Saturday, October 27, 2012

Vernazza - Prettiest of Them All

When I awoke I was disoriented. Where were we? So many places in the last few days … Vicenza, Modena, Parma … had by now taken their toll. It took seconds to adjust and re-orient but then there were those bells. We awoke to the gong of seven bells from the nearby campanile (bell-tower) barely visible from our window. Surprisingly, these were followed by 52 more tolls from the church tower. Maria Elena had counted them! Apparently there was no getting around the need to get up. At home, four horn blasts signified a car accident and the need for the volunteer fire-department personnel to respond. Here, what could 52 possibly mean? I’d have to look into what that was all about.

Slowly my eyes had adjusted to our surroundings. We were lying on a queen size bed in a small box of a room. Above us on the ceiling and in fact on all four wall surfaces as well, a blotchy blue paint scheme gave the room a cloudy sky appearance either intentionally, by design, or they had never received their second coat of sky blue paint. With only a little sensory deprivation, the kind you might have when you first regain consciousness from a deep sleep, you would swear you were floating in the clouds. A foot from the base of the bed was the entry door held closed by a sliding bolt and to either side just enough room to swing your legs off the bed. Other than a shuttered window, the only other exit was into the stanza da bagno (the bathroom). It was constructed on a raised floor in order to allow room for the plumbing. The design required that you step up. Still higher yet was the toilet fixture itself reigning over a sink and corner shower. The shower, fitted according to the size of the room, was likewise tiny. Once you sucked in your stomach enough and were hopefully successful in getting the inward swinging door to close, believe me, you wouldn’t want to drop the soap and then have to negotiate its retrieval! A single candle-shaped bare bulb on a side-table lit our tiny bolt-hole at #27 Via San G. Battista in Vernazza. Outside, up the stone lane a few steps beyond our entry door, was the 15th century Doria Castle which had served as a lookout tower to protect the village from that ever present scourge of old, pirates. Though confining and tighter then the smallest cabin on a cruise ship, we loved our perch of a place what would be home for a few days.

Vernazza is one of five small isolated villages nestled in the hillside along the coastline of Liguria, south of Portofino and north of La Spèzia. The towns are connected by a system of hiking paths, a rail line, a seasonal ferry service and not much more. Vernazza's name derives from the Latin adjective verna meaning 'native'. Verna and the aptly named indigenous wine, Vernaccia (Ours), no-doubt helped give it its name. As early as 1080, records refer to Vernazza as a fortified town. As an active maritime base it was a likely point of departure for naval forces in defense against pirates. In Genoa's conquest of Liguria, it provided port, fleet resources and soldiers and by1209 had pledged its allegiance to the Republic of Genoa. Later years saw it as a center of wine making along its terraced hillsides, a fishing center and olive oil producer. In 1997, UNESCO recognized the Cinque Terre area as a World Heritage Site and in 1999 the National Park of the Cinque Terre was born. Today, Vernazza’s main source of revenue is from tourism. We and the thousands of others who spill into town are proof of that. The centuries old tradition of fishing and the fishing fleet itself are long gone. In fact, there is only one remaining fisherman. We saw him one morning in fact, the last of a tough breed, rolling his harvest to a spot near the tiny stone Chapel of Santa Marta where he set up shop. Let’s just say he wasn’t happy to see yet another tourist, me, snap his picture.

We had arrived by train from La Spèzia, as do most tourists, a little over twelve hours earlier. Our Vernazza adventure began only minutes off the train following our descent down the steps from the station into town when we were met by Miriana, a local woman who manages seaside rentals there ( We were visiting our friend Titti who lives in Vernazza and while her home was in use for a “destination wedding” all the way from Austrailia, Titti had arranged alternate accommodations for us through her friend Mainetta. Along with Miriana was Massimo. Massimo, a barrel chested tree-trunk of a man had hoisted Maria Elena’s duffel bag suitcase onto his shoulder and made off up the winding stone steps to our awaiting room in a shot. Try as I may it was no contest as I attempted to keep up. Something about that name, Massimo. At his birth his mother must have known he’d be massive and hence dubbed him Massimo. Could it have been that simple? Not really, my fantasy stands corrected since although Massimo, a derivative of Maximus, sounds to me as being related to the word ‘massive’, it really means “The Greatest”. I like the name. He was the second Massimo I’d ever met. The first had been in Positano on Via Positanesi D’America just past the seaside torre (tower) in a hillside restaurant run by both him and his wife. True to their names, that Massimo, missing a front tooth, had been a great chef; this Massimo would have made a great NFL fullback. His broken field running abilities through hordes of tourists before breaking left and bounding up the stairs of one of the many alley-like backstreets of Vernazza with the alacrity of a mountain goat was all the proof I needed. Unable to keep up, I could only cheer!

