Cinque Terre - a Vanishing Resource?

Monterosso and Vernazza seem to have completely recovered from the disastrous 2011 flood.  If one venture up the roads out of town there is still significant evidence of the destruction but the towns themselves seem fully recovered.  Monterosso was already recovered last year.  They have a new drainage system under the newly paved main street.  The colorful shops and restaurants are all bustling and one would never know they’d been flooded.  I visited Vernazza and she too is looking good.  One new result of the flooding was the opening of a small passage under the rock upon which most of the town, including the picturesque castle, sits.  It was always there, next to the original gelateria, a miniscule lagoon where waves pushed through a small opening, advancing 4 or 5 feet only.  The flood scooped out the opening, which is now large enough to walk through, opening up onto a new, large stretch of pebbly beach on the other side. We always think that geographic changes happen only gradually over long periods of time, but sometimes, major events make dramatic changes.  And this is one of those.  As if to balance accounts, the small sandy beach that used to exist next to the harbor is completely gone. It’s a good thing the towns have recovered completely because the crowds of day trippers have grown to immense proportions.  Its quite a change from 17 years ago when I came the first time with a group.  I’ve watched the changes with varying degrees of alarm over the years.  I remember when the boat service was introduced about 12 or 13 years ago.  The boats arrived from Porta Fino in the north and La Spezia in the south, the gangplank would drop in and a tsunami of several hundred tourists would sweep up from the harbor.  In the next couple years Trenitalia added new trains to accommodate the increase in visitors.  Since then trains have arrived at the top of the town disgorging hundreds of passengers where once a few dozen would have descended.  The flood from above sometimes meets the wave from below.  The infrastructure is stretched beyond capacity.  Apart from primitive toilets at the station, none of these towns even has a public toilet.  About 10 years ago I saw my first African refugee selling sunglasses in Vernazza.  Nothing against the poor fellow trying to eek out a living, but it was a sad day on my calendar.And now a new scourge has arrived in this lovely corner of Italy.  Cruise ships are now docking in Porta Venere near La Spezia.  Yesterday I bought a train ticket in Monterosso.  When I came out of the station office a train had arrived.  The platform was a sea of people, punctuated every few feet with that ominous symbol of the cruise ship scourge:  the number paddle.  Group escorts always have a numbered, sometimes color-coded paddle which they hold up for their groups to gather around and be accounted for.  Typically the groups are large, up to 50 per paddle.  [Image below is only a single small cruise group] It was a horrifying sight.  In my view, cruise ship tourists are the locusts of tourism - arriving in swarms, picking clean the charm that once defined lovely destinations like Venice, Athens, and Barcelona.  I spoke to several of the locals I know and the response is mixed.  Of course, bigger numbers means more sales, more meals, more groceries, gelato, and coffee.  But many were concerned about the local waters being over fished, the amount of trash being created, and especially about the chronic shortage of water and its corollary, the over-extension of the sewage system.  I had myself noted the water from my bathroom sink had a yellowish tinge.  Apparently, the older residents of the CT are having difficulty getting on and off trains whenever a cruise ship is in port.  As so often happens in the world, this lovely resource is being loved to death. I am grateful that I came here in 1983 and experienced the five villages in their sleepy, traditional, unspoiled condition while hiking the trails in solitude.  I am grateful I came here with Julie and my parents in 1992, when development had begun but was not yet rampant.  We arrived without reservations and easily found a nice room in Riomaggiore.  Julie and I had dinner on the single balcony table of the Belforte overlooking Vernazza’s breakwater.  I’m ever so grateful the early years of tours here were still absent the worst excesses of commercial tourism.  And I’m most grateful that a great majority of you, my readers that have been here with me, experienced the CT when it was still uncrowded and as yet unspoiled.  Don’t get me wrong.  It is still a beautiful place and worth visiting.  My group had a marvelous time - we did get the hoped for sunshine and people were nearly euphoric as we gathered for happy hour. But now one must seek out the hidden and quiet corners of the CT to enjoy it.  And those gems do exist.  Climbing high up in each village to visit its cemetery; the convent church high above Monterosso; the upper trail, for those hardy and fit, is still largely untrammeled.  For my groups I now give away my long held secret:  the hike from Monterosso to Levanto is every bit as lovely as any in the CT, but much less crowded.  A visit to the CT is now like any other major tourist destination.  It is still enjoyable but one has to work hard to uncover the essence of the place, now veiled by commercial tourism.  Most of you know I like to refer to the secret unspoiled places of the world as “Behind the Curtain”.  The curtain that has descended on the CT has become thick, blocking out much light.  If will be my job going forward to investigate deeper and further to find those “behind the curtain” jewels to make the CT a worthwhile destination for the future.