by Ludovica Schiaroli
Interview with Stefano and Alessandro, maintenance workers in the Cinque Terre National Park, who were able to transform their passion for drystone walls into a job.
All you have to do is to turn your back to the sea and the view is exceptional. What is beautiful is not only the blue of the Gulf of Poets but the different shades of green that in this period color the mountain overlooking the town of Riomaggiore. This is an ancient landscape made of strips of land, drystone walls, partly cultivated and partly abandoned, vineyards and a path that leads from the center of the village to the Sanctuary of Montenero. It is called the Via Grande and represents the ancient road that led pilgrims and devotees to the sanctuary, to Portovenere and to the other villages of the Cinque Terre.
Nowadays, always more tourists decide to venture out on the narrow and steep path and this is possible thanks to a project of the Cinque Terre Park that, since just over a year, has created a task force of 12 trained and specialized people, who take care of the maintenance and enhancement of the Park’s paths.
The Park’s Maintainers
Stefano Cancedda and Alessandro Fichera take care of the area belonging to the Municipality of Riomaggiore, which includes a total amount of 48 km of trails. They are one of the four teams working on the trails on the instruction of the Park’s Authority.
I meet them after about forty minutes of walking, while they are finishing fixing a drystone wall on the Via Grande. Along the path, we can see the many interventions carried out to secure the walls and the pavement and to make the path perfectly accessible.
“Our job is to keep the paths clean, cut down trees if there is a danger of collapse, restore and secure the stonewalls” – explains Stefano as he continues to move the stones and then insert them with great skill in a wall under (re)construction – “Unfortunately, nowadays there are no more 4500 inhabitants like in the eighties, we are little more than a thousand and so there are fewer and fewer of us working in the woods and in the strips”.
It is a demanding job that in summertime starts early in the morning when the sun is not yet high in the sky, whereas in winter weather conditions make it possible to work for the whole day. Although it demands much, this job brings also many satisfactions: “We’ve been doing this work for a year and the first months were hard, we cut and cut… there was vegetation everywhere, everything was abandoned… there’s still a lot to do but the first results are coming,” continues Alessandro as he tells us how last winter, after two months of work, they managed to reopen the road to Cacinagora, the first residential settlement of Riomaggiore, which had been closed for thirty years.
Each village has its own style
Just as walls are not all the same, similarly there are different schools and techniques for building them. Already moving from Riomaggiore to Manarola things change. “Each village has its own style, in Manarola they are very precise, they go with the wire and want them all straight and precise – says Stefano – I learned instead from my grandfather who told me that what is important is to balance the stones well, then it doesn’t matter if something comes out. On the contrary he said: “leave room for the bird to lean on…” sometimes they would leave a crumb, I remember, my grandfather left some spikes that came out and put some bread on it…”.
Then there are Volastra, Corniglia… each with their own style of building walls.
The art of knowing the stones
Of course, making a drystone wall is a great work of ingenuity, because in addition to theory, you need a lot of practice. You need to understand how to act depending on the state of preservation of the wall, whether it is totally destroyed or if it just needs to be repaired and you have to make do with what you have. “A bit like it used to be” – and Stefano points to the straight mountain above Riomaggiore, and tells me that this was the old Schiappasassi quarry, where all the sandstone used to build part of the walls and roads leading down to the village comes from – “there were not many quarries here, if you look closely you can still see the path of the stone when they made it fall to the valley… even in the walls they put whatever they found”.
It takes always two to build a wall: one passes the stone and the other one fixes it.
Each stone has a name and, depending on its shape and size, will be placed in an exact point of the wall. “First of all,” Stefano continues, “you separate the stones from the earth and then you focus on them. The biggest ones serve to make the base and give strength to the wall, a bit like the teste de pigua (sheep’s heads), nowadays they call them balon (ball), because they are large and have a round shape. The recausi are placed behind the wall and used to drain water; the ciapele are flat and serve to create a sort of alignment of the surface, whereas to fill in we use the triduei, which are small stones to be used in the upper part of the wall to even it all out. In Riomaggiore, the longer ones are called belinotti and are placed in the central part of the wall”.
This is what they call the stones in Riomaggiore but of course, in Manarola, Volastra, Monterosso and Corniglia they might not understand you.
How to become a Park Maintainer
Firstly, it takes passion. Alessandro and Stefano are sure of this, and their story is a confirmation. “I started moving stones when I was a child with my grandfather – says Stefano – it started like this, you passed the stones and watched what old people did. My satisfaction is rebuilding the walls, if I think of the effort of our old people, what they built, this is their legacy; if we abandon them, everything will fall down and then what do we do here, a giant beach?”
Alessandro is from La Spezia, but he used to come to the Cinque Terre as a young boy and has had a passion for dry stone walls ever since. “I was a farrier for many years, I am good at breaking stones. Up here, in the silence, all I hear is the sound of cicadas and of the hammer breaking the stone. This job makes me happy.”
Both Stefano Cancedda and Alessandro Fichera became maintainers after attending a course organized by the Cinque Terre Park last year.
Is paths’ maintainer a job for young people?
Stefano and Alessandro say yes. Provided, of course, that you are willing to work hard. The compensation, however, is working in a wonderful environment in contact with nature. “When we took the course, in 2020, we hardly reached ten people – says Stefano – this year instead, maybe also because of Covid-19, it was sold out”.
As soon as the works on the Via Grande are finished, Stefano and Alessandro will move to the Scalasanta, the old staircase near the Telegraph, “beautiful with huge stone blocks dated around the year one thousand”. Looking around, it is not hard to picture the men and women who worked along these paths, everything has remained (almost) as it was then.
“Once, from Monterosso to Riomaggiore, there were 220 rings, starting from the mountains and going all the way down to the sea, stone paths that shaped these mountains, – says Stefano – a sight.
Even then, I’m sure, many people, after having looked at the sea, would turn their backs and look at the mountain, at the paths traced by man, at the orderly walls that followed one after the other, and their gaze remained fixed there.