Hiking and Zen in the Cinque Terre

The Sweetness of Doing Nothing (Except a Lot of Walking)

Lemon farmer selling limoncino by the trailside

Fresh limoncino with a side order of flattery.

Limoncino my not be the healthiest pit stop on a hot morning hike but the lemon farmer is serenading me from his trail-side stall. Apparently I resemble a famous and beautiful Italian singer. Who could resist? Thankfully there are fig trees dotted around, strategically planted for shade. Perfect for naps. The Cinque Terre is paradise for unserious hikers.

The bay of Levanto from the trail.

Come for the scenery, stay for the chill.

The Cinque Terre hardly needs an introduction, although it doesn’t seem to be as well known amongst my fellow Brits as with Americans. This spectacular string of coastal villages is deservedly popular. Here all of your favourite Italian cliches come to life. Pastel buildings, a rainbow of fishing boats, laundry hanging from the balconies, azure water, trees groaning with lemons. Singing farmers.

Sun sparkles on the water in the Cinque Terre

And breathe.

The five villages of Cinque Terre are popular with Instagrammers and travel editors, cruise-shippers, daytrippers, and backpackers. Seductive photographs abound on social media. Nonetheless, I was wary of the crowds. There is a correlation between my enjoyment levels and the number of selfie sticks. But the flights to Genoa were cheap and I fancied being by the sea. Besides, I’m surely getting better at finding the heartbeat of a place.

I learnt my lesson on my first big trip, interrailing across Europe aged 18. I excitedly scheduled a whirlwind punctuated by long train journeys with a maximum of 3 days in each place. By the time we reached the Amalfi Coast we had travel burnout and gave ourselves over to cocktails and swimming. The rest of the trip was much more enjoyable. These days I don’t like to spend less than a week in a place.

I made no particular plans but came armed with a 67-page research document, because that is how I roll. Work must have been slow.

I didn’t expect to completely fall in love with it. I certainly didn’t expect to find my zen.

Rooftops in the Cinque Terre

A good-looking place with nothing to do (but walk).

Yes, the five villages are a tourist magnet. Beloved of day trippers with their matching fanny packs and copies of Rick Steves. Besieged by packs of lithe long-limbed Americans on their own whirlwind tours. Whilst there are issues with the number of visitors to the area, it’s testament to the continued resilience of the place that it doesn’t spoil the atmosphere. Not if you can avoid the crowds, anyhow. See How to Avoid the Crowds for my top tips.

The trick here is to tap into the particularly Italian kind of zen – il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. Delightful idleness. This sounds like my kind of thing.

Now well-known thanks to its appearance in Eat, Pray, Love, I adopted the phrase upon arrival as my theme for my week. It’s an ideal location: no long days here schlepping between art galleries, museums and ancient sites. No bucket list items to tick off except the views themselves. Nothing to do but live simply, eat well, and walk lots.

Shimmering water at Monterosso beach in the Cinque Terre

Perfect for a swim after a hot hike.

The majority of visitors attempt to “do” the Cinque Terre as a day trip. Whilst this is possible, you certainly won’t find il dolce far niente this way. You’ll just find the all the other people attempted to “do” the Cinque Terre in day. No, it pays to linger longer here. Slow travel is rewarded.

Caveat emptor: doing nothing in the Cinque Terre still tends to involve a lot of walking. But this is the best kind of walking: ridiculously picturesque, sandwiched between lots of great food, wine, and refreshing dips in the sea. After all, frequent hiking justifies frequent eating.

Cherries for sale in paper cones

Cherries for breakfast.

My favourite flavour of il dolce far niente was a leisurely morning swim off the rocks in Manarola first thing in the morning. As the locals do, before the first batch of tourists arrive from Riomaggiore. Manarola is the second village in and so is granted a fraction more peace and quiet in the mornings.

Morning swim in Manarola.

Morning swim.

My morning swims were followed by a breakfast of cherries, figs, and apricots. Washed down with espresso and sometimes also a gelato. I fully indulged my fondness for listening to crooners of the 50s and 60s on this trip. It seems to me the fullest expression of vacation joy to sunbath on the Manarola rocks with a pistachio gelato whilst listening to Jerry Vale belt out Amore, Scusami.

Wildflowers by the trails in the Cinque Terre

This place leaves a spring in your step.

My first day of hiking was supposed to start gently enough – I headed out of the Park to Levanto, one village along from Monterosso. I was the only soul on the beach in Levanto in early June. I’d read somewhere that Monterosso was “just around the corner” and figured it would make a pleasant introductory hike.

Now, Monterosso may be technically “around the corner” but that corner involves a moderately strenuous three-hour hike. With 750 steep steps. If I’d known this I might have worn something more suitable than  Converse. However I was rewarded with amazing views and complete solitude. This section turned out to be the most strenuous I walked as the trail gets easier towards the east.

White Converse by Vernazza waterfront

Made it!

By the middle of the week my calves had forgiven me for my footwear error. I was soon overtaking the long-limbed Americans on the trails.

Hiking trails in the Cinque Terre

Views from the trail.

By accident rather than design, I managed to find tranquillity on the paths most days, only crossing one or two other hikers. Arriving hot and sweaty at the next village, I’d find a spot for a swim and a gelato. If you consider yourself an aficionado, the best in the area is generally considered to be the honey flavour at Alberto Gelataria in Corniglia.

Hiking trails in the Cinque Terre

The Coastal Trail.

