Thirty two years ago, I met two American college girls while hitchhiking in Switzerland. They were studying in Florence and I asked them their favorite place in Italy. They surprised me by naming a place I had never heard of before: Cinque Terre. Curious, I headed south and discovered a humble string of five villages along Italy's Riviera coast with almost no tourists and, it seemed, little contact with the modern world.
Since falling in love with this endearing stretch of the Mediterranean coastline, I've gone back almost every year. Of the five towns, spindly, pastel Vernazza has always been my favorite. Over three decades, I've grown up with the people of Vernazza, watched a young generation carry on with their traditions and seen the town go through years of hard work to develop into a thriving haven for travelers. Once rugged and magical, it is now comfortable and magical.
Then, on Tuesday afternoon, a torrent of rain came down and a flash flood thundered through the town, gutting nearly every business, and filling the ground floors with mud.
I spent four nights here last May, updating our guidebook chapter to the Cinque Terre. At the end of my stay, as I got on the train for Rome, I found myself actually thinking of Vernazza as a person and as a friend. Of all the towns I know in Europe, this is the one that is, for me, the human puzzle in which I've figured out the most pieces. I believe I know more people in Vernazza than in all of Spain. This week, as I read emails from Vernazzan friends and look at the horrifying photos and videos of the disaster, I feel I've lost a friend. In fact, looking at the photos -- store fronts ripped off and fishing boats crumbled on rocks -- I get this ghastly feeling that these are photos of a crime scene, that nature has murdered my friend.
A routine I've long enjoyed with each visit has been to walk slowly from the top of town to the bottom just before midnight. I'd savor the rhythm of the pastel colors and imagine the town back when a stream rushed down its middle. At some point, generations ago, the stream was put under the pavement. But it still flowed, draining water from the terraced vineyards that surround the town on three sides. I'd always stop at one point along the street where I could actually hear the soft sounds of that water still flowing beneath the road, from vineyards to the sea.
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.
One of the joys of my work is sending travelers to Vernazza. And today I read an email from one Vernazzan who fears they may not rebuild and it could become a ghost town. But I think people are determined to dig out and bring life back to both Vernazza and its neighbor Monterosso. (The other three towns of the region -- Riomaggiore, Manarola and Corniglia -- because of their topography, got through the storm essentially unscathed.)
I had planned to visit the town next April to film an updated version of my TV show on the region. I realized that there may be nothing to show and I was thinking I'd have to put the TV shoot on hold. Then I thought: No, I need to take the crew to the Cinque Terre and show the world the resilience of its people, the natural beauty of the region and how its communities will carry on.
How can we help? Those who care about the region can donate money. (I don't feel comfortable with collecting money, and it's too early to clearly see which relief organizations will be involved. In the meantime, the Italian Red Cross is a good choice.)
I think, most importantly, we can keep Vernazza and Monterosso in our travel dreams and incorporate them into your next trip. Tourism is the life blood of these towns and, while they need and will get government aid along with charity from friends in the short term, they will need to rekindle their thriving economy in the long term. That involves you and me.
Along with not abandoning the towns of the Cinque Terre, we need to keep in mind that violent weather devastates many more "ugly sister" towns on our planet, where few people notice or rush to their aid. This happens in wealthy corners of our world -- like Europe and the USA -- and it happens in corners of our world where desperation is the grinding, day-to-day norm. And while many in America feel that acknowledging and addressing climate change is just too expensive for their bottom line, climate change is a reality. And its violent weather packs an even bigger punch, with more devastating consequences, in the developing world.
What will I do? I can keep singing praises for the Cinque Terre. I can dedicate the same promotional energy to it in the coming years that I have in the past decades -- even if there will be a hard and ugly time of healing. And I will work to help explain to climate change deniers in our society that it is not "just a theory" and its victims are real people.
Follow Rick Steves on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@RickSteves