May God richly bless the people of the Cinque Terre.
Of all days to plan a day trip to Cinque Terre, ours was October 25, 2011 — the day the towns would be changed forever. We were on a Mediterranean cruise, and we took a day trip with Papillon Services to explore the region we had only dreamed about. We had no warning that our dream would soon become a nightmare.
Our ship had sailed through intensely rough seas the night before from Villefranche, France, so much so that I wondered if we would be able to make the port in Livorno. I awoke as we were docking, the weather was overcast but calm, and the forecasts continued to call only for “some showers.” We embarked with our driver with no idea what we would soon face.
When we arrived at the Cinque Terre, we parted with our driver in Riomaggiore to make the trip through the towns by train. At each step, the skies darkened and grew ominous. When we arrived in Vernazza by late morning, the rains began. Within minutes, the rain was running down the main street of the town like a river. A shopowner took a photograph of us in our rain coats and umbrellas holding up a postcard of Vernazza on a sunny day. We thought that the worst was that we wouldn’t be able to see the region in all its glory. Little did we know that we had not seen anything yet. We continued by train to Monterosso, arriving at 12:25 to meet our driver. He advised that the mountain road was in terrible condition and that he had been told to wait until the storm passed to drive us back. He parked his car near the sea in old Monterosso (the part just south of the newer Monterosso al Mare), and we walked to Al Pozzo for lunch. The rains dwindled, the floods in the street ceased, and we enjoyed a delicious lunch of trofie al pesto with some wonderful Cinque Terre wine. Despite the rain, it was truly la bella vita.
As we prepared to leave Al Pozzo, the skies literally opened once again. As the ground was obviously saturated from the earlier rain, the street quickly filled with a massive river of water. Our driver was given permission to drive up the main street to pick us up and to drive us up to the mountain road to safety — or so we hoped.
When we got into the car, emergency workers were running in all directions. We understood very little Italian, but they were telling us that we couldn’t go down the mountain to the harbor because there were “holes” open in the road for draining. After waiting for some time to be able to get down to the parking area near the harbor for what we hoped would be safe ground, we were told we would have to try to drive up the mountain in the river of water to try to evacuate via the mountain roads.
Our car and two other vans tried going up the mountain. We made it some distance until it became quite steep, and large amounts of debris was falling down the road — huge chunks of mud, garbage cans, and anything in the water’s path. One van full of tourists was caught in the water and was stopped precariously in the river. Our car was able to get to a safer spot just off the road — at least for the moment.
A police emergency vehicle arrived and began by evacuating the tourists from the precariously positioned van. The authorities advised they would return for us as soon as possible. The four of us waited alone for quite a while. As we did, we realized the river of water pouring down the main street was growing larger. Much more terrifying was that, in front of our car, there was another much more rapid flow of water. It appeared to be a drainage area but it had turned into a massive flow of unthinkable amounts of water. Between the river behind us and the rapids in front of us, the small piece of ground we had found for safety was literally being torn out from under us.
Our driver continuously looked for ways to get us out. We waited and waited for the police, who I know did everything they could to save us, but as of yet had not been able to return. I pray that their services were used to save other lives. As we saw the waters rise and the unthinkable amounts of rain continue, we knew we had to do something very quickly. Our driver found a meandering road in the town and said he believed it was our path to safety. He said succintly, “we must try.” He tapped my hand and backed our car into the smaller river of water rushing down the main road. I have no doubt that God’s hand held our car — we drove through the river and up a small street where the waters were much less. Little did we know that at the top of the street was a lovely hotel, Hotel Villa Steno, where we were welcomed. We finally made it out of the storm.
At Hotel Villa Steno, we were able to get out a quick email to family advising them that we were stranded but fine. Just afterwards, we lost power. People continued to come to the hotel, and we realized that it was a mix of stranded travelers and locals with simply nowhere to go. You could see the massive river of water rushing through the streets. The sound of it will stay with me forever. We were advised that the road we were stranded on just minutes earlier had now entirely washed away.
We waited in the lobby as afternoon turned to evening. As the sun went down, we had no lights but our cell phones and a few flashlights. The lobby was full of people from around the globe, but all of whom who lent a helping hand. Those with rooms offered us pillows, blankets, dry clothes, and even famous lemon candies. As we sat in the room with candlelight, there was a moment of inescapable beauty — so many languages being spoken, everyone having faced a harrowing day, but with a sense of peace, togetherness, and hope.
Later in the evening, after rooms were provided for children and the elderly, the hotel gave us their last room for a few weary hours of sleep. Overnight, you could hear the river rushing and voices of Italian rescue workers, but nothing else. A tree branch cracked at one point late in the night, and I wondered about the stability of everything around us, although I tried to push these thoughts from my head. The fear began to sink in, though, as we were alone in the dark room with no idea what would happen next.
It seemed a terribly long wait until dawn, but when the sun finally began to rise, we went out to see the city from the terrace above the hotel. Sunrise above the Cinque Terre was such a beautiful sight — one I had dreamed of. Yet, the sun showed the heart-breaking extent of the destruction. The town was buried under mud. Debris littered every corner. The hardest site for me was when I realized that the van, from which the other stranded tourists were with us were evacuated, was in front of us, quite a distance down the mountain and entirely destroyed. Thank God that the tourists were taken to safety.
As we began our early plans to evacuate, a man named Marco volunteered to lead tourists to the train station, although we still had not heard if trains were running. We had to take a path over the mountain that was very difficult, especially for the rest who had to evacuate with luggage. When we arrived at the harbor, you could see the devastation in that area for the first time. The quiet of the town was only broken by the sound of countless rescue helicopters overhead. It was unfathomable.
We received word that trains were only running towards Genoa. As we had to reach Rome by 7pm to attempt to reboard our cruise, we knew this was probably not the best option. We then heard that boats were coming. We saw a coast guard boat and wondered why it could not begin to evacuate us. We were told the heartbreaking reality that these boats — along with the helicopters — were looking for those lost at sea. What a reminder of the blessings of our situation.
Eventually, a volunteer tourist boat came from La Spezia. It boarded 200 tourists from Monterosso and Vernazza. We sailed along the beautiful coast, glad to be returning to safety but with the heaviest of hearts for all of those who were not as fortunate. Although we had no news, we knew due to the sheer magnitude of what we had witnessed that many lives had been lost.
Our driver had a car meet us at La Spezia, which took us directly to Civitaveccia to reboard our cruise ship. We did safely make it aboard. Words cannot describe the joy of reaching our families.
We have just now finished our cruise and returned to the USA. Our hearts are broken for the people of the Cinque Terre. Although we spent a brief time there, the kindness of the people enured them to our hearts forever. Despite the fact that they had lost everything, they did not pause to lend a hand. We would find out later that Marco, who led us to the train station, was a shop owner that had no shop to go to. He volunteered to show us the only possible path through the mountains to the train. We offered to give him a tip out of sheer gratitude. Although he had lost everything but the shirt off his back, he refused.
I could not agree with Rick Steves more that we must commit to the rebuilding of this place, not just for us to revel in its beauty, but for them, our friends. It may be one of the most breathtaking spots of land on our earth, but for these kind people, it is quite simply home. They have forever touched my heart, and despite the horrors we witnessed, I would go back tomorrow if I could just to lend a hand and help put them back to where they were on that fateful morning when we entered their lands. I will continuously pray for their recovery, and I hope we can all do our part to help. May God richly bless the people of the Cinque Terre.