The Labors of Ercole
Volunteer to Preserve the Five Lands of Cinque Terre in Italy
Ercole, a spry septuagenarian in shorts, leads us up a slope outside of Vernazza, in Northern Italys Cinque Terre. His job
is to rebuild part of a dry-laid stone wall that is holding up half the mountain were standing on. Were here to help.
As I watch his labors, Ercole does seem very much like a Hercules. Ten of us eagerly try to keep him supplied with the right size stones
at just the right time, but a partial language barrier and a total experience gap keep us always a step-and-a-half behind him. He lifts, places, adjusts,
and changes his mind, not slowed by the heat radiating off the wall or the glare of the sun on the rock. The master plan for each stone evolves as he works,
yet is buried in tradition.
Vernazza is one of five towns in Cinque Terre (Five Lands), a dramatic, romantic stretch of coast at the top of the shin
of Italys boot, facing the Mediter-ranean. The town steps down in layers to a sheltered harbor filled with colorful dinghies and small cruising boats
moored for the day. Transportation between towns is limited to train, boat, or on hiking trails that offer one postcard view after another.
Tourists are loving Cinque Terre to destruction but the Italian Environmental Impact Assessment Center and the Municipality of
Vernazza, is trying to preserve it through an experimental sustainable tourism program. Participants spend four hours each morning repairing the landscape.
In exchange, they gain an understanding of local culture while working, eating, and conversing with the Vernazzani.
Alessandro Villa and Olga Chitotti, who conceived of the program, worked alongside us the whole time. They shared their hopes for Cinque
Terres future over glasses of the good local wine and remarkable dinners prepared by townspeople eager to parade the local gastronomy.
The next morning we climbed the terraces to work in a vineyard run by Ercoles son Bartolo.
Bartolo and his wife Liza make all their own wine, of several varieties, selling some and trading what they dont drink for other
locally produced goods. They still do most of it by hand, using methods that have been used for generations.
Grapevines in Cinque Terre are trained to grow up about four feet and then horizontally, forming a canopy under which the grapes are
protected from the sea winds. As I settled into the dark underbelly of the vineyard, I was enveloped by the musty smell of soil and the heady aroma of ripe
fruit. The wet earth soaked my seat as I sat, clippers in hand, and loaded baskets with chardonnay grapes.
Over the course of the three days, we learned about the impact that tourism has on a small town like Vernazza. The population of 800
doubles on a typical summer day. Some tourists stay for a couple of hours, buy gelato and postcards, and t-shirts, and leave for the next town. Some stay
for a night or two. Some return every year.
All create waste. Sanitary sewer lines and water treatment plants are at capacity. Nature-loving hikers increase the potential for erosion
with every footstep. None of this is immediately fatal to the well-being of Vernazza, but it is eating away at the towns surroundings and resources.
Tourism and agriculture are the primary industries; neither creates great financial surpluses. Alessandro and Olga hope that the working holiday program will
be the first step towards solving the problem by raising awareness.
It worked for me. One stone wall is repaired, a stretch of trail is cleaned, and the grapes we picked are crushed and aging in bottles.
But I can see theres still much to do. And Ercole would love a few good helpers.
To find out more about the program, visit www.protectcinqueterre.com.