Pictured here is La Giada Del Mesco, a quaint little hotel with rooms overlooking the sea. Each morning we enjoyed authentic Italian cappuccino before setting out on our morning hike. After we were shown to our room at La Giada Del Mesco, we hit the ground running. We were introduced to our companions for the week and to Kate Little, our hiking guide and a certified sommelier. She led us to the neighboring town of Monterosso Al Mare. My first impression of this scenic walk was not visual, but more olfactory in nature. The aromatic herbs that grow wild here (chives, thyme, fennel) and the ones that are cultivated (lavender and rosemary) pepper the air with the smell of springtime.
The overall impression was an abundance of green. Groves of lemon and olive trees covered the hillsides and terraced vineyards were as far as the eyes could see. Private residences often have their own vineyards and lemon groves for personal consumption. Lemons are used to make limoncino, a very potent beverage made from lemon rinds, simple syrup, and alcohol.
Wild borage is a weed that grows here. Not only are the tiny purple flowers edible and used for visual appeal in soups and salads, but the spiny leaves are deveined, chopped, and prepared similarly to Swiss chard.
Today was an earn and burn day. We hiked for nearly 3 hours on a trail from our Levanto hotel to Monterossa Al Mare, a walk that involved a lot of intense climbing and navigating streams, loose rocks, and ledges. So, we earned our lunch, having burned off all of breakfast. Don’t look down! This is the view from the hike toward Monterossa Al Mare.
At the bottom of the hill, we were met by Pamela and a van to take us to Ristorante il Ciliegio and to enjoy the hospitality of its owner, Gianni. This was the sight of my first ever encounter with rabbit and anchovies. Anchovies were prepared every conceivable way―cured, fried, stuffed, and drizzled with lemon, cracked pepper, and olive oil. We learned that this staple fish must be eaten quickly, because it deteriorates rapidly. Otherwise, it has to be salt-cured to preserve it.
This pizzeria seemed to be popular with children, because they popped in after school during our demonstration to get some warm foccacia. Chickpea, chestnut, and wheat flours are all utilized here, depending on the pie served. The chickpea mixture had a batter-like consistency, as opposed to dough, and was the base for a wonderful vegetable pie. The chewy texture of the pizza, coupled with the high temperature of the wood burning oven, is what makes it absolutely delicious! Don’t ask for pepperoni, though, unless you want bell peppers. “Salami” is the Italian version of a pepperoni pizza.
A hike to a sleepy town called Bonassola (translated from Italian to “We are ok” because women were often left for long stretches by their sea-faring husbands) started our day. It was a steep climb and my knees were talking to me, not being accustomed to such vertical paths. Along the way we collected borage, fennel, and asparagus…all are very opportunistic plants, seeming to grow in the most obscure places.
We then took the train to Vernazza, a colorful port of hustling tourists, where we met up with a restaurant proprietor who was not scheduled to open his business until the following day. There we were served Ligurian cuisine on a railed perch in an old fortress facing the sea. I cannot describe to you in words, or even in pictures, if I had one, of the view offered from our table. Suffice it to say that I felt like an eagle in a nest high above the smashing waves of the sea. We were so mesmerized by this little Italian woman, who was taking a break from her chores. True to the good-natured spirit of her culture, she even waved at us!
We began our day by taking the train to Riomaggiore, where Walter de Batte made his award-winning wine. It was so funny that there was an elevator at the bottom of the hill that lifted us to the road above, kind of a Willy Wonka moment. With Walter’s wines complementing the meal, we had the most marvelous lunch at Cappun Magru in Casa di Marin. The amazing thing about wine is the complexity. It has the ability to change with food. A good wine, I discovered, is one with structure, one whose flavor will not dissipate after the first sip, but lingers on the palate. See all the wine glasses? You can imagine my condition when we set out on the hike to Corniglia!
The trail to Corniglia from Manorola is a steep, winding trek, covering acres of terraced vineyards and forested trails. It is no walk in the park, meaning the trail is moderately strenuous, but the views can only be described as breathtaking. Not to be underestimated, Tim and I hiked along the trail with our companions, plodding along like mules in a canyon. At every opportunity, we stopped to just take in the scenery and the blue skies above us. Sometimes there’s a moment within a moment where you have to just be, taking note of where you are and being totally aware of your surroundings. It was magical.
Pamela must be a morning person. We were herded and ready to board the 9a.m. train to La Spezia, saying “good-bye” to The Cinque Terre and our base of four days in Levanto. Although today began early, the surprises on the other side of the tracks were worth the extra cup of cappuccino to stay awake.
I knew it would be good when we were greeted by two diminutive Italian women in sensible shoes. We were escorted from the train station to a restaurant/cooking school, inconspicuously located in an alleyway just minutes from the Friday marketplace. We dropped off our belongings, then went directly to the market to purchase ingredients.
It was unlike any grocery experience I’ve ever had. The fish were still moving. Snails were poking out of their shells and octopuses the size of my hand lay sprawled over ice. Fishermen yelled for us to see their catches, as competition was fierce. Wish I could shop like this every day! I would buy fresh ingredients as I need them, and never be tempted to resort to convenience foods. I think everyone would be healthier and happier if we adopted this lifestyle.