I’ve been hiking the popular trails of the Cinque Terre since 1997 and have seen frequent trail closings over the years due to landslides, rock slides or dangerous erosion. The most problematic section, the “Via dell’Amore,” was ironically the easiest and seemingly the safest as it was totally flat and completely covered with paving stones or asphalt.
Monterosso to Vernazza and Vernazza to Corniglia are quite steep and are the most challenging hikes, while Corniglia to Manarola used to be an easy lower path by the sea, and then Manarola to Riomaggiore was the final 20 minutes of the 12 km (8 mi.) Sentiero Azurro (blue trail).
The Via dell’Amore (“way of love”) is the southern-most of the four trails that link the five villages (cinque = five in Italian) and it has been closed to foot traffic since 2012. It was originally built in the 1920s when a railway tunnel was dug into the rock and the path provided access for workers and materials.
It also provided easy access between Manarola and Riomaggiore, which previously had been connected only by sea or steep trails. It wasn’t long before lovers found it a perfect place to meet up away from prying eyes, so it got the nickname, basically Lovers’ Lane.
There is a 150 m (500 ft) cement arcaded tunnel on the trail that eventually got covered with graffiti, so for serious nature lovers this was actually our LEAST favorite part of the hike.
Every year the region would spend money and effort to try and make the trail safer by securing the rocky slope above the trail, but it was too unstable and giant boulders and rocks would periodically fall, sometimes resulting in serious injury.
The region was hit by massive flooding in 2011 that nearly wiped out the village of Vernazza, then a rock slide in the fall of 2012 seriously injured four Australian hikers and the two “easier” trails were closed – seemingly forever. Image below from this site.
But I just read an article [n Italian here] that work has begun to repair the Via dell’Amore under the direction of the local government and the Cinque Terre National Park. Two Italian companies are joining forces in this massive undertaking: Gheller, that does a lot of outdoor safety projects and “acrobatic work” using harnesses and ropes, and Bertini, a general contractor. The work is expected to last about 30 months, so it'll be a while!
The cost of the project is an estimated 13.4 million euros ($15.2 million US) to repair the slope above the 920 m long path (just over half a mile) and entails a vast series of nets, anchors, riveting and rockfall barriers that cover a total surface area of over 37,000 sq m (400,000 sq ft) above the trail. They’ll shore up the existing 155 m arcaded rockfall tunnel and extend it 83 m (272 ft) towards Riomaggiore plus build 17 m (56 ft) of tunnel on the Manarola side. They will also re-do the paving, build a new railing, and install modern benches.
Work will also be done to shore up the slope below the trail, and a 175 m (574 ft) breakwater will be built to prevent erosion from high seas. Work should start in the spring and the trail itself should be open by spring of 2024.
It’s understandable that the region of Liguria would be eager to re-open the trails since they’re one of the biggest tourist draws in the region and a huge source of income, but it’s interesting that the Ministry of Culture would be involved (to the tune of 7 million euros). For their part, they see this as an opportunity to highlight the unique culture of the region (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site for the extensive dry-stone walls that have permitted terraced farming on the steep slopes and have been compared in length to the Great Wall of China!).
It’s one of the most popular coastal paths in the world and receives something like 2 million visitors per year! (which is another problem in itself... in the years before the pandemic you were more at risk from selfie sticks than from landslides!)
But it's also true that tourism has given these tiny villages a new life and has potentially saved them from falling into ruin altogether. Here below shows the stark contrast between 1909 and today.
Life in the area was certainly hard until recent decades, and you needed a rugged character to survive the steep terrain and isolation.
You can see a very idealized vision of the Cinque Terre in Pixar's latest movie, Luca, which was clearly modeled on Vernazza (you can see some side-by-side comparisons in my blog post from last year).
There are so many lovely towns and hiking trails in the Liguria region, it's a shame that so much attention has been focused solely on these 5 little villages. If you'd like to experience the beauty without the crowds, just drop me a line!
I hope you enjoyed your visit to the Cinque Terre. You can support my hiking habit by dropping a few clams into my tip jar (<-- click that link or see tab in menu bar) or maybe plan a trip with me when the Via dell'Amore opens again! (see more about my travel services here) You know where to find me. 🙂
Ciao e alla prossima!