If a wine region could ever exemplify Mediterranean terroir it would be in Liguria. The vines sit high on terraced slopes- almost precariously against the sea-misted cliffs. The aromas of the wines mirror the sea salt that covers the vines, as well as the lemon verbena and basil that grow wild. The region's native grapes (Vermentino, Rossese, Albarola and Pigato) have not earned the same international fame as its most iconic foods, pesto and focaccia. I can't help but believe that they are waiting for their breakthrough. If you're searching for food-friendly, crisp and mineral wines that won't dent your wallet, look no further than the wines of the Italian Rivera. Where better to explore them than in the heart and soul of the region's coastland beauty, the Cinque Terre.
Cinque Terre, or "five lands" include Vernazza, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Manarola and Monterosso. Accessible by hike or train, each has its own individual personality. There are certainly hotels within the five towns, but if you're looking for a bit nightlife and competitive prices for lodging, check out the closest metropolitan area, La Spezia. We chose a very fairly priced AirBnb with stunning views of the nearby Alps that protect Liguria from harsh continental climate. The town is smallish enough to get around by foot. On our stroll to the town center, we passed friendly-looking restaurants and a Ligurian bakery, Panifico pan par Focaccia Pasticceria. Here the baker, David, specializes in local breads. The secret to success is seasoning the focaccia with sea salt. Everything seems to be influenced by the ocean here. Just outside of the town center is the train station that will take you to the "five lands." As our stay was in late February, we chose to forgo the beach vibes of Monterosso and just visit the other four.
Vernazza, the most picturesque of the five, was our first destination. Expect a day of weaving through the winding streets and pathways, breathtaking ocean views with a backdrop of the pastel houses. Vernazza has a few restaurants that are worth a visit. Somewhere we had read that fried seafood is a specialty. These tiny shops that specialize in the mixed-fry snacks are called Friggitorias. Lustfully, we hunted down Batti Batti Friggitoria on Piazza Guglielmo Marconi. Woefully, the shop doesn't open until March 1st....this did not fly with our late February stay. We "settled" for some perfectly seasoned pasta at Gambero Rosso. Here, they serve classic Trofie al pesto Ligure - a local pesto dish - as well as Spaghetti ai frutti di mare. Cinque Terre bianco, composed mostly of Vermentino, is the perfect pairing to the seafood and herbs of the cuisine. The basil and pine nuts play with the delicate herbal aroma and round texture of the wine. From here, we trailed up to the cemetery above the village for a bit of history and lots of view.
If you visit in the summer, expect significantly more people, bustling shops and packed beaches. As adventures, we found that the crisp and sunny air of late winter was perfect to hike between the villages. Many shops were closed, but there were enough open to entertain. The terrain varies quite a bit, so it's recommended to plan your hikes according to your desired effort. From Vernazza to Corniglia, the path is a fairly accessible 2-mile walk, which takes just over an hour. Corniglia, the quietest of the villages, can also be accessed by train, although to reach the village from the train station, you must tackle the Lardarina,
a 377-step brick stairway. We did take the climb, opting to spend one day in Vernazza and then hike from Corniglia to Riomaggiore the next day. The town was cute and sleepy, especially in February. Our visit was a short walk through the labyrinth of walkways before we found the trail to Manarola (I read that there was a Friggitoria in Riomaggiore so we were on a mission!).
Hugging close to the sea, the hike between Corniglia and Manarola is an hour or less- about a 1.2 mile hike. The relationship with the vine and the hike is intimate on this stretch. In fact, Manarola has more vines than any other Cinque Terre village. We walked through the steep terraces of open vineyard covered with wild herbs and ocean mist. The soils here smell like the wine and the wine smells like the soil. It is here in Man
arola they make the local amaro- Bosca. We picked up a bottle at the local wine shop in Manarola, Agricultural Cooperative Society 5 Terre. Worlds different than Montenegro or Fernet Branco, this amaro is only slightly bitter. The grassy, mountain herb character of the liqueur is even suggested with the slight green color. On the palate, it is citrus-y and slightly sweet.
Better known than the amaro is the sweet wine, Sciacchetrà.
This is a passito style, in which the grapes are partially dried before fermentation. The traditional accompaniment is a small cake, which is exactly how we enjoyed it at the wine bar. The wine is intense, with aromas of candied orange and fig. This came as a refreshing break from our hike. However, I was still very much on the hunt for fried seafood and my appetite was getting stronger. There were no open friggitoria in Manarola, so we settled for bar snacks and trucked on to Riomaggiore.
Now, there are two ways to walk between Manarola and Riomaggiore. The first and most famous, dubbed "Lover's Lane," is the easiest walk in the Cinque Terre- a paved 20-minute stroll between the two villages. Alas, this was closed during our visit (at the time of writing, it is set to re-open in 2018). We took the path less traveled by, a 40 minute arduous climb- essentially a mile straight up and straight down. This was not for the feint of heart nor for the poor of knees, but the views were straight from a postcard. Terraced vineyards engulfed the pastel townhouses of Riomaggiore, the Cinque Terre's largest village. The climb made my craving for calamari even stronger! Surely one the the two friggitorias in the largest village, Il Pescato Cucinato or Tutti Fritti, would be open! My heart sunk- Tutti Frutti was set to open the next day. So we took our bottle of Bosca and our fried-fish void back to the quiet nightlife of La Spezia.
The comforts are present in La Spezia, with enough population to support commerce year round. From the local co-op, we picked up some killer white fish and a bottle of Vermentino destined to be thoroughly enjoyed later that night. I carried only a fragment of hope that the Friggitoria "Pane e Tulipani" that we had passed in the morning would be open for business, but hey- how often are we in Liguria? The journey through four villages, a mile-high climb and the "Closed Until March 1" signs that teased us finally came to a glorious conclusion- it was OPEN!!! Traditional to the area, various fried items are on display, although some are made fresh to order. Seafood is the highlight, but you can find everything from potatoes to chicken nuggets. The items are wrapped in a cone and served with thin skewers to pick up your goodies.
Now you may be wondering why I'm so damn excited about fried squid on a stick, but this is what travel is about. Make intimate connections with your surroundings to have an experience that could only be created at that special place and time. This is what memories are made of! Food and wine serve as the perfect tools to understand a culture.The Cinque Terre is an unforgettable place, so dramatically influenced by the sea; you feel it in the salinity of the wines, the fresh (and fried) seafood and the warmth of the jagged terrain. It all pairs seamlessly to the moment, turning a bite to a savory memory. Perhaps its the Alps or the effort it takes to reach each village that has kept the wines a secret. I still search for the wines of the Cinque Terre to relive the coastal vibrancy of the land- a hidden terroir that is worth the trek. -AT