is first documented in 1244 AD, but was surely there long before. Indeed, the church is linked to an old legend regarding the 7th century invasion of the Longobards.
As the barbarian hordes from the north approached the Cinque Terre, the inhabitants of Monterosso fled their town with their most precious belongings. Some of the villagers hid in the valley below the current sanctuary. Hoping to protect a wooden sculpture depicting the Madonna and Child, they buried it in the ground. For whatever reason (the legend doesn’t explain), they left it there. After more than a century, a local priest, out hunting, passed that place at dawn and saw a white dove flutter up from some ruins nearby and disappear.
He returned the next day with some laborers who, digging in the area, discovered the sculpture, miraculously preserved after all those decades. The construction of the first church dates to this period, making it the oldest Marian sanctuary in Liguria. In time, the devotion to the Madonna increased so much that eventually the present sanctuary was built over the 8th century church.
From Monterosso to Vernazza
Through farmlands and across small streams, the trail passes above the village of Vernazza, where it reaches the second Sanctuary. Here an icon named the Madonna di Reggio iskept. This icon is also called “the African” because of the dark skin of the Madonna’s image. The building itself has been a place of Christian worship for more than 1000 years. However, the site was considered sacred long before then, with evidence dating back to the 1st century BC, including a 5th century pagan cemetery archeologists discovered beneath the foundations of the church.
Corniglia and Beyond
You’ll find the third Sanctuary, Nostra Signora delle Grazie, in the hamlet of San Bernardino, which stands above the village ofCorniglia. It takes about an hour and a half to get there from Corniglia, and the view of the village below and the sea beyond is outstanding. The present structure was built in the 19th century over a medieval chapel. Inside you’ll see a painting of the Madonna above the alter, along with two saints in ovals placed on the walls. Originally, the Madonna and the saints, San Bernardo da Chiaravalle and San Bernardino da Siena, were joined in the same painting, but in 1874 the community decided to divide the painting and arrange it in its present form.
Nostra Signora della Salute is the following stop. Built in the 13th century, it’s a beautiful, small Romanesque church with a single nave. This sanctuary is located in Volastra, a hilltop village above Manarola, set like an amphitheater upon a hillock. The name of the village derives from the Latin vicus oleaster, which roughly translates to “olive tree farm”. Fittingly, you’ll pass a number of olive groves along your walk.
Climbing down an ancient staircase, the path leads to Manarola and then, by the famous Lovers’ Lane (“Via dell’Amore”), to Riomaggiore. From here, a narrow track connects the village to the Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Montenero, the last stop along the Way of the Sanctuaries. This sanctuary also offers the most breathtakingpanorama of them all. From here, the view spans across the sea to the point of Punta Mesco and out beyond the islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto — a truly celestial finale for a heavenly walk.