November 14th, 2014
Can you eat too much pesto?
After 11 days in Italy, I say no!
John and I just returned from visiting two of our favorite places – Florence and more importantly, Cinque Terre on the coast of Italy.
Cinque Terra literally means “Five Lands,” named for the 5 villages connected by mountain path, boat and railway. This region – including coastline, villages and surrounding hillsides – is a national park and Unesco World Heritage Site.
In 2011 many of the paths connecting the towns were washed away in fierce floods. Some of the paths haven’t been fixed yet though it remains a world destination for hikers and food lovers alike!
Each of the five towns has it’s own unique flavor. Some villages are large, some small. Some have pebbly beaches perfect for families seeking a beach holiday while other villages are so remotely situated among the hillsides that they aren’t accessible by ocean at all.
We began our trip in Cinque Terre, a 3 hour train ride from Florence. I had been there 9 years before on an “eating tour of Liguria.” Yes, I said eating tour. And this tour taught me that my favorite Italian food was from the Ligurian region of Italy. Ligurian fare is lighter than other Italian food and features fish, pasta, focaccia and farinata to name just a few of my favorites.
I found Villa Valentina, luxury travel apartments with touches of home, run by an American who fell in love with an Italian, moved to Italy and had a daughter (named Valentina of course.) Through Paula we booked one of her apartments in Levanto – a city just beyond the 5 villages of Cinque Terre and a perfect homebase for exploring the region.
Paula said that she will offer an evening cruise with dinner for anyone who uses the password “Festoon” when booking their stay with her!
We had farm fresh eggs daily, along with a delivery of the best focaccia bread in the area. Every morning was kind of like a visit from Santa but for foodies. After breakfast we would ride our bikes to the train station, pick a village to explore for the day and off we went.
If you like guide books Rick Steves book on Cinque Terre is a great one. We tore pages out of his book going from town to town but we also gave into simply being in the moment. An easy thing to do in Cinque Terre.
The walking paths wind through vineyards, around narrow cliffs, and along rock formations thousands of years old. Along the way we saw French families with delicious picnics and teenagers listening to music, children running on the path.
Food and drink is the true jewel of Cinque Terra! One way of saying “I’m tired” is “I need a drink NOW!”
Thirst is easily answered by the region’s unique wines. The whites are crisp and the reds light. Nothing is too heavy and is a perfect match for the food.
Here are my tips for food in Liguria:
Farinata is a crepe made from chickpea, oil, water and salt. Sometimes there are toppings, sometimes not. I remembered eating Farinata on my last visit to the region and trying it many times afterwards in the states…only to be disappointed. I was thrilled to eat this traditional Ligurian treat again! Done right it’s so healthy and delicious.
Pesto in Italy is heads above anything else you’ve ever tried at home. I ate it everyday.
Pasta. Yep, and lots of it. The shapes, the sauces, the choices! Lots of vegetarian options too.
So close to the ocean there is every kind of imaginable fresh seafood too.
Here’s the wonderful thing: When you are walking for 8 of the 12 hours you’re awake, everyone can eat pasta and pizza everyday!
The other thing? It’s cheap to eat here. We ate well. Sometimes it was as simple as grabbing a farinata slice, a pizza slice and water on the go. But even when we went to fancy restaurants it was very reasonable by Bay Area standards.
Eats in Cinque Terre
La Mela (Levanto) – A roadside pizzeria by Villa Valentina. Don’t let looks deceive you. La Mela has the best Farinata in the area. They also serve a salad with tuna that is amazing.
Il Pirata – An unexpected gem near the post office.
Taverna Del Capitano – A picturesque seafood spot on the square. Don’t bother with the appetizers or other dishes – the serious seafood plates are the way to go!
After Cinque Terre, we spent a few days in Florence.
Florence is a small city – very easy to explore and the sights are beautiful. I am so grateful they closed the center to cars since the pollution before was unbearable.
One of the highlights for me was listening to Gregorian Chants at San Miniato al Monte, named after the martyr Minias who is thought to have been a Greek merchant or an Armenian prince. Minias left his home making a pilgrimage to Rome in about 250 AD. He arrived in Florence where he took up life as a hermit before being beheaded by Empoeror Decius (245-251 A.D.). Legend has it that after his decapitation he picked up his head, put it back on his shoulders and went to die in his hermit cave on Monte alle Croci. That cave is now the location of the oratory and the church bearing his name.
Visitors can listen to the chants most evenings from 6:30 to 7:00. While it is a hike up the hill (we took a cab), listening to the Gregorian chants while sitting in one of the most beautiful churches in Florence was other worldly.
For the more fashionable, don’t miss the historic retrospectives at the Ferragamo and Gucci museums.
Art lovers, there is a great Picasso exhibit at the Uffizi.
Food in Florence was more erratic but we made sure to have Gelato everyday.
A travel tip: If you are visiting any time other then spring or summer when the weather is perfect, you might consider flying into Pisa instead. Florence has a short runway and they cancel flights all the time. How do I know this? Well, my flight was delayed due to fog and instead of a two-leg trip I’m on a four-leg return. Bummer, yes, but totally worth it.