My Report from the Cinque Terre
Vernazza's mayor, Vincenzo Resasco, artfully and tirelessly kept the rebuilding of his town on track and people working together. Six months to the day after the flood, he proudly showed me the town's impressive progress.
Chef Gino, of Monterosso's Ristorante al Pozzo, shoveled mud through the winter with his family. Now Gino cooks again. Many of his best bottles of wine survived but with labels obliterated.
Monterosso's six under-street channels stand ready to allow future floods to flow unimpeded through town and into the sea without taking businesses and dreams with it.
Precious statues, rescued amid all the chaos, wait patiently for their church to be dug out and cleaned.
Even after the flood, this man had to sit on the bench he had warmed for decades.
Life is returning to Vernazza's harbor square...piano, piano.
For now, Vernazza's beach is still swollen by mud from surrounding hills. Soon the hard-working earthmover will be replaced by lazy sunbathers.
Massimo, who broke a wall to rescue 40 trapped people, will shave when his Blue Marlin Bar reopens.
Nearly every business in Vernazza — mostly humble mom-and-pop shops — spent their winter literally digging out.
Groups of expat American women have worked hard to organize post-disaster relief. To learn more and to support their efforts, visit their websites at Save Vernazza and Rebuild Monterosso. Pictured with me (from left) are Michele Sherman, Michele Lilley and Ruth Manfredi of Save Vernazza.
I visited Italy's Cinque Terre towns of Vernazza and Monterosso on April 25th, six months to the day after flash floods had devastated both communities. This was also Italy's Independence Day — a day of almost mandatory relaxation — but everyone was hard at work.
What Travelers Will Find
For travelers wondering if it's okay to travel to the Cinque Terre, here's my take: Three of the towns were unaffected (Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia). They have plenty of tourism and don't need your business as much. As a destination in 2012, I'd choose between the two flood-ravaged communities. Monterosso is completely ready. Vernazza, with a few hotels and restaurants already open, expects to be ready for prime time by June. Crews have worked tirelessly to get the trails put back together and the best hikes are wide open. This is a great time to visit, to both stoke and celebrate the recovery, and to be one of the first to enjoy the charms of either town, post-flood. There's a camaraderie in the air and an appreciation of tourists that is palpable.
To give you an idea of what this means to the people living in Vernazza and Monterosso, here's what they've been through during the past six months...
On October 25, 2011, after a very dry summer, a freak rainstorm hit the Cinque Terre, an idyllic string of five Italian Riviera towns. Within four hours, the region got 22 inches of rain — a third of an average year's total. Because of the topography and the ability of the flash flooding to drain, three of the towns were undamaged, and two were devastated. Much of Monterosso and Vernazza were buried under three meters of mud and left without water, electricity, or phone connections. It was a day residents will talk about for the rest of their lives.
The destruction occurred mostly along former ravines, where, historically, streams ran through the towns. In the last century, the ravines were covered with roads, and the water drained through canals under the pavement that, over time, were not properly maintained. Like congested arteries (made even worse with all the debris that washed into town), the drainage canals couldn't handle the raging flow, so the deluge went over ground. Trees, furniture, cars, buses, and tons of mud and rocks plowed through both towns. Water pressure from drain pipes below caused streets to explode upward. Medieval wells in basements became geysers. Rivers of raging mud rampaged down the streets, stranding people, and ultimately leaving shops and restaurants on the main streets of old Monterosso and Vernazza buried.
With that first post-flood sunrise, emergency workers helicoptered in, coast guard boats arrived, and tourists were evacuated. Earthmoving equipment, military personnel and volunteers arrived from all over Italy. Two non-profits were formed to raise funds and spread news about the disaster and relief efforts: Rebuild Monterosso and Save Vernazza. But mostly it was the locals who banded together, rolled up their sleeves and began shoveling.
The tourist business in 2011 was very strong. October 25th was at the end of the season when residents of Vernazza and Monterosso were ready for a much-needed winter break. While the flood hit at the perfect time from a business point of view, locals — already exhausted after a very busy season — had to immediately plunge into a non-stop rebuilding period, pushing to be ready for the 2012 season. And they've made remarkable progress.
