Corniglia, Cinque Terre

Travel Lesson #1:  Stay a night in the town or city you flew into. It’s tempting to head straight to your destination — especially if you’re headed to the Cinque Terre, but after flying across the US and the Atlantic, you’re in no shape to deal with more travel.

Especially if there’s a train strike.

Yes, Mr. WholeHog and I are now 2 for 2 with Italian train strikes. A year ago in Bologna, we arrived at the station to find a half-day long strike. On this trip, we flew into Pisa and encountered yet another strike.

But, in our experience at least, Italian train strikes don’t shut down the entire system, just some parts of the system. In Pisa, we learned that there were no trains leaving from the airport station, but there were trains leaving from the central Pisa station and a bus right outside would take us there. Problem averted.

In a way, the strike was an immediate reminder that traveling may require you to deal with unexpected delays or inconveniences. Like train strikes.

Or wildfires.


We arrived in Corniglia, our favorite of the five towns in the Cinque Terre. We checked into the apartment we’d rented and admired the view from our terrace. Then we noticed the smoke.

The hill behind the town and behind our apartment building was on fire. People came out of the shops and restaurants to watch the growing plume of smoke.

From the terrace at our apartment, we watched a helicopter and a yellow plane pull water from the ocean, and from our bathroom window, we saw the planes drop the water on the quickly-spreading fire. Our apartment soon smelled like a campfire.

But no one in town seemed alarmed. There were no calls for evacuation, no one ran for the shuttle bus with their belongings. The townspeople lined up along the main street to watch the planes try to douse the fire, the tourists continued to trek through on their way to Vernazza or Manarola, and there were plenty of swimmers and sunbathers at a nearby beach.

So I accepted that my bridesmaid dress for Natalie and Rob’s wedding might smell like barbecue, I assumed that the Italians would fight fire as well as Californians, and I went out for a swim.

Many people think that there’s nowhere to swim in Corniglia since the town is perched up on a hill over the ocean, while the other towns are seaside. This is untrue — you need to walk a bit to a rocky beach near the train station or go down a few hundred stairs to the Corniglia harbor, but there is swimming in Corniglia. I happen to like that others think Corniglia has nowhere to swim, though, because it keeps Corniglia’s swimming holes less crowded.

I was particularly fond of Corniglia harbor, a gorgeous swimming hole with a pool-like ladder leading right into the blue-green water. It was quiet and peaceful, aside from the helicopter touching down nearby.


The swimming in the Cinque Terre was terrific in September, and Natalie and Rob’s wedding was lovely, but I’d been spoiled by our first visit to the Cinque Terre a little over a year ago.

I missed the pink and yellow wildflowers that grew along the hiking trails and along the bluffs in May. Mostly, I missed the sense of discovery that comes with exploring a place for the first time. This time around, I knew the views were spectacular, I knew the pastel-colored towns were charming, I knew that I loved anchovies already and that I’d eat trofie with pesto daily.

I also came with expectations from my first visit, so I was more easily disappointed when a favorite restaurant was closed for the week. I questioned whether the focaccia I’d loved on our first visit was really as tremendous as I’d remembered. Were the trains slower? More crowded?

And, of course, the fire impacted our trip this year. Aside from the noise of the planes trying to put out the flames and the smell of the smoke, the fire also cut out the ATM and internet access in Corniglia, and it closed some of the hiking trails in the area as well.

It was a different trip the second time, not necessarily bad, just not exactly what I’d carried with me since May 2008.  What I remember most fondly about this second trip are the things that were new this time around: finding a new favorite place to swim in Corniglia and seeing my friend get the wedding she wanted.


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