The Cinque Terre is a bit like a beauty pageant, with one village after another competing to have the most charming backstreets, the cutest pastel buildings and the most Instagrammable views. Just when you think you’ve found the most beautiful spot, another comes along and blows you away again. But like real-life beauty queens, each of the five villages has its own different charms. Some are showy and others are a bit more subtle – like Corniglia. It might not have Monterosso’s beach or Riomaggiore’s perfect harbour, but it has its own understated beauty – which is why I chose it as the base for my Cinque Terre trip.
There’s no such thing as a quiet Cinque Terre village, but Corniglia is as close as you can get. Set in the middle of the five villages, it has managed to keep a more laid-back, local feel than the others by being the hardest to get to. The other villages have harbours and a boat service shuttling visitors from one to the next. But Corniglia is perched up on high with no sea access, so the only way you can get there is by train or on foot. And even if you do catch the train, you’ve still got to climb a flight of 380 stairs to reach the village from the train station (it’s either that or brave the shuttle bus queue – an even scarier prospect).
For visitors who’re just here for a day or two and pushed for time, the extra effort involved means Corniglia’s first to be knocked off the list. But if you do make the effort, your prize is a quieter, less commercialised Cinque Terre village, with little bars and restaurants tucked in cobbled streets and a knockout coastal view. That’s not to say there isn’t a constant flow of people passing through during the day. But come late afternoon everything slows down and Corniglia retreats back to its naturally sleepy state. It’s not even true that you can’t get to the sea either – there’s a tiny cove below the village where you can swim off the rocks. Though being the Cinque Terre there is of course a huge flight of stairs to tackle to get down there.
Being right at the heart of the Cinque Terre meant we were in the perfect position for walking, with two villages in each direction – Vernazza and Monterosso to the north, and Manarola and Riomaggiore to the south. Theoretically you could walk the whole of the Cinque Terre in one day if you started early enough. But we took it easy, spreading it out over two days and soaking up the views (and a few Aperol Spritzes) along the way. First up was the walk north along the coast path – which involved climbing a lot more hills than you’d expect from the name. For most of the way it runs across the steep hills overlooking the coast, teasing you with just one more corner to go around until you get your first view down to Vernazza. Then from there it’s another couple of hours on to Monterosso where we cooled off our feet with a dip in the sea.
In the other direction, there was a flat, easy coast path along the sea edge to Manarola and Riomaggiore. But it was damaged by landslides in 2011 and isn’t planned to reopen until 2018 at the earliest. So instead of a 45-minute stroll you have to work a lot harder and take the high path up through the hills. It took us almost three hours to make it to Manarola, starting with a steady 45-minute climb until Corniglia looked like a tiny model-sized village way below. The path runs high up through the Cinque Terre vineyards then way back down to sea level again, before climbing back up to the hills for another two hours to Riomaggiore.
The Cinque Terre’s train network makes it so easy to get around that in a way it doesn’t matter too much where you’re staying as you can easily get from one village to another. But there was something really nice after a day of battling through crowds of people to come back to our own village where we had space to relax. Our apartment came with a roof terrace where we’d sit and watch the sunset over the coast each night and could almost feel like we had the Cinque Terre to ourselves – even if it was just for a few hours.
Where to stay in Corniglia
Corniglia doesn’t have any hotels, but there are a few small guesthouses and apartment rentals. We stayed in an apartment from Il Caruigio di Corniglia, who have a few different places in the same building plus a couple more around Corniglia. Our apartment was BILO3 on the second floor, with one bedroom plus a sofa bed in the lounge. It cost £130 per night for four people, booked through AirBnB (you can save £30 on your first AirBnB booking with this link). There was a little kitchen so we could cook dinner a couple of evenings, and it had its own balcony as well as the shared one on the top floor. Owner Lidia knows absolutely everything there is to know about the Cinque Terre and gave us piles of maps, train and boat timetables.
Where to eat and drink in Corniglia
There are three little grocery stores in Corniglia, selling some fresh produce as well as bread, pasta and wine. Each was a better for some things than others, so we usually ended up popping into them all (not too much of a problem as Corniglia’s so small). If you’re stopping in Corniglia for lunch, Pan e Vin and KM0 both good foccacias and pastries – KM0 also does gluten-free paninis and stocks some gluten-free products.
For a little village, Corniglia has plenty of places to eat. A few of our favourites were Food and Sea in the main square for pasta, pizza and fish. In the village, the tiny Cantina De Mananan only seats about 20 people so it’s a good idea to book in advance for traditional dishes and local seafood. Or right at the top of the stairs from the station, La Posada has a big terrace with a panoramic view down the coast to Manarola.
For drinks, Bar Terza Terra has another stunning view with a just a few tables overlooking the sea – walk right through the village until you reach the viewpoint. Or Enotica Winebar has a lovely little garden with colourful lanterns and flowers, and does a mean White Spritz – a twist on an Aperol Spritz using limoncello instead of Aperol. And don’t miss a gelato from Alberto Gelateria, where we worked our way through a couple of flavours each night. They also do a refreshing icy granita made with local lemons.