While checking in to Albergo Barbara in Vernazza, we looked at a map of Cinque Terre’s trails. The five principle villages are linked by picturesque trails that cost somewhere around 7 or 8 euros to use. However, Albergo Barbara also had some information on avoiding crowds, which suggested taking the upper trails that run along the top of the Cinque Terre’s dramatic mountains. We also discovered that these trails were free.
Our first couple of days in Vernazza had been spent soaking up the village ambiance and visiting the other towns via train, so we decided to use our afternoon in Corniglia to go for a hike. To save money and beat the crowds, we settled on using the upper trails.
At first, we couldn’t find the trails, so we went into a tiny grocery store/cheese shop to ask for directions. While Cinque Terre is famous for it’s five villages, the mountains above those villages are also dotted with other settlements. Some of these are apparently Catholic sanctuaries, and others are other towns. At the grocery store, we simply pointed to the coolest looking one we could see at the moment and asked how to get there. The man at the counter conferred with his local customer for a minute, then left the customer to watch the store and walked with us down the street to help us find the trail.
From there we started our ascent through the dry grapevine terraces. It was a hot day, and initially the sun seemed to be baking everything in sight. As we walked higher, however, the temperature dropped. The blackberries, which grow wild all around Corniglia and which we had picked and eaten earlier in the day, were less and less ripe the higher we got. Soon, the brown grass gave way to scrubby oaks and twisting vines. It was a welcome change because it not only meant cooler temperatures, but also provided more shade as well.
At this point the trail was going almost straight up the mountain on a twisting, overgrown stone stairway. Looking out over the ocean was like seeing the edge of the earth. As we climbed higher, we realized that we were on an old path going through still more grape terraces. Though the mountain side was increasingly overgrown and, apparently, not used for agriculture, it was clear that at one time it had been.
The higher we got the more lush the flora became until, finally, we came to a crossroad in the trail. We stopped beside an old, man-made pool in what basically looked like a jungle. We had been hiking for about an hour, almost entirely uphill and we surmised that we had finally reached the upper trail. From here we had to decide which direction to head. To the north was Vernazza and another pretty village higher up on the hill. To the south lay Manarola, one of our other favorite Cinque Terre towns. We had also seen a sign mentioning another town, called Volastra, in the direction of Manarola. Because we hadn’t gotten any closer to Vernazza during our ascent, we decided to head south.
As we climbed gradually higher on the upper trail we entered yet another climate zone. While the bottom of the mountain had been dry and the middle had been wet, the upper part of the mountain was almost alpine. There were tall evergreens and the mountain tops were shrouded in storm clouds. Having worked up a sweat down below we suddenly felt cool, almost cold. The views of Corniglia and the sea beyond were also the most breathtaking from that high up.
As the trail wrapped around the curve of the mountain we noticed that the climate varied considerably depending on which side we were on. When the trail was on a north-facing mountain it tended to be greener, while the south-facing surfaces were dryer.
On the path to Volastra we noticed a few things. First, that the entire mountain system was terraced for grape growing. Literally from the ocean all the way to the top, the mountains had been turned into a massive staircase. We hadn’t noticed this before because the majority of the terraces aren’t being used and from below they’re much harder to see (they just look like hills covered with brush). When we realized the extent of the terraces we were astounded. It must have taken hundreds of years to build that many terraces. Rick Steves mentions in one of his books that someone once told him that there was more stone on the Cinque Terre terraces than in the great wall of China. He says that they must have come to this conclusion after too many drinks, but after seeing how extensive the terraces are, I’d probably believe it.
The other thing we noticed was that we weren’t on the highest trail. I’m still not sure what trail we had found because we hadn’t seen a single person our entire time hiking, but we clearly hadn’t reached the top of the mountain (which is one reason I think it’s possible that we were still on trails we should have been paying to use).
Anyway, we hiked through a few small communities—which were just clusters of homes in the midst of grape farms—before we arrived at Volastra. The trail ends right by the village church, so we went in and sat down. It was cool inside and we had a refreshing rest in the simple splendor characteristic of a small Catholic church.
Then we headed into town. As we walked, we were surprised to see that Volastra seemed to be much younger than the lower Cinque Terre villages. Though the buildings are colorfully painted like the more famous ones below, many of them are newer. The town is also extremely small. I had wanted to get a gelato to cool off with, but as we walked around I couldn’t find anywhere to buy one. We did find signs pointing to a tourist office, but it turned out to just be the local grocery store, which was a one room, general store-type business. Inside there was a woman in her twenties working and she spoke enough English to tell us that the church was really the only thing in town worth visiting. She also seemed a bit confused about why we were there in the first place. Like I mentioned above, we hadn’t seen a single person on the trail, and that combined with the stares we attracted in Volastra led me to believe that the town and upper trails don’t get many foreign visitors. (I later looked Volastra up on Wikipedia, where it says the town is home to 200 people.)
At the grocery store/tourist information office we bought a bottle of souvenir pesto, then left to look around the town some more. Though it’s newer than the towns below, it still has narrow twisting lanes and a quiet charm. There were a few Italian tourists walking around (by a few I mean five or six), and a couple pensiones. I wondered how much it was to stay in Volastra, but I didn’t ask because if the tourist information office didn’t speak much English I doubted very much that anyone else would, and I didn’t want to falsely get up the hopes of a pensione owner. (And while the town was more “authentic” in the sense that there were no tourists around, I probably wouldn’t stay there because there isn’t much to do.)
After we wandered the streets of Volastra for awhile we headed down to Manarola, which was a quick and steep hike almost straight down the mountain. We had been to the town once before and liked the bay, which had several very calm, natural swimming pool-like places. Laura went for a swim (I hadn’t brought my swim suit) and we we bought some pizza. Before we left, the pizza guy invited us to his dance party the next night, which we were really disappointed to have to miss (because we were leaving the next morning). Then we took the train back to Corniglia where we sat through the twilight in the tiny, two-restaurant square.
Manarola, where we finished our hike