The postcards lined up in racks outside the village shops show cliff faces of brilliantly coloured houses stacked above an azure blue sea. You have to search to find a card whose colours reflect reality. Yes, the sea is azure blue when the sun shines but are the houses really post box red, rose pink and canary yellow?
Manarola is a three dimensional jigsaw of buildings clinging to the steep slopes of a rocky promontory around a tiny harbour. All but one of the village streets are narrow alleys threading through the layers of houses, joined by flights of steep stone steps. The stucco walls of many of the houses are painted in the warm earth pigments common to many Italian villages. It is the interlocking forms of the narrow houses (maybe two storeys high on the uphill side but seven storey when seen from below) which gives Manarola its distinctive character.
Founded some time around 1200 by farmers from the older, uphill settlement of Volastra, Manarola is one of the five ‘lands’ that make up the Cinque Terre. Together the five communities are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, not because of the picturesque nature or colourful paintwork of the village houses but for the remarkable, ancient and enduring man-made landscape which sustains those villages.
Manarola is still an agricultural village. Look down from the village square by the church and you’ll see plots of beans, tomatoes and lemon trees nestled between the layers of houses. Look up from the square and you’ll see garden terraces stepping up to merge with the vineyards above. Follow the steep, stepped paths that climb through the vineyards to the olive groves of Volastra above and you start to really feel the extraordinary nature of this place. Leaf green and stone grey are the true colours of Manarola.
(Click on any photo for a closer view)