In the traditional economy of the Cinque Terre villages fish always came second to grapes. Anchovies, mussels, squid and octopus were good for the family table but it was wine that made the money. Wine barrels were shipped from tiny village harbours to markets in Genoa and beyond. Small boats were hauled up a ramp to the village street after a day’s fishing. In Riomaggiore and Manarola they still are.
In 1870 the railway line between Genoa and La Spezia was completed, closing a missing link in the coast route from Nice to Rome and incidentally providing new links to the outside world for the Cinque Terre villages. At first the railway sucked people out of the villages, offering easy access to jobs that were an attractive alternative to the hard labour and unreliable income of the hillside farms. It was only in the 1960s that the first adventurous tourists started to use the trains to explore these hidden villages.
Tourism started to expand gradually in the 1970s prompting the renovation of old buildings for bed and breakfast rooms and providing a new market for locally caught sea food. A new road was built linking the villages with high level bridges across the steep river valleys. The Cinque Terre villages were hidden no longer.
Tourism provided a much needed boost to the local economy but also threatened the distinctive character of the ancient agricultural landscape. The stone walls that support the terraced vineyards and olive groves, the steep flights of stone stairs and the cobbled mule tracks look timeless but demand skillful and regular maintenance. In 1997 Cinque Terre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and in 1999 a National Park was established ‘to protect, safeguard and enhance the territory, the local identity and the biodiversity of Cinque Terre’. With a resident population of 4,000 living within the park boundaries and ever increasing numbers of visitors the Park Authority had a challenge ahead.
A good local rail service, limited road access and an extensive network of footpaths offer an attractive model for sustainable tourism. From the outset the Cinque Terre Park Authority has encouraged tourists to travel by rail between the main villages and to explore the wider landscape on foot or by using the local buses. Unfortunately the rail connections are a little too convenient and the villages offer too many attractive photo opportunities. For a tourist with a bucket list, it’s easy to tick off the Cinque Terre villages in a day. The multi-coloured buildings make attractive camera fodder with the ancient terraces reduced to an indistinct green backdrop.
From the village harbour of Rio Maggiore it’s a forty minute ferry ride to Porto Venere and another twenty minutes from there round the peninsula to the port of La Spezia. Here the scale of everything changes dramatically. The fishing fleet is dwarfed by the container ships moored on the opposite side of the bay but those ships in turn are overshadowed by the massive bulk of a cruise ship. A new cruise terminal opened in part of the cargo port in 2013. By 2017 the terminal was receiving 180 ships a year with with up to 6,000 passengers each; that’s twice the total resident population of the five Cinque Terre villages on one ship.
La Spezia is a pleasant enough town but not a world class tourist attraction. From La Spezia railway station it’s just a ten minute train ride to Riomaggiore (or twenty minutes on a coach). In the five years since the opening of the La Spezia cruise terminal the number of day visitors to the Cinque Terre villages has increased by 30% and the total number of visitors has risen to over 2 million per year. There’s been talk of limiting tourist numbers but no agreement yet how that could be done.
Preparing to leave Manarola after our four day visit we lingered in the town square, writing postcards and considering what local produce we could fit in our bags to take home. At 9.30 in the morning the village was quiet and a few elderly local residents were settled chatting on the benches outside the shops. Suddenly, as though a tap had been turned on, a stream of brightly dressed tourists started to flow down the steep main street, gathering in a chattering pool at the bottom of the hill. Their guide gave instructions – one hour to look round before catching the train on to the next village – then the group started to disperse, searching for those multi-coloured houses clustered above the harbour, the view they’d all come to see.