The villages empty as the day trippers go home; it’s as if the land sighs in relief after a hard day at work. Although the train does run late enough to enjoy dinner at any of the villages, I usually stayed in Manarola for seafood pasta and sunset drinks.

I’m one of those solo travellers who enjoys having dinner alone,  particularly if there’s a view. Italian waiters seem to struggle with the notion of a woman dining solo and so furnish me with extra prosecco. I’m not complaining.

Sunset over the water in the Cinque Terre

Sunset over the water.

One night I was seated with another solo female traveller called Crazy Jenny. I’m not too sure how I came about to know her as Crazy Jenny. But we started the night at Cantina dello Zio Bramante, a cute bar with live jazz music, and ended it swimming with locals underneath the pitch-black starry sky. All the best trips have a Crazy Jenny.

By the end of the week, I’d covered the Coastal Trail and a few of the surrounding villages. This is the tip of the iceberg as far as the trails are concerned, which gives me ample excuse to go back.

Dozing rooftop cat in the Cinque Terre

Zzzzzzzzzzz.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite so relaxed as I did at the end of that week. My soul felt cradled by lobster sauce and the fresh sea breeze. Most nights I headed to bed early, pleasantly exhausted and gently drunk, to be woken by bells of San Lorenzo in the morning, accompanied by cats and the hum of activity as the village prepares for its daily intake of arrivals.

Have you hiked in the Cinque Terre? Blissful relaxation or tourist torture? Leave your stories in the comments below!

How I found my zen whilst hiking the beautiful coastal trails in the Cinque Terre, Italy. It's the sweetness of doing nothing (except a lot of walking).
How I found my zen whilst hiking the beautiful coastal trails in the Cinque Terre, Italy. It's the sweetness of doing nothing (except a lot of walking).
How I found my zen whilst hiking the beautiful coastal trails in the Cinque Terre, Italy. It's the sweetness of doing nothing (except a lot of walking).
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14 Comments

  1. March 16, 2017 / 12:46 pm

    Hey Steph!
    I was planning a trip to Spain and Italy in May, but my itinerary didn’t include the Cinque Terre. Now it does. And I’ll make sure to wear something other than converse on the 750 step hike to Montessoro.
    Thanks for posting.
    Abby

    • edwardsstephl@gmail.com
      March 19, 2017 / 9:45 pm

      Seriously I thought my feet were going explore after pounding down all of those stone steps, it really gave me an appreciation for shock absorption in my shoes 🙂 Hope you have a great time in Spain and Italy.

  2. March 16, 2017 / 2:40 pm

    I am SO desperate to go to Cinque Terre and this awesome post has done nothing but fuel that wanderlust! You have managed to make it sound even more idyllic than I expected, thanks!

  3. March 16, 2017 / 8:48 pm

    Last time I was in Italy I was kind of in a rush but I’ve really been wishing I had visited Cinque Terre. It’s such a beautiful place! It does seem like it’s really taken off, tourist-wise in the last few years.

    • edwardsstephl@gmail.com
      March 19, 2017 / 9:46 pm

      It’s hard not to be in a rush in Italy – too many beautiful places to go. These days it feels like half of my IG feed is photos of the Cinque Terre, but I’m surprised by the number of people I talk to back home who’ve never heard of it.

  4. March 16, 2017 / 9:42 pm

    Unserious hiker, delightful idleness? You are speaking my language! While I am guilty of sometimes trying to see “ALL THE THINGS!!!” every once in a while, a “do nothing” vacation is just perfect. I love the US Virgin Islands for this – not much to do but lay on the beach and read books.

    • edwardsstephl@gmail.com
      March 19, 2017 / 9:50 pm

      Sometimes doing nothing in a beautiful place is just the best! I’ve not been to the US Virgin Islands but I’ll bet the sailing there is dreamy.

  5. March 17, 2017 / 6:35 am

    Absolutely love this – some very great tips! I’m an Aussie + have visited the Cinque Terre twice now. Totally agree that you need to spend more time there than just a day trip to truly explore! I also participated in a Volunteer program and helped maintain the Vineyards at Vernazza after the 2011 floods a few years ago. The hiking + views from the hills are breathtaking!
    Kristie (you.theworld.wandering)

    • edwardsstephl@gmail.com
      March 19, 2017 / 10:00 pm

      I suppose there’s nowhere in the world that doesn’t benefit from more time, but the pace there is so chilled I can’t imagine rushing through it in one day. How was the volunteer program? Did you blog about it at all? I’d love to read about it if so.

  6. March 18, 2017 / 12:28 am

    “Doing nothing” is my favorite thing to do and I would like to do it in Cinque Terre. Your pictures are splendid and has me looking at flights right now 🙂

    ❥ tanvii.com

    • edwardsstephl@gmail.com
      March 19, 2017 / 9:42 pm

      Thanks Tanvi. They’ve really perfected it there!

  7. March 18, 2017 / 1:30 pm

    This sis so great, yeah you are a over’researched, but I love it! I prefer to read and know about the things I am visiting. 🙂

    • edwardsstephl@gmail.com
      March 19, 2017 / 9:41 pm

      Heh thanks, I just can’t help myself! Even if I don’t do all of the things, I at least like to know what I’m missing out on.

  8. April 13, 2017 / 11:45 pm

    Lovely photos! They really make me want to see these places one day. I also enjoyed reading your stories about your experience. I would love to see Cinque Terre one day.

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