I was missing “culture”. I don’t need to write any more about how much I love it here, and how this experience has – somewhat to my surprise – really affirmed that I am no longer a city girl, but suddenly, last week, I wanted to see paintings, or a palace, or even just a different style of architecture, and then I remembered that we live half an hour from Italy.
We looked at going to Florence, but the cost of the trip was prohibitive (the Italian autostrada are horrendously expensive, even for someone used to travelling on French roads! Good old UK road tax…) so we looked closer to home. Genova? That would work… and then I noticed the city is just along the coast from the Cinque Terre, a part of the world I’ve been keen to visit for a long time. With a route home via the wine country around Gavi and Barolo, we had a perfect road trip planned.
It was exciting to step out of the parking garage in Genova and be consumed by the crowds and the bustle of the streets; to see the people rushing in and out of shops and cafes and offices. But I appreciated being the innocent tourist, and not being in a hurry myself. How many times did I race through the streets around St Pauls trying to grab a sandwich and get back to the desk inside fifteen minutes, never stopping to appreciate my surroundings?
In a country that counts Venice, Rome and Florence amongst its treasures, Genova is not much of a tourist destination. It’s a port city, industrial and slightly raffish, but then this is Italy, so amongst the apartment blocks decorated with that day’s laundry and the cranes and shipyards there are cobbled streets filled with tiny churches whose frescoes and marble are astounding. We stepped into one such church – quite unprepossessing from outside – which was filled with paintings by Rubens, and whose ceiling was decorated with so much gold leaf that to look at it felt like staring into the sun.
After a couple of hours, though, we wanted to be breathing fresh air again. More precisely, the sweet, perfumed air of the Mediterranean. We drove along a classic Italian coastal road – imagine verdant cliffs tumbling into the sea, broad beaches, beautiful villas and cluttered seaside towns revealing themselves at every turn – finally arriving at our campsite in Sestri Levanti in time to lie on the beach in the evening sun.
In the morning, we set off for the Cinque Terre, the name given to a protected area of the coast that contains five extraordinary villages which cling to the hillsides and tumble down to the shores. Despite the region’s tough terrain, every inch of cultivable land is covered in vineyards and olive groves, and this relatively tiny patch of land produces a large amount of wine and oil. And lemons – almost every house had a prolific lemon tree in its back garden; we were surprised and slightly disappointed that nobody had set up a homemade lemonade stall in the street…
I love the fact that places like the Cinque Terre exist. True, the villages are overrun with foot traffic, and for the villagers themselves, the numbers of tourists treading through their narrow streets and peering into their gardens must feel tremendously intrusive. However, the Italian authorities have done fantastic work in making the place as sustainable as possible – there are no new buildings or hotel developments, and while there is a road that runs above the villages, it remains almost empty since the rail links are so excellent and cheap. (It costs €10 for a card that entitles you to unlimited train travel in the area, access to the hiking trails and entrance to the various museums along the way. These include an olive press, a wine museum and a virtual aquarium, but sadly, all were shut when we visited.)
The main trail linking the five villages is extremely well trodden, and entirely flat between the first two villages making it accessible to people with even quite limited mobility, though it gets harder thereafter; harder than we expected, to be honest, and I loved the fact that people of so many different nationalities were there, puffing and panting their way up the hills in the blistering sun. We also used some of the harder trails, which take the walker very steeply inland, through the vineyards and groves. Needless to say, we were very impressed with the (almost exclusively, it appears) elderly men and women who work this land.
The final section of the walk – from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare – was particularly busy, and the main trail was very narrow, meaning that every few minutes we found ourselves coming up behind a party and having to wait until they moved to the side to pass. Normally, that would happen pretty quickly, perhaps after a few words were exchanged on the weather, the beautiful surroundings, etc, but as we neared the end of the hike, we got stuck behind a tour group whose leader was perpetually stopping to examine a flower, a pebble, a wire fence. We asked the members of the group if we could pass, and were let by until one man inexplicably shook his head. The Mediterranean, our final reward, was twinkling away beguilingly just beyond the final section of path. I had to laugh when Ben, irate at being held up for so long, threw himself down a crumbling slope in order to gain the path beneath the tour group… I followed, and we ran down to the sea, stripping off clothes and launching ourselves in.
But how amazing to be able to swim in the Mediterranean in early May – it was slightly numbing, but exactly what our bodies were crying out for. And how wonderful to lie on the pebbly beach afterwards, skin heated by hot rock from below and hot sun from above, listening to the Italian children playing and asking for ice creams.
We drove home through wine country the next day, sad to be leaving that magical stretch of coast. The landscape around Alba, where we stopped for lunch, was very beautiful, but it doesn’t seem well set up for wine tourism; we had hoped that it would be possible to visit a vineyard, but none had welcoming signs so we carried on through. An odd feature of the area was the number of prostitutes by the roadside. These were all young black women, brightly dressed, and stationed every couple of hundred yards. We couldn’t help wondering how they had ended up here and how much business they got. It would be a sad sight anywhere, but was somehow particularly shocking in this bucolic setting.
To end on a slightly happier note (and because I haven’t mentioned food at all, surely one of the draws for any visitor to Italy). When we visited Orpierre, we were sad to see the decline of the French auberge. These simple restaurants offer a menu at around €20 which typically includes a salad or pate to start, a well cooked piece of meat or fish for the main course, and a dessert of chocolate mousse or tart, all served, of course, with as much fresh baguette as you can manage. In Italy, we were delighted to see that the concept is still alive and well, though even more of a bargain as for just €10 one could always find somewhere serving a menu prezzo, always comprising a primi, a secondi, and a glass of wine, and often throwing in an antipasti, gelato or coffee in addition. We tried one of these in Alba; the food was simple but generous, and we didn’t need much dinner that night.
Much has been written in the food press about the decline of French cuisine at the hands of McDo and other perpetrators, and indeed the cuisine became UNESCO protected earlier this year (and I’m looking forward to the first Fete de la Gastronomie Francaise, a new annual tradition that will commence this September). I wonder whether Italian cuisine is faring somewhat better because the people are more committed to it, or is it because Italian food is so on-the-go friendly. Who needs McDonalds when you can have fresh pizza by the slice, or a crispy Panini oozing with mozzarella?
All that said, France still closes at lunchtime; it is still possible, throughout the country, to eat extremely well relatively inexpensively; the produce in the supermarkets is still incomparably better than what I was used to in England. And, in my book of French idioms, one of my favourite sample dialogues is that used to illustrate the idiom manger sur le pouce, or to grab a quick bite to eat, in which one conversant tells the other that it is terrible to eat on the go, without taking the time to enjoy and appreciate your food. They certainly wouldn’t approve of those inhaling a sandwich at the desk days…