The Cinque Terre in the past was another world, a world of survival and subsistence where everything was done by hand and hard work. The day was organized around a farming program – vineyards, olive groves and vegetable patches supplying daily needs and firewood for heating. It was not unlike elsewhere in Italy, except for the steep rugged terrain, which made every day a strenuous one just to reach the family’s terraces. Hard manual labour had created the terraces centuries ago with dry stone walls that if put together today would be twice the length of the Great Wall of China! Now that’s impressive! And in fact the reason the area is a World Heritage site under UNESCO.
The ‘work horses’ of yesterday were a very strong, resilient population handing down that tradition and their knowledge and skills from generation to generation.
At Manarola near the station and on the walkway down to the sea, old photos are displayed of the work horses of yesteryear who consistently maintained the cultivation until the late 70’s.
Today much of the terraced land is left untouched, abandoned and uncultivated with serious consequences which we all witnessed during the flood of 2011. As many of the dry stone walls collapsed, dirt and debris came down the valley blocking Vernazza under meters of mud.
Now tourism has attracted so many of the locals into commercial enterprises leaving only the elderly to do what they can to maintain their land. It‘s an ongoing battle, and damn hard work with serious implications for the future of the territory. As land and housing is divided up in inheritance, some no longer know or care where their land is, let alone have any inclination to maintain it. After all it is no longer needed to provide the essentials of life when you can find all that in the local supermarket!
Today there are new work horses, an army of MINI everything to accommodate the lack of space for manoeuvre. Worksites look like Toyland with baby bulldozers and caterpillars to cart building materials, work implements and even the daily shopping to areas which are accessible only via hundreds of steps and increasingly difficult to access. And while tourists explore the trails little do they realize that these trails were not built for them, but were the original mule trails taking locals to their land, and connecting each village. The monorail that winds it way through the vineyards today is a saving grace, instead of balancing baskets of grapes on heads or shoulders.
Helicopters have become the work mules, carting sacks of new stones to rebuild walls, new fencing and netting required against landslides and/or to keep out the wild boar, that do major damage in the area. In fact I had never seen so many helicopters in my life till I came to stay at the Cinque Terre!
And then not to forget the faithful Ape pick up truck that is a constant workhorse all over Italy. Mini in size, economical to run, and seemingly indestructible. However it can only cart goods as far as the road will take it, while the rest of the trail up to the terraces needs strong arms and legs. I have seen one of the new Mega Electric trucks in the area, although the steep hills are a real test for it.
as a hobby. There are various initiatives to help rebuild and restore the territory both volunteer and non and we continue to look for solutions to the problem.
So think about it when you are over to visit in the Cinque Terre and enjoying the spectacular views along the trails, as while the new machinery has certainly made a big difference there is still a lot of hard manual labour going on.