It had been my first vacation in Italy, and it was a vacation from hell. For six days we had suffered through icy wet weather, although May was supposed to be nice, at least that was what we had read in the guide books. Instead, pear blossoms were freezing in Siena, and there was snow in the mountains above Parma. I wanted to go home, to grey, rainy Hamburg. At least there you expected it to be horrible.
On day seven, though, things changed. We left our small vacation rental in Marina di Massa on the Tuscan coast. The idea was to head south for our last day of self torture; the clearer northern sky caused us to spontaneously change our plans. The sunshine led to Riomaggiore, one of the five villages of a magical place called the Cinque Terre, or Five Territories, at the southeastern tip of the Ligurian coastline.
We left the autostrada for a serpentine road with no guardrail. On one side was a cliff, shooting straight up. On the other, was the hair rasing drop to the turquoise Mediterranean. Did I mention there were no guardrails? Below, we could see a fishing village called Riomaggiore, one of five spectacular dots on the Med that are collectively known as the Cinque Terre, or the Five Territories, with ancient houses painted the colors of a Michelangelo fresco. Straight ahead, vineyards and olive groves rolled on as far as the eye could see. On the road ahead of us, the apes (Italian three-wheeled contraptions which function as mini-pickup trucks) careened down the road, to be met head on by local buses driving on the non-railed, straight-drop-down side. And no one wanted to give way.
We parked outside the village limits. There were no cars allowed in the village itself.
Ancient courtyards peeked out from small iron gates. Stone steps seemed to lead to nowhere. Bougainvilleas, coming out of their dormancy, stretched toward the sky. The town hangs over the Mediterranean, with spider-like walking paths that face the turquoise water. Fishermen pushed off from the harbor for a day at sea.
We felt vindicated. We shed our layers and put our pasty faces in the sun.
A café, built into a cliff hanger of a hill, had two plastic tables outside. Micha brought out due cappuccini. As we recovered from the weather shock, a tan cat with a tattered coat and one eye came strolling up the walkway, throwing herself onto the ground in front of us, stretching her limbs. Simultaneously, from the other direction, came a Fiat 500 built in the mid sixties, careening down the no-car pathway. It was an orange cop car that came up to Micha's waistline and was no more than a yard and a half long. The blue light on the roof, almost bigger than the car itself, omitted a most unintimidating tee doo tee daa siren sound. It came to a screeching halt next to the café and directly in front of the cat, who didn't budge. Two sizable officers unfolded themselves, stepped out of the car and ordered coffee and focaccia con prosciutto, the famous Italian flatbread stuffed with cured ham.
The cat finally came to her feet and sauntered over to one of the cops. The officer took the entire stuffing out of sandwich and fed it to her, piece by piece. Shortly afterward, the police backed up and drove away, and the cat slowly walked back down the path, in the direction from which she had come.
Michael and I observed this scene as if it had been played out for us alone. A meditation of sorts.
Micha spoke first. “That cat and those two cops have been doing this little dance every day for who knows how long. In the mean time, I’ve been flying God knows where to sit in meetings with a bunch of SOB’s and justify why we didn’t sell as much copy paper this year as we did last year. Tell me please, who’s the smart one here?”
Huge change is often precipitated by small, almost imperceptible events. Sometimes it just takes a scrawny cat and a cop and a piece of prosciutto and things become crystal clear. From that moment to opening the doors of our farmhouse in Acqui Terme was a long, complicated maze. But for us, that’s where our life change started, in the Cinque Terre, on the first of a string of sunny May days, in 1997.
Which makes the horror of what's happened this week to two of the five villages of the Cinque Terre, a beautiful, precious UNESCO World Heritage Site, even more unbearable.
They have been destroyed by mud and landslides caused by flooding. I cannot explain here the extent of the damage, it's far too great and encompassing. The villages, which are difficult to access in the best of times, are virtually cut off from any direction except for the sea. Please visit my friend Kate Little's blog (she's a Cinque Terre resident) for updates and briefs about the damage.
Monterosso was the most touristed of the villages for very good reason. The main part of the village sat directly at water level, and people could drive into town and park there. From Monterosso tourists had access to the other Cinque Terre villages by train. Several tiny hotels lined the main throughfare. Now, they are filled with mud at sea level, the harbor has been wiped away completely.
Vernazza, one of the smaller of the five villages, was hammered from above with river-like currents rushing through, taking everything with it.
Beyond those two, there was extensive damage south of the Cinque Terre in the village of Aulla on the Tuscan coast.
So far eight people are known dead and there are still several missing.
The villages of the Cinque Terre exist in a precarious balance of ecosystem and tourism. Fishing no longer provides the base for the economy. It's the visitors that keep the Cinque Terre going. Without tourism, it's a death sentence for one of the most beautiful, precious places on earth. We Italian residents often observe the Cinque Terre with bitten fingernails, hoping that it can maintain its unique beauty while trying to accommodate the millions that want to walk its hiking paths and view its splendid colors and vistas.
For those of you who have visited and enjoyed the walking paths and the flowers and the palms and the colors, please open your hearts and your pocketbooks.
For those of you have never been to the Cinque Terre, if you do come to Italy, please consider either making a donation or making the Cinque Terre part of your next holiday. They will need every tourism dollar they can get to rebuild.
Ligurians are a tough, strong bunch of people. I have no doubt they will come out of this.
Thank you so much for reading. If you can, please Facebook this. Twitter it. Post it on your blog. Anything you can do to help the Cinque Terre rebuild would be deeply and profoundly appreciated.
MUNICIPALITY OF MONTEROSSO: IBAN: IT64W0603049870000046275829 HEADING: “Un aiuto per Monterosso e Vernazza” (help for Monterosso and Vernazza) Explanation: “Alluvionati 5 Terre”
-IL SECOLO XIX AND BANCA CARIGE IBAN: IT11 Y061 7501 4000 0000 3452 080 SWIFT: CRGEITGG040 CIN: Y CAB: 01400 HEADING: Società Edizioni e Pubblicazioni (S.E.P.) Spa CAUSAL: “Alluvione Spezia”
Last but not least, here's the link for donations to the Italian Red Cross. This is easier for people from the states, because you can use your credit card.
Note: Feature photo courtesy of Kajan Mehta.