Socially, it's been a time of reshuffling for both communities. Being small towns, they were already rife with cliques and ancient grudges. With the challenge presented by the flood and recovery period, locals marvel at how everyone came together. Today, many locals enjoy better relations with old enemies, but there is a new divide: between people who joined in the community-wide effort, and those who only took care of their own business needs (or even left town during the chaos). In both towns, while a large percent of the businesses were essentially destroyed, lots of people and hotels that were on higher or luckier ground came through unscathed, losing only their water and electricity for a while. Some of these ignored their own business needs and became heroically involved to help the greater community — including their competitors — get back on their feet. And, as it goes in small towns, those who didn't help will long be remembered for turning their backs on neighbors in need. People have commented to me on how, having experienced this tragedy, they have a new empathy for distant people dealing with similar natural disasters. Others commented on how, today, every time there's a big rain, anxiety sweeps through the community.
The people of the Cinque Terre are being taught a tough lesson. It's their beautiful land that brings the tourists. With the affluence brought by tourists, locals abandoned their land — leaving the vineyards unplanted and the centuries-old dry stone terracing to crumble — for less physically demanding, more profitable work in tourism. (Grapevines have far-reaching root systems to combat erosion, and traditional vintners keep their stone terraces in good order.) But after a generation of neglect and abandonment, the land was washed by violent weather into the towns. It's like nature was speaking: There will be no tourism to harvest without proper stewardship of the land. The question that remains: Will the lesson be learned, remembered, and heeded?
Each town's folklore will be enlivened with tales of the flood. In Monterosso, beloved statues in the church survive — while a mud-line halfway up the wall in the nave is a reminder that the townspeople heroically came to their rescue, taking them through raging waters to higher points. Later, when there was enough help in the streets, excess volunteers came into the church and lovingly polished the candlesticks, just to keep caring for their town. To this day, shops have flood-damaged items on sale — you can buy a "flood umbrella" cheap. A big tent, set up by the National Guard, functioned through the winter as the town piazza — used for staging emergency deliveries, community meals, Christmas Eve Mass, and the New Year's Eve disco. Old ladies who couldn't help dig, helped cook. People worried that Laura, whose bakery — loved for her secret recipes — was destroyed, and wouldn't reopen. But she rebuilt, and that beautiful aroma of her sweet cakes still helps locals greet the new day. Diego's motorbike, the bike of his dreams, which he had bought just 10 days before the flood, was buried. He excavated it, cleaned it up, and — to the cheers of his friends — it started.
The local civil protection unit is now named for Sandro Usai — Monterosso's one death from the flood. Sandro was last seen heroically trying to open up a grate to increase canal drainage when he was swept out to sea. When his body washed ashore a week later, his funeral was the first time the community stopped working and was silent together. Sandro Usai posthumously received the highest civilian award the Italian government gives.
Monterosso, a bigger town than Vernazza with better access to the outside world, is essentially back up and running. The streets have been repaired. Big new grates allowing ready runoff access to the canals, and the sound of rushing water, assure townsfolk that the streams are flowing unimpeded below. Restaurants and businesses at street level in affected areas were gutted, and today have replaced everything: stoves, tables, chairs, plates, walls lined with bottles of wine, and so on.
Vernazza is built around one street (basically a lid over the stream in its ravine). On October 25th the surrounding hills acted like a funnel, directing flash-flood waters right through the middle of town. After six months of hard work, Vernazza's harbor front has blossomed back to life. Restaurants have tables, chairs and colorful umbrellas set out along sunny Piazza Mazzini, and travelers are beginning to return. But the upper half of town still feels like a war zone, with no businesses open and many apartments and homes still unoccupied. Alpine engineers have been imported from Switzerland to analyze the drainage challenges and put nets above the town to protect it from more landslides. Thankfully, the structural integrity of Vernazza's buildings is generally fine.
Little Vernazza lost three residents: Pino, the gelato man; Sauro, a shopkeeper; and 80-year-old Pina. Pina refused to leave her apartment. Sauro also refused to leave. He was last seen hanging on to the awning of his building in a muddy torrent. Their bodies washed up together — three weeks later — on the beaches of St. Tropez, France.
