There’s a great deal of the vertical about the Cinque Terre.

Houses hanging on for dear life.

Stacking fields and houses

It’s fascinating to contemplate the generations of activity it has taken to terrace entire hillsides for farming. For not just hundreds, but thousands of years people have been eking out a living on the precarious hillsides surrounding the Cinque Terre. It’s clearly not a rich living with olives and small vineyards being the staple crops. There aren’t even any meadows for sheep. But then in the other direction there is the wide, calm sea.

And the houses? Well really there’s nowhere else to put them but right on top of each other.

Stored boat.

Stacking boats

When you are a fishing community and your only access to the water is a small slipway, the issue of where to put your boats is a serious one. The main street in Manarola is lined with boats parked outside houses in much the same way you see cars parked in driveways in a suburban street.

More unusually though several of the towns we’ve been in have boats that appear to be in completely inaccessible places. In Corniglia we wandered up some steps into a small plaza perched a good 70 metres up a cliffside. And sitting in the tiny plaza was a wooden fishing boat.

Manarola cemetery.

Stacking bodies

So land is at a premium – what do you do with the bodies? In Manarola they have created a high-rise cemetery. Built on top of the Northern headland the cemetery looks like a half-completed apartment building from a distance. It’s a series of concrete squares stacked on top of each other, with the occasional square filled in. It’s only when you get closer you realise the perspective is wrong – the empty squares are not apartment-window sized, they are coffin sized. As a coffin is slid into a waiting slot, the end of the slot is filled with a marble slab engraved with the inhabitant’s details and a photo. To foreign eyes there’s something especially spooky in visiting a graveyard like this.

Cafe and washing.

Stacking washing

As you wander around the towns of the Cinque Terre you realise there is a distinctive and persistent smell. Is it the fresh wind blowing in off the sea? Is it the breeze off the herb-covered hillsides? Nope, it’s the smell of freshly laundered sheets. Everywhere you go there are sheets, tablecloths, clothes hung out to dry from windows and balconies over the streets. Get downwind and you get a chemist’s version of the wonderful fresh smells that actually surround the area.

Sedimentary rock layers.

The exception

It’s mildly amusing to notice the one exception to all this horizontal stacking is the very thing that is the cause of all the rest.

The cliffs of the Cinque Terre are made of vast plates of sedimentary rock. Sometime in the past these huge flat sheets were forced up to sit vertically.