A Violent Rain Buries an Italian Friend

Thirty two years ago, I met two American college girls while hitchhiking in Switzerland. They were studying in Florence, and I asked them their favorite place in Italy. They surprised me by naming a place I had never heard of before: Cinque Terre. Curious, I headed south and discovered a humble string of five villages along Italy’s Riviera coast with almost no tourism…and, it seemed, almost no contact with the modern world.

After falling in love with what I consider the most endearing stretch of the Mediterranean coastline anywhere, I’ve gone back almost every year since. Of the five towns, spindly, pastel Vernazza has always been my favorite. Over three decades, I’ve grown up with the people of Vernazza, watched a young generation carry on with their traditions — and seen the town go through years of hard work to develop into a thriving haven for travelers looking for that pristine stretch of Italian coastline. Once rugged and magical, it became…comfortable and magical.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon, a torrent of rain came down and a flash flood thundered through the town, gutting nearly every business, and filling the ground floors with mud.

To learn more about what has happened, to view pictures of the aftermath, and to read message-board comments from people who were there, see my online November Travel News.

I spent four nights here last May, updating our guidebook chapter to the Cinque Terre. At the end of my stay, as I got on the train for Rome, I found myself actually thinking of Vernazza as a person…and as a friend. Of all the towns I know in Europe, this is the one that is, for me, a human puzzle in which I’ve figured out nearly all the pieces. I believe I know more people in Vernazza than in all of Spain. This week, as I read emails from Vernazzan friends and look at the horrifying photos and videos of the disaster, I feel I’ve lost a friend. In fact, looking at the photos — store fronts ripped off and fishing boats crumbled on rocks — I get this ghastly feeling that these are photos of a crime scene…and that nature has murdered my friend.

A routine I’ve long enjoyed with each visit has been to walk slowly from the top of town to the bottom, just before midnight. I’d savor the rhythm of the pastel colors and imagine the town back when a stream rushed down its middle. At some point, generations ago, the stream was put under the pavement. But it still flowed, draining water from the terraced vineyards that surround the town on three sides. I’d always stop at one point along the street where I could actually hear the soft sounds of that water still flowing beneath the road, from vineyards to the sea.

And this week, with a freakishly intense rainstorm — like a misplaced monsoon — torrents of water funneled from the surrounding mountains into the town carrying rampaging tons of mud and debris. That narrow street became a riverbed again, and Vernazza met a fate almost similar to Pompeii: the entire ground-floor of the town was buried.

Today, many of its people are evacuated, there’s no water or power, no communication, and the town is cut off from the rest of the world as roads and train lines are still being dug out. Businesses that Vernazzans had worked all their lives to build are washed away. Its church now houses only a mucky lagoon.

One of the joys of my work is sending travelers to Vernazza. And today I read an email from one Vernazzan who fears they may not rebuild and it could become a ghost town. But I think people are determined to dig out and bring life back to both Vernazza and its neighbor Monterosso. (The other three towns of the region — Riomaggiore, Manarola and Corniglia — because of their luckier topography, got through the storm essentially unscathed.)

I had planned to visit the town next April to film an updated version of my TV show on the region. Then I realized, there may be nothing to show. I was thinking I’d have to put the TV shoot on hold. But then I thought: no, I need to take the crew to the Cinque Terre and show the world the resilience of its people, the natural beauty of the region, and how its communities will carry on.

How can we help? Those who care about the region can donate money. (I don’t feel comfortable with collecting money, and it’s too early to clearly see which relief organizations will be involved.) 

I think, most importantly, the best thing we can do is keep Vernazza and Monterosso in our travel dreams and incorporate them into your next trip. Tourism is the life blood of these towns and, while they need and will get government aid along with charity from friends in the short term, they will need to rekindle their thriving economy in the long term. That involves you and me.

