With its rocky coastline, picturesque fishing villages and magnificent views of the ocean, the eastern Riviera on Italy's Ligurian coastline is well worth a visit – particularly as it affords the opportunity of visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Cinque Terre national park.
National parkmeaning ‘the Five Lands" in Italian, is an area covering the five villages of Monterosso, Vernaza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore- which since 1999 has been designated a protected national park. What is unique about this nature reserve is that it represents a landscape crafted not by nature but by humans, who over a thousand years or more painstakingly and voluntarily transformed the steep mountainsides into cultivable terraces. Carrying rock after rock up the hillsides on their shoulders and using these rocks to build low walls without any form of cement or cohesive substance, they created over 6000 km of dry stone ramparts that held the soils back and changed an inhospitable region into the terraced vineyards one sees today.
Cinque TerreIt is really a masterpiece of landscape architecture.
The most famous product of the Cinque Terre is Sciacchetra, a sweet raisin wine made from grapes grown on the terraced hillsides. Since ancient times, Sciacchetra was exported to other parts of Europe, being described as far back as 1448 by Giacomo Bracelli, the chancellor of the Genovese Republic, as “a wine that adorns the dining halls of kings”.
Life however, is hard in these isolated villages – and many young people have left to seek work in the big cities and overseas. With lessening numbers to maintain the walls and work the vineyards, there is a real danger that soil erosion will result in the hillsides literally sliding into the sea – and one of the objectives of the national park is to encourage the inhabitants to remain in the villages and young people who have left to return. With over a million tourists visiting the area each year, tourism has overtaken agriculture as the mainstay of the local economy. But having thousands of visitors invading the park and tramping over its picturesque hiking trails can also adversely affect the environment, and the authorities now limit the number of visitors entering the park. “Sustainable eco-compatible tourism” after all, is the buzzword these days.
The mountains of the Cinque Terre drop precipitously into the Ligurian Sea – and this rocky coastline with its sheltered coves, pastel-coloured houses and terraced hillsides covered with vines and olives constitutes one of Italy’s most attractive landscapes. Cars are not allowed beyond the entrances to each village – so the best way to get around is by train. The journey from one village to another along the coastal railway line takes just a few minutes, with trains running every 20 minutes or so between 0630 to 2200 hours.
The villages themselves are attractive – Riomaggiore has been described as a ‘mess of houses slithering down a ravine” while Corniglia is perched precariously atop a mountain ridge way above the beach. The protected coastal path from Riomaggiore to Manarola hugs the cliff face and has aptly been named ‘Via del’Amore’ or Lovers Walk for it affords breathtaking views of the ocean down below. Vernazza is probably the prettiest of the villages with its sea front piazza, while Monterosso is the place to go to taste fresh seafood (anchovies being a speciality), to drink limoncino – and of course, to sample Sciacchetra.