Helen McKerralThe terraced food gardens of Cinque Terre

Forget award-winning landscape design, perfectly pruned hedges or immaculate lawns. If you want to be inspired by the sheer ingenuity, tenacity and determination of gardeners, the precipitous, terraced food gardens of Cinque Terre in coastal northern Italy are hard to beat.

Growing food fascinates me, so a highlight of Geoff’s and my visit to Italy was Cinque Terre (the ‘Five Lands’), a short stretch of plunging coastline in the Italian Riviera. (See a location map here)

The picturesque pastel buildings of each of the five villages cling to steep-sided narrow valleys on the coast, or perch on clifftops.

Italy's picturesque Cinque Terre

Italy’s picturesque Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

02b Cinque Terre Italy

Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

There are no roads along the coast; instead, the villages are linked by boats, an outstanding series of walking trails and a (largely) underground railway that tunnels through the headlands. (More info here)

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Cinque Terre

These are traditionally used by the locals, but now offer a wonderful opportunity for tourists. Some of the best-known trails are regularly closed due to mudslides during winter and spring rains, but don’t let this put you off because there is such an extensive network that keen (and fit!) hikers will always find plenty to enjoy.

Over the centuries, villagers have created terraced gardens on the steep coastline. These terraces are so extensive they transform entire hillsides along that section of coast, and have been compared to the Great Wall of China.

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

The entire region is a UNESCO-listed Heritage Site.

So join Geoff and me as, over a couple days, we explore tracks from southernmost Rio Maggiore, through all the villages, to Monterosso al Mare in the north.

We start early to avoid the sun, and our stout boots are a blessing. Even before we leave the villages, I love the densely planted and underplanted vegie gardens of lettuces, beans and tomatoes squeezed into tiny corners …

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

and the potted specimens that brighten dark, narrow laneways.

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Cinque Terre

Very quickly we begin to climb

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… and climb

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… and climb!

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It’s hot, sweaty walking but, away from the villages and from a higher vantage point, we begin to see the sheer scale of those terraced gardens.

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Cinque Terre

With a fear of heights you would not be able to garden here, because one misstep while weeding and it’s a couple thousand foot plummet to the rocks below! Here are some potatoes that some hardy gardener has tended…

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Cinque Terre

and I’d be tending these vines well before the glass of vino at lunch!

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Cinque Terre

I’m totally captivated by the ingenuity of the gardeners here that allow them to grow in such incredible terrain. Many vines are trained horizontally in a grid pattern at knee height.

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Cinque Terre

Almost everything is underplanted – beans (or spuds?) under olives and pomegranates …

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

… and transporting netting in and out on foot every season would be horrendous, so it’s left neatly bundled and tied in situ instead.

Pumpkins and melons thrive in the dappled shade of olives trees.

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

Every spot is utilised, with a fig right beside the path.

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Cinque Terre

A pragmatic gardener adapts a shrine for storage…

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Cinque Terre

… and how on earth were these plants watered before the advent of galvanised pipe and blueline?

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Cinque Terre

And here, as elsewhere around the world, gardeners who have installed their own irrigation systems know that, when they die, no subsequent owner will ever be able to nut out the exact workings of that system!

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Cinque Terre

All the vegies look remarkably healthy, with both copper-based and sulphur based fungicide dusts in evidence.

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

The tracks further inland grade to shady forest, with beautiful wildflowers such as campanula vetch …

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

… and acanthus.

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Cinque Terre

Here’s Geoff amongst the lychnis …

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Cinque Terre

Every now and then, the paths emerge from the forest and there are gloriously breathtaking ocean views.

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Cinque Terre

Of course, another highlight is the stonework itself, done by thousands of artisans and amateurs over the centuries. Cobbled paving and shallow steps, smoothed by tens of thousands of footsteps, on the main pathways …

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

… alternate with narrow higgledy-piggledy stairs that seem more suited to mountain goats than people.

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

There is beautiful artistry too, visible in the ruins flanking the path…

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Cinque Terre

and in bridges.

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Cinque Terre

And oh, the walls themselves! Built by so many different people, over such a span of time, mortared and dry, every one of them is a little different.

