Lovely Vernazza is swept away

Yesterday I received an email that shocked and saddened me. It was sent to me because I had once booked accommodation in Vernazza tha is one of the Cinque Terre or ‘The Five Lands’, the little villages that cling to the rugged Ligurian coastline between Genoa and La Spezia.

The email told that on 25 October 2011 Vernazza was the victim of massive flooding and mudslides that killed 3 residents, and left the town buried in over 13 feet of mud and debris. We spent an idyllic 4 days there at Easter in 2007, enjoying the character and tranquillity of a village which is accessible only by rail, ferry or on foot.  NowVernazza has been horribly damaged. The residents have been evacuated leaving just volunteers and emergency crews to begin the cleanup.  The road to rebuilding is expected to be long, complicated and costly.

These YouTube clips show the terrifying force of the flood that swept down the steep surrounding hillsides and into the village, sweeping cars out to sea and burying the ground floor of shops and houses in mud and rubble.

When I got the email, it occurred to me that I must have missed reports of this disaster on the TV news and in the newspapers.  But a quick search on Google revealed that there was no coverage anywhere in the UK media, apart from one report in The Telegraph.

The Cinque Terre is composed of five villages: Monterosso (which also cought the full force of the flood), Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For us, the great attraction of the area was the fact that you can walk from one village to the next by well-marked trails, and return to you starting point by train or ferry.

Vernazza is perhaps the prettiest of the villages (though it’s a difficult call), with its pastel-coloured buildings, situated in the shelter of a rocky cove whose dark rocks make a dramatic contrast to the brightly coloured houses. Like all the Cinque Terre communities, it’s a working fishing village and in the harbour fishermen tend their boats, some – invariably occupied by a tribe of sleeping cats – drawn up on the little piazza that overlooks the port. The cobbled main street is lined with cafes and small shops, and was once the bed of a stream that is now culverted beneath the cobbles.  At the top of the street is the railway station, and beyond that the parking place which forms the nearest point that can be reached by car.  Little alleyways ascend steeply from either side of the main street, and it was several hundred feet up one of these side passages where our accommodation was located.

Vernazza was founded about 1000 A.D. and was ruled by the Republic of Genoa from 1276.  Above the village are the ruins of medieval fortifications, built in the 16th century to protect the village from pirates, and the church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, built in 1318.  A 45 minute walk – quite steep in places, but with fantastic views – along the coastal trail brings you to Monterosso, another wonderful village with its main square right on the waterfront and a very small sandy beach.

I’ve put together a slideshow of some of the photos I took of Vernazza during our trip.  They record a day in the life of this laid-back village – the first stirrings on the main street and port piazza, with locals and tourists waiting for the first ferry along the coast, the streets and alleyways, to the golden glow of the setting sun illuminating the colourful houses, before finally the suns sets behing the headland.

Click the first image to launch the slideshow.

Here is an evocative video shot by the American travel writer Rick Steves walking down the main street just after 10:00 at night.

Meanwhile crews are hard at work in Vernazza, excavating enormous amounts of earth to uncover streets and the ground floors of buildings.  The next priority will be to rebuild the town’s infrastructure. Electricity, gas, water and sewer services will be slow to return to Vernazza. In many cases, engineers will need to evaluate the safety of structures before they can be used again. Only then can homes and business begin to clean out, remodel and reopen.

In the meantime, Vernazza’s residents have been evacuated. Entry to the town is restricted to the military and people working with relief crews. The road leading to Vernazza has been wiped out by slides, boat service has been curtailed, and there is no public train service. Vernazza is expected to remain closed at least until the spring, but there is a determination to recover and to draw in the tourists again.  We certainly hope to back, soon.

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8 thoughts on “Lovely Vernazza is swept away

  1. Oh my! We knew there had been floods but you’re right – UK media ignored this scale. Like you we have happy memories – we went to celebrate my 60th and retirement at the end of February 2006, walked the length of the trail and travelled each day by train. I’ll stick some photos on my blog.

  2. Thank you for this painful and heartfelt account of the loss of so much life, beauty and history. I think I’m quite alert to such stories and this is the first I’ve heard. The lack of even minimal coverage seems inexplicable.

  3. This is truly a tragic event. Though I am not surprised that it didn’t hit the news here , the only thing “Italian” this month is Mr Bunga Bunga.
    It also revived memories for me. I have not been to this area since 1965 when I stayed in Genoa with my cousins for the summer.They took me to Levanto where they had a flat on the front. Levanto is a relatively short distance up the coast from Vernazza. I recall small rocky beaches some only accessible by boat; and the towns and villages hugging the coast line as we travelled South from Genoa by train in and out of tunnels in the cliffs. I played football on a floodlit sandy pitch, I thought was a bit of a Nobby Styles type defender, they didn’t appreciate that. We watched a Kirk Douglas cowboy movie projected onto a wall in the town square and I went snorkelling for the first time. My cousin came to visit in 1966 and we went to see the world cup quarter final England vs Argentina, not the most sporting match. I have not heard from my cousins since.

  4. Great photos, Kevin. What a difference a month makes – yours so stormy in March and mine calm and sun-kissed in April (though we did have one day that was cold and cloudy).

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