Corniglia, one of five

The image that opens this brief (and insufficient) ode to the unique beauty of Corniglia is not the best. It’s not to most spectacular image, nor the most beautiful. It’s a fairly unremarkable picture of the Oratorio dei Disciplinati, in the little piazza that leads onto Corniglia’s terrace over the sea.

Like every Oratorio worthy of its name, this little chapel has its little green area, with an abandoned leather football on it. It covers less than a hundred square metres; lines groove its cemented façade, in the middle of which there is a door. This sums it all up, really. Space here is so precious, the streets so narrow and pokey, you can’t waste a single yard beyond the goal line, as it were. What this photo expresses, therefore, is the desperate state of the place’s nature and geography, and the human ingenuity that has somehow made it pleasant and liveable regardless.

Arriving at Corniglia already guarantees you an incredible spectacle. If you come by motorbike, it’s exalting.  Once past the turnoff for Vernazza, which is Corniglia’s administrative center, the road progressively becomes a contorted, serpentine dance between the greenery and the cliffs, between precipice and panorama. Pause for breath just a few hundred yards before you get to the town, where the cars start to be packed together like sardines, roasting in the sun: good luck to those who arrive in high season. In June, though, it’s still just about possible to find a parking space on via Fieschi, the only road into the town. Immediately, you’re in the shade of buildings, which makes hats and sunglasses redundant, at least until the wider boulevards, where you find restaurants serving traditional dishes of every kind.

You’re hemmed in on every side. You are treading on immensity, on the rocky outcrop that plunges into the sea, with what seems like millions of steps winding down there too. The sign “to the sea” that ushers you out of the town is utterly terrifying at first sight – but in some way, you’re already at the mercy of things, suspended in that cubist town. Corniglia is the only one of the Cinque Terre that doesn’t extend right up to the sea: instead, it stands on a promontory about a hundred metres above the water, all surrounded by terraced vineyards. The walk to the train station is pretty gruelling too: a climb of nearly 400 steps.  

Corniglia has its fair share of historic remains. Just see the fragmented façades of various buildings, the ruins of the Torre Genovese or of the small cliffhanging church that tumbled into the sea in the nineteenth century. But really, the grandiosity of this place is best expressed through its tiny dimensions. Alleyways in which even two people struggle to walk side by side, then brief clearings and sudden panoramas. You have to take your time walking through this town, but gradually you free yourself from the sense of overcrowding and learn to feel the place as it was back at the time of the Romans: Gens Cornelia, which sent its wine down as far as Pompeii.  

And of course, you have to give yourself over to the crisp hospitality of one of the town square’s trattorias. Have a plate of mussels, an essential serving of fried anchovies, and learn what a good pesto really tastes like.

From here, Bacchus’ favoured vineyards stretch out in the beneficent sun. They extend over Monte Rosso and the Corniglia territory, which is famous everywhere for its sweet wine.
[Petrarch]