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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 January 2007, 12:02 GMT
Steep rise of Italy's Cinque Terre
By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Italy

The Cinque Terre, on the coast between Genoa and La Spezia, is one of Italy's most scenic stretches of coastline and its fortunes have been transformed since the area was accorded National Park status.

The marina and medieval village of Riomaggiore, Italy. (southern-most town of Cinque Terre)
Only a single road connects the five villages of the Cinque Terre
The slopes of the Cinque Terre rise in such dizzying fashion, that in Riomaggiore you can take a lift up to the second level of town.

Some of the vineyards around the region are on hillsides so steep and so close to the sea, that the grapes have to be harvested by boat.

Since Roman times the farmers here have been conjuring small miracles from these slopes.

Their sweet dessert wine was so popular that amphorae bearing their insignia were found during excavations in Pompeii, hundreds of miles to the south.

Yet this has always been one of the poorest regions in Italy.

There is still only a single road that connects the five villages of the Cinque Terre - and access is largely by boat or by train. But the last few years have seen the local economy booming.

Dream lifestyle

In fact so successful is it becoming, that in recent years the residents of Riomaggiore and the other hamlets strung out along the Ligurian coast have been enjoying a lifestyle their predecessors could only have dreamed of.

Courtesy of the National Park, they now receive free natural medicine, massage treatments and health screenings.

There is a free shopping service for elderly residents and subsidised child care for working parents. Cars are banned - replaced by electric buses.

It has become a farming utopia; a place where tourists and others from outside are in the front line of conservation.

Franco Bonanini
Franco Bonanini remembers the poverty of his childhood
The driving force behind these changes is Franco Bonanini, the former mayor, and now head of the National Park.

Generations of his family have farmed this land, but like most people in Riomaggiore, Franco grew up in poverty.

"When I was little," he told me, "the worst two weeks of the year were when the wine speculators arrived. It was always a painful process," he said.

"The merchants would taste my father's wine and spit it out in disgust. They would tell him the wine was no good. And then they'd carry it off at half price. It was the saddest night of the year!"

So when the Cinque Terre achieved its National Park status and the first property speculators arrived, Franco and his team swore that this time, the Cinque Terre would not be cheated.

The Park began to buy up the cottages in the villages as they became available.

Prospective buyers have to cultivate at least 3,000 square metres of vines, fruit trees or vegetables before they are allowed to settle.

Defies gravity

British expat Paula Pecunia has been living in the Cinque Terre for 31 years with husband Mauro. They live in the house in which he was born.

They farm their land, coaxing vines, lemons, olives and basil out of a plot that defies gravity. It towers over the sea on such a steep gradient, I wonder how anything grows.

Map of Italy
"Over the years I have done it all," she says.

"Stamped the grapes, plucked the basil and carried these heavy baskets down the slopes."

"People who come here," she says, "may come with a dream of the good life, but they quickly realise how much hard work is involved."

"The rules for new buyers are essential," she says.

"Without the land you have no home. This is not natural farmland. It has been chiselled from the cliffs and if it was left, it would quickly disappear."

The farms of the Cinque Terre are propped up by hundreds of miles of dry stone walls.

The locals boast that the work that has gone into maintaining this steep terracing is comparable to the building of the Great Wall of China.

Those farms abandoned in the 1980s have either collapsed down the hillside or disappeared under the wild alpine vegetation. But now some of them are being reclaimed and repaired by outsiders.

I met students from Australia and Germany who, in return for free lodging and food, are rebuilding hillsides.

Lucrative sideline

With their help, the co-operative farmers are growing basil, garlic and pine nuts for a local factory which makes pesto sauce for pasta.

And they have all sorts of wild herbs to work with including saffron, still by weight the most expensive spice in the world.

Making pesto
The villages manufacture their own pesto with local ingredients
And in time, with a bit of encouragement, this could provide a further lucrative sideline for the ambitious Cinque Terre.

The money from this organic produce, and from the visitors who pay to walk the coastal paths, means there is now virtually no unemployment and for the residents of these five small communities, no end of opportunity.

As I sailed away from the harbour of Riomaggiore, looking back at those impossible steep terraces behind me, I marvelled at what Franco and his team have achieved in such a short space of time.

Yet this is a land that also stands testament to the iron will of his predecessors, the farmers back through the generations.

And I am guessing, that if they were here today, they would be well satisfied that so many people have come from so far to help protect the place which they once worked so hard to cultivate.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 January, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Life in the utopian region of Cinque Terra



SEE ALSO
Country profile: Italy
30 Nov 06 |  Country profiles

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