The local train between the villages of Cinque Terre travels primarily through dark tunnels, so it’s a pleasant surprise when the Corniglia station is in the bright sunlight, not twenty feet from the gentle, tempting waves of the Mediterranean. However, it’s also 200 feet below the town itself. We heft our dense packs and follow a pair of beautiful, questionably aged American girls up the switchback streets and staircases.
Corniglia is widely considered the “diamond in the rough” among the towns of the Cinque Terre. That said, it seems plenty touristy, judging from the amount of English heard and stores selling keychains and postcards. A narrow alley is the densely packed town’s main thoroughfare. It leads past wine shops and gelato junctions to a compact town square that’s dominated by a massive oak tree. Past the square, the alley continues on to a wide concrete overlook that offers indescribable views of the entire Cinque Terre coastline. It’s amazing and unforgettable, but unfortunately, it’s not our hostel.
Twenty minutes of semi-concerned searching lead us back to the town square, where empty bellies and an open table mean that it’s time to break for lunch. We order jugs of red wine because this is Italy, after all. We wait for Michael’s phone to find wifi so we can use Google Maps. We eat a rich, delicious meal. We lose all sense of concern about finding a place to sleep. We feel a bit buzzed.
And, ultimately, we find the hostel. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise – the town is composed of perhaps 100 buildings, so the odds were in our favor. After leaving some of our bags in the inoffensive prison cells that are our rooms, we hike to Manarola.
We don’t have a particularly strong understanding of what this hike will entail, beyond that Manarola is the next town down the line and is widely considered the most photogenic place in Italy. Trails between the villages of Cinque Terre are often closed due to flooding, so the path we follow might not be the most direct. Up and up and up we climb until suddenly little Corniglia appears between the trees, several hundred feet below. It’s quite gorgeous, situated picturesquely atop a jutting cliff, and also quite far away.
But it’s too late to turn back. We press on, skirting the hillside like mountain goats on a dusty trail that carves through several lush vineyards. It’s nothing but scenic overlooks. It’s hot and it’s dry and we’re increasingly dehydrated due to the jugs of wine. But it’s also magnetically attractive and only becomes more so as we reach Manarola. The village is tucked between two hills like a river of confetti, each building more colorful than the last. It’s the cover scene for thousands of Facebook photo albums.
Manarola is more than just a view, though. Down in the village we find hydration in the forms of a public fountain and rocky harbor. While the fountain ensures our survival, the harbor satiates our desire for Mediterranean adventure. Sleek Italian babes and paperwhite tourists relax like seals among the craggy black rocks. A thin slip of asphalt provides access to the water, which appears, after a long dusty hike, to be exactly what the doctor ordered. I brought my swimsuit shorts to Europe anticipating a moment just like this.
This is Cinque Terre, though, a landscape packed with fat tourists eager to ruin the pristine image of a mermaid haven. Thus, my moment of adventurous leadership is usurped by a group of American college kids who hurl their ungainly forms into the clear, blue waters before I can even doff my shirt. Rude! Instagram moment lost, I jump in unceremoniously, expectations lowered.
And yet, it’s heaven.
The water is all ice and salt, but it’s deep and refreshing. Waves rock the small harbor, pushing swimmers towards a cluster of smooth, seaweed-soaked rocks that call out to be climbed. Michael jumps in. Eric and Drew too, down to just their boxers. We’re free from the shackles of society, neck deep in the ancient waters of seafaring civilizations long-lost. We’re explorers of life itself and we’ve just discovered the fountain of youth.
It’s a moment that lends itself to unnecessary poetry.
Eventually, the chill gets to us and we climb out of the water onto the rocks, to lay on the hot black surface and soak up this experience, the first of the trip, that feels truly, uniquely European.