I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me to write about this.
I’ve squeezed it into other posts, hinted about how I was seduced by the Italian Riviera. I’m glad someone finally asked me, point-blank, to tell this story. It’s a story that begins, actually, in the South of France….on a sunny morning in late spring.
Wait a minute. Did I just say I was seduced by something? That doesn’t sound like me. Let me start again…
I’ve squeezed it into other posts, hinted about how I was beguiled by the Italian Riviera. I’m glad someone finally asked me…
Wait a minute, now I’ve said beguiled? Seduced and beguiled? Someone better stop me. This isn’t that kind of blog. But Liguria, the coastal region of northwest Italy that is home to the Italian Riviera, is just that sort of place. It’s like a tiny black bikini in a shop filled with parka coats: it stands out, embarrassing in delicious riches, while we wipe the sweat from our brow and imagine the feeling of hot sand stuck to the back of our legs.
So, Liguria: where life is good. What do you want to know about it? Ahem, besides the bikini? Let’s start at the beginning, with the wine.
Wait a minute… all of time, space and history doesn’t begin with wine? Hell yes, it does.
The Wines of Liguria
My first hint of the terraced vineyards of Liguria came during the ride over from Southern France, through the French Riviera. Entering into Italy on the Autostrada, one can see the terraced gardens established behind the homes. Because the Alps and the Apennine mountains form a steep cascade right down the sea, there are not open area gardens, yards or fields available to establish acres of cultivation.
The grape growers of the region do as everyone else does, they terrace, they squeeze… they pepper the heights with vines and work with what they have. Perhaps for this reason, Liguria is not established as a well-known wine region. Nonetheless, it is a region of incredible quality and unmistakable atmosphere.
The region is home to several DOC wines, including:
Cinque Terre: white made from Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino. Cinque Terre Sciacchetra is the sweet version
Colli di Luni: red wine based on Sangiovese blended with other grapes
Colline di Levanto: white based on Vermentino, Albarola, Bosco etc, or it can be a Sangiovese based blended red wine
Golfo di Tigullio: whites based on Vermentino, or reds and rosés made from Ciliegiolo
Val Polcevera: whites based on Vermentino and other local grapes, reds and rose styles based on Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo and Barbera
This set of wines, many bright whites from Vermentino (Rolle, for my French friends), pair exquisitely with seafood. The regional meal-mantra is all about super-fresh from the sea. Think of a well-made local olive oil (olive groves are also terraced into the region) and a wedge of local lemon or a side of the regional pesto, grown from Ligurian basil…these delights are the dressing for the fruits of the sea harvest.
How to Be a Visitor In Liguria
Visitors to the region often come to visit Cinque Terre, a set of five villages (lands), barnacled on the edge of the mountain range as it leaks into the Mediterranean Sea. Each of these five villages lies in the protected area of Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. According to the park’s website:
Cinque Terre National Park, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage, has environmental and cultural features which are essential to safeguard: overhanging coasts over the sea with bays and small beaches, thousands of kilometers of dry-stone walls enclosing the terraces where vineyards are cultivated, the characteristic rural buildings, the medieval quarters, the sanctuaries, the panoramic trails over the sea and the slopes. If you consider the precious Ligurian wines, the fresh fish, the cuisine, and the traditional craftsmanship, you will appreciate the value of these places.
Though a stunner, the Cinque Terre isn’t the only reason to visit Liguria. There’s Genova, a bustling, diverse port town with rich history. Honored as the European Capital of Culture in 2004, visitors will find a redeveloped harbor and Renaissance and Baroque architecture throughout the city. In fact, Le Strade Nuove and the system of the Palazzi dei Rolli, early housing districts including public housing as well as aristocratic residences, is listed as UNESCO World Heritage site.
Genova lies at the center, the northernmost spot on the neckline that is Liguria. From San Remo at the western edge near Nice in France, to La Spezia in the east on one’s way to Pisa, the area is populated with miles of beach and port towns, all worth a visit if time were abundant as grains of sand. I discovered an outstanding resource, which helpfully captures the Beautiful Villages in Liguria, called A Path to Lunch, where this interactive click-on-it map is offered:
What’s All This About Seduction?
I have to admit, I’ve typed up these facts dutifully like a teacher with a martini on final exam day. What I really want to share is the story of my experience in Liguria, a trip taken with my husband and a couple of amazing travel buddies. As I said, the story starts in Southern France, in Provence, on sunny spring morning. We did breakfast in Provence, lunch in Monte Carlo and dinner in Santa Margherita. Our hotel was located on the main road along the Santa Margherita harbor. Our first meal there was a well-hungered-for quadruple set of local pizzas and a bottle of non-local wine (I won’t tell you what, because that wouldn’t be fair to Liguria). We slept with the shutters wide open to our large terrace so we could hear the lapping water, early-morning boats and even the strolling people outside. We were well-behaved, well-fed and happy to alive.
