On the road to Vernazza
On the road to Vernazza

Like many things in life - Hollywood movies, marriages, first novels - the walk between the Italian coastal villages of Corniglia and Vernazza started well before going downhill, although sadly the descent was largely figurative.

Buoyed by the ease of the previous day's stroll between the nearby villages of Riomaggiore and Manarola, my husband Andy and I were confident we could tackle the longer hike with ease. The tourist office-supplied map suggested the trip should take about an hour and a half but that same map had recommended 25 minutes for the Riomaggiore-Manarola leg that had taken us 15 minutes, gelato dripping stickily on to my wrist for five of those.

So we'd set off, armed with only a bottle of water and impractical footwear: Andy in a pair of woven leather dress shoes; myself in a pair of brogues, failing, in our enthusiasm, to notice that the track was all but deserted in spite of the swarms of tourists we'd encountered everywhere else. That should have been our first warning.

Walking the scenic trails that link the five World Heritage- listed villages that comprise Italy's Cinque Terre - Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore - is one of the main attractions of the region, drawing tourists in search of somewhere they can eat a plate of buttery pasta for lunch and work off the calories by dinner.

Choose a village at random, sit at an outside cafe and before your cioccolata calda con panna is cool you will be passed by a dozen visitors wearing or carrying at least one and sometimes all of the following items: hiking boots, cargo shorts, baseball cap, DSLR camera, one of those thin walking poles with spikes on the bottom and a sensible buttoned shirt of the kind that can be washed in a bathroom sink and dried overnight in the shower.

The villages are picturesque in a different-but-similar way, like siblings with ostensibly different features but who leave you in no doubt they belong to the same family.

The region was hit hard by floods last year, devastating in particular the villages of Vernazza and Monterosso and damaging many of the all-important hiking trails. We had heard about the floods but because we were staying in Riomaggiore, which was essentially unaffected, we hadn't thought much about it. Certainly it was not on our minds as we set off on the path that would take us to Vernazza. That was our second mistake.

A poet would have found something beautiful to say about the lush foliage, the brilliance of the leaves and the way the air felt extra fresh as we huffed it in. I said: "I feel like I could be in a scene out of Jurassic Park." Andy pretended not to hear, presumably hoping not to derail our month-old marriage so early on in the piece.

Things didn't start to get hairy until at least half an hour into the walk when the path that had seemed so well-trodden became distinctly less stable beneath our feet so that, in parts, we could feel the rocks rearranging themselves. "Love it," I declared, hoping to conceal the burning regret in my chest that I wasn't installed in a beach cafe with a buttery croissant.

Then we came to a point in the path where big canvas sacks, roomy enough to conceal a body if they hadn't been filled with rubble, blocked the way, forcing us to scramble around them on the already-narrow track. "They sure don't make it easy," I said - words I would have cause to repeat moments later when we came upon the 3m planks of wood stacked across the path.

It was at about this point, with the obstacles starting to seem less like a pleasantly Italian lack of regard for personal safety and more like an active attempt to discourage intruders, that it occurred to us we might simply have taken a wrong turn. But the signs continued to point the way and so we kept on, scrambling over each new obstacle as it materialised, offering a weary "buongiorno" to the handful of workman we passed, exchanging nervous I'm-not-scared-either smiles when a small rockslide sent rocks skittering down the hill in front of us.

At some point the heel on my brogue broke. I didn't notice.

Only when we arrived in Vernazza, tired but quietly chuffed with ourselves, did we see the sign informing us that the path between Corniglia and Vernazza was closed because of flood damage. That, we thought, explained a few things.

We weren't the only idiots, which was some consolation. Picking our way down the stairs that led to the town centre we passed close by two tourists, one of whom was saying in a loud American accent to the other: "I had to jump, well, OK, not really jump, but walk around all these bags and I was thinking . . ."

We didn't get to hear what he was thinking as we descended into the centre of the town, doing our best to look like fearless travellers instead of ignorant tourists who hadn't thought to ask someone if all the hiking trails had been reopened.

Unlike Riomaggiore, there were signs of post-flood destruction everywhere in Vernazza, with several buildings - including, most disappointingly, a promising- looking gelataria - being either rebuilt or refurbished.

But even a flood-damaged Vernazza is a beautiful place to be on a sunny day with sore muscles and a broken shoe, surrounded by equally weary travellers drinking Dolcetto under big umbrellas.

We found another gelataria, ate our cones on a step by the water and caught the train back to Riomaggiore. If we hurried, I thought, we could still make it back in time for a late lunch.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West