Along with not abandoning the towns of the Cinque Terre, we need to keep in mind that violent weather devastates many more “ugly sister” towns on our planet, where few people notice or rush to their aid. This happens in wealthy corners of our world — like Europe and the USA — and it happens in corners of our world where desperation is the grinding, day-to-day norm. And while many in America feel that acknowledging and addressing climate change is just too expensive for their bottom line, climate change is a reality. And its violent weather packs an even bigger punch, with more devastating consequences, in the developing world.

What will I do? I can keep singing praises for the Cinque Terre. I can dedicate the same promotional energy to it in the coming years that I have in the past decades — even if there will be a hard and ugly time of healing. And I will work to help explain to climate change deniers in our society that it is not “just a theory,” and its victims are real people.


22 Replies to “A Violent Rain Buries an Italian Friend”

  1. Rick, I am truly sick to my stomach at what I see. I’ve spent the last year in Cinque Terre, mostly Vernazza and Riomaggiore, filming our feature length documentary film, “Land of Sciacchetra” and I honestly don’t know what to do for the people there. I too have considered taking a crew there to document the heart and spirit of the people there. I just feel that this part of the story has to be told along with the rest. My heart breaks for the residents that have spent all or most of their lives there, often many mang generations. Cinque Terre definitely needs help from men and women around the world that can rally support for them. I was just there filming in June and July again. I truly am at a loss. I have been praying for their strength. Bless you. ~ Larry A Burns Jr /European-American Motion Picture Group

  2. Years ago, on my first trip to Europe, I spent several days in Cinque Terre based on your recommendation in Europe Through the Back Door. I LOVED it there. It was one of the most memorable parts of a ten week trip. I have to have hope for the people who live there, to rebuild their livelihoods and the beautiful place we all love to visit. I plan one day to take my children there.

  3. I am horrified at the pictures and video that you showing about one of my most favorite places on earth. I have been to both Monterosso and Vernazza twice- most recently this past May – and had to tear myself away when it was time to leave. I have stayed at two of Rick’s recommended hotels in Monterosso, eaten at restaurants he loves and shopped in the fabulous little nooks and crannies along the main old town road. I have lingered in the Vernazza piazza, had delightful lunches there and roamed through all the shops leading to and from the train station. Everything was always like he said it would be. I hope they can recover and rebuild so I can go back next year. My thoughts and prayers are with the local people who I know are, I’m sure, working fervently to rebuild their little slices of heaven on earth.

  4. I too am just sickened by what has happened to these two beautiful towns. I believe that the citizens can and will rebuild their homes and businesses. I pray for all but especially the people who’ve lost loved ones.

  5. It would be feckless to ignore a place and its people because natural disaster has blighted its propects for tourism. You are commendably correct to want to film there next April, Rick – you and I remember how previous victims of climate change, the citizens of New Orleans, begged visitors to restore their economy and morale so soon after Hurricane Katrina. I can perceive the heartbreak in your Travel News Special Edition – I felt a similar heartsickness upon learning of the human disaster on Utoeya last July 22d – and I look forward to meeting you on November 19th to discuss how we may show strengthened solidarity with our European cousins through the medium of travel. Hilsen, Rick Klaastad

  6. What a terrible tragedy. Unfortunately, with the money problems of the Cinque Terre and with all the other areas that currently need money in the country, the affected towns will not see nearly as much aid as they require. Hopefully the towns will be able to recover. It will take years for Vernazza to even come close to resembling the paradise it once was. It honestly may never get back to that point again. There’s always a chance that the town could become abandoned. I’ve been there once and enjoyed it immensely. I’m not sure that there will ever be anything to go back to.

  7. I spent a week in the Cinque Terre in 2005, staying in Monterosso. I feel sick at heart at the destruction and loss of lives. In Australia, in the early part of this year, several lives were lost in similar circumstances, and all around the world, such disasters seem to be occuring. Thank you for making the link with climate change. Unfortunately, our governments seem to want to put it in the too hard basket, and too many people are voting with the hip pocket nerve. I will be contributing to the reconstruction fund, and also continuing to support the campaign for a global emissions trading scheme. We need to act now.

