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.
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)
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.
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 …
and the potted specimens that brighten dark, narrow laneways.
Very quickly we begin to climb
… and climb
… and climb!
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.
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…
and I’d be tending these vines well before the glass of vino at lunch!
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.
Almost everything is underplanted – beans (or spuds?) under olives and pomegranates …
… 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.
Every spot is utilised, with a fig right beside the path.
A pragmatic gardener adapts a shrine for storage…
… and how on earth were these plants watered before the advent of galvanised pipe and blueline?
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!
All the vegies look remarkably healthy, with both copper-based and sulphur based fungicide dusts in evidence.
The tracks further inland grade to shady forest, with beautiful wildflowers such as campanula vetch …
… and acanthus.
Here’s Geoff amongst the lychnis …
Every now and then, the paths emerge from the forest and there are gloriously breathtaking ocean views.
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 …
… alternate with narrow higgledy-piggledy stairs that seem more suited to mountain goats than people.
There is beautiful artistry too, visible in the ruins flanking the path…
and in bridges.
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.
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.
I’m endlessly fascinated and awed.
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.
And aha, that’s how the rocks, and construction material come in nowadays (look closely below left)!
So my advice to gardeners and plant lovers visiting Cinque Terre, is to skip the sardine-can ferries and the crowded beaches.
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.
Wonderful stuff, just wonderful.