The five villages of the Cinque Terre are clustered on a terraced, hilly stretch of Italian Riviera coastline. Hiking between the centuries-old settlements is a popular summer pursuit, the steep footpath perpetually filled with camera-happy tourists. To beat the crowds, veteran travel writer Stephen Keeling attempts a February through-hike instead—all in just one day.

“No,” she said. “The trail is closed.”

Monterosso (photo courtesy of Stephen Keeling)

The woman at the Cinque Terre Information Desk took my map and made theatrical crosses over each section of the coastal trail with her pen. “All closed."

It was a bright February morning in Monterosso, on Italy’s Ligurian coast: 52 degrees, without a cloud in the sky. The woman at the desk eyed my light jacket with suspicion. She sat inside a booth, wrapped in a ski jacket, hat, and scarf.

I crossed the station hall to the Trenitalia ticket seller, who ten seconds ago told me the trail was open. “Yes,” he confirmed, “It’s open.” Did I want to buy a combined train and Cinque Terre Card?

Back to the info desk, where I'm told again that the path is closed. I look back at the ticket seller, but he just shrugged and asked if I wanted the card anyway—it’s only 23 Euros.

Outside the station, an elderly gentleman was reading an Italian newspaper in the morning sun. Ah, I thought, this is the kind of local who really knows what’s going on.

Scusi”, I mumbled, “sentiero di Vernazza aperto?”

He looked at me with confusion. “You asking about the trail to Vernazza?”

“Err, yes.”

"I dunno. I’m from Milwaukee. But I suspect that it is open."

Hiking the witheringly beautiful path (officially Sentiero Azzurro, No. 2) along the Cinque Terre coast between Monterosso and Riomaggiore in winter—some seven hilly miles—is a bit of risk, but the pay-offs are considerable. If it’s raining you shouldn’t try it, as landslides are common. But when I took the train down the coast from Genoa, the whole region was bathed in sunshine. 
 
Was the trail really closed? It was hard to tell. There were day-trippers around, but virtually no one on the trails—in warmer months, it's a series of single-file bottlenecks. Each of the four official trail sections have manned checkpoints during summer, but in winter, there are no officials to ask. 

I decided to go for it.

Monterosso to Vernazza (2.3 miles)

Terraced vineyards line the hilly trail (Photo courtesy of Stephen Keeling)

Most guides will tell you that the trail is moderate. Locals definitely consider it easy. Most zip up and down the path like sherpas, tending terraces that rise up the slopes like layers of a gigantic chocolate cake.

A piece of cake, it was not. Nothing says “tourist” like stopping to catch your breath, smothered in sweat, as a grey-haired man in a thick coat glides past you carrying a small wagon on his back. 

To be fair, the trail does rise steeply from the beach in Monterosso, snaking through vineyards, evergreen olive trees, and carefully tended vegetable gardens. The path is very narrow in places, all mud and crumbling stone steps. Orange and lemon groves are enclosed in medieval stone walls, laden with winter fruit in February.

Views of the village and coast quickly open up below: the Capuchin monastery on the other side of the bay, attractive beaches beyond, and glimpses of the railway, which in the Cinque Terre spends most of its time underground.

Finally, the trail rounds the rocky spur of Punta Corone and begins to flatten out, around 550 feet above the Ligurian Sea. Up here, the vegetation seems more like Baja California, with huge clumps of cacti and prehistoric-looking agave plants overhanging the cliffs. 

A couple of hikers raced past me downhill, and in the other direction, two smiling students headed towards Monterosso—but that was it. Just chirping birds, lizards rustling in the leaves, and the odd squawk of a seagull.

Eventually, the trail begins to drop again. Small patches of farmed plots reappear in the valley of the Riolo. A French family picnicked in the lee of a small cliff, where a cluster of “cat-houses” stands on the rocks—this is where feral cats are fed and looked after by Vernazza locals.

The views of Vernazza itself are mesmerizing from here on, and it’s easy to see why this is regarded as the gem of the Cinque Terre. The path descends into the village behind the church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, a 14th-century stone beauty perched right on the harbor.

Vernazza

Vernazza (photo courtesy of Stephen Keeling)

Vernazza is indeed a gorgeous village of pastel houses around a sheltered cove, with a main street following the course of a (now mostly underground) river. I stopped for an espresso in one of the few open cafés on its tiny waterfront piazza. The owner assured me that it’s more pleasant here in winter, despite the village's famed castle (and many of its restaurants) being closed. 

Some tour groups do come through Vernazza, even in February, but all by train or coach. No one seemed to be hiking. The village itself was alive with construction, the shouts of workmen clashing with half-hourly chimes from the church, as the Cinque Terre did its best to prepare for the summer deluge. Pensiones were being painted, freezers and flat-screens delivered, and paving stones fixed.

