The Sentiero Azzurro is the incredibly famous coastal track connecting the five glorious villages of the Cinque Terre by foot. 95% of hikers to the area walk this track, and pay €7.50 per day for the privilege. Not everyone to this jewel in the Italian Riviera may realise there are actually a truckload of free tracks in the area, and that it is a tough, but not impossible task to visit each village via these unpaid trails.

After lazing about on a Greek island for over a week, we were ripe for a challenge – to hike the red trails of the Cinque Terre from Riomaggiore to Monterosso, dropping in on each village along the way.

The question is, is it a good idea to skip the Sentiero Azzurro and use the free trails instead?

Hmmmm… We’ll let you decide after reading this.

It was our first full day in Liguria, and the mission had been set. We had a coffee and croissant, threw a litre of water in a backpack and set off.

The one thing you need, apart from the completely obvious, like water and food, is the map of the hiking trails, which you can pick up at any of the train station tourist offices. As I write this, I’m looking at ours, over a month after the fact. It’s ripped and water damaged and tearing along the seams where it was folded and unfolded a hundred times on this challenging day. Without this map, we would have without doubt given up – it was our security blanket for the day.

Becarra Trail #531: Riomaggiore to Manarola

This trail was truly stunning, taking us through terraced farmland, past tomatoes growing, grape vines ready for harvesting, even a sign imploring hikers not to open the gate for fear of wild boars. The trailhead is somewhat difficult to find so we’ll give you a helping hand. Walk around the headland as if you were going to take the blue trail. Continue past and you’ll see a sign pointing you to Manarola on the back side of Riomaggiore –  just follow it and eventually you’ll come to a clear trail marking for #531.

Hiking the free trails of the Cinque Terre

Hiking through farmers' land in the Cinque Terre

This first trail is short, but sweet – in a way you mightn’t think. Short in that it should only take an hour if you have decent fitness, sweet as in it will seriously hit the glutes – in a way you won’t expect. This hike is quite literally up and down the side of a mountain, so you’ll either be powering up stony steps or manoeuvring down a steep trail. It’s tough on the knees and the cardiac muscle. Make sure you stay on trail #531, and in approximately an hour  you’ll be delighted to drop into Manarola.

Phase one complete. No worries.

Hiking the Cinque Terre's free trails

#506, Volastra #586 and #587: Manarola to Corniglia

Once in Manarola, it’s just a matter of finding the trail markings for #506 to Corniglia via Volastra. It’s another upward climb, thankfully not quite as steep and far less narrow. The trail is skewered about midway by Volastra, which you literally walk right through to continue onto #586 and then finally #587 to walk smack bang into the main square of Corniglia. Here, we’d recommend either having a meal just off the main square (Food and Sea is underwhelmingly named and overwhelmingly good) or grabbing some fruit and stocking up on hydration at one of the fresh fruit stores. The worst is undoubtedly yet to come.

Hiking from Manarola to Corniglia, Cinque Terre

Phase two complete. Still going strong.

The open road and #507: Corniglia to Vernazza

After you’ve stocked up your bellies or backpacks, head along the road as if you’ll be presenting your Cinque Terre card for the Sentiero Azzuro to the person at the stand… only don’t. Simply continue walking on the road. Thankfully, it’s very quiet once away from the village, but stay alert and on the right side. Just as you start wondering where the hell you are, the marker for #507 takes you off-road. You’ll need to use your hands a little on this downward dusty descent, and just when it all seems like a whole lot of effort for nothing Vernazza materialises like a mirage. Framed by wild olive and lime trees, it’s too perfect to seem real, and it’s as inviting as an all-day wine buffet to a raging alcoholic.

The view of Vernazza from the hiking trail

Vernazza is a beautiful town, its harbour lined with bustling bars and restaurants. We look at these like they’re forbidden fruit, knowing stopping at one would equal a huge plate of pasta and a vat of wine.

In other words, sitting down at one would be the failure of our mission.

We find the marking for #508, the first trail on the way to our final stop on a random stairway in the upper half of the village.

We look at each other. We’re dripping, hungry and exhausted. My back is sweating so much the backpack smells like a wet dog. This is cruel and unusual punishment.

For some twisted reason we start climbing.

It’s Monterosso or bust, baby.

The beautiful water of the Cinque Terre

#508, #582 and #509: Vernazza – Monterosso al Mare

#508, the path to Sanctuario di Reggio is a goddamn bitch. There’s no other words. It’s a one hour grind upwards on rationed water on empty stomachs. We realise we’ve seriously underestimated this final section, but we’re too stubborn to turn back. When we finally reach the square of Madonna di Reggio, a beautiful peaceful area of picnic tables and shady trees, there’s no stopping to enjoy the view. Photos have become the least of our worries. Sniffing out the next trail marker for #582, the only indication we’re getting closer to the end of this self-inflicted torture, has become akin to a bloodsport.

We see a couple of signs pointing to Monterosso, and one that could vaguely be pointing to #582. Thank you Jesus. The path is long and flat, with only a few upward sections. We meet a couple who’ve taken their shirts off to keep cool and a crew of middle-aged punters brandishing walking poles. Much longer? we ask. They don’t understand us. Useless.

Still we trudge on. The sky’s getting greyer by the minute and the humidity’s pressing down like a second, more powerful layer of gravity. It’s over an hour before we reach the road, which we stumble along dodging cars until the Sanctuary of Soviore. We’re on the home stretch and the two-and-a-half kilometre descent into Monterosso via the cobblestones of #509 has our names on it. The skies open up, the water just about sizzling on our overheated bodies, as we slip and slide down the mountain. We’re filthy, wet, our knees are locking up, but we’re fist pumping with glee at every glimpse of our final destination through the trees.

Three-and-a-half hours after we wanted to stop for lunch in Vernazza, we stagger into Monterosso.

The beach through the tunnel at Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre

A sight for sore eyes… the beach through the tunnel at Monterosso al Mare

Mission Impossible: complete.

39,000 steps and 500 metres off 30 kilometres is a hell of day.

Are we glad we did it? The answer is yes… If only to say we have.

Would we do it again? Never.

Recommendations for walking the free trails of the Cinque Terre

  • Plenty of water and food is a must. Don’t plan on buying it in the villages, pack it with you so you can eat on the go.
  • Start as early as possible, before 8.00 am if you can.
  • A hard copy of the trail map, which you can pick up at any train station tourist office is a must. You can also download a number of Cinque Terre Apps to help you navigate if you like the extra security.
  • Skip walking from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare, unless you pay for it and take the Sentiero Azzurro. To be brutally honest, this last section is visually the least interesting, the longest and the most challenging. In other words, it’s not that rewarding. However, if you do decide you’d like to see some great views of Vernazza, consider #508. Take it nice and slow, looking back at Vernazza as you head up, and enjoy a picnic at Sanctuario di Reggio. 

Hiking the Cinque Terre, Liguria, Italy