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

Wow.

The scale is almost inconceivable what must be thousands of kilometres of walls. Makes the seventy square metres of walling in my garden seem rather pathetic! On the other hand, it’s great to see juxtaposed so many individual and unique walls, and how they reflect the local materials and style and hands of their makers.

Beautiful living walls, with succulents and wildflowers growing out of them.

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

I’m endlessly fascinated and awed.

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Cinque Terre

How on earth did they get all that stone here? Presumably quarried from the immediate area, not carried in by hand, surely? And then we round a corner and there is a section under construction! Hooray!

This guy sure knows his stuff.

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Cinque Terre

And aha, that’s how the rocks, and construction material come in nowadays (look closely below left)!

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Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

So my advice to gardeners and plant lovers visiting Cinque Terre, is to skip the sardine-can ferries and the crowded beaches.

Cinque Terre

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Cinque Terre

Instead, pull on your hiking boots and explore the walking trails. You won’t see immaculate lawns or award winning landscape architecture but, in my opinion, Cinque Terre’s evolved, terraced landscape trumps the achievement of any individual gardener. Cinque Terre is an incredibly inspiring, unique example of how much gardeners can achieve, with so little, over centuries and in the most challenging terrain imaginable.

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Cinque Terre

Wonderful stuff, just wonderful.

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

8 thoughts on “The terraced food gardens of Cinque Terre

  1. Eugene on said:

    “Forget award-winning landscape design”… I have Helen, I have. Long, long ago my epiphany came and was cemented by my northern Italian father-in-law who created a miracle of a garden in the burbs. It was edible, decorative, practical (they are a practical people), handmade and well loved.

    All the plants and seeds came from neighbours and relations, with the odd cutting appearing out of Nonas handbag after the walk back from church. It was a garden of memories and meaning that also kept the budget ticking along nicely. Can’t ask any more than that from a 1/4 acre.

    My steep block has drawn inspiration from the now dead in-laws and what I’ve seen of Amalfi. Have to organise a trip to Cinque Terre now.

    Thanks for that. Really enjoyed it.

    • helen on said:

      What a lovely comment, Eugene – thank you! Your Nonna sounds like the classic gardener – handbag cuttings!

  2. Loved your post Helen. You really brought that special part of the world to life. This is so much better than what you’d read in a magazine story – lots of great pics and heartfelt comments.

    • helen on said:

      Thanks, Helen! I hoped that there would be gardeners other than myself interested in the esoteric minutiae of gardening, like crazy irrigation systems, and the way the nets have been bundled in the off season!

  3. Jeff Howes on said:

    A great article and photos and having been there and done a few of the walks it bought back memories.
    I understand a lot of the terraces are falling into disrepair because the younger residence would rather live in the cities.

    • helen on said:

      Oh that’s so sad, Jeff! But understandable, I suppose… kids nowadays, sigh ;-).

      I chatted with many locals while we were there but, at the end of June, tourists outnumbered locals 3:1, so the latter were scarce! I’d actually love to visit mid winter with wild weather, spectacular seas and no tourists (the cliff walks might be closed, but I bet the atmosphere of the towns is vastly different).
      Without the gardens, the cliff-side walks would be, well, just more cliff-side walks as you’d experience anywhere else. It’s the *cultivated* aspect of these cliffs that makes them so unique. Hopefully this is recognised, and state and local governments at various levels will support those who wish to continue farming these areas. If the terraces became overrun jungle, there would be nothing to set this area aside from others.

  4. Helen – what a wonderful blog and adventure! Enjoyed reading it so much. Fascinating photos too. You’d think the advent of a helicopter to bring in the rocks for the new walling would at least appeal to some of the next generation. Keep up the good walking (and blogging). Jennifer

  5. helen on said:

    Thanks Jennifer! As I mentioned to Helen above, I wasn’t sure whether gardeners would be interested in stuff that’s not knock-your-socks-off-stunning design-wise, but amazing nonetheless. But gardening is such a broad church, isn’t it? It includes so many folk who like gardening, and/or plants… of every conceivable kind and combination. Fortunately, the wonder of the internet is that you discover that you are never alone in your interests and enthusiasms!

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