The brightly colored houses of Cinque Terre are world-famous. They lean on each other–tall and narrow–almost defying gravity as they sit upon rocky cliffs above the turquoise sea.
The women of the Cinque Terre are like these homes. Strong, proud, and resilient, they have similarly defied the odds to thrive in this beautiful but difficult landscape. As a female business owner based in Monterosso al Mare, I’ve been surprised to see so many women shine in traditionally male-dominated industries.
To mark Women’s History Month, I’ve asked some of the local businesswomen to share their stories. And why the women in Cinque Terre are so incredibly successful at what they do. While much has been written about this area, little has been said about the women behind it, and the legacy they have helped to create.
“My family is absolutely a matriarchy,” says Elisa Leonardini, the owner of L’Osteria restaurant in Monterosso. Her sister, Eliana, runs the other family restaurant, Da Ely, just down the caruggio (“little streets” in the Ligurian dialect). “For me, it’s completely normal this way. It’s rare to find a Ligurian woman who worked only as a housewife. We were raised to work”.
Life along the Ligurian coast has never been easy. Naturally isolated, the villages were nearly impossible to access for most of history, so the villagers learned to be resourceful. There was no paved road to access the villages until relatively recently. Additionally, the train line was only built at the turn of the last century and completed in the 1970s. Before that, visitors could only arrive at Cinque Terre by sea, or via long, scenic hiking trails that took them through terraced vineyards and steep mountains.
Simonetta Bellingeri, another matriarch who oversees Ristorante Miky and La Cantina di Miky, explains how the landscape influenced the gender roles of men and women in the area. Men worked as fishermen or sailors, meaning they were often away from home for months at a time. This left the women behind to oversee everything else: the home, the children, and the family finances.
Simonetta’s grandmother was one of Cinque Terre’s original female entrepreneurs after World War II. Every morning she would wake up at 3 am to collect fish from the fisherman down at the port and then take the train alone as far as Moneglia to sell it at the market (40km, or 25 miles, away). Simonetta still remembers the scent of the moka coffee pot her grandmother would brew before sunrise for the other village women who would go with her down to meet the arriving fishing boats.
When the fish catch was poor, the women would sell local products instead, like lemons or salted anchovies. “Women had to juggle multiple roles here,” says Simonetta. “They had to keep the house and raise the children, but without a husband home, they also had to contribute to the household income,” Simonetta continues. Children, too, had to grow up fast. The older siblings of the village would take care of the younger ones. Many even played down by the harbor to keep themselves busy.
Marzia Raggi, the owner of A Scià, and one of only two female vintners in Cinque Terre, explains that having large families made local women naturally adept at running businesses. When you had 10 children, the matriarch of the family was more than a mother—she became the director. “With that many kids, it’s no longer a family. You are basically running a little company!” she says.
A Scià means “la signora” in the local dialect. It is also an homage to the work of women in the vines. The label of her sciacchetrà–a DOCG dessert wine considered to be liquid gold in the region–boasts a design representing the profile of her grandmother and herself. It’s a way, she explains, of honoring and returning to her roots.
Susanna Barbieri is a sommelier and owner of Enoteca Internationale (the oldest wine shop in the village). She explains that the construction of the train line brought more men out of the villages for work. Meanwhile, the women remained at home and were the primary caretakers of the vines that produced local wines. “Cinque Terre is born from the cultivation of wine, it’s the story of our area,” she explains. “And women were traditionally in charge of tending the vines.”
“It’s a really unique thing here…no one was ever ‘penalized’ for being a woman,” explains Susanna. “Decades ago, women couldn’t run a business in other parts of Italy. But in the Cinque Terre, it was always normal.”
Milla Celsi and her daughter Adele are ceramicists who run Fabbrica D’Arte Cinque Terre. Milla’s family originated in the mountains behind the seaside villages of the Cinque Terre, like so many families here did generations ago.
Life inland, away from the sea, was very different. Her great-grandmother walked hours a day with her eggs and fresh milk to sell in the village down the mountain during the 1940s. Her grandmother, Nonna Camilla, sold sea salt she made from drying out seawater in exchange for rice, buttons, and flour. These items were rare commodities at the time.
It was Nonna Camilla who first understood the incredible potential of this area. “She convinced the family to move down the mountain to Monterosso al Mare,” says Milla. She also helped spearhead tourism in the area by opening one of Cinque Terre’s first hotels: Albergo degli Amici, in the 1960s.
Santina Moggia, a petite powerhouse of a woman nearing 80 years old, got her start by working at Albergo degli Amici when it first opened. Today, she runs Ristorante Belvedere with her family in the center of town and is something of a legend. “I did just about everything growing up,” she says. Santina has worked her whole life, and opening her own restaurant was a huge expense. But her investment has paid off, as she now runs Ristorante Belvedere with her two sons and their families. Although she’s at an age when most people would be retired, Santina has a work ethic that is beyond measure. You can still find her cooking in the restaurant daily and cleaning the kitchen herself after every lunch or dinner service.
As if on cue, another elderly woman from the village walks by to say hello. In the local dialect (monterossino is still spoken in the village, especially by the older generations) the woman chuckles and asks why Santina is still working. “Shouldn’t you be retired?” she asks. Santina laughs back a response: “As long as the boat goes, you let it keep going!”
These days, younger local women still run some of Cinque Terre’s most successful businesses. All the while raising the next generation of villagers and handling many of the civic volunteer activities in these tiny towns. The president of the Cinque Terre National Park? Donatella Bianchi. The mayor of Riomaggiore and Manarola? Fabrizia Pecunia. The President of the tourist information office in Monterosso? Valentina Barbieri.
In an area so famous for tourism, the majority of local residents work in the hospitality industry or in the wine industry. All the activities here in these tiny, colorful villages nestled between the sea and the mountains are small, local businesses, and almost all family-run. And, like so many decades ago, the face of the person running the business is more often than not, a woman.
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