(Originally published in SpiritoTrail May 2018)
Upon arriving in Cinque Terre to race the renowned SciaccheTrail, I had no clue what to expect other than it was supposed to be really beautiful, really crowded, and that there was “some complicated stuff” going on with lack of trail maintenance, according to SciaccheTrail race founders Christine and Nicola.
I wondered what they meant because I couldn’t find anything online about the trails. And as a professional trail runner, I feel it’s my duty to know the issues surrounding the trails I run. Back home in the U.S., we’re seeing dismantling of protections around public lands and it’s scary. I never imagined it could be similar in picture perfect Cinque Terre, but I’d soon found out…
The Trails Are Incredibly Beautiful
I arrived a week prior to this year’s 50k race, giving me time to get a sense for the region. Thankfully, SciaccheTrail occurs right before the busy tourist season—which begins on Easter weekend and goes till early November—so I could maneuver through the villages to the trailheads without too many large tour groups blocking the way.
My first expectation of Cinque Terre was correct: the place is so gorgeous it’s borderline magical. The steep, relentless hills that jut out from the Mediterranean Sea boast trails that are every runner’s dream.
The 120 kilometer long trail network is surprisingly rugged and varied. The relatively flat coastal (SVA) trails showcase jaw-dropping views of crystal blue sea. They are narrow, and sometimes even harrowing. First created by farmers, dating back to the 11th century AD, these trails connect vineyards, showcasing the rich cultivation history. Unfortunately, tour groups often dominate the SVA paths, which I will touch on later. Crowded, narrow paths are not safe for anyone involved.
The heart of the Park lies in the rolling single-track that’s engulfed in forests and hovers along ridgelines above the villages. These trails are numbered in the 500s, or labeled with AV5T. While running along these higher trails, you’ll earn glimpses of the bright sea in tiny forest openings, but will rarely see a village, and it’s almost guaranteed you won’t encounter a tour group. These trails feel remote!
Oh, and we cannot forget: the stairs. The stairs ascending out of each of five villages are brutally steep and devilishly fun. I usually dislike power-hiking up stairs, but after racing SciaccheTrail, I have a deep respect and even a little love for them. You feel intrinsically connected to the villages because you remember that the farmers, mainly women, have been hauling 25-kg harvests on their heads up these stairs for centuries.
Today, as farming has become less lucrative and large tour groups assault the villages in droves, I realized that Cinque Terre needs runners and hikers more than ever before.
What’s the Problem?
Cruise ships drop thousands of people per day to snap selfies of the colored homes—which unbeknownst to the tourists, were first painted just in the 1970s—and then the day-trippers leave. Most tourists never step foot on one trail, let alone buy lunch or the famous local dessert wine, Sciacchetra, or stay in a hotel or B&B.
If tourists do get to a trail, it’s almost certainly a coastal (SVA) trail, which are overcrowded and not adequately maintained. For as long as SciaccheTrail has been a race, two of the most popular SVA trails have been closed entirely. The Via dell’Amore, from Riomaggiore to Manarola, has been closed since September 2012. And the Manarola-Corniglia has been closed since 2010. The National Park does not lack the funds to fix these trails, it just won’t do it!
The Reasons Behind the Failing Park
The problems begin with lack of education. Most visitors think that the only trails in Cinque Terre are the coastal trails, because that’s what’s promoted on social media and at Park information booths in each village. There is a robust map system online, but it’s almost impossible to find on the National Park website. The website mainly just promotes the Cinque Terre Card, which provides trail access, but also train and bus access, and guided tours, but only to the villages and coastal SVA trails.
The tours provided by the Cinque Terre Card are not even managed by the Park; instead, A.T.I. 5 Terre, a consortium of cooperatives that profits off the tours, runs them. The information booths in the villages aren’t managed the Park either, but also by A.T.I. 5 Terre.
It gets worse: there is even a Cinque Terre Card for groups, with a discounted price for groups of 17 or more people. It’s like the Park is there just to promote large private, guided tours of the villages, not the trails.
Even in just the week I was there, it was clear that the employees working the booths at the train stations had no interest or information about the trail network. Multiple employees were confused at my running clothes. They just wanted to sell Cinque Terre Cards.
Meanwhile, out on the actual trails, there are collapsed terrace walls that result in dangerous landslides. Farmers cannot keep up with wall maintenance without help from the Park. It’s the Park’s job to maintain these trails, but historically, there is hardly a trail worker to be seen.
When a Small Shop Has To Do The Job of an Entire National Park…
Overtime, the one trekking shop in the region, Cinque Terre Trekking, has become the de facto source of update-to-date trail information. Shop owners, Christine and Nicola, say that they’re constantly answering questions about trail status.
“Often when the coastal SVA trails are closed and the rest of the trails are open (like they are now), tourists come to us saying that they were told at the Park info booth that ‘all of the trails are closed,’” says Christine, aghast at the misinformation shared by Park.
This lack of Park competency is one of the reasons Christine and Nicola were compelled to start SciaccheTrail: to honestly promote the vast trail network of Cinque Terre and to promote sustainable tourism in the form of runners, not cruise ship tourists who come in and leave.
There Is Hope For a Better Future with President Resasco
In addition to Cinque Terre Trekking and SciaccheTrail, a there is a new Park President who is committed to saving Cinque Terre trails. Enzo Resasco, who is also the Mayor of villages Vernazza and Corniglia, is dedicated to maintaining the trails and preserving Cinque Terre as we know it. He held a meeting for runners at his office the day before the race, applauding runners and hikers for being sustainable tourists. He literally thanked us for not coming on cruise ships or in big tour groups.
In the week leading up to this year’s SciaccheTrail, multiple terrace walls collapsed, but President Resasco had the trails fixed immediately. In the past, no leader of the Park has ever had such earnest dedication to the trail system. After all, two of the SVA trails have been closed for over six years! President Resasco is hopeful that he can gain enough support within the Park Administration to reopen closed those popular SVA paths, but more importantly, to promote the vast trail network in lieu of large guided tours.
A man well-equipped for the task of improving the Park—he led the seamless rebuilding of Vernazza after a horrific landslide in 2011 leaving the village unrecognizable—Resasco may be the Park’s last hope for serious and permanent change. Trail runners and locals like Christine and Nicola can only do so much. At the end of the day, we need the Park Administration to maintain the trails.
Should You Go To Cinque Terre?
Without question, Cinque Terre is a trail runner or hiker’s paradise. If you plan to stay for multiple days, to eat focaccia and to drink Sciacchetra in between long days out on the trails, then you should plan this trip immediately.
But if the National Park continues to promote the tours of the A.T.I. 5 Terre instead of educating tourists about the trails and maintaining the trails, before long, Cinque Terre will lose its charm.
For now though, runners and hikers, Cinque Terre needs us!