Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Cinque Terre: Delight and Disappointment

For years we’d dreamed of visiting the picturesque Cinque Terre (the five lands) perched along the Ligurian coast of Italy and hiking from one medieval seaside village to the next. Once only reachable by water until the arrival of the railway, it was one of the destinations on our itinerary that we most looked forward to visiting with Chris and Caroline. But Mother Nature had other plans when on October 25, 2011 she unleashed a torrential rainstorm along Italy’s northwestern coast and the surrounding hills. The fury of the downpour triggered landslides of unprecedented proportion that left rivers of sludge, trees, bushes and debris in their wake. Three locals residents were swept out to sea, their bodies recovered weeks later off the coast of France.
The disappointment of four thwarted hikers can hardly be compared to the devastation experienced by the people of the Cinque Terre, but we felt let down nonetheless. The five towns, from the south and closest to La Spezia to the north and furthest away, are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Vernazza, lauded by many as the visually most striking of the five, bore the brunt of the mudslides, along with its northern neighbor, Monterosso. The former was off-limits to visitors; only aid workers and residents were allowed off the train at the Vernazza stop. When planning our visit to the area, long before the rainstorms hit, our plan had been to take the train from La Spezia to Riomaggiore and then do the five-hour hike along the trails linking the towns, a total of eight rocky, rollercoaster miles. Unfortunately, however, all but the flat, paved trail between Riomaggiore and Manorola, the Via Dell'Amore ("Lover’s Walk"), were closed, too damaged by the storm to be safe for hikers. So, a very loose Plan B in place, we took the 10-minute train from La Spezia to the first stop at Riomaggiore to see what we would find...
There was absolutely no visible evidence of storm damage in Riomaggiore. Few other visitors walked the street that sloped down to the narrow harbor, the colorful town spilling down to the choppy water, but that was the result of the cool off-season and not the fall floods. Each of the Cinque Terre towns is overrun with tourists in the summer, but we practically had Riomaggiore to ourselves. We made the easy walk along the beautiful Via dell’Amore – just short of a mile – into Manarola and then continued just past the town to where the trail was barricaded. Corniglia, the next town and the only hilltop town of the five, clung to the cliff in the distance, beckoning us to hike to her. But that wonderful walk would have to wait for another day and a future trip when the path has been restored. Today, we headed back into Manarola to board the train for Corniglia and Monterosso. As we waited on the seaside platform, we marveled at (and took dozens of pictures of) the incredible gradations of light that resulted from the sun peeking in and out of the dramatic clouds. A bright blue, perfectly cloudless sky would have been nice and warmed us a bit but wouldn’t have produced the variations of shadow, shade and radiance we enjoyed that afternoon. We watched as waterspouts -- tornadoes on the sea -- rose up in the distance from the angry gray water, but close to the shore, the water calmed to a tranquil, deep turquoise.
The train dropped us below Corniglia, perched high above on a promontory and practically leaning over the sea. We made our way up to the deserted town center, which, like the two neighboring towns to the south, is a jumble of sherbet-hued buildings of peach, raspberry, tangerine and lemon. We then scrambled down the north edge of town along a steep, winding stairway to the cramped harbor and pebbly beach below. The bright colors of the fishing dinghies -- navy, red, yellow and royal blue – contrasted with the pastel shades of the town above. How much fun it must be in the scorching summer to make the long, rocky descent and then jump into the cerulean sea. As we amused ourselves along the angled cement pier, the water lapping at the sides, I added the Cinque Terre to my list of “Places we’ll return to one day.” The next time it will be summer, we’ll do the entire eight-mile hike of our imagination, the devastation will be long gone and the hardy people of the five lands will have recovered.
The train’s next stop was Vernazza and although not permitted to get off in the devastated town (which was under about 13 feet of mud after the storm, almost reaching the first-floor balconies), we could see some of the damage from our window. Two months into the recovery, a film of dried, gray mud still coated most of the pastel buildings that lined the main street down to the water, leaving the town a pale imitation of its prior self. Construction equipment blocked the way to the harbor as it went about the work of clearing away the residue from the storm. We disembarked in Monterosso where they appeared to have already made significant progress towards getting the town back to status quo. Whereas much of Vernazza runs uphill, perpendicular to the coast, most of Monterosso hugs the water in true beach town fashion. There was a massive, grimy debris field at one end of the beach that included refrigerators and all manner of appliances, furniture, boat fragments, sinks, boxes, trees and clothing. Perhaps it was waiting for a refuse barge to haul it all away. The four of us were sad and had a hard time looking at this woeful, eerie sight – the remnants of people’s lives gathered and  heaped in piles along the shore. Sandbag stacks remained in place, lining the bottom of most storefronts, in what were likely futile attempts to keep the flood waters out. The town leaders have vowed that what was once a string of animated restaurants and shops will return this spring to once again house a brisk tourist trade. It certainly appeared that they plan to keep their promise as Monterosso resonated with the motorized sounds of heavy machinery and moving equipment.
We headed back on the train to La Spezia with a mixed bag of emotions. It was obvious that the Cinque Terre towns are wonder-filled and worthy of their reputation as one of Italy’s top destinations; we were grateful to have been lucky enough to visit them. But we were also so disappointed not to have been able to experience them fully and to take advantage of the challenging, scenic hiking trails. The best we can do is spread the word to other travelers and hikers that the Cinque Terre will soon be back, as beautiful and lively as ever, ready to fill them with wonder and delight.
Pictures of our adventures:

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