Visiting the Cinque Terre in Italy in 2010 was a rich experience. I found much to photograph with the region’s vibrant colors and views of the sea. A year later, the Vernazza would be washed away in a mudslide.
Our cruise ship docked in Livorno, the port where most people take an excursion to Florence or Pisa. Having no need to see a building sinking in the soil, and feeling slightly frustrated that we would miss seeing Michelangelo’s David, Stan and I set off for the Cinque Terre. This was not an easy excursion to plan, but an incredibly easy one to execute. Let me explain.
The Cinque Terre, or the Five Lands, sits on the Mediterranean and perches on mountainsides as if the villages might fall into the sea. The lands are not terribly accessible by car; they are meant to be hiked between or boated across. One can hike from Riomaggiore to Monterosso in a day with increasingly levels of intensity as one adventures further north towards Monterosso. The gem of the Cinque Terre would likely be Vernazza, although all of the villages have a similar quaintness and vibrancy. Stan’s parents had been to the Cinque Terre in the 1990s, and their description of it has made me want to go ever since.
I tried very hard to plan this excursion. There was one offered by the cruise ship, but Stan and I both have an aversion to ship excursions. (Something about the hundreds of people and the cost makes them less appealing to us. I will say that there are likely some excursions that the ship offers that are wise to do, and I will discuss those in a future post.) No, what we wanted was our own car so we could drive in Italy ourselves and take advantage of the freedom that a car affords. A one day rental should not be so hard to plan, and yet, to get to the car rental agency in Livorno was going to require a taxi ride, and maybe there would be vans available on the peer taking smaller groups, and maybe…? It was just an exercise in frustration. So, as Stan and I tend to do when we don’t know what to do, we did nothing. That almost never works out, either as a life philosophy or for travel planning, but in this case it did.
With 8 hours to get to the Cinque Terre, visit, and come back, we disembarked to the pier. The first thing we noticed were the 3 car rental agencies set up with Fiats right on the pier for passengers to rent. Yes! In less than 10 minutes we had paid our 90 euros and had rented a red Fiat. We programmed the Garmin and were on our way. We joked that as our trip had progressed, our rental cars had gotten smaller and smaller to the point where the Fiat seemed shorter than Stan. It also got 56 miles to the gallon.
It was about an hour and a half ride, and the major town before one gets to the Cinque Terre is La Spezia. I had to use the bathroom, so Stan found me a truly lovely metal building on the side of the road marked as a pay-toilet. One pays to enter, and then upon leaving, the door shuts and the whole room is washed down. Interesting. Back on the road again we see signs for a train that takes passengers to the Cinque Terre. We noted this for future reference.
We entered what I assumed was a national park given the signs directing drivers to the region. We were climbing a mountain, with switchbacks directing us one way and then the next. Yet, we were also in heavy woods, which seemed dark and mysterious. There had been no view of the coast yet. Around another turn, though, and ahhhh…the most beautiful coastline I had yet seen in my life. In the distance, Riomaggiore was easily visible, and Manarola just barely visible beyond that. While La Spezia would have meant a quick trip to northernmost of the villages, we would have missed this view:
We descended into Riomaggiore and went as far as we could where cars were allowed. Upon parking (and paying) we set out on foot to explore the first of these very small fishing villages. Each building is attached to the next, each building a different shade of coral or yellow or sea green, and each building seemingly precariously perched to overlook the ocean. One central walkway leads to the ocean, and the path exposes tourists to various little shops and restaurants.
We took the train between each of the villages with the exception of Monterosso, the northernmost of the five. Each town was similar, although each had its own personality. Manarola (left) emphasized its fishing livelihood, with boats perched not just in the water but on the main avenue.
We ended up spending most of the day in Vernazza, the next northernmost town. Vernazza was sun-bleached and vibrant, with the village sidewalk going directly to the ocean where tourists were jumping amidst the crash of the waves onto the sea wall. A blue sky and bright sun made the day quite hot, and Stan and I found a restaurant on the cliff of the town overlooking the crashing waves and excited tourists. Broad canvas sheltered the tables from the sun, and we proceeded to order a plate of seafood that came highly recommended by the waiter.
When the purple tentacles of the octopus arrived, I was appalled and challenged at the same moment. However, we had traveled all this way and surely we could do more than eat gelato and drink cappuccino. We dug in, stopping to take a picture of the meal and comment on the experience. We toasted our day with our white wine and beer, enjoying the view of the sun, the sea, and the umbrellas below.
We took the train back to Manarola, and decided to walk the Via Dell’Amore (the Lover’s Walk) — the paved path between Manarola and Riomaggiore. We laughed that as the easiest of the walks between the villages we really had gotten off quite easy in experiencing the Cinque Terre. Of course we were certain that had we been there to visit for several days we would have accepted the challenge and hiked all of it. Certainly. Right? Hmm…
An hour and a half later we drove onto the pier and returned our rental car. Back on our ship we shared our pictures of our trip with our table mates who were amazed that we would just take off like that without a planned excursion. I think we were the lucky ones at this port, although their reports sounded fun as well. I did truly want to see Florence but that will have to wait for another day.
The following year – in October of 2011 – I would be reading a Rick Steves post about a horrific mudslide in Vernazza:
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.
Tragically, three people died. Everyone else was evacuated. Here is a picture of the tragic mudslide occurring. Vernazza shut down completely for 5 months as it began its clean out and rebuild. While other towns in the chain of villages were also damaged, none was damaged so extensively as Vernazza. The Cinque Terre *has* reopened to visitors, though, and while many tourists have been staying away due to the concern over the damage, the area has beautiful views and B&Bs ready to welcome you.