Psychologically, the trauma and aftermath of the flood is toughest on the local seniors. Many have barely ventured beyond the Cinque Terre during their lives. They know nothing else. Every day, for many decades, they've warmed the same bench with the same friends. One old man, who had long spent his afternoons on a bench that was covered up to the seat in mud, still came in the days after the flood, with his cane to steady himself, sitting on the top of the seat back of his buried bench, hanging on to a little normalcy.
For 30 years I've strolled the main drag of Vernazza as if walking through a poem. Walking down that street now — gutted of nearly all its businesses, the dreams and labors of love of its residents swept so violently away — is an emotional roller coaster for me. Tonino is painting a new door where his boat, Gustina, was once kept. On the wall behind him, a photo of his boat comes with a painted-on caption: "Tonino loved me and the flood kidnapped me." Tonino said he was lucky to have been stranded across the street when Gustina was swept away, or he likely would have been swept out to sea with her.
Feeling nostalgic, I had lunch in Piva's restaurant , where I first ate when visiting as a student in the 1970s. Piva, who cooked an amazing seafood risotto then as now, is also the town troubadour. Many nights, when the cooking's done, he pulls out his guitar and leads his happy diners in song. After showing me the new post-flood ovens and stoves in his kitchen, he showed me his well-worn guitar — a trace of mud still caked on its neck — and said, "In this restaurant, only my guitar survived the flood."
What had long been the best nightspot in town, the Blue Marlin Bar, is an empty concrete shell. The only piano in town is gone, along with all the shipwreck decor (and a dozen years of family Christmas cards I'd sent, which he'd collected on his bulletin board). Massimo, looking tired and sporting a scraggily white beard, is barely recognizable. Having not shaved since October 25th, he says he'll shave when the Blue Marlin reopens next month. Even though the space is newly plastered and quiet, there's a hole left in a corner of the wall that will always come with a horrific story. On the afternoon of the disaster, 40 locals and tourists were trapped in the bar with the water rising and no way out. Massimo knew which bit of wall was thin, and, fortunately, a hammer had been left out nearby. With his bartender, Jeff (the only American man living in Vernazza), they broke through the wall and heroically helped all 40 trapped inside to escape through the hole and into a staircase leading to safety. In the chaos, one Vernazza woman recalls kissing her little girl, passing her through the hole while thinking she might never see her again.
On October 25th, members of one of our Heart of Italy tours were enjoying a free day Vernazza. At the height of the flood, some of them were stranded in Gianni Franzi's restaurant, literally standing on tables as the water rose. Throughout town, people had taken refuge, as people do in a sudden downpour, in shops and restaurants, to wait for it to pass. But this storm wasn't passing. The downpour persisted and the water just kept rising. I heard many stories. And all noted how, amazingly, the water receded for a moment before rising again to its ultimate height. This gave people (my tour group included) a window of time to scamper out and up nearby staircases to safety. While many thank the town's patron saint, the Madonna of Reggio, others figure a bus lodged in the narrowest part of the main street, caused a back up that let the flooding below it recede — just momentarily.
A few weeks ago, the president of Italy came to Vernazza in a show of support. The town's most venerable restaurant, which had just reopened, cooked him the region's signature dish: pasta with pesto. The president enjoyed it so much, he promised to fly the chef to Rome for a day to cook and serve it at the presidential palace.
Talking with locals, a phrase I hear over and over is "piano, piano" (little by little). Little by little, they are rebuilding. I was told, "The reality of a tragedy like this is eventually the government aid dries up, the sympathy fades, and it's just you and a shovel."
Knowing that every car in the lot above the town was swept into the sea, I walked to the top of Vernazza to inspect the scene. There's a stillness there, as nothing here has reopened yet. Stone walls laid by medieval Vernazzans stand ripped apart, delicate bridges that arced over the ravine to favorite B&Bs are long gone. My favorite, the place I slept in last year, is boarded up. And the resident ducks — a favorite for locals and tourists alike for ages — are gone as well.
Standing on what was the town's playground, looking over the raw, open wound of an enlarged ravine and desolate buildings, I had to spill some tears. It was like I was visiting a dear relative in the hospital — someone who had been very sick and was still weak... but was out of the woods and recovery was assured. It was here that an idea struck me: I would put as a subtitle on the cover of the next edition of my Cinque Terre guidebook "Viva Vernazza" — Vernazza lives.
Keep on traveling to the Cinque Terre.
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