Five little postcards and how they grew (too much)

Or, what the guidebooks and tourist boards DON’T tell you about the Cinque Terre.

You would think that being picture-postcard perfect would be enough.

The Cinque Terre (five lands), five tiny Italian fishing villages perched on steep cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean, have everything a scenery buff would want — dazzling vistas from 800-meter escarpments, narrow streets that meander past medieval houses, trails circling above terraced vineyards that seem more at home in Indonesia than Italy.

Each of the towns is its own postcard with its own character:

· Monterosso is the northernmost and largest, with the most shops, restaurants, beaches, and places to sleep. Understand that “large” is a relative term: the permanent population of the entire Cinque Terre is about 5,000. Monterosso also has il gigante (the giant), what is left of a 45-foot-high statue of Neptune carved in 1910 to punctuate the glamour of a villa on the north side of town.

· Vernazza has a V-shape that makes it arguably the most picturesque of the five towns. The aura of a sleepy fishing village still clings to its harbor, at least in the off-season.

· Corniglia is the smallest of the five towns and different from the others because it is set well above the waterfront and has never been a fishing village; it was used by Romans and coastal rulers as a strategic military outpost. To reach it, you need to climb 382 steps from the station or catch a ride on the occasional bus. The reward is a panorama of all five villages. Because of its relative inaccessibility, it is less packed with tourists than its neighbors, no small advantage in high season.

· Manarola is the second smallest village, and possibly the oldest. Its brightly-colored houses and buildings are much-photographed and painted, but almost no one stays overnight (only two hotels). The wine cooperative of the Cinque Terre is located here, serving the area’s 24 wine growers who produce, among other wines, the area’s famed Sciacchetrà, a prestigious — and pricey — dessert passito.

· Riomaggiore is the southernmost of the five villages, popular as the starting (or ending) point for the classic Cinque Terre trail. The section between Riomaggiore and Manarola is called the Via dell’Amore (the path of love) and is the most-requested because it is the shortest and easiest. Frequent mud slides mean the path is often closed, but isn’t unrequited love par for the course?

Add to the five towns all those aces of vacationing in Italy — great meals (with an emphasis on seafood), wonderful wines (including Sciacchetrà), warm hospitality — and you have an idyllic getaway. That is, until recently.

The charms of the Cinque Terre have not gone unnoticed. Though the area was always beautiful, it was poor for centuries, since there was no access except by foot, boat, and, later, a small train line designed to handle local traffic. “It was wonderful,” recalls Amabile Milani, a summer resident who has owned a home in Monterosso since 1958. “There were no cars, no people except the summer regulars. You got to know everyone, and the town was charming. You bought the local fish and shopped the local stores. If someone got sick, you would flag down the little train and transport the patient to the nearest hospital in Levanto.”

The first road connecting Monterosso with its larger neighboring Ligurian towns (Levanto and La Spezia) was constructed in the 1960s. And by the 1970s the tourists began to arrive.

At first they were Italians, and they came the Italian way — for the month of August if not for the entire summer.

Then came a few backpackers, European and American. They spread the word, and more and more arrived to partake of the views, the 25 different walking trails up and down the coast and the cliffs, the fresh fish, the unique ambience. In 1996 the Consorzio Turistico Cinque Terre (Tourist Consortium of the Cinque Terre) was born. That year the number of non-Italian visitors was 52 percent of the total, with Germany leading the pack, followed by Switzerland and the USA.

A year later, in 1997, UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage site, followed, in 1999, by the creation of the National Park of the Cinque Terre. The UNESCO designation was supposed to protect the area from the tourist hoard but it did the opposite, encouraging more visitors to “come and see” rather than “come and stay”.

This wasn’t the only damage. With the UNESCO listing came limitations on fishing, and the few remaining fishermen in the Cinque Terre became fewer still. Today there are only 10 fishermen operating classic fishing boats (10 meters or less) in this area. They struggle to survive against large industrial vessels fishing further offshore and for longer periods due to their size. One of the 10 stalwarts, Davide Soldani, predicts, “Fishing will be finished here in 10 years if things don’t change.”

Meanwhile, the tourists keep coming, increasingly from outside Europe. Today the five communities host up to three million visitors a year. Eighty-six percent are non-Italian, and about half are not European. Americans contribute to the largest number of visitors, followed by Australians and Canadians. The antiquated train system linking the five towns is completely engulfed. Not only is there no space on the trains, the stations are so crowded that you need to allow extra time to elbow your way to the platforms. The risk of someone falling into the path of an oncoming train is ever present. The stairway leading from the town to the trains, especially in tiny Vernazza, rivals Hong Kong harbor at rush hour. The foolhardy few who come with a suitcase (because they may want to stay for a week or so) will be scarred by the experience of trying to get their luggage up or down those stairs.

Pressure on the trains has intensified, given the limited number of overnight accommodations in the actual Cinque Terre. There are approximately 3,160 beds officially available in the five villages, far below demand. Therefore many tourists choose to — or are compelled to — stay in neighbouring towns and then train in to the Cinque Terre for the day.

The average visitor stay is two days, not enough time to begin to understand anything about the history of the area (which dates back to Roman times), or its culture (it inspired the poetry of a Nobel laureate for literature, Eugenio Montale). To make things worse, a huge and increasing number are day trippers, what Italians call mordi e fuggi (bite and run) tourists, exacerbated by the opening of a cruise ship terminal in La Spezia in 2014. The situation for the Cinque Terre was alarming before then, but the terminal has meant an additional 30 buses of cruise travelers each time a giant cruiser docks, 1,500 of them disgorged into cramped alleyways, overcrowded eateries, and inadequate toilet facilities.

“Salviamo le Cinque Terre dal turismo di massa” (save the Cinque Terre from mass tourism) is a petition on change.org, started by an alarmed local resident in mid-2015 to protest the situation. It is unlikely to be signed by any of the hotel, restaurant, or schlock-shop owners in the five towns since they have become wealthy with the hoards. Local government and the National Park of the Cinque Terre are also unmoved.

Long-time locals like Amabile Milani and Davide Soldani are very concerned. “Only the landscape remains untouched,” the latter observes, “and this will be influenced in the future by global warming and pollution. The rest is all changing — fishing, wineries, our traditional way of life.”

This is already happening. A mudslide in 2011 devastated Monterosso and Vernazza, in part because the surrounding hills that had formerly been terraced — and therefore served as a protective barrier against such disasters — have partly been abandoned.

Grape growing on these steep slopes is tough work; it’s easier to sell wine to tourists in storefront cafès. More and more locals are converting their homes into B & Bs or rental properties: hotels represent less than 40 per cent of available accommodations. Tourist officials believe the number of beds is much higher since many locals rent out rooms or entire apartments privately to avoid the scrutiny of tax authorities. All these factors weaken the village atmosphere that drew visitors to the Cinque Terre in the first place.

The picture-postcard scenery remains for now (from a distance), but the situation is ever more precarious. Solutions include a surcharge for all cruise ship travelers, a limit on the number of tourists per day, and higher prices for park admission. As local officials and park authorities debate these options and dither over the future of the Cinque Terre, the “five lands” of 20th century guidebooks have already ceased to be.

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writer, PR professional, mother, dog-lover, traveler. See more at www.paroleanima.com

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CFlisi

CFlisi

writer, PR professional, mother, dog-lover, traveler. See more at www.paroleanima.com

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