Although heavily populated by tourists from May to September, the Cinque Terre remains one of the most gorgeous and bizarrely unspoiled places in the Mediterranean. The ‘Cinque’ in its title refers to its five small, postcard-ready colourful seaside towns west of Pisa (Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso); connected only by the old train lines and agricultural paths and trails which have made the region such a universally famous holiday spot.
The food is fantastic (lemons everywhere; local anchovies; lots of herbs); there’s a great view wherever you go and everything is very reasonably priced. The water is lovely, clean, and perfect for swimming, either at the calm beaches of Monterosso, or off the rocks in Corniglia, where you follow hundreds of steps down from the town through cliffside wine terraces and almond trees to reach a beautiful secret marina, accessible only by boat.
Unsurprisingly enough, the tourists love the Cinque Terre too (sure why wouldn’t they), but as long as you’re tactical about when you take your trains (go to the popular towns first thing, or after 4pm) and when you visit certain towns (go to the unpopular but just as lovely towns in the middle of the day), the heavy tourist presence doesn’t cause too much of a problem, as it’s mainly just German hikers, English couples and young Italian families on their summers holidays.
◊ Aperol spritzes are the drink of the summer in Italy, and you see wine glasses full of the fluorescent cocktail with orange or lemon wedges on sunny terraces everywhere come six o’clock.
I’m hoping the concept of ‘aperitivo’ makes its way here soon, as the single, sociable, lingered-over drink with friends just seems so civilised. What it makes it even better is the (free!) little nibbles that come with it: a little glass dish of salted crisps or peanuts; some salami or some little cubes of olive-studded focaccia. Just what you want when dinner is still a while away and the sun is shining.
◊ We loved the ‘cono misto’ of fried local anchovies, calamari and mussels from a little shop in Vernazza, served piping hot with a lemon wedge and a little wooden stick as a fork. We also loved Levanto, a slightly bigger town outside the Cinque Terre. Although it’s included in the Cinque Terre train pass, the tourists seem to be less aware of it, as it’s not part of the Cinque Terre national park. Which is good, because with its 1950s resort town design, orange trees and faded old beach clubs, it’s a pretty charming little spot to while away an afternoon. It’s a lot calmer than the Cinque Terre too, and is said to be one of Italy’s best surfing spots when the waves are right.
◊ We stayed in La Spezia last time around and thought it was laughably horrible, as it’s a major naval town, and massive compared to the very human scale of the tiny Cinque Terre villages. However, this time we found it much more pleasant, and thought the views of it from the winding roads to Portovenere, an ancient town on a promontory south of the Cinque Terre, were nothing short of spectacular.
[The Cinque Terre train line doesn’t go to Portovenere, but it’s worth a visit. Buy a ticket for the ’11P’ bus in any little tobacconist in La Spezia for €2.50 and pick up the bus (and some fresh cherries for the trip) down at the covered market.]
◊ Possibly due to the fact that there is a constant flow of visitors arriving (meaning owners can therefore presumably accept or reject bookings on a whim), this is one place where AirBnB doesn’t work so well – three of our arranged stays fell through, and we ended up reverting to booking a room through rather more traditional means, using a Cinque Terre rooms letting website. This actually worked out better – the room we got was nicer than any we’d seen on AirBnB; and we were located right in the centre of Vernazza, in the old warren of back streets above the sea.
◊ On our last day, we rented an umbrella and two deck-chairs at the old Eden beach club at Monterosso, which is so worth it if you’re pale and Irish like me, and are planning on spending a day at the beach. [Most clubs charge €15 to rent an umbrella and two deck-chairs for the day, which includes bathrooms and free access to drinking water; sun loungers and an umbrella are around €17]. I left our focaccia to re-heat in the hot midday sun for lunch while I read my book and Ryan paddle-boarded around the rocky coastline up from the beach.
Despite being officially closed following severe flooding in 2011, it turned out that many of the trails were actually still very much in action. We walked from Vernazza to Corniglia one morning with a bag of cherries from the market, and loved the views and the varied, lush vegetation, with olive groves, wild fennel, roses, oak trees and pineapple broom all growing along the way. The only real difference from our last visit, which was in August 2009, was the happy fact that the oranges and lemons were still in season this time, weighing down trees everywhere and delighting me at every turn.
What I love most about this part of the world is how individual ingredients are revered – every house has its own lemon tree, for example, and they are a prized, joyous, early summer crop: Monterosso hosted its annual lemon festival (Sagra del Limone) the week before we arrived, on May 23, and all the gelaterias in the Cinque Terre offer ice cream made with lemons from their particular village. The markets sell them too, all warty and knobbly and gorgeous, with their pale pastel colour and their waxy leaves still attached, alongside the little courgettes growing out of their flowers, baby artichokes, big bunches of herbs, colourful salad onions and the soft, carefully boxed tomatoes, with everyone arguing and discussing and haggling amongst them, in search of the perfect choice for their dinner, a veritable meritocracy of ingredients. Even in the local Co-Op supermarket in town customers bring their own little plastic basket to pick the best selection of peaches and cherries and porcini for themselves. It’s a good way of eating – everything you do put on your plate should be delicious, and if it does make the grade, it should be revered.
GOOD THINGS CHICKEN SALAD
The above sums up how I feel about chicken. I often can’t be bothered cooking chicken breasts, as I don’t think they do a huge amount for a dish. But I love roast chicken; I am crazy about roast chicken. If we have leftovers (which is not always a given) I am fiercely protective of them. I want the slivers of roast chicken to be to be served cold, rather than heated in a sauce; I want them to be kept front and centre in a dish, and, ideally, to be served in a salad full of other ingredients I love. So that means a roast chicken salad with orzo, grilled artichoke, herb and buffalo mozzarella for lunch, dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and salt.
Grill fresh, steamed artichoke hearts (or marinated or tinned and drained, at a push) until slightly charred. Place in a bowl while still warm with olive oil, diced garlic (one fat clove), a good squeeze of lemon juice and a drop of white vinegar. Set aside. Meanwhile, cook orzo pasta at a rolling boil in salted water. Drain, and tip in the liquor from the artichokes. Tear herbs (basil, mint, fennel, dill, parsley, coriander) dice salad onions and arrange some salad leaves on a plate. Tip the lemony orzo on top, add the artichokes and the torn roast chicken and season with salt, black pepper and lemon juice. Place the buffalo mozzarella ball in the centre of the salad, cover with oil, lemon zest and diced mint. Serve at room temperature, and tear the mozzarella ball asunder with two forks just before dishing it up. And then enjoy it in the garden with a nice glass of prosecco.
Ps: the title references, once again, one of my favourite cookbooks by Simon Hopkinson.