Cervo: The Medieval Italian Town Where No Cars Are Allowed

Clinging to the rock of a hill sloping down to the sea, about halfway between Genoa and France, lies Cervo. One of the jewels of the Ligurian coastline, Cervo survived the great destruction caused by the tourism boom of the 50s and 60s and today it is an example of a human-sized urban environment where cars are not allowed.

In Cervo you will find a network of narrow cobbled streets, terraces, arches, stairways, rooftops, alleyways and white medieval houses (arranged in rows, two or three floors high, with the large arches of the arcades still visible on the ground floor). Baroque palaces – centuries-old houses where artisans and artists still ply their trade, selling ceramics, precious metals, coral, paintings, photographs, leather and glass artisanry, or wine and food products (wine, honey, local sauces, pesto, olive oil and olives) – are also to be found within Cervo’s ancient walls. The walls were originally built in Roman times and were later renovated and modified to act as a stronghold and shelter against the Saracens’ raids. The warm light of the Mediterranean Sea creates incomparable views, the delight of painters and photographers. All this is Cervo.

Cervo has neither modern buildings nor asphalted streets. The hamlet can only be accessed on foot through the original medieval gates. An inconvenience, of course, if you live here, but the locals strongly defend their decision to preserve their tiny medieval village, whose cobbled alleys are far too narrow for cars – and sometimes for carts too – which makes for a place free from all kinds of four-wheeled vehicles. It would have been easier, much easier, to allow for the opening of breaches in the walls and to permit changes to the houses and palaces that would let cars in. Easier, but fatal from a cultural and historical perspective.

Liguria has plenty of examples of such jewels ruined and degraded by the tourism industry. Milan and Turin are close, too close – only one and a half hour’s drive – and scarcely had any hope of escaping the trap of the 1950s’ and 1960s’ economic boom. With money in their pocket and a car steering wheel in their hands, workers from the manufacturing factories in Piedmont and Lombardy, for the first time ever, could enjoy holidays and weekends away. Hotels large and small as well as tourist apartments were built all along the coast. Inhabitants of the smaller inland villages, which could only be reached through long, winding roads, flocked downstream, following the job market. In a matter of just twenty years, this combination resulted in the destruction of what was once a rugged coastline spotted only by small fishermen’s hamlets and towns, while inland Liguria became deserted, with many small settlements and villages turning into ghost towns.

Cervo, however, withstood the tide. Its people proudly defended its uniqueness and refused to give up, and when the tide began to retreat, and a more environmentally-aware culture spread, Cervo was there, ready to take the lead of the new movement. Today, this small medieval town has gained a name as one of the most human-scaled places in Italy. Following its examples, many other hamlets and small towns in Liguria – especially inland – have retrieved their ancient splendour. That does not mean a complete stemming of the tourism flow; but you have to be a certain kind of tourist to come here – one that appreciates silence, intimate atmospheres, artworks, the feeling of being close to art and the land, and walking on streets and paths where the only noise is the echo of your own footsteps.