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I’ll stop you right there. It’s not why you think. It’s not because of the 5 quaint, medieval villages, it’s because of what’s protecting them–extensive landscape terraces.

When I set out to visit Liguria and le Cinque Terre region, I didn’t realize I was going in so naive until I started to do my research. Even as an Italian, I realized that I, my mother, and even some of her and my Italian friends had no idea why Le Cinque Terre were considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s not a super known fact as to why they are, mainly because they are overshadowed by the cute medieval seaside villages at the bottom of the cliffs that create a bottleneck effect. But those medieval villages wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the UNESCO World Heritage site that protects them. So I set out to uncover why are Le Cinque Terre a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Wine and olive oil are a component of what keeps le Cinque Terre alive and makes it a land protected by UNESCO. The agricultural landscape you see enveloping these five seaside villages are what are protecting the towns from disappearing. As you walk through the five villages and look up at the cliffs, or as you drive through the winding roads and look down at the towns, you will see layers and layers of what looks like steep steps cut into the cliffs and tumbling down into the sea. Upon careful inspection, you realize that these steps are an extensive 7,000 km (4,350 miles) handmade, dry stone walled terrace that wraps around le Cinque Terre built for vineyards and olive groves. Let me repeat that…this dry stone wall is handmade.

Without these dry stone walls the 5 seaside towns and medieval towns dotting the le Cinque Terre coast are at risk of destruction via landslides and mudslides during heavy rains. Creating these steep slopes is no easy task, especially in this inhospitable terrain. The walls constantly break down and need to be maintained (of course all by hand). Unfortunately, there has been a decrease in the number of dry stone wall workers and farmers. Because of this, the terraces have begun to deteriorate, leaving the towns below at risk.

Now that you know the truth, you understand why tasting Cinque Terre is something that cannot be missed. During my time in Liguria at le Cinque Terre, I stayed at the boutique hotel La Sosta di Ottone III. Their mission is to educate guests and help them answer the question ‘why are le Cinque Terre a UNESCO World Heritage Site’ through various interactive experiences throughout the area. Their most coveted experience being their dinner Discovery tasting menu, which has gained Michelin recognition for its plates prepared with local and regional seasonal ingredients. The dinner takes guests on a sensorial tasting tour of the region by walking you through the products that keep le Cinque Terre alive and acquainting you with the true heroes of le Cinque Terre–the people who are maintaining the land.

During your time at le Cinque Terre visiting a vintner and getting to know the work that goes behind the dry stone wall is a must. Not only to understand the culture and appreciate the Cinque Terre as they stand here today, but to increase recognition and knowledge for people about the important role these dry stone walls play in maintaining this land. If we don’t educate people on this crucial point and help drive more workers to the walls, in a few years the beauty of le Cinque Terre may no longer exist. Whether it’s through a tour of a winery and dry stone wall, done through La Sosta’s local network or an external tour operator, or a road trip through the coast as you admire the landscaped terraces, make sure to educate yourself on the landsaped terrace’s of le Cinque Terre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

>> Next: How to Get to Cinque Terre: Cinque Terre Express Train

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