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Living on the edge: Postcard from Cinque Terre, Italy

Writer and avid traveller, Reetika Khanna's keen observations of all things design come together in a series of postcard entries from quaint quarters across the world.

by Reetika Khanna Aug 30, 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.

  • Cinque Terre’s varicolored homes hoisted on jagged hills against the sea | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Cinque Terre’s varicolored homes hoisted on jagged hills against the sea Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • Boats in the village of Vernazza | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Boats in the village of Vernazza Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • Vernazza - one of the five villages in Cinque Terre | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Vernazza - one of the five villages in Cinque Terre Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • Colourful homes against the quaint blue sky in Cinque Terre | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Colourful homes against the quaint blue sky in Cinque Terre Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • Homes at Cinque Terre | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Homes at Cinque Terre Image Credit: Reetika Khanna

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.

  • Cased-in marble tomb stones at the cemetery | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Cased-in marble tomb stones at the cemetery Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • Cased-in marble tomb stones at the cemetery | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Cased-in marble tomb stones at the cemetery Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • An antique door of a church at Cinque Terre | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    An antique door of a church at Cinque Terre Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • Old fashioned metal latch | Cinque Terre| Italy|STIR
    Old fashioned metal latch Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • A modest church in Cinque Terre | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    A modest church in Cinque Terre Image Credit: Reetika Khanna

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.

  • Corniglia - one of the five villages in Cinque Terre, Italy | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Corniglia - one of the five villages in Cinque Terre Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • A bottle of Moet & Chandon perched on a precipice, in a café and bar at Corniglia | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    A bottle of Moet & Chandon perched on a precipice, in a café and bar at Corniglia Image Credit: Reetika Khanna

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 village of Manarola at night | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    The village of Manarola at night Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • Nessun Dorma - a restaurant buttressed on a hill in Manarola | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Nessun Dorma - a restaurant buttressed on a hill in Manarola Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • Platter of food at Nessun Dorma restaurant | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Platter of food at Nessun Dorma restaurant Image Credit: Reetika Khanna

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.

  • A bicycle leaning against a wall embellished with mounted flowering pots in Cinque Terre | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    A bicycle leaning against a wall embellished with mounted flowering pots in Cinque Terre Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • A tree with lemons the size of baseballs in a backyard | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    A tree with lemons the size of baseballs in a backyard Image Credit: Reetika Khanna

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. 

  • An arch adorned with bougainvillea| Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    An arch adorned with bougainvillea Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • Bougainvillea spreading like purple fire across the stone and concrete walls | Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Bougainvillea spreading like purple fire across the stone and concrete walls Image Credit: Reetika Khanna
  • Staircase leading to Castello Doria in Vernazza| Cinque Terre| Italy| STIR
    Staircase leading to Castello Doria in VernazzaImage Credit: Reetika Khanna

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About Author

Reetika Khanna

Reetika Khanna

Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer with an eye for style and a palate for adventure. A former flight attendant, she honed her writing skills at Emory, and Georgetown University, US. She has worked with ELLE as a Senior Features Writer, and as an Associate Features Editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. Khanna, who likes to document her travels around the world, is currently working on her second book.

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