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Cinque Terre, the beginnings: we were not fishermen


The Cinque Terre enchant most of the visitors who have come from far away for years to admire these small five coloured villages overlooking the sea. Often they don’t know anything about their history, how they were born and how long time ago. Hardly anyone knows that until the early twentieth century they were inhabited only by farmers, not by fishermen. And that their wine, already in 1300, was considered one of the best and was praised by many writers of the time.


The origin of the name

The name “Cinque Terre” appears for the first time in the 15th century when this area was under the control of the maritime republic of Genoa. In one of his reports to Genoa, a clerk of the republic united the five villages Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso under a single place name. He found that they many characteristics in common. The name “Cinque Terre” survived through the centuries even if today many visitors are confused by the word “Terra” which improperly suggest the idea of finding five islands, or five hills. The word “Terra”, in this case, stands for “little medieval village”.



The beginning: dry stone walls

The first settlers founded their hamlets in the hills above the Cinque Terre a thousand years ago, probably around the 10th century. They were mostly inhabitants of the Val di Vara, who, following the demographic growth and to save themselves from epidemics, climbed the mountain and created agricultural villages above the sea, at the height of today’s sanctuaries: Soviore, Reggio, San Bernardino, Volastra and Montenero. 

Soils were morphologically unsuitable for cultivation due to their steepness, but the climate was better than the hinterland, which made it possible to cultivate vines and olive trees. To overcome the first problem, terracing was created through the construction of dry stone walls along the coast, which today cover an area of about 7,000 km (on just 14 km of coastline!).


No fishermen but great wine makers!

The development of the Cinque Terre area therefore began from the mountains, by a population of peasants, who were not at all accustomed to fishing. The wine trade has always been the main method of livelihood.

Around 1300, wine made the fortune of the villages of the Cinque Terre: the white “Vernaccia” was considered very valuable, moreover it was transportable, unlike other wines. For this it was also very expensive. Dante even speaks about it in the XXIV canto of Purgatory, in which he defines it as the “best white wine you can find”.



And the sea?

It was not a safe place: in the twelfth century the Saracens were finally defeated, a people of pirates from North Africa, who controlled and spread terror on the coasts for at least 3 centuries.

In the sixteenth century other Pirates arrived, Turkish and Berber marauders from the East, Tunis and Algiers, who went up the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian seas, sacking villages and raiding men and women.

Even today there are several surveillance outposts scattered along the coast, all visible between one and the other. The attacks on coastal towns will thus resume vigor and will end only in the mid-1600s, when the watchtowers are now numerous and well coordinated and the development of reliable firearms, cannons and the like, makes landing difficult.

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Published :
January 21, 2024
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