  8. Because of Rick’s reviews of Cinque Terre, we visited that area on our trip to Italy in 2009 and absolutely fell in love with the towns. Our photograph of Vernazza hangs in our home in Pennsylvania as a constant reminder of our time spent in this idyllic place. We are overcome with sadness as we look at these photographs. As soon as we know where to send funds, we will do so. If we could, we would travel there to help with the cleanup effort. Our prayers are with these brave people.

  9. My experience sounds like Rob and Kay – we also visited in 2009, and I have a pic of the Vernazza clock tower blown up and hanging in my guest room. Planning a trip back since Sept for next year, and Cinque Terre is for sure on the revisit list even before the tragedy. I hope the clean-up goes well…

  10. What a tragedy, yet I am irritated by the need to take a political potshot at a time like this. Climate IS about change. There is no such thing as a stationary climatic model. To want to connect “climate change” as the reason for the unfortunate flooding is not only premature but scientifically unsubstantiated. If one is truly concerned about man’s involvement in the destruction of the planet, then maybe somebody should question their need to travel yearly for over 35 years to Europe in the first place. I have no doubt the resilience of people to rebuild after incidents like this.

  11. I too love Vernazza and am saddened by the devastation. Those who are inspired to film or write about the deluge, or to send money, or even to go and help, will do their part to help the people rebuild their businesses and homes. With Jan, I agree that people are resilient and will recover.

    Climate change is a perennial fact. Climate is not static and changeless, as even a superficial reading of history will show. (And you have a a degree in European History.) Unfortunately there will be victims. “Deniers”, as you call them, do not deny that climate changes (clearly it does) but that climate change is caused by human activity, as you would have it. That agenda would stop Americans from flying to Europe and bringing happy prosperity to charming little cities like Vernazza.

  12. This is horrible! Last September my husband and I spent three nights in Riomaggiore (could not get accommodation in Vernazza). We hiked the entire trail from Riomaggiore all the way to Monterroso and took the ferry boat back to Riomaggorie. On our hike we stopped in Vernazza and sat on the wall by the water to rest. We came from three nights in Rome and it was a wonderful change from noisy and busy Rome. I am sure the locals will rebuild and clean up there lovely towns. We love Cinque Terre and will go back there next September!

  13. I wouldn’t have even learned of the tragedy befallen Vernazza and Monterosso had I not been a regular visitor to this website. Makes me wonder about the other “minor” calamities that happen under the corporate news radar. Frankly, I find it dismaying that people still want to argue about climate change. This past weekend saw parts of the northern U.S. get covered in blankets of snow…BEFORE Halloween. And this winter is supposed to be even worst than the last for the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard. Yeah, ok, nothing we do impacts the environment at all, whatever…

  14. I have both a good and bad response to Rick’s posting. The good is I share his concern for the people of the Cinque Terre. He lists a charity that I plan to contribute to and hope others will. My family has had the opportunity to visit the area twice with the help of Rick’s books and will enjoy lasting memory’s. I pray the damages are not so severe that they can not rebuild a similiar envirnoment to what existed before the natural disaster.

    Now for the bad. No matter how settled he believes the science to be bringing up climate change is like bringing up abortion. You are just going to make people mad bringing up politically sensitive issue like that. It’s his blog and he is as free to write about politics as we are free not to read, but save it for another post. Don’t divert attention from the disaster.

  15. My wife and I are headed to Italy in 2 days for a couple of weeks. We had planned on staying in Vernazza for a couple of days during our time there (thanks to Rick’s book), I guess it’s prudent to alter our plans now.

