Over the centuries, people have carefully built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Part of its charm is the lack of visible corporate development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside. The Cinque Terre area is a very popular tourist destination.
The villages of the Cinque Terre were severely affected by torrential rains which caused floods and mudslides on October 25, 2011. Nine people were confirmed killed by the floods, and damage to the villages, particularly Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, was extensive.
The first historical documents on the Cinque Terre date back to the 11th century. Monterosso and Vernazza sprang up first, while the other villages grew later, under military and political supremacy of the Republic of Genoa. In the 16th century to oppose the attacks by the Turks, the inhabitants reinforced the old forts and built new defence towers. From the year 1600, the Cinque Terre experienced a decline which reversed only in the 19th century, thanks to the construction of the Military Arsenal of La Spezia and to the building of the railway line between Genoa and La Spezia. The railway allowed the inhabitants to escape their isolation, but also brought about abandonment of traditional activities. The consequence was an increase in poverty which pushed many to emigrate abroad, at least up to the 1970s, when the development of tourism brought back wealth.
Unlike the common belief that house colors originated to distinguish the fisherman's houses, they were not painted until the late 1970s. The only village that used fishing as its main industry was Monterosso. The locals lived off vineyards and olive cultivation.
There are few roads into the Cinque Terre towns that are accessible by car: the one into Vernazza is open as of June 2012, but very narrow at many places. It leads to a parking area a kilometre from town. It is best to plan not to travel by car at all, but to park at La Spezia, for instance, and take the trains. Another good option is to drive into Levanto or Bonassola, both having well developed tourist facilities, and take the trains from this end of the Cinque Terre.
Local trains from La Spezia to Genoa and the rest of the region's network connect the Cinque Terre. Intercity trains also connect the Cinque Terre to Milan, Rome, Turin and Tuscany. The Cinque Terre tracks run most of the distance in tunnels between Riomaggiore and Monterosso. The Cinque Terre trains connect the La Spezia train station to all five towns. Unlimited day passes are available for tourists, and the trip from one village to another is five minutes or less.
A passenger ferry runs between the five villages, except Corniglia. The ferry enters Cinque Terre from Genoa's Old Harbour and La Spezia, Lerici, or Porto Venere.
A walking trail, known as Sentiero Azzurro ("Azure Trail"), used to connect the five villages but the section from Riomaggiore to Manarola called the Via dell'Amore ("Love Walk") is closed. The stretch from Manarola to Corniglia is the easiest to hike, although the main trail into Corniglia finishes with an ascent of 368 steps. The section from Manarola to Corniglia is currently closed. The section from Riomaggiore to Manarola has been closed since 2011, following the floods and landslides, with repairs delayed due to a dispute between the Riomaggiore town hall and the national park authorities over who will pay for them. In the meantime, it is still possible to walk between these villages although the trail is both steeper and longer than the (closed) path along the waterfront.
Given its location on the Mediterranean, seafood is plentiful in the local cuisine. Anchovies of Monterosso are a local specialty designated with a Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Union. The mountainsides of the Cinque Terre are heavily terraced and are used to cultivate grapes and olives. This area, and the region of Liguria, as a whole, is known for pesto, a sauce made from basil leaves, garlic, salt, olive oil, pine nuts and pecorino cheese. Focaccia is a particularly common locally baked bread product. Farinata, a typical snack found in bakeries and pizzerias, is a savoury and crunchy pancake made from a base of chick pea flour. The town of Corniglia is particularly popular for a gelato made from local honey (miele di Corniglia).
The grapes of the Cinque Terre are used to produce two locally made wines. The eponymous Cinque Terre and the Sciachetrà are both made using Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino grapes. Both wines are produced by the Cooperative Agricoltura di Cinque Terre, located between Manarola and Volastra. Other DOC producers are Forlini-Capellini, Walter de Batté, Buranco, Arrigoni.
In addition to wines, other popular local drinks include grappa, a brandy made with the pomace left from winemaking, and limoncello, a sweet liqueur flavored with lemons.
In 1998, the Italian Ministry for the Environment set up the Protected natural marine area Cinque Terre to protect the natural environment and to promote socio-economic development compatible with the natural landscape of the area. In 1999 the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre was created to conserve the ecological balance, protect the landscape, and safeguard the anthropological values of the location. Nevertheless, dwindling interest in cultivation and maintenance of the terrace walls posed a long-term threat to the site, which was for this reason included in the 2000 and 2002 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund. The organization secured grants from American Express to support a study of the conservation of Cinque Terre. Following the study, a site management plan was created.