Extending 15km along the eastern Ligurian coast, between Levanto and La Spezia, the jagged, steep coastal landscape has been intensely shaped over the centuries with stone terraces for growing vines and olive trees. The area was almost inaccessible except by sea, until the construction of the Genoa-La Spezia railway line in the 1870s.
The UNESCO site, which stretches south starting from Punta Mesco, includes the territory of Porto Venere, the three islands of its archipelago (Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto), and the Cinque Terre, the collective name for the five villages of Monterosso, Vernazza , Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
The terraces extend along the steep slopes from a few meters above sea level to 400m above sea level, the highest altitude suitable for cultivation. They were mostly built in the 12th century, when the Saracen raids from the sea had ceased. Dry stone walls are often carefully constructed with rough sandstone blocks, joined with pebbles taken from the ground. The maintenance of the terraces and the cultivation of vines and olive trees reflect a community approach to agriculture and a collaboration and cooperation of the communities, without which such crops would not have been possible.
The natural garrigues and the vegetation of the maquis scrub survive intact in the upper parts of the steep ridge. The nature of the terrain and the vegetation offer food and shelter to a wide range of insect and animal species.
The local communities have adapted to this seemingly rough and inhospitable environment by living in compact settlements on the coast or in the small villages on the hills (Volastra, Groppo, Drignana, San Bernardino, Campiglia), erected directly on the rock through narrow streets. The general use of natural stone for roofing gives these settlements a characteristic appearance. They are generally built up around medieval religious buildings or castles. The terraces are punctuated by countless small isolated or grouped stone huts (for example in Fossola, Tramonti, Monesteroli, Schiara) which are used as a temporary shelter during the harvest.
The origins of the five main villages of the Cinque Terre date back to the late Middle Ages. Starting from the North-West, the first is the fortified centre of Monterosso al Mare, a coastal settlement stretched along two short valleys and facing one of the few beaches in the area. Vernazza is built up along the Vernazzola River behind the rocky spur that protects the town from the sea. Corniglia is the only village that was not built on the coast itself, but on a high promontory jutting out towards the sea. Manarola is a small village where the houses are built partly on a rocky spur that descends towards the sea and partly along the Groppo River. The most south-eastern village is Riomaggiore: its houses are arranged along the narrow valley of the Rio Maggiore, now covered by the main road.
Porto Venere was an important cultural and commercial centre of the Roman period, the archaeological remains of which survive nearby. Its houses are aligned compactly along the culminating point in the Doria castle that dominates the settlement and forms a historical palimpsest over many traces of its medieval past.
Along the coast of Porto Venere are the three islands, Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto, noteworthy not only for their natural beauty, but also for the numerous remains of the first monastic establishments they housed.
The rugged coastal landscape offers great visual impact, with its high compact settlements and spectacular terraces formed over a millennium. It is an exceptional testimony to the way in which traditional communities have interacted and still interact with their difficult and isolated environment, giving rise to a sustainable lifestyle.
The landscape and the settlements as we know them today have been passed down to us thanks to the diligence and perseverance with which, over the years, the populations have constantly maintained the terraces’ supporting walls to allow agriculture to flourish. The traditional community and collaborative viticultural and agricultural system is an essential attribute for the site’s outstanding universal value.
At the time of registration, it was estimated that 130 metres of walls per hectare of vineyard, and 30-300m per hectare of olive grove, needed urgent reconstruction. Since then, the linking mechanisms between tourist activity and landscape maintenance have been activated, and programmes for reclaiming the terraced landscape have allowed the recovery of dozens of hectares of vineyards and olive groves. In addition, common wine marketing activities have been strengthened.
Today, several abandoned terraces are extremely vulnerable to landslides and must be mapped and recorded. Reforestation is also a threat to terracing and its impact must be addressed.
Some buildings have been restored, so that on one hand the additions of different historical periods have been handed down to us and, on the other, the oldest part of them has been maintained. Today, this area of the territory can be considered as a particular portrait of the history, economy, and life of the Ligurian communities.
Despite the damage suffered by some villages due to floods, the effects have been limited to specific areas, leaving most of the landscape and the settlements’ characteristics without substantial or permanent change. Although the damage has been limited to certain areas, the affected areas have not yet been completely restored. The structures’ restoration must be evaluated for their impact on the outstanding universal value before being carried out. The floods highlighted the site's vulnerability to natural disasters and the need to develop risk preparation measures.
The site’s visual layout is vulnerable to anticipated and unexpected changes and must be adequately protected.
The site is an example of an "organic cultural landscape in evolution." Authenticity is linked to the support of traditional agricultural and viticultural systems and their integrated settlements. These have been maintained despite the pressures caused by modern socio-economic development. However, the terraced agricultural system, including the maintenance of terraces and water management systems, remains highly vulnerable and will need major support to allow farmers to add value to their products to support their activities and the landscape.