Saturday, April 28, 2007

Cinque terre, pt.1: it's all true!

Day two here in the Cinque Terre, specifically the almost too charming village of Manarola (numero due in the cinque), and I have to say the whole CT is just about everything I had expected it to be. I’ve been wanting to come here for close to 20 years, and this was finally the time. Sure, there’s hordes of Rick Steves-toting tourists, stopping right in front of you at every moment to take yet another picture. There are loud German tourists who seem convinced the rest of the world is deaf; Americans fearfully looking at restaurant menus, hoping to find something, anything, that they’ve heard of. Still, it somehow clings to this special aura, this way of life that when you get off the main drag in each town, seems almost unchanged from the way it must have been 50 or more years ago. Better still, you could spend a couple of days just wandering the maze of stairs and hidden walkways in Manarola alone.
The view from our room in Manarola....I like it here!

We got in late yesterday afternoon, checked into our viewalicious room at the La Torretas, had some local vini bianchi, the ubiquitous Cinque Terre Blanc with a small bite to eat at a local trattoria. Unlike the Festa di Carne that was the Piedmont, here it’s all about the sea. All the menus are dominated by two things...pesto and seafood. Our insalata di mare we had for lunch was wonderfully fresh, the octopus, shrimp, and fish a welcome change from all the farm animals we ate up north. The local white grape grown in the vertical vineyards surrounding each village is the perfect foil to this kind of food, going equally well with fish or pesto. After a quick siesta, we did the vineyard walk here (through the vineyards on the left of the picture above), which is one of those mandatory, must-do tourist things. It winds from the top of the town, just below the church that was built around the year 1300, down through the terraced vineyards that have been individually gouged out of the side of the hill, each farmer having a few grape vines, two or three lemon trees, and a small garden plot. The effort to get things to grow must be incredible, and I am absolutely fascinated by the whole process. We started in the early evening, after most of the tourist hordes had departed, and had the trail to ourselves. Coming back into town, we continued walking south for about a kilometer to check out Riomaggiore (numero uno in the cinque). Another postcard perfect village, somewhat larger than Manarola, with a more lived in look (in a good way). We hiked up into the town, stopped for a cold birra, then went back down to the harbor front to see if we could find a place to eat. We didn’t eat right there, but did stop for a drink at a tiny bar with a dramatic view over the harbor where we saw a stunning sunset that looked a lot like this......
Coming back into town, we ended up for dinner at Ristorante La Lampara, where the dining room was surprisingly modern and stylish. White tablecloths, big Spiegelau glasses, nice, casual ambience, and very reasonable prices for what turned out to be deliciously prepared food. We had a pizza al pesto to start, and both of us ordered whole branzini, the Mediterranean version of sea bass. w’s was simply grilled, mine was oven roasted. So fresh and perfectly done.
My roasted branzini....superb!

For dessert w had to have her panna cotta craving satisfied, and this was one of the best panna cottas either of us has had....

Panna cotta perfection!

We strolled home along the Riomaggiore-Manarola path, which in the last few years has been paved and has lighting installed that dramatically illuminated the cliffs down to the sea at select points. In the dark (there are small, unobtrusive lights along the path), it was simply stunning, the sky above crystal clear and filled with stars, the sea rhythmically splashing against he rocks. Can you say insanely romantic? One of those moments impossible to improve upon. La vita dolce, indeed!

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