We are in Cinque Terre, Italy. The 5 villages date as far back as the 13th century and sit on the hillsides that plunge into the Mediterranean Sea.
A little over 150 miles across the Mediterranean Coast lies Monte Carlo, which also sits on the hillside over-looking the same sea. But that is where the similarity ends. Monte Carlo fashions itself with the very best that money can buy, while Cinque Terre takes great joy in the simple life. Colorful houses seem to hang on the cliffs. Local churches sound their daily chime. And the land is terrace farmed for food. Surrounding these five villages is an infinite mosaic of vineyards, olive and lemon groves, and fruited trees. These agricultural plots seem to hang onto the sheer cliffs above the sea. And from these marvelous fields, we receive tangy local wines such as Sciacchetra, purely extracted olive oils, and delightful herbed pesto.
The agriculture is of main concern here in Cinque Terre. All of the 5 towns and other rural villages are tied to each other in their quest to keep local farming alive. The towns people, like their forefathers, preserve the terraced farms as a means of income and property stability. While some of the farmland has been abandoned and is scrub, most have been passed on from generation-to-generation. They farm mostly wine grapes, olives, pears, and herbs. Each family plot is divided by old, dry-rock, stonewalls, built hundreds of years ago.
We visited an Olive Oil mill that housed both old and new technology. The old is powered by a water wheel at the foot of a water fall, which spins two large stone wheels one of which presses the olives. Then heat is applied to separate out the water and the extra virgin olive oil. The new technology accomplished the same task with an electric press.
In old days these terraces were very difficult to access, to plant, fertilize and harvest. Now they have a monorail with a small-motorized cart that can take whatever they need up and down the mountain to their plots.
Today, the area is sought by tourists from all countries. We were told that there are 800-1000 residents here who mingle quite well with the two million annual tourists.
On our first night here and as we walked the streets of Riomaggiore after dinner, we heard music in the distance. We were drawn towards the drumming of the Alleluya Band from Malawi Africa, who were singing and dancing for the village of Riomagiorrie. No less than 15 singers and dancers, who were wildly dressed in multi-colored costumes, were gyrating to a rhythmic, African beat. The local Catholic Church sponsored the event for all of the towns residents to enjoy. The audience was captivated. What a treat!!
Cinque Terre (5 lands) consists of 5 tiny villages sitting on the bluffs over the bays on the Northwest coast of Italy.
Monterosso al Mare is the most western of the 5 towns and the closest to being a classic beach town of the Italian Riviera. Vernazza, and Corniglia are just a few kilometers down the coastline. The latter is different from the others because it is situated on a plateau, over 300 feet above sea level, while the others lie next to the Sea. And Manarola and Riomaggiore lie on the eastern end. All of the villages are linked by charming cobblestone pathways that make home to local musicians. One can have a quiet seaside stroll while listening to melodic accordion music. But be prepared to take in a few sets of stairways, as each village is scattered with scenic steps that reach high into the mountains. It seems that every street, alleyway, passageway is a long stairway to somewhere. Who knows how many outside stairways exist in these 5 villages!!
These five communities discourage auto traffic to preserve the tradition and ecological impact of the area – so they are best reached by train. It has now become a World Heritage Site and a UNESCO National Park. In fact, certain parts of the nearby sea are part of the National Park system as well. And it is the preservation of this area that makes for some clear water scuba diving and snorkeling.
The water is temperate and refreshing while keeping a swimmer bouyant and tireless.
But it is the view from the boat back to the towns that is truly breathtaking. If you don’t want to plunge into the sea, there is plenty of kayaking, canoeing, and beach time to fill your day. And for those preferring the countryside, you may go horseback riding, or rent a mountain bicycle, or hike almost 100 miles of trails. There are plenty of activities for all families here in Cinque Terra.
If you want to have your kids interact with a culture rich in history, this is the place for you and your family. In this town of Riomaggiore which is almost all hills, there is one flat Piazza, where all the kids of the village gather daily to skateboard and ride their bikes. On the walkways, pictorial photographs recall a time when nearly 1000 hectors of land was cultivated for farming. Scenes of harvest are murals of the landscapes, with Italian locals briskly carrying baskets of grapes on top of their heads. By taking a walk into the vineyards, one may recall such a time.
The main street is doted with tiny restaurants (capacity of 20-25), a few souvenir shops, and several grocery stores. We are talking tiny stores with fresh fruits and vegetables out front, and a bakery and meat counter inside. You won’t find much in the way of packaged food here.
- Visit the terraced farms and learn how farmers worked hundreds of years ago
- On the Sea: snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, swimming and even surfing
- Hiking: nearly 100 miles of hiking trails criss-cross the area. These trails can be explored on horseback and mountain bike as well
If you go:
Fly to Pisa, Italy and take the train to Cinque Terre about 1-½ hours or fly to Genova and take the train. You can drive there but once you arrive your car will be useless.
More information: www.agenziaviaggi5terre.it
More: don’t bother with a car and don’t show up in high season without a room reservation. Rooms (mostly small apartments) range from 80-$125.00 per night.
The agriculture is what this place is truly about. Cinque Terre is 5 towns but there are smaller rural communities tied to each one that get few, if any, tourists. These people, like their forefathers, still work the terraced farms on the hillside. Some of the farmland has been abandoned and is scrub, but most has been passed on generation-to-generation leaving some plots that are only 4 meters by 20 meters. They farm mostly wine grapes and olives for olive oil. Old stonewalls, built hundreds of years ago with no cement just piled rocks have created this mosaic of farm terraces.
We visited an olive oil mill that housed both old and new technology. The old is powered by a water wheel at the foot of a water fall, which spins two large stone wheels one of which presses the olives. Then heat is applied to separate out the water and the extra virgin olive oil. The new technology accomplished the same task with an electric press.
In old days these terraces were very difficult to access to plant, fertilize and harvest. Now they have a monorail with a small-motorized cart that can take whatever they need up and down the mountain.
Larry Berle is a travel writer who writes on all forms of travel, most often golf. Visit his book website www.GolfersDreamBook.com