We’ve just returned from a two week sojourn in Italy. In the coming weeks I hope to share some of those experiences with you.
In October 2011, just weeks after Hurricane Irene devastated Vermont, severe flooding struck Cinque Terra, the five village national park on the Italian Riviera, devastating some of the villages and most of the hiking trails. Today the good people of the region continue to rebuild, as do many Vermonters. Maybe this shared experience contributed more than we knew to our love of the people and landscape of Cinque Terra.
Jennie and I spent three days in the largest of the villages, Monterosso. We chose Monterosso largely because it is relatively flat, a real boon for me. We had been advised against visiting Cinque Terra on the grounds it is too touristy and has too many stairs for my Polio legs. Sure enough, when we climbed down from the train in Monterosso, we were greeted by wall-to-wall people. It turned out that Italy’s largest and most prestigious bicycle race was passing through the village the next day. Then, as if a piper had passed through the village, by noon the next day they were gone.
Monterosso turned out to be mostly quite accessible, and we encountered a few people in wheelchairs there. The physical layout of the other villages were much less disability friendly, as they arise more or less vertically from the sea. This verticality, very much as it did here in Vermont, contributed to the severity of the floods; mountains have enormously more ground surface than do flat areas, and water flows downhill, gathering force and speed as it does so. When several inches of rain fall in a relatively brief period of time, flooding can be catastrophic.
Everywhere we went in Cinque Terra there are signs of repair. In Vernazza, arguably the most beautiful and most damaged of the villages, much remains under construction, even as the villagers truly welcome the grateful tourist. Vernazza was the site of one of our most memorable meals, and a lovely, post swim in the Mediterranean, gelato. (No, I did not swim but Jennie did!). Yes, the water was still quite chilly, although there were reportedly warm pockets.
Our second day was spent on a small boat, touring the park from the ocean side. As there is no way I could manage the remaining trails, this allowed me to get a feel for this magical place. The captain, Angelo, took us, and two other couples, for an afternoon on the water. Maybe fifteen minutes out of port, he opened a bottle of prosecco, passed out glasses, and began to serenade us with arias. As we motored along the cliff face, he told us about the flooding, about his falling in love with, and marrying a California woman, their happiness, and his former life as a park ranger. He explained to us that with the rise of tourism, many families no longer do the back breaking work of tending their grapevines, nor maintaining the terraces on which they grow. This contributed greatly to the washing away of the hillsides when the flooding came.
One of the highlights of the afternoon was a stop at his friends’ cafe in Manarola. The meal was magical, the wine local and good, and the company memorable. It turned out the family grows most of the food they serve, and makes their own wine. Maybe it was no coincidence that our two favorite meals of the trip were in Cinque Terra. Slow food, indeed!
© 2015, essay and photographs, Michael Watson, All rights reserved