As do all the tourists when they arrive, it wasn’t long before we made our way down the curving main street of town, Via Roma, to the sea. Catering to the needs of its day visitors this main avenue is alive with restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and small markets. It opens at the shore front to a harbor sheltered by an arcing seawall. To the left side of this crescent shaped harbor Castllo Doria towers over its underpinning of colorful homes and restaurants, while to the right the Chiesa (Church) of Santa Margherita d'Antiochia (circa 1318), abutting towering stone ramparts, marks the end of town in that direction. Between the two is a small unkempt beach. Overlooking the beach sits the town’s main square, Piazza Marconi, where both vividly colored wooden boats and café tables and chairs duel for space.

On our arrival the sea was boiling in the aftermath of a recent storm. Large waves crashed ashore. We settled in with a mèzzo litro (half liter) of wine at Pizzeria Baia Saracena on the waterfront closest to the surf and enjoyed nature’s spectacle. A constant battle ensues here … the sea against the shore, the sound undoubtedly heard here since the birth of the sea itself. As along the Amalfitana, the sea here relentlessly crashes into cliff-like bluffs, the roar of the released energy ending with the sound a drummer might make sanding his wire brush across a brass symbol. Coexisting as they do, their struggle for supremacy never stops. Gossamer white iridescent foam atop slate green waves exploded onto the massive boulders of the seawall. Because of its particular violence that day, ropes limited how close you could approach the surf. Nevertheless, some would venture to the brink, reminiscent of TV weathermen covering a Category I hurricane, only to hastily retreat from an especially fearsome assault from the sea or hypervelocity blast of wind. The spray from one particular energetic wave died only inches from our faces and although we were spared being soaked, we did have to lift our feet to be spared a bath. The oohs and aahs from the international host of spectators around us only added to nature’s performance.

By 10 am each day, like a rising tide, people begin to flood Vernazza by the trainloads. This flood of tourists would course down Via Roma like the disastrous flood and mudslides of October 2011. While the tourists leave each day, this flood devastated the village leaving it buried in an astounding 13 feet of mud, as high as a building’s second story. One morning as we enjoyed coffee and brioche next door to the Gambera Rosso, our waiter told us his story of survival. On the 25th of October 2011 the rain had begun around 11am. By 2 pm the conduit corralling the water flowing from mountain ravines to the sea had become jammed with debris. The developing torrent quickly breached the banks of the river and found the easiest course through town – Vernazza’s main street, Via Roma. Almost a year later, you are hard pressed to find evidence of this 100 million euro disaster. Certainly some storefronts, even some homes at the top of the town, remain boarded but a majority have been rehabilitated. It is staggering to imagine the amount of work it took to shovel the mud by hand that had completely filled the ground floors of the town’s center. We marveled at a booklet of photos taken at the time. Cut off for days until helicopters and eventually the military arrived to assist in the recovery, the townspeople, none alone but all together, began to dig out and account for their missing. That only three residents had been killed was a miracle. Our waiter could easily have been added to that number. At first he had shut the doors of the café and damned the spaces beneath them but as the water continued to rise, the pressure of the muddy torrent broke through trapping him along with some customers inside. With only this entry available there was no other avenue of escape. Even the area above the door-jam was secured with bars, preventing escape. The water continued to rise toward the ceiling until there were only inches of air separating life from death. By this time, the others with him had given up their frantic attempt to dig through the concrete ceiling and like him struggled to breathe. Then, as if by miraculous intervention, the water gradually began to recede. The flood, broadening as it entered the area of the piazza, could only get so high before it joined with the yawning abyss of the sea. In a way it was a miracle as God’s physical laws of nature took the upper hand.

