Question: When Cinque Terre’s iconic hillside terraces were at risk of crumbling, who stepped in to help?
Answer: The villagers themselves
Before Cinque Terre was the iconic seaside escape that it is today, the collection of five villages relied on fishing and farming among its steep slopes. For centuries, locals carved out the hillsides into terraces snaked with dry stone walls for growing grapes, olives, and lemons. These lush terraces are signature to the landscape of Cinque Terre; however, as the traditional farming industry declined, the crumbling terraced hills posed a significant danger to the villages below.
Local farmers constructed the terraces and dry stone walls for nearly a millennium, accumulating 4,000 acres of harvestable land. Yet, growing crops was back-breaking work. Farmers had to travel by foot up and down the hills and carry their crops in huge baskets upon their heads. By the mid-20th century, families began abandoning this way of life. They moved to bigger cities to find higher-paying and less physically demanding jobs. From the 1920s to 1950s the population of Cinque Terre nearly reduced by half.
As farming decreased in the area, tourism began to boom. Cinque Terre was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its scenic landscape and welcomed travelers from all over the world. As tourism grew, the stone walls on the agricultural terraces went neglected. Essential for stabilizing the slopes, crumbling walls put the villages below them at risk of dangerous landslides, floods, and avalanches.
That’s exactly what happened in 2011. Heavy rainfall caused mud and debris to rush down the slopes towards Monterosso and Vernazza, cutting the villages off from electricity and ultimately killing four people. This tragic landslide was a wake-up call for villagers to better preserve the dry stone walls that surround each town like an amphitheater.
From the tragedy, a grassroots restoration effort of the terraces began. Recognizing that their homes are much better off when the neighboring terraces are protected, the residents rallied together. They soon established their own foundation to begin repairing the neglected walls.
Farm landowners can now lend their property to the foundation who will rebuild the walls and clear it from debris. Since the foundation began in 2012, they have restored 4,000 square feet of stone walls. With climate change, extreme rain events are likely to become common, meaning that this foundation is more needed than ever before.
Winemaking in Cinque Terre’s Terraces:
- The history of winemaking in Cinque Terre dates all the way back to ancient Roman times. Despite the decline in agriculture, winemaking in Cinque Terre still lives on through determined wine cooperatives.
- In fact, because of the challenging labor of cultivating and harvesting grapes in Cinque Terre, many Italians label it as “Heroic Winemaking.”
- Today much of the work is still done by hand, including the harvesting of the grapes. Many of the cooperatives have installed small monorails that wind through the vineyards so workers do not have to travel thousands of steps up and down the hills.
- The grapevines are protected by the dry stone walls and grow about three feet in height. Winds blowing from the ocean deposit salts on the grapes which make Cinque Terre wines particularly rich in salt.
- Cinque Terre produces primarily white wines as well as the prized specialty wine called Sciacchetrà. This honey-colored dessert wine is made with small batches of grapes dried for months.
- Sciacchetrà was one of the most valued wines in northern and central Italy during the Middle Ages.
- The white wines are made from the Italian grape varieties of Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino and these wines can be found at shops and restaurants throughout the region. They also pair well with the delicious seafood of Cinque Terre’s restaurants.
Experience the community of Cinque Terre perched high above the sea during the Italian Riviera, Genoa & the Cinque Terre pre-trip extension to Northern Italy: The Alps, Dolomites & Lombardy.