Voluntourism: Rebuild, Restore and Preserve Vernazza

One of the most beautiful towns in Cinque Terre is Vernazza, with its stone castles, signature houses, terraced hills growing grapes for the small local wineries, and picturesque town square on the water. This town in particular is flooded with tourism everyday, but in 2011 it had an even more devastating type of flood. During a huge storm, much of the town was ruined. Four metres of muddy debris rushed into people’s homes and businesses, washing away vehicles, infrastructure and agriculture. It took months for the town to function again, and now you can barely see the marks of this natural disaster. However, there are still very real threats facing this delicate landscape. The mountains around the town that are used for farming often experiences landslides, or have become neglected, overgrown and unusable. Directly after the flood, some passionate locals created the non-profit organisation Save Vernazza, which connected those who wanted to help with the people who needed it. Seven years later, this project has not just saved Vernazza, but is helping to REBUILD, RESTORE and PRESERVE it.

I remember being on the coach last year, hearing about Save Vernazza and wondering why I would spend some of my precious backpacking budget to volunteer to ‘save’ a town that was affected by a natural disaster back in 2011, when it is obviously already functioning again as a tourist destination. However, it wasn’t until I actually got to do this activity that I understood how shallow my mindset was. Coming from working in an animal shelter, I fully appreciated the value of volunteering, having volunteered for a year myself before becoming a staff member that relied heavily on my team of dedicated and invaluable volunteers. I also foolishly underestimated how much I would enjoy myself and learn from the activity. I like the thought that what I do during my travels can help others and leave a positive mark on a place I’ve been. The idea that the plot we cleared will have a vineyard planted on it next season and be turned into wine that others will enjoy kind of brings the experience full circle.

The squad and I got the opportunity to spend a day with Lelli, a local lady who was born and raised in Vernazza. After a walking tour through the town with lots of special personal stories from her childhood, we made our way to the vineyards where we spent our morning clearing an abandoned patch of land, dislodging old wooden stakes, and getting rid of ivy and raspberry vines. After about two hours of elbow grease, it was amazing how much the squad achieved, which would’ve usually taken the two local workers (aged in their 50s and 70s) about two days. Before long on the mountainside, I was struck with a classic case of ‘volunesia’ – a noun describing the moment when you forget that you’re volunteering to help change other people’s lives, because it’s changing yours.

On our descent, we learnt about the farming practices and the processes of growing grapes and making them into alcohol. At the end we were treated with a delicious home cooked local lunch with ingredients from Lelli’s garden, as well as glasses of the lovely wine made from the vineyards we were working in earlier. We stayed and talked with these interesting locals for a long time, learning that the man who makes the wine grew up working in his father’s vineyards on the same mountains. The wine, Cheo, is quite exclusive too, as it is only sold in Cinque Terre. After an amazing morning of conversation and conservation, our hearts, minds and bellies were full. I couldn’t recommend this activity highly enough if you’re visiting Cinque Terre – I promise it’ll be just as beneficial for you as it is for the people of Vernazza, and is still very much needed in this beautiful, fragile landscape. In my opinion, this experience perfectly personifies the sentiment: “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.”

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