A top destination for many travelers to Italy is the Cinque Terre (Five Lands). Tourists are lured here to visit the five isolated villages clinging to steep hillsides rising from the Mediterranean Sea. I’ll bet some of you reading this post have been there! Likely you hiked the Sentiero Azzuro (Azure Trail) from town to town, and peered out from the cliffs to see the turquoise and cobalt sea and the pastel pinks and yellows of the villages.
The extensive trail system winds up and down (mostly up, seems to me) through farms on hillsides so steep that just one row of wine grapes or trees can fit on a stone-supported terrace, then another row, and so on up the slope. Vertical farming. For centuries, men and women wound cloth into crown-like circles on top of their heads to steady heavy baskets filled with grapes or olives, taking care not to fall. I talked with a farmer who said that workers still do this, although the straw baskets are replaced with big plastic crates. He proudly showed me his labor-saving “monorail,” a single metal track, which lifts bins up and up to a processing area.
If you’ve hiked here, you’ve also seen hills thick with lemon trees, used to make the liqueur limoncello. In Corniglia, I saw lumpy and bumpy lemons and learned that since the town had been isolated for so many centuries, its own lemon variety emerged. I chatted with a woman who lives in Riomaggiore, and she said the area is rich with trees: chestnuts and walnuts; apples and pears; and stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, cherries, and bitter cherries called amarene that they preserve in a sugar syrup. I was puzzled by a fruit that looked like an apricot but labeled nespole. It’s a loquat, common here but not in the US. I bought some to try and oh my gosh, one bite and its sweet fragrance filled the whole room.
Along the trails cutting through orchards and vineyards are signs telling hikers to respect farmers’ work and property, and “Farmers are the real maintainers of the territory.” A consequence of being “discovered” created a challenge here of blending tourism, agriculture, and environmental sustainability. Farmers abandoned their terraces, finding less back-breaking work in the tourist trade as waiters, cooks, and shopkeepers. Rain caused soil erosion, collapse of stone walls, and mudslides, threatening villagers and the trails themselves. Some parts of trails are still closed due to landslides.
In 1999, the Italian government dedicated the Cinque Terre as its first national park. A goal is to maintain tourism but also to preserve traditional agricultural terracing, authentic customs, foods, and wines. An example is technical support for the farmer and his monorail.
What can a visitor like me do in this delicate balance of tourism and agriculture? Sustain a market for the farmers’ delicious products! Instead of buying T-shirts and trinkets, the best souvenirs might be local limoncello, olives, olive oil, and jams from stone fruits – tastes of their terre.