by Archana PillaiAug 29, 2019
Cinque Terre (cinque, Italian for five, terre, lands) is a trove of five centuries-old fishing villages - Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore - wedged into the dramatic cliffs of the Italian Rivera. The patchwork façades of Cinque Terre’s varicolored homes hoisted on jagged hills against the swish and swirl of the sea is the Italy I was looking for beyond the big cities I had visited - Florence, Rome, and Venice.
When viewed as standalone entities, Cinque Terre homes are unremarkable. But stacked and crammed together as they are against the verdant backdrop of vineyards on stepped slopes, the architectural mosaic that emerges, rivals the splendor of celebrated landmarks. A labyrinth of narrow alleyways seeps between these homes that are seemingly held in place by the sheer belief of its residents. The whimsical juxtaposition of walls in cheery shades of yellow and orange, pink and green, hark of a playfulness - like an assemblage of Lego blocks on a toddler’s play table.
Wood panel doors with old-fashioned metal latches and locks couple Cinque Terre’s present with its past. As do the frequented cliff-top cemeteries where marble tombstones are cased in walls like safe deposited boxes in a vault. Modest churches with carved wooden pews and doors and small medieval castles remain the original structures around which the villages were anchored. Homes converted into stores replete with souvenirs, affordable art, and pesto - a local specialty - and restaurants with alfresco seating cater to the growing influx of tourists.
In Corniglia, the sight of a bottle of Moet & Chandon perched on a precipice drew me to a hole-in-the-wall café and bar. I was reminded of Philippe Starck’s ergonomic Lou Lou Ghost as I settled into one of the transparent plastic chairs. The seating, though comfortable, felt incongruent with the monastic interiors - unadorned walls, worn floor rugs, antique sideboards. Heritage is evidently in apparent contention with the times.
Nessun Dorma - a restaurant buttressed on a hill in Manarola - with garden umbrellas and turf grass underfoot could well be mistaken for an upscale Miami eatery. The establishment is a hotspot for limoncino spritzes served in glass jars and charcuterie with a motley assortment of locally sourced cheeses, olives, and anchovies proffered on cutting board style platters. Dinning here at sunset makes for a singular experience in mindful consumption.
The absence of artistic opulence in Cinque Terre allows the eye to travel and seek magic in the quotidian mundane. A tree with lemons the size of baseballs is the cynosure in someone’s backyard where a table is set for supper with yellow linen napkins and hand-painted dinner plates. Across the street, you’ll see fruit shells being used as cups to serve gelato. Venture further, and you will chance upon a bicycle leaning against a wall embellished with mounted flowering pots.
Let your gaze wander to admire bougainvillea spreading like purple fire across the stone and concrete walls in the distance. Underfoot, cobblestones set in geometric patterns flow down a narrow path. Turn a corner to be greeted by the aroma of fresh-baked focaccia emanating from an open window with bright green shutters. Did you hear the shrill grandmotherly voice cautioning visitors of the steep stairwell around the bend? Nestled in the Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these five villages have an inimitable rustic identity that is best appreciated with all senses engaged.