May 1978: It was my first time in Italy. Walter, a friend of my Swiss host family had suggested that we go to Vernazza for the weekend. Kris, another foreign exchange student and I went along with him. Vernazza was a magical place. After two nights our host had to return to Switzerland, but the two of us were still under Vernazza’s spell, and decided to stay a few more days.
Remember that we were students, and we didn’t have a lot of money. I think that Walter probably told the owner of the hotel to just keep us fed and safe, and charge us a daily rate including food that we could afford. That way we could enjoy Vernazza without having to worry about money.
I had never returned to Vernazza. As the years passed, I had heard about how crazy tourism had become there, and it really discouraged me from wanting to go back to see all of the changes. Nevertheless, in June, 2020, after the first Covid lockdown in Italy, I reserved a hotel room in Vernazza with the intention of a visit while the tourist situation might be quieter. However, we decided against it, and stayed at home. My fascination with returning to Vernazza was going to have to wait.
Last week we were in Sardinia for vacation (there will be more posts about that), and we returned from Porto Torres to Genoa on the ferry. We arrived in Genoa early in the morning, so after some breakfast and a walk around the marina, we decided to make a stop off in Vernazza for lunch. After all, Vernazza is right on the train line from Genoa to La Spezia so “why not”.
There was a swarm of tourists in the little main street that descends from the train station down to the little marina. I continued to push through the crowd to my goal: the tiny marina that was central to my many lovely memories of Vernazza.
Finally we arrived in front of the hotel and restaurant where I had spent my time in this little paradise. In that moment I had my first tiny twinge of regret: why didn’t we come here in 2020? I have many photos from that time (albeit with my little Instamatic camera) that I could have shared with the owner of the hotel. We could have talked about the people that I met and the memories that were so impactful. After all, Vernazza was my first Italian experience as a young adult, and greatly influenced my positive thoughts about Italy. But today, the Saturday before Easter, it would be impossible to have a quiet and friendly chat with the hotel owner, or anyone else really!
The little restaurant of only 5 tables had morphed into a huge 100 capacity outdoor scene. Seeing a couple of empty tables, I asked the waiter (in Italian), if just maybe he could find a spot for us. He looked over the tables, and scrutinized me a bit, and then with a little wink of approval he showed us to a free table.
In 1978 it wasn’t common to use up a frame of film to take a picture of your food, so I don’t have any comparison pictures from my time there. But here is a photo of the “antipasto della casa” (the house appetizer). In this regard, it was almost exactly as I remember. But certainly two young students with only a little money would not be able to afford this every day (especially not twice a day) for a full week at these prices.
The pesto was nice enough, but didn’t live up to my memories of my first taste of Pesto alla Genovese 45 years earlier. Remember that at that time, pesto wasn’t very well known in the USA. In fact, I was the person to introduce this awesome sauce to most of my friends and family in the US for almost a decade before it became well known in America. Thus, I did my part to bring this bit of Liguria to Colorado and Tennessee!
I chatted with our waiter about my memories of Vernazza. He grumbled that tourism in Vernazza had become “Focaccia Tourism”. The tourists only ask “Where’s the focaccia” or “Where’s the bathroom”. By the way, the restrooms are truly a problem. Remember that I mentioned how large this one particular restaurant had grown? The restaurant inside didn’t grow by the same proportion. There is a long line for the loo!
That said, we didn’t let the crowd rush us. We enjoyed our lunch while the tables next to us turned twice with new diners.
After lunch we took a stroll along the port. Actually we cannot use “stroll” here. We maneuvered through the crowd. I snapped a few comparison photos, and then we returned to the station.
The station was a wreck. I’m sure there were 400 people on the platform. By comparison, you can see about 4 people on the platform when I took the photo in May of 1978. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the railway worker blowing her whistle and yelling “DIETRO LA LINEA GIALLA” (behind the yellow line) incessantly, it would have been a very dangerous situation. Here are two photos of then and now.
I’m happy that I went back to Vernazza, and this little stop over satisfied my need to see this place again. If you’ve never been to Cinque Terre, you really must go someday. I do not want to say that Vernazza has been “spoiled” by tourism, but truly, something needs to change or it will be ruined. I’m not the only one who feels this way. On the Monday after Easter, which is the “Pasquetta” holiday in Italy, La Repubblica had a headline that cautioned the boom of tourism in Cinque Terre, and there is a risk of collapsing the entire ecosystem if it doesn’t get under control. “Cinque Terre, è boom di turisti. Ma si rischia il collasso. Come evitarlo.”
I don’t know what the solution is here. Maybe Vernazza needs to institute a “tourist tax” like in Venice. However, I also don’t want Vernazza to turn into a “magical place” in the same way that Disneyland is a “magical place”. Let’s hope that someone smarter than me can figure this out!