Home Base: Levanto
I had visited the area about 12 years ago with a couple of friends and hiked two segments of the trail, but Chris had never been. Twelve years ago, my friends and I were backpacking so we took the train to Monterosso (the northern most of the 5 towns) and used it as our home base. This time, Chris and I did things differently since we had a car and I suspected the 5 towns would be really crowded. Therefore, we based ourselves in a town called Levanto at the northern end of Cinque Terre, where we could easily catch the train to one of the 5 towns to begin our hike. We stayed in a small B&B called Rosa dei Venti, located right near the beach & downtown area. The B&B is run by a man named Marco and his sweet mother, Mamma Rosa, who greeted us each morning with a big smile and a hug, and then cooked us an awesome breakfast! She didn't speak any English but still talked to us a lot in Italian and somehow we managed to communicate with each other.
Levanto has a large beach that is half public and half private. They also have many little restaurants, shops and gelato stands. We had a really nice dinner at L'Articiocca.
Cinque Terre Day Pass
Early the next morning we walked about 15 minutes to the Levanto train station and bought two passes for Cinque Terre - for 10 Euros, you get access to all the hiking trails and unlimited rides on the train between the towns.
When we arrived, my suspicions were confirmed - tourism in Cinque Terra has exploded in recent years. When I was here 12 years ago, the trails were free to hike and we saw very few other people. This time, the place was packed. I think this is in part due to the fact that I was here in April instead of July, and in part because Rick Steves found out about it and put it in a guide book. I suppose this is great for the local economy, but certainly creates a different dynamic for a visitor. The thing that was different this time around was that the trails were wider and had guardrails. When I was here 12 years ago I remember hiking trails just wide enough for one person with steep drop-offs and no guardrails. Now that there is a lot of two way traffic and families with children hiking the trail, the national park had to take some safety precautions.
Unfortunately, upon buying our tickets, we found out that for some reason only one segment of the trail was open for hiking. The good news was, this meant we didn't have to decide which sections we wanted to hike. We took the train to the third town of Corniglia, and then hiked back toward the second town of Vernazza. Corniglia is located on top of the cliffs, while Vernaza is by the water, so the hike was mostly downhill!
We decided to hike down to a beach that was at the base of the hills outside of Corniglia called Guvano Beach. The beach was clearly marked on our Cinque Terre map, but on the path we only saw one way to access the beach:
Upon approaching the beach we discovered the other reason why this beach was not that crowded: it was a nudists' beach. We did not mind sharing the beach with the nudists, but decided it would be polite to give them a wide berth, and plopped down at the other end of the beach. This worked out well as this was the first time we felt like we had a beach to ourselves in Europe. We took a dip, had some lunch and stuck around for another hour or so before continuing on.
Decision: Cold Dark Hole or Hot Cliff Climb?
Before making our way back up the mountain side, we tried to find out if there was another way to get back up to the main path. A local kid directed us to an abandoned railroad tunnel, which he said led back to Corniglia. The tunnel was pitch black, and about a kilometer long. We had a flashlight and headlamp in our bag, so decided to try it out.
From here, the hike to Vernazza took another hour or so. I remembered thinking that Vernazza was the prettiest town last time I was here, and I was not disappointed this time around either!
Vernazza was overwhelmingly crowded. After spending about 5 minutes in the main piazza, we hiked up to the top of the town and found a nice quiet nook with a view where we took a break. At this point it was getting a bit late, so we decided to head back to Levanto for dinner, hopped back on the train, and we were back at our B&B in just 15 minutes! We had a nice night strolling through Levanto before continuing on to Florence the next day.