The 5 lands of Italy are five remote villages perched along the Mediterranean Coast. The four towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola and Riomaggiore hug the shoreline while Corniglia rests high on a cliff face overlooking the sea with its clock-tower church. While staying in this hilltop village of Corniglia for a few days I had the opportunity to look back into old Italy with its friendly villagers and cobblestone streets.
We arrived after a 4 hour rickety train ride from Rome. While access to this village in the past was exclusively by boat, a local commuter train now slices through the mountain in a series of long tunnels that mole through the cliffs surrounding each village. A windy road also skirts the hills that have been terraced by its ancient villagers from years past. Over hundreds of years this region has been cultivated by dedicated farmers who built up stone walls that form ribbons of stone along the hilltops. Along these hills locals grow olives, grapes and bright yellow lemons. They follow farming traditions that have been kept for hundreds of years.
Arriving in Corniglia we were greeted at the train station by an environmentally friendly Green bus that brought us up to the cliff-top village. We fortunately were able to bypass the 368 steps in the heat of the day that was the only other way to the town. Among the many other travellers was a school group of 30+ kids who ascended the mountain to the village where we could catch a glimpse of what makes this region of Italy so popular.
Exiting the bus we were a bit bewildered on which direction to go… that was until we discovered that there really was only one street into this pedestrian only village. We walked the cobblestone street in search of a cafe where we were to pick up the keys to our apartment that would be our home for the next 3 days.
As we entered the village it was as if we were stepping back in time. The street was no wider than 8 feet in parts with tall three storey concrete buildings on either side. The occasional steep staircase ascended into alleyways to the side as white sheets and underwear fluttered on the clotheslines that were outside the shuttered windows above us. Along this main street, we passed restaurants, a pizzeria, bar, ice cream shop and the modern addition of the all too necessary Internet cafe.
Within a minute we rolled our luggage up to the steps of the cafe where we were to pick up our apartment keys. We were warmly greeted by the restaurant owner who welcomed us with a few caio’s (pronounced chow, hello in Italian) a smile and a warm welcome. She called a friend to escort us to our apartment as she continued to sell food to the tourists looking for a bite to eat.
We continued up the bumpy street for one minute before passing the small main square of the town filled with tables, umbrellas and dozens of hungry visitors. As we mounted the first few steps that we saw in this town we were directed to an apartment on the second story of a building that was perched 10 feet above the main street. As I lugged my 55 pound bags up to the front door of the apartment building, I cringed upon peering into the door. Our escort was mounting a staircase that looked more like a ladder than a staircase. Our bags were so heavy and I was already sweating in the heat of the 28 degree Celsius weather outside that I didn’t know if I would have the strength to attempt such a feat. The 4 or 5 inch wide steps looked like they had been built long before any building codes were invented.
In the heat of the day I decided I wanted to get the backbreaking work over with as I ascended the steps with the first of two large bags. After a short rest I descended the steps to retrieve our second bag.
Exhausted, I took off my shirt to cool down and sprawled out onto the bed with no desire to do anything els but rest. It did not take long however for me to regain enough energy to explore our tiny apartment. I quickly discovered room space was at a premium. While we had a bedroom, living-room and kitchen, there was hardly room for little else than a bed, couch and mini kitchen table that must have been hoisted up through the window.
The bathroom itself was a funny experience as there was no more than 8 inches of space with which to put ones legs while seated on it.
Within an hour we were rested enough to explore our surroundings. After climbing up to a viewpoint tower in the village, I discovered that elderly Italians must either have really short or really long lives. Up at the top of a steep staircase that left me out of breath, I saw an amazing scene before my eyes. Two 80 year old seniors were sitting on a park bench talking to each other as they looked out at the ocean from this cliff-top viewpoint. With all of the exercise involved in getting to such a viewpoint over the sea, these seniors definitely had to get their heart rate pounding a little faster. I know they definitely put me to shame with my poor fitness level.
Looking out from this Belvedere (viewpoint) we could see the next coastal village in the distance along the Mediterranean shore. This village in the distance was to be the first of 4 coastal hikes we had planned to take in the next two days as we set out to visit all 4 villages known as the Cinque Terre.