The rain came suddenly. A fierce, windy, drenching sort of rain that had us running for cover. Along with the multitudes of others who, like us, had only moments before been happily wandering around the village of Vernazza in Cinque Terre. I was traveling with a very intimate group. 4 of us in total. We decided to duck into a restaurant and find something to eat. Turns out everyone else had the same idea. There were a lot of us. And not a lot of restaurants in this tiny little village. Undaunted, we ventured further away from the water, away from the tourists, and found a small joint a bit off of the main drag. Still, there was a wait. But the wait was in the bar. Standing room only. Surrounded by locals. We spent a very happy hour drinking the local wine and eventually talking to the regulars who shared not only the stories of their village life, but also their food and wine. Cinque Terre is a popular tourist spot. And with good reason. It is drop dead gorgeous. Mountains meet the Ligurian Sea in the most remarkable of convergences. The five villages that comprise Cinque Terre are connected by train, hiking path, ferry and windy road. The numbers of tourists that come each year to see this beauty for themselves has increased exponentially. Increased to such a smothering amount that the villages are suffering under the weight of unrestricted tourism. Cruise ships pose the most significant challenge. Tourists from the boats are brought over by ferry and bus and inundate the 5 villages to such an extent that streets are impassable. The streets (in many case street) are narrow. And can not absorb the masses who in the summer arrive in numbers that are inconceivable. I hope that one day the villages can create some system of regulation, but who knows. It's Italy. And the money that locals are able to make hawking t-shirts and renting rooms is significantly easier that the money they make cultivating wine on mountainous hillsides whose incline make any motorized cultivation assistance nearly impossible. Long ago, winemaking was of paramount importance to the region. But the work required to cultivate on the vertical hillsides is arduous. Veronelli, a famous Italian journalist defines local winegrowers as "crazy angels" whose work protects the beautiful and fragile Cinque Terre. Grapes are grown on mountains terraced with dry stone walls. If you were to add together the miles of dry stone walls that are built, and re-built (as a result of damage from both neglect and landslides) in the vineyards of Cinque Terre, the amount would equal the length of The Great Wall of China. Without the walls, landslides would destroy the region. Helicopters drop loads of stone on the mountainsides. Rocks must be then be transported to the site of each stone wall by wheel barrel. When damage occurs, stones need to be removed individually by hand. Put into piles according to size to be used again when repairing the wall. During the harvest grapes are collected, carried on shoulders in bins from the vineyard to a monorail where they are brought down the hillside on a monorail to the village. From here, they are transported, again on shoulders, to individual cantinas. Although I much prefer red wine, in Cinque Terre, I drink white. Because it is what is locally produced. Two types of wine are produced here: Cinque Terre D.O.C. (white) and Sciacchetra D.O.C the region's revered amber colored dessert wine. Tourism seems to be a mixed blessing in Cinque Terre. The visitors who seem to be most appreciated, and I am sure get the most from their experience, are those who stay in the one of the villages for several nights. Once the day trippers have left, those who remain have opportunities to speak to locals about their home. To learn about its culture. To do more than snap a photo in a beautiful spot, post it on Instagram and check it off their list. These are the conversations that we shared in the bar on that rainy afternoon. Stories of a place that is really struggling to maintain its heritage. And its sanity. And during that hour wait in the bar we were given an opportunity to eat sponge cake dipped into Sciacchetra. Bought for us by our new friend who wanted to share with us a speciality of his region.
I always leave time to have experiences like this on my intimate trips to Italy. They are invaluable, and often favorite moments. Yes, I'll make sure we have a reservation for dinner at a restaurant we would never get into without a reservation. And we will have destinations and even itineraries mapped out. I will be sure to bring you to meet folks (artists, musicians, and on the trip to Sicily a falconer) who will share with us a piece of their lives. I spend hours and hours and hours reading blogs and tips from people who have been to Italy and discovered really unique and special experiences and places and people. These discoveries supplement those I have found on my own travels. I'll share them with you. And promise to leave some time to allow for us to make discoveries of our own! I am so very excited for all of my upcoming trips. Come along! We will have FUN!
Karin Mallory Presents: Intimate Trips to Italy is truly a labor of love. Love of a country. Its history and its people. Its landscapes, villages, cities, buildings and art. Its food. Its culture and tradition. Travel with me in very small groups of adventurous, fun and curious travelers. I look forward to sharing some of my favorite spots. And discovering others together!