Friday, April 6, 2012

Arizona Republic - Cinque Terre mudslides: Residents rebuilding to welcome tourists

My piece from the Arizona Republic appeared in the Sunday paper on April 8, 2012 about beautiful Vernazza, Italy in the Cinque Terre and their rebuilding efforts due to 2011 mudslides.

VERNAZZA, Italy - The bells of Vernazza's clock tower drowned out Michele Sherman as she tried to describe the ghost town that her adopted seaside home had become. She apologized and spoke louder into the phone, calling-card minutes drifting away like unmoored dinghies.
"I'm looking at the beach right now and I'm seeing half a car literally sticking out of the sand," she said. "It's surreal."
Cars normally were kept on the outskirts of this tiny coastal Italian village, as is the case in most of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre.
That was before torrential rains on Oct. 25, 2011, caused the terraced hills above Vernazza and neighboring Monterosso to unleash devastating mudslides. Now, construction vehicles enter the town to dig out the 14 feet of mud and debris that buried Vernazza, killed three people and shattered the tourism-based economy.
Despite the region's popularity, there has been little coverage of this catastrophe, frustrating residents like Sherman. An hour before our phone call, she said, she flagged down a car of tourists attempting to drive into town. She explained why the hotels and restaurants were closed.
"There's no big sign that says, 'Hey, this is what happened,' " she said.
Residents resolved to tell the world and foster support for restoring Vernazza. Their focus, Sherman said, is to "attract people that are not only interested in the beach and sun, but in the experience, the history, and wanting to not only visit here but be part of the life here."
An American expatriate, Sherman embodies that philosophy. She visited the Cinque Terre on her 35th birthday, fell in love and never left.
I visited Vernazza in 2010 but, unlike Sherman, I had to leave. This treasured corner of northwestern Italy left a strong impression on me all the same.
Crown jewel
The five villages that make up the Cinque Terre -- Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso -- hang from the train line like grape bunches on a vine. Each village builds upon itself, heaped over craggy outcrops and smothered from above by terraced vineyards and groves. The vibrantly colored houses are like wooden blocks stacked by a child's hand, haphazard and precarious.
Vernazza was the crown jewel. With warm breezes, salty air, postcard sunsets, luxurious local seafood and the chatter of Italians at play, the town pricked every sense.
My wife and I, newly married, were enjoying the last night of our European honeymoon. We almost did not stop in Vernazza. If we hadn't, we would have missed a moment such as travel junkies dream about.
We were relaxing at a cafe on the main plaza watching children catch jellyfish (jellypesca, to hear them yell it) along the breakers when a street musician plucked a few warm-up notes on his guitar.
"Yeah, dumb and drunk as I was, you know I'd do it all again," he sang.
Before my wife comprehended the lyrics, I had vaulted the bistro table with two euros in hand. The musician was older, with long, dusty brown hair tucked under a black bandanna. He smirked when I tossed the money into his guitar case and told him to play another song by Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers.
In a tiny Italian village of 500 residents, a street musician sang the music of our favorite band.
Universal language
His name was Terry, and he was from Colorado. He and his family were traveling across Europe, playing in public places for fun, not expecting recognition or money. Certainly not expecting anyone in Italy to know Roger Clyne's hit "Switchblade." He pried from us our favorite Clyne song, "Beautiful Disaster," and gestured for us to grab a seat.
And suddenly there was a crowd watching Terry and family launch into a full set of American rock and roll.
An older couple began dancing in the middle of the moonlit piazza. My wife and I were urged onto the makeshift dance floor. Without really knowing what we were doing, we were waltzing over the cobblestones to our favorite song. We don't know how to waltz.
The moment was romantic in its simplicity: music, moonlight and sea mist. No digital camera captured the tear that dropped from my wife's eye.
Afterward, Terry thanked us before we could thank him. That crowd was his biggest yet. He came to Vernazza seeking memorable experiences. Vernazza obliged.
"Music unites people all over the world," he said.
More than a year later, after that same cobblestone piazza was unearthed from under 14 feet of mud and debris, music is helping bring the outside world to Vernazza.
Raising money
In the aftermath of the October disaster, Michele Sherman, Michele Lilley and Ruth Manfredi, all American transplants to Italy, formed Save Vernazza ONLUS, an Italian non-profit organization aimed at raising funds for Vernazza's rebuilding and preservation.
To date, they have raised about $186,430 from individual private donors. The organization estimates that the floods caused more than $133 million in damages.
According to Sherman, Vernazza averages 2.5 million visitors a year, 1 million of them American tourists. And from that pool, they sought support.
Sherman, a former bed-and-breakfast owner, downloaded 30,000 e-mail addresses from her business and reached out to former guests and friends, including travel expert Rick Steves. She credits him with helping her spread the word about the region's road to recovery.
"Tourism is the lifeblood of the Cinque Terre's economy," Steves told me. "And while private and government money is essential for Vernazza to rebuild, that won't be enough. Even if Vernazza has fewer shops and rooms open this summer, that's no reason for travelers to stay away from this wonderful corner of Italy. Across the five villages, there will be plenty of rooms available and great travel discoveries to be made."
Lilley connected with friend Lisa McLaughlin, a Cinque Terre frequenter and concert merchandise manager for several artists, including Peter Frampton.
"I had the idea of donating some items to them to help raise funds," McLaughlin said. "When I asked (Frampton), he was happy to sign some things for them, and when I came back to the States, I contacted more of my friends in the entertainment world."
The bounty from McLaughlin's musical connections includes autographed books, CDs, photos and other items from artists such as Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and Lady Antebellum. The memorabilia is part of Save Vernazza's online auction, going on now at The group plans to follow that with an auction of local artwork, set to begin in the last week of April.
Coming back to life
With utilities coming back online, residents are moving back and businesses are slowly reopening their doors. Most plan to be ready by May to coincide with the start of the heavy tourism season.
"Visits here are a donation in and of themselves," Sherman said.
Visits also are a reward. I can still hear Terry singing, "You know I'd do it all again." And we will, thanks to those working to restore Vernazza.
For Michele Sherman, the music never left.
"I didn't realize how much I loved the bells until I went away from them," she said. "Even among all the destruction, it was the one constant. Even after all that, you still hear the bells."
Michael Hartigan is a freelance travel writer. Follow him or on Twitter @WhereverItTakes.

Vernazza, Italy 

Vernazza, Italy

Boats in Vernazza's harbor

Street musicians in Vernazza's plaza, jamming away to Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers music

1 comment:

  1. Michael, thank you so much for your article on Vernazza and the Cinque Terre in today's Arizona Republic Travel section. I am very passionate about Vernazza, and have travelled there four times over the past twenty years. Through my love of Vernazza, I became one of Save Vernazza's fundraising partners. I donate 20% of all of the proceeds from my book, Magic Bridge ( to their relief fund. Three chapters of this novel take place in Vernazza, and I have had a number of wonderful interactions with people that have read the book and shared their love of Vernazza with me. I hope to travel there soon, as Michele Lilley and the Save Vernazza fundraising team have graciously offered a behind the scenes tour of Vernazza to me, as one of their fundraising partners.

    Thanks again for bringing some awareness to the plight of this lovely little jewel. It is amazing to me that there was so little coverage of the flooding in the US.

    Thomasina Burke