Vernazza to Corniglia (2.6 miles)

Stretch of coastal trail from Vernazza to Corniglia

The trail rises steeply south of Vernazza. It’s a short but arduous climb, leveling off at around 680 feet. At least this section of the path is comfortably wide, hemmed in by prickly pear cacti and agave—though in summer, it would still be a squeeze. The Ligurian Sea seems to stretch a thousand miles, the horizon broken only by a few ships glimmering like islands in the sun.

I see no one until the trail approaches the tiny hamlet of Prevo, a cluster of villas set high on the slopes. As the trail passes through a grove of olive trees, I see two farmhands having a break. I say Buongiorno, and they nod in reply.

“America?” the older man queries.
"Inghilterra” I reply. He frowns.  

His cigarette hovers over the can in his hand, labeled "ENI Benzina." I watch ash blow precariously across the can, say goodbye, and quickly walk on.
 
After an hour or so, the village of Corniglia comes into view, perched dramatically on a hilltop like a medieval fortress—it’s the only Cinque Terre village not by the water. The path drops gently through dense, silvery olive groves and over a bridge across the grandly named Rio della Groppa (more rivulet than river) before dropping me at the top end of the village.

It’s getting on, so I decide to continue walking, through the village and around the little church of San Pietro e Paolo. From here you can cut straight down to the coast and the railway via the switchback staircase known as Lardarina (365 “easy” steps), lined with big purple daisies. Below lies the train station, and clearly visible at the end of the bay, the next village of Manarola.

Corniglia to Manarola (1.3 miles)

Manarola

A handful of tourists are waiting at Corniglia station, but no one is hiking to Manarola. It looks fairly easy—there’s no climb up here, just a path hugging the slopes above the shore for a mile or so. I find the trail, but it looks totally abandoned, cluttered with debris and thick grass. I stroll back to the station and find a man working on his car.

“Closed,” he says. “Broken.”

This seems definitive. I wait around a bit, wondering what to do. The man looks up and simply says, “No.”

I give up and take the train to Manarola—the official website later confirms that the path has been closed by landslides. Three minutes on the train, and I’m strolling through the long pedestrian tunnel to the village of Manarola, another pretty collection of painted houses set around a narrow cove.

I have a late lunch at the Marina Piccola, one of several appealing little restaurants facing a tiny blue harbor. Anchovies, octopus, and cod, served in various rustic iterations of pasta, and all very tasty.

Manarola to Riomaggiore (.75 mile)

Riomaggiore

The last section of the coastal trail, from Manarola to Riomaggiore, is the most popular. Here there are giant signposts advertising the route, which is a concrete, mostly level path known as the Via dell’ Amore. It was hewn from the cliffs close to the water in the 1920s.

In summer this is another part of the Cinque Terre that gets as congested as the Tokyo subway in rush hour, but today it’s deserted. After a couple of minutes, I see why. The trail is physically blocked this time, by a steel barrier (more landslides, I learn later). Riomaggiore is tantalizingly close, but again I’m forced to take the train.

Riomaggiore is a stunning place to take stock, looking back along the coast (Monterosso, my day's starting point, seems irritatingly close). The sea is a deep blue now the sun is getting lower, and tiny fishing boats are bobbing around in the distance. Green hills loom behind me, with tiny statues of the Madonna tucked between rocks.

I make for a local café and order a beer. “Did you hike from Manarola?” the barman asks. I tell him the trail is closed.

“No,” he insists. “The trail is open!” He points along the cove to a path rounding the headland.

I look at my watch, finish my beer, and start walking.

Tips for Hiking Cinque Terre in Winter (and Summer)

It turns out that local trade union disputes can sometimes close the trail, which mostly runs through Cinque Terre National Park, while in other cases, landslides can physically block the path. Check for updates on the official website.

Trains (from Genoa or La Spezia) are the best way to access the Cinque Terre, as roads are narrow and very steep—parking is a nightmare year-round. Local trains are frequent (every 10-30 min) from early morning to late at night, and stop at each of the five villages.

In Vernazza, Taverna del Capitano on the main square (Piazza Guglielmo Marconi 21) is usually open year-round. So is Gelateria Vernazza (Via Roma 13) which serves quality gelato even in winter.

In Manarola, Marina Piccola is at Via Lo Scalo 16, near the harbor. The cafe in Riomaggiore was Bar O'Netto Brasserie, at Scalinata della Tagliata 4. 

In the summer, you must buy a Cinque Terre Trekking Card to hike the coastal trail (7.50 Euros for one day; 14.50 Euros for two days). You can buy them online, at any of the local train stations, and usually at the small kiosks at the trailheads in each village. The card also allows free use of the bus services that run between the village centers.

The more expensive Cinque Terre Treno MS Card includes unlimited trips on local trains, though single tickets between each village rarely cost more than a few euros.