Captivated by Corniglia, Cinque Terre

In the northeastern corner of the Italian peninsula, the train moves through long, dark tunnels beneath the cliffs that rise straight out of the Ligurian Sea. But I kept my eye on the dark window, because I knew that I would get a glimpse of the ocean soon. And when I did, I was nearly blinded by the green sea sparkling in late afternoon light. I had arrived at one of the coastal towns of Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre captured my imagination long ago. Five small towns with brightly colored buildings along the northeastern Italian coast, partially hidden in rocky coves or stretching up from the water to perch on the cliff tops. It sounded like a place where you’d find castles towering over a sea populated by mermaids. Or seaside villages with rowdy pirate taverns, where the fun is interrupted when a dragon flies overhead. The precipitous trails that connect the towns are world renowned for their broad vistas, but if you’re not up for the hike, the train will transport you from one town to the next in a matter of minutes. And theoretically, you can drive between the towns, although the roads are also rather winding and precipitous and parking is at a premium.

Hauling my bags up the long set of stairs to Corniglia from the train station (which you might be able to make out just to the right of my sunglasses).

My initial steps from the train in Corniglia, the middle village of the five, were dampened somewhat by the hordes of tourists also trying to make their way off the platform, and up the small set of stairs to catch the shuttle up the hill into town. Corniglia is perched on the cliffs, 100m (328 feet) above sea level, but the train station is below the city, on a short expanse of somewhat flat ground nestled between more cliffs. You can take a shuttle up to town, or hike up a set of 300 stairs. It’s easy to ditch the hordes of tourists if you take the stairs.

The view from my room of Corniglia and the terraced olive groves and vineyards. Most of the buildings house B&Bs and vacation rentals.

Of the five Cinque Terre towns, Corniglia is the only village without easy ocean access. Because of that, it tends to be a bit quieter. Lots of travel bloggers suggest skipping it if you’re short on time, so this seemed like a natural choice for my four-day seaside stay. I wanted to be in a place where I could gaze at the ocean, and was lucky enough to find a small studio with a balcony and a great view of the ocean, but also broad views of the terraced vineyards, and the rows of buildings that made up the central part of village.

Another view from my room, looking toward the town center, and westward, across the Ligurian Sea.

One of the things I love most about travel is the chance to try on a new life, even if only for a few days. This is when I really get to learn – even when things aren’t going exactly as you planned. It’s those moments when you struggle to turn the key in the door to your room, or find yourself frozen in the sandwich shop because you can’t really decide what you want, and you’re not even sure what they have. It’s the time spent weaving your way through the narrow labyrinth of alleyways that make up the town, until you know how to move from one end to the other, and where to find the best views for photos.

Moving through the shadows of Corniglia’s narrow stone streets, especially in the early morning, when shopkeepers dusted their doorframes and deliverymen lugged their handcarts brimming with boxes of tomatoes or water bottles or toilet paper up steep staircases, I could imagine life in an earlier time, before cars and computers and cell phones. I could imagine how lonely and isolating it might be here in the winter, when the tourists have gone, and the ocean turns rough. Or how exquisitely beautiful. Supposedly, only about 250 villagers remain year round.

I treated myself to a birthday lunch with a view of the coastline.

I spent my first two days in Cinque Terre walking the trails to the other villages (there’s another post coming on that soon), but on my third full day, I decided to stay in Corniglia, to absorb as much of the village as I could. (Ok, the decision was motivated in part by my screaming leg muscles, that were protesting after two days of steep hill hiking!) I began to feel at home up on the cliffs, over the sparkling blue ocean. After awhile, it occurred to me that there was a familiarity here. This section of coastline is not unlike the California coast, along Highway 1, south of Monterey, not far from where I grew up.

Nestled among the buildings on a steep street, A’ Caneva was my favorite cafe in Corneglia. I stopped here each morning for cappuccino d’soia and I fell in love with their pistachio pancakes on my third morning when I waited out a heavy thunderstorm under the canopy.

In seeking to live a new life for a few days, I actually found a place that was almost home. But I suspect that happens everywhere – we always seek the familiar in the new, and find comfort and community in that.

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