One of the highlights of our brief stay in Vernazza was a concert in the church by the cliff-lined shore. Totally by chance we had arrived during the “XXXI International Music Festival of Cinque Terre”. That night’s performance featured an organ recital, for the most part, of Bach compositions. Our organist, sporting a white Nehru-type collared shirt contrasted starkly with the brooding grey columns, blacken stones and late night shadows of Santa Margherita. He was Maestro Ferruccio Bartoletti from nearby La Spèzia. It was a perfect setting to listen to Bach as we sat amidst pious confessionals, votive candles, stations of the cross and life-sized crucifixes some occupied, others abandoned beneath a scrawled ‘INRI’. Behind us, over the main entry doors, copper colored organ pipes produced intricate strains of high pitched whistles only to plunge to basement base notes moments later as a flurry of notes emerged from meter long pipes. Watching the performance, the organist’s head swaggered like a bobble-head. In staccato, woodpecker-like head movements his spirit joined with the poetry of the music, his hands and legs maintaining the tempo as he adjusted switches and choreographed prancing feet across the damper peddles of the organ. Filling the night air by the deserted harbor, he would trip through the cascading notes of a Bach fugue followed by a soothing Ave Maria by Liszt then move on to the ecliptic trill of Du Friedefurst. Glancing across the aisle for the effect the music might have on other attendees, I noted one young patron, his eyes closed; his head complementing the swaying movements of the maestro’s, simpatico with the short-lived notes resonating throughout the chamber. All the while, the sound of an agree sea fought for attention against each Bach strain.

We took our meals at the same restaurant both nights of our stay and our meals both those nights were also exactly the same. No, it wasn’t some scene from “Groundhog Day” where events keep repeating exactly the same, time after time, day after day and it surely wasn’t for any shortage in choices of places to eat or in menu selections. It was simply a matter of choice. We had so enjoyed our first visit to the Antica Osteria il Baretto that we wanted to repeat the experience. You might imagine that the food there reflected the bounty from the sea and you would be right. Dinner was of white wine, a heaping mass of fried anchovies accented with lemon wedges and mussels in a picante garlic-tomato broth, finished off with potent grappa. I know that the mention of anchovies can be a turn-off to many. We’d been apprehensive years earlier in Calitri ourselves when as dinner guests we first heard we would be served anchovies. A quick glance at each other silently confirmed we’d both conjured up imaginings of the fishy smell, salty taste and how our ring fingers, hell all of them, would be swollen by morning! However, as it was then, it was again in Vernazza completely the opposite. Most people also turn up their noses to the thought of eating mussels. After all, aren’t they mostly used as bait? They are where Maria Elena comes from! It seems that the variety served in Italy is also superior to those at home, but then you knew I’d say that, right? Seriously, they are plumper, just about filling the entire shell and when compared with steamed clams, we find them tastier. We especially enjoy them in a marinara sauce, tinged with garlic and a dash of peperoncino for that extra assault on our taste buds. The wine was especially refreshing. Its label read “Cinque Terre - La Polenza”. Though not frequent imbibers of white wines, this was one of the best we’d ever sampled. It was a blend of the vibrant intensity of three grapes … Albarola, Bosco and Vermentino. Later we tried to find additional bottles at a local enoteca but their supply was depleted for the season. After savoring it for two nights, we could understand why.

In a nutshell, we loved our visit to Vernazza. It is a great place to visit for a day, even two. We did, however, feel somewhat isolated by its remoteness and rather confined by the over crowdedness. Living in a forest can do that to you. You can easily say the same of just about any tourist town, from summertime in Newport to the streets of Santorini or Rhodes, flush with tourists. Without question, it is a charming fairytale of a place, seductive and capable of flirting with your senses. Old traditions struggle to survive here in an age of modernity exemplified by the hundreds of ear-buds and cell phones present at any moment. A cleft in a mountainous shoreline just big enough to allow a footing for access to its former source of vitality, the sea, it continues to reinvent itself from that time when its cliffs first greeted the sea. An early morning walk along a hushed Via Roma as the light of the rising sun crests the hedge of encroaching mountains can provoke your imagination to speculate not on where Vernazza is headed, but at least for me, with wonderings of how it once may have been.

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “ Vernazza”.