Hiking the Alta Via: Cinque Terre’s Wild Side

Spanning 440 km (270 miles), the Alta Via of the Ligurian Mountains is one of the longest trails in Italy. It starts from the western edge of Liguria, near the border with France, and finishes in the southeast corner at the border with Tuscany. Along the way, the trail passes through the Cinque Terre, where it is also called Sentiero n° 1 (Trail n° 1), connecting Levanto to Portovenere while passing through the entire length of the Cinque Terre National Park.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre Vernazza, Cinque Terre[/caption]

The term “Alta Via” means “High Way”, because, even if it avoids the peaks, this trail goes well above the coast. The Cinque Terre portion, some 40 kilometers in length, starts at sea level, climbs to 800 meters and then arrives at sea level again. It’s a wonderful way for hikers to experience this fascinating landscape, avoiding the most popular trails and immersing themselves in the rugged mountains, replete with holly oak forests, bright flowers and aromatic shrubs.

But the most astonishing gift this walk offers is the view. From on high, the unique beauty of the Cinque Terre is spread out at the travelers’ feet. And since the average height of the trail is 600 meters above sea level, on clear days you can see hundreds of kilometers away.

Corniglia e Manarola, Cinque Terre

Corniglia e Manarola

You’ll be astonished to discover the whole Ligurian coast opened out from East to West, with its mountains diving into the Mediterranean. Looking southeast, the Isola d’Elba (once the haunt of Napoleon) rises from the water. Looking northwest the Ligurian Gulf sweeps in a grand arc as far as Cannes and Saint-Tropez. Sometimes you can even see the white, snowy peaks of the Alps, with Monviso (the mountain from which the Po river springs) towering above all over 200 kilometers away. And directly south, in the middle of the sea, Corsica’s rocky profile rises in clear outline on the horizon.

It’s a walk made of hard climbs, rocky forests and stunning landscapes, far from the glamorous frenzy of the coast and even from the relatively crowded trails that have recently become famous among tourists (such as the Sentiero Azzurro or the Via dei Santuari). For most of the year, along the wildest segments of the trail, you’re more likely to meet a roe deer or a fox than another human being. But even if it might look deserted, the trail has been covered by millions of feet throughout the ages, as many traces testify — such as the prehistoric menhir just outside of Manarola that time has collapsed on the ground who knows how many centuries ago.

The Alta Via crosses many other trails that lead hikers to the single villages of the Cinque Terre, where they can rest and spend the night. And for those who enjoy a competition, there’s the Sciacchetrail, a trail running race that takes place every year in spring, and whose name is connected to the Sciacchetrà, the most famous wine of the Cinque Terre: a wonderful way to remind the visitor that this rugged landscape can also be tamed and transformed into a fertile land, capable of yielding precious fruit.