Hugging cliff-top roads, dodging precarious Fiat-driving Italians and honking horns, we venture into the port town of Portovenere. This is the beginning of the Cinque Terre, unofficially called the ‘sixth village’, and it is here that we will spend five glorious days exploring and relaxing. Our local accommodation boasts seaviews, mussel farms, the island of Palmeria and the Ligurian Sea.
Venturing into the centre, the town’s medieval lanes burst with local produce, pretty boutiques and stalls selling various artworks and clothes. Soaring high above the village are the ruins of an ancient castle and the old church of St Lorenzo that was built in 1130.
At the top of the village and surrounded on all sides by the sea is the church of San Pietro, built in 1277 on foundations dating from the 6th century. Rocky terraces make it possible to climb down and sunbathe and swim off the rocks into what can only be described as picture postcard scenery. A grotto dedicated to the memory of Byron who famously swam from Portovenere to Lerici is located here.
A climb around the castle reveals wild herbs of the ‘garrigue’ such as thyme, rosemary and marjoram. A condiment of sea salt and dried herbs with chilli is sold in the local delicatessen and this is used as a seasoning on almost anything from fish, chicken to a Florentine steak. Another specialty of the area is testaroli, a thick pancake that is sliced and served with pesto, the famous sauce made of fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and pecorino cheese. Testaroli are usually first cooked in a special flat pan called a ‘testo’ and then boiled in salted water. This was also the time of year for the prized porcini; a season that spans from June and tails off in September and October. Luckily for us we had our fair share of fresh porcini and found them most delicious just simply pan-fried.
The Cinque Terre’s five mountain towns perch high over the clear blue Mediterranean and the coastline is dotted with fishing villages and steeply terraced cliffs. Colourful fishing boats bob in the sea and in the evening nets are laid out along the promenade. Shore side restaurants offer the freshest of seafood with sardines, clams, mussels, octopus, seabass, prawns and shrimps on offer. Seabass (branzino) is prized for its delicate white flesh and is generally sold and cooked whole.
On recommendation I ordered branzino at Iseo, one of the most popular waterfront restaurants clearly frequented by yachties. It came simply prepared, roasted whole, with tomatoes and olives. Mister D ordered a seafood soup of scampi, prawns and mussels. It translated as more of a stew with dried bread in the base of the bowl, with lots of garlic and parsley, fresh tomatoes, olive oil and white wine.
Nowadays, most Italian blue-lipped mussels are farmed by the ‘bouchot’ method on ropes attached to long stakes set in pure seawater, which keeps the mollusks clean and healthy, free from grit and sand. We look straight onto the mussel beds from our hotel balcony, the water pristine and briny. Hungry, we head down for a huge platter of these little beauties cooked steamed with onion, garlic, parsley and white wine and devoured with a bottle of the local wine – a cool crisp vermentino.
Setting off to explore one of the coastal walks we catch the ferry to Vernazza with the aim of walking to Monterosso. Vernazza’s small Mediterranean harbour is perhaps the quaintest of the five villages. It is overseen by a ruined castle and an old church. There is a tiny sandy beach so swimming is possible, and with the temperature in the mid thirties it is tempting; however hiking is our aim today.
Vernazza is lined with little cafes and narrow lanes (caruggi). Tourists flock to eat large slices of Liguria’s famous bread (focaccia) made with olive oil and flavourings such as cheese, onions, rosemary, olives and salt, and traditional pizza slices. Seafoods and fresh anchovies marinated in lemon juice and pastas are also on offer at the few harbourside trattorias.
The start of the walk heads straight up the cliff and then traverses around with out of this world views of the ocean. I am interested in this particular stretch of the coast, as closer to Monterosso tiny vineyards dot the coast with breakneck slopes. Stopping to take in the view it is here that I spy a minute vineyard called Vetua.
Attempting to find out more about this wine with the man in the local wine shop, and speaking very little Italian, I purchase the rather expensive bottle of vermentino, or pigato as it is primarily called in Liguria. This light-skinned white wine grape variety thrives grown on slopes facing the sea and its wonderful bouquet hints of fresh herbs and flowers.
Clambering down at least a thousand steps we arrive into Monterosso parched and overheated. It is really a ‘no brainer’ at this point to find the closest beach trattoria and purchase a cold beverage. Checking out the casual menu we order a couple of bruschettas, one with freshly chopped tomatoes and the other with pesto. Tucking in we agree that they translate as simple beach fare at its very best. It’s hard to put into words how delicious these Italian tomatoes taste. Monterosso is the Cinque Terre’s only resort town and it comes with cars, rentable beach umbrellas and crowds.
The wines of Cinque Terre require a great amount of effort to produce and hence they are relatively expensive to buy. Grapes are collected by hand and placed in small baskets and carried directly to wineries by the workers. A delicate straw-coloured DOC white wine called Bianco delle Cinque Terre is made by using the native grapes of Albarola, Bosco and Vermentino. When these grapes are dried, a 17% sweet wine called Sciacchetra is made.
The final day trip of our stay at Portovenere is to take the ferry out to the island of Palmaria, where we have booked my very special birthday lunch at the famous Locanda Lorena. Set in a beautiful building overlooking the sea, the Locanda Lorena is a gem amongst Italian restaurants for the healthy food and the beauty of the surrounding landscape, with the blue sea of Palmeria and the view of Portovenere across the water. Reaching the Locanda is also spectacular, as mooring space is provided for those who wish to use the ‘tender’ of their own private yacht!!
Local specialties are prepared by the owner Giuseppe Basso and his team and an abundance of fresh fish, grilled mixed seafood, lobster and prawn salads are on offer. We begin with a traditional antipasta, followed by two pasta dishes, and then my favourite, roasted branzino. A truly memorable lunch on an idyllic Mediterranean Island.
After five days it is now time to leave this Mediterranean paradise. The proprietor of our hotel pours us two final glasses of prosecco and calls out, “Arrivederci, a presto”. It is time to pack the car and head off to the Lunigiana, our next destination. Why did I ever question my European driving skills?
Reflecting on our trip it is clear to me that the food and wine produced in the Hawke’s Bay stands up proudly to any of the produce that we sampled in Italy. Of course there are regional specialties that apply to any country that are unique which makes travelling so inspirational.