  16. Italians are launching investigations to see if overbuilding and political incompetence and corruption had anything to do with the flooding. Even environmentalists said its impact was made much worse by unchecked construction along the coastline.
    “Italian citizens are having to pay the price for … overbuilding authorised in at-risk areas,” the environmental group WWF Italia said. I’d say that since 26,000 scientists are on record for doubting the science behind climate change, that a US Geological Survey found no clear relationship between the rise in greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change and the severity of flooding, and the fact that studies show floods are less severe as green gas emissions increased, I think it’s pretty safe to conclude that climate change and mans relation to it, is definitely NOT settled science. Natural forces have a lot to do with driving climate change worldwide. Prayers for the people affected by this natural disaster.

  17. Rick, I appreciate your reminder–at the end of your post–that many other places around the globe experience for which we do not mourn or help. But I’m curious that you referred to them as “ugly sister” places. Beauty remains in the eye of the beholder and the beholder’s culture. And all of those places are someone’s home–someone’s history–someone’s livelihood. It seems as if much of the benefit of travel is learning that my tastes are only that.

  18. “Climate change deniers” is a cheap shot intended to equate global warming skepticism with Holocaust deniers. As others have pointed out, climate change has been occurring throughout world history. For example, the Jungfraujoch researchers say that the average European glacier tongue extends at least 300 meters more than it did in Roman times. One only needs to look at the Lauterbrunnen valley to see that warming and cooling trends take place without human cause.

    The science is hardly settled. Back in the 1980s, the warmmongers were saying that global warming caused major droughts and fires in Yellowstone. In the 1990s, Newsweek said that global warming caused blizzards. A scientific theory has to be falsifiable in order to be valid; one can’t say that global warming produces opposite results and be scientific.

    There has been no warming in the last 10 years. East Anglia wrote internal documents stating that they used “tricks” to “hide the decline” in proxy data. The person who said that global warming is making polar bears extinct is under investigation for possible fraud.

    The warmmongers don’t live like they are worried about carbon emissions. At the UN conference a few years ago, they used over 1000 limos and 100 private jets. Al Gore and Tom Friedman have footprints bigger than Sasquatch.

    In the July 9, 1971, the Washington Post published a story entitled “U.S. Scientist Sees New Ice Age Coming. In 1974, Time wrote about “Another Ice Age.” In 1975, Newsweek published an article warning of “The Cooling World.” It said that meteorologists were “almost unanimous” that cooling will have disastrous results for agriculture.

  19. Very sorry to hear about the tragedy that struck Vernazza. But this post has derailed into a discussion on climate change. Rick I’m sure the people of Vernazza would appreciate any kind of help, regardless if those helping believe in climate change or not. I think the comment could have been saved for another post. Heck write the next 50 posts on climate change your prerogative. As for this post leave it as a dire request for assistance to a region in desperate need. Losing even one donation at this crucial time is not worth an opinion on the climate.

  20. Here’s a link to a trailer of the feature length documentary film, “Land of Sciacchetra” showing times past in Cinque Terre. Vernazza will be back to normal. The people of Cinque Terre for a thousand years have been in the business of moving the Earth, literally. They have carved out and built vineyard terraces in the mountains of Cinque Terre and maintained them through the generations. Ten to twenty feet of mud in the towns of Vernazza and Monterosso will not stop them.

    Here’ the link:

  21. Seven billion – with billions more to come in the very near future – people on our planet vying for precious resources while spewing carbon by-products into the atmosphere and we still have
    those telling us there is no problem. “Don’t Tread On Me” was the Gadsden flag during the revolution – but especially don’t tell me about methane, carbon dioxide, coal fumes, and that I can’t drive my hummer, that i must conserve this or that or care about anything except my Halliburton stock. Or that i can’t believe the one percent of all scientists who don’t believe in global warming. Or that I can’t rebuild in areas threatened by hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes and mudslides. I’m an American. I have my rights.

  22. 7 Billion is alot…supposed to be approximately 9 billion by 2050 on the trend we’re on. Perhaps our President should reconsider slashing NASA’s budget. At the rate we’re going we have to be dead serious about finding a new planet. Disasters such as the one that struck the Cinque Terre only highlight how finite resources can be in their aftermath…

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