I’ll tell you a secret here, something we always do on each trip and we’ve taught ourselves to do this trick even during regular times at home. We bask. It’s an art, basking, but it feels better than almost anything else when you learn to do it. This next day in Liguria, well, it was a bask-fest…
If you don’t know how to bask, let me give you a sample:
Drink Italian coffee at breakfast (in whatever form you prefer). Get your husband a second cup, admire him and smile at the old gentleman that folds his paper four times and tucks it under his arm. He holds the rail gingerly as he steps down the three stairs into the lobby.
Listen very carefully as the hotel manager traces his tan and manicured pointer finger along the map of the train lines, speaking in Italian and English and often in a heavily-accented somewhere in between.
Hold hands and laugh, breathe deeply too, on the way to the train station and purchase tickets for two through Cinque Terre. While on platform tre notice the tiny green lizards that zoo about on the stone walls at the other side of the track.
On the train, sit close to your husband.Choose a seat on the upper level, if you prefer. Check the schedule as many times as you want, admiring the names of towns you’ll see: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
Take the train to the far end, depart at Riomaggiore. If you haven’t perfected your bask, Riomaggiore will help you. Stroll the village, up up up. Laundry flaps, visitors chat (run into someone else from Chicago at the ATM…what? quick, back to basking), eat a cone of fried seafood tickled with lemon juice. See a tiny ambulance that looks made of Legos.
Get to the harbor. Walk the crested path to the end and climb the rocks into the Mediterranean…you’ll not actually be in the water, but your toes will be…along with little fishing boats that nod from the waves. Drink apricot nectar. Yes, drink nectar (it’s complimentary with the basking).
If you have to leave, choose another town on the train line to ease the trouble of going back to civilization. Monterosso al Mare, a busy beach town with just-this-side of too many tourists, will help you catch your breath. Order a caprese salad and people watch. Drink a bottle of local wine and enjoy the feeling of laughter, of having nothing to loose. Browse for chochkies for your children and feel lighter than air walking the beach. That was fun, not-to-fancy, but then we just drank of bottle of wine on a quick whim and carefree is more our style anyway.
Catch the train and let your husband fall asleep on your shoulder.
Shower and dress for dinner at your hotel.
Browse in shops and peek into windows. Find a menu that looks outstanding and stop in. Order local pesto and pasta. Grilled shrimp. Mussels in white wine sauce. Three or four desserts later, confuse the waitress with your attempts at Italian.
Visit a tiny, up-high wine bar and sit hip-to-hip with your group. Pass on the delicate slices of salami, the local cheeses, the wedges of bread that came with your wine. Wait, don’t pass on them…listen to techno and then pick the next songs from the proprietor’s iPod. Be the only people in the bar, so that’s fine. Talk to the proprietor about New York City like it’s every American’s backyard.
Go to the next wine bar and spend way to much on aged Barolo. It might be late, but the hand-polished decanter makes you blush. Bask a bit and build up courage enough to eat the second plate of salami, cheese and bread of the night. It’s vacation after all, and no one’s paying you to hold back…master’s level basking takes place at this hour.
Roam the streets of Santa Margherita. Discover where all those tiny streets lead. See a sunflower made of lights. Squint at more lights of boats bobbing somewhere on the sea, hope their passengers bask the night away as you will, comfortably, with the sounds of the streets reminding you that even in your dreams, you are in Italy. In Liguria.
This post is included in Italian FWT, a group of writers sharing what they know and love about Italy. Join us this Saturday on Twitter live at 11am Est @ #ItalianFWT to chat about everything Liguria has to offer. Here is a preview of what’s to come from our Italian blogging group:
Vino Travels – Wine & Sunshine on the Italian Riviera (Thank you to Vino Travels, our host)
Cooking Chat – Ligurian Pesto Pasta with Wine Pairing
Food Wine Click – Trofie al Pesto with Cinque Terre DOC
Rockin Red Blog – Two Hours in Ligura with #ItalianFWT
Avvinare– Liguria – Home to a Host of Unsung Wines
L’occasion – Life is Good in Liguria (thanks for being here)
The Wining Hour – Ligurian Pigato with Pesto Focaccia and Shellfish
Culinary Adventures with Camilla – Carciofi Crudi
And one last thing: if you liked this post, please consider voting for L’occasion, a finalist in two categories in the Wine Blog Awards…Best Overall Blog and Best Writing. Thank you, one million basks in my gratitude. Vote Here, but June 13, 2016.