The towns of the Cinque Terre are beautiful to look at, but horrible to be in.
In Riomaggiore, the southern most village, you get off the train with a few hundred Americans and walk below the tracks to the high street, along which are little shops that serve bad and expensive food. There are billboards with pictures of Greek-looking pizza. You can smell tinned olives and dried up oregano. One shop is playing a loud Justin Bieber song. Waiters stand on the streets and wait for people to grab.
The towns get better as you go north, climbing to Corniglia, a mid point rather than a destination, and then on to Vernazza; but then you reach Monterosso, which is the worst of all. The train track is twenty metres from the sea and it follows the length of the town so that there is no escape from the rattling trains. On the thin beach are more bad restaurants that serve frozen pizzas, and iceberg salad with bottled Heinz dressing.
In the Cinque Terre you must walk, and not stop walking. That is the sole purpose of this place. But it is easy to assume that the towns will be quaint and beautiful and worth some coffee-time – as I did on my arrival. Save yourself the trouble, and leave the towns behind.
The good news is that the towns stop abruptly. You pass the last building, and the last wall, and then you’re out. The walk is beautiful. The traverse holds close to the sea, and you always have that breeze and freshness that makes even mid-August jaunts a possibility.
There are no dull bits. Whether you are at the top of the hill or climbing down does not matter because it is all beautiful; the cliffs move in and out to create headlands and coves so that you are always looking at something interesting.
The paths are not challenging, and although many of the passers by wear Northface and Solomon shoes with climbing poles and zealous little backpacks with water tubes, you can do it in a pair of trainers. The entire path is about twenty miles, and can be done in one day, or split up with a night in the middle of the walk. Vernazza or Corniglia are best. Make sure you eat Pesto in the Cinque Terre.