Even paradise needs a gardener
Hard labour in paradise can be fun on holiday
In 2011 a violent rain storm caused landslips that buried the main street and piazza of Vernazza (above) and killed three people. Photograph: IStockphoto
Lugging buckets of soil and rocks up a steep, unstable slope, early on a damp morning, or weeding an olive grove in the midday Mediterranean sun, probably do not figure high on most people’s favourite holiday plans.
Yet the unanimous verdict among young backpackers, after carrying out these tasks for the Save Vernazza project last month, was that they had spent few happier hours in three months’ travel around Europe with Busabout.
This travel agency usually recommends guided city visits and rural hikes to its clients. The exquisitely picturesque village of Vernazza, in Italy’s Cinque Terre region, on the Ligurian Riviera south of Genoa, is one of its most popular destinations.
The Cinque Terre combines the gastronomic delights of five romantic villages with opportunities for spectacular hikes through the dramatically terraced vineyards and olive groves on the vertiginous hillsides above them.
The wildflowers at this time of year are breathtaking. Great masses of broom and vetch splash the green macchia vegetation with yellow and blue, studded with the brilliant red of thousands of poppies.
Canary-like serins and assorted warblers chorus with blackbirds through the day; frogs and toads serenade the nights; rare salamanders can be found in old drinking troughs.
So Vernazza can easily seem like paradise for the eco-tourist, especially for those who like their outdoor exertions to be rewarded with a glass of local wine and fresh seafood in the evening.
This paradise suddenly turned into hell, however, on October 25th, 2011. An unprecedentedly violent rain storm caused landslips that buried the main street and piazza of Vernazza under four metres of mud and rocks, and killed three of its citizens.
The Cinque Terre is both a Unesco World Heritage Site and a National Park, so funds flowed in quite quickly to restore the village itself. On the face of it, the clean-up has been remarkably successful, with most shops and restaurants now resurrected from the debris.
However, the few small farmers who still maintain the terraced agriculture that gives the region its distinctive character are finding it much harder to find financial support to repair the widespread damage to their properties.
And big questions remain about the instability of the slopes, exacerbated by the slow collapse of the many terraces abandoned over the last century, and about whether enough is being done to prevent another disaster.
Continuing sharp increases in monthly rainfall have already precipitated a series of further, though smaller, landslips.
Yet the National Park administration remains in disarray after its first president was charged with misuse of public funds three years ago. Its ambitious plans for widespread restoration of abandoned terraces appear to be on hold, though some progress is being made in the previously neglected area of scientific research.
After the October crisis, three American women with long and deep ties to the village launched a volunteer initiative, Save Vernazza, which aims to “transform a devastating natural disaster into an opportunity to create and implement a common vision for a sustainable future”. It has already accomplished some significant work in the village itself, including the restoration of a chapel and a bridge. And Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Rogers has donated the design for a bold project to redesign Vernazza’s public spaces.