Up on the cliffs of the Cinque Terre, a piece of Italy’s heritage coastline has regained its agricultural identity after being restored thanks to the Fondazione Zegna.
Perhaps it’s the shape of this spur of rock and maquis pointing seaward. The landscapes of Punta Mesco, which sits at the prow of the Cinque Terre national park in Italy, have a look of defiance, but of quiet defiance, thoughno gauntlets are thrown down here. They issue a silent challenge to hikers negotiating the rocky paths, breathing in scents of myrtle and thyme as they go. For years, Ligurian farmers took up the challenge, coming here to earn their share of the riches produced by these splendid, arid hillsides, building dry-stone walls to create terraces, planting olive trees, vines and fig trees, and escorting livestock between summer and winter pastures. From the Middle Ages to the late 20th century, they sculpted a horizontal oasis, green on land, azure beyond. There followed a period of neglect, and a cancelled real estate project. Rain degraded the farmhouse and the vines ran wild. The opening closed up again.
Then a series of patrons and institutions, led by the FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) and the Fondazione Zegna, all active in the conservation of Italy’s natural environment and heritage, set themselves a new challenge: to revive the former farm so that walkers, their feet firmly planted in the earth, could discover how man’s intervention can take the form of a serene dialogue with nature. The walk there begins with a two-hour warm up between the coves of Levanto and Monterosso, among cooling oaks. Then the terrain becomes less rocky and the broom bushes part, revealing two ocher and white facades by the path, perched above a row of terraces and square vegetable plots. It took three years to clear the undergrowth, hoe, plant out again, rebuild the walls and winch in the slate tiles, beehives, young olive trees, and zucchini plants by helicopter. Opened last summer, this place of plenty still looks very neat and tidy, with paths swept and stakes standing erect, yet it seems to have existed forever: only the solar panels reflect the changing times. The farm has even resurrected its name, Podere Case Lovara, a reminder that these hills were for a long time inhabited by the lupo (lovara and lupo are semantically linked), the ravenous, redoubtable wolf.
“It is often thought that to conserve the environment you have to let nature run wild,” explains Anna Zegna, president of the family foundation and granddaughter of the creator of the Ermenegildo Zegna fashion house. “But here in these landscapes, which were shaped by man over centuries and then abandoned for 20 years, it was more like a painting that needed restoration.” What is the men’s fashion label doing so far from its elegant Milanese offices? “Perpetuating the heritage of my grandfather, Ermenegildo, remaining true to the ecological vision of a man who, in the 1930s already, started to reforest the mountains around his Trivero wool mill.” Two generations later, his heirs have turned this Piedmont cradle into the Oasi Zegna, a mountainous eden of 500,000 conifers. They created their foundation in 2000 to enable their philanthropic legacy to flourish on every continent.
In the shade of Punta Mesco’s olive grove, which covers 5,000 m2, a few tables have been put out where you can munch on the local focaccia and catch your breath, as you gaze at the cliffs and dream of a staircase leading down to the sea. And try and pick out Corsica, its maquis-covered cousin, poking through the clouds. Next year, it will be possible to stay until nightfall, watching the vine leaves darken until they become indistinguishable from the stems: behind the green shutters of the grand main building, two guestrooms, already furnished and decorated, will open. Twins, both with white walls, a large cotton bed and bedside tables in dark wood. In each one, the same picture has been hung on the wall: namely, the window, revealing expanses of blue separated by a single line, the horizon, quivering with heat and salt.
In the shade of Punta Mesco’s olive grove, a few tables have been put out where you can munch on the local focaccia and catch your breath, as you gaze at the cliffs and dream of a staircase leading down to the sea.