This weekend we chased lunch up a valley in Italy and the road curved with the river. When we saw a city sitting on a hill like a crown on a head, we both said, “whoa” at the same time, and agreed we’d eat there if/when we reached it, if we could figure out how to get there, if we could navigate the switchbacks.
After a lot of hungry wandering through the dead-still old town we found the only restaurant that was open and serving the townspeople, and we sat down, 1500 feet up and looking at the Mediterranean over 10 kilometers of valley.
(blog post rerun)
A young guy (with a great pony tail, dark stubble and a neon-argyle-printed t-shirt) walked in to a chorus of “Ola!”s and kinda took over the room for a while, walking from table to table and talking loudly to everyone with the Italian confidence. I understand a little Italian and I heard someone say, “Eat with us today!” When the food came he sat down with the family and they had a bottle of wine and a big basket of bread and talked loudly the whole time. Our food came out at about the same time. Here’s what I have to say about Italian food: It’s the freshest food I’ve had in the world, hands down. The Italians do it right.
Lunch started with a basket of fresh bread and olive oil that tasted so rich I ate way too much. The surrounding hills are largely olive tree groves and I wondered whether the oil in which we dipped our bread had ever been transported in a vehicle. We had wonderful red wine that Azure described as “juice.” Our main dishes were two spaghettis, one with tomato sauce and the other with pesto. Both done simply, tastefully, perfectly. The freshness gives the simple ingredients complex flavors that hit across the tongue.
We visited the town cemetery which, like a lot of European cemeteries, has an awesome view. Often they look down on the towns themselves. I don’t know whether the people want their dead to have a great view or to be able to follow the gossip, maybe the living want to see the graves from home as a kind of comfort or reminder… I’m not sure. The family plots of course have plenty of room and most cemeteries are waiting half-empty (half-full?). I can’t imagine having a family plot and knowing that my physical fate was that place, right there, below Grandpa, facing north. There was one grave I took a picture of here. (I asked permission from the groundskeeper) It was a young man and someone had stuck a playing card under the headstone. I really wanted to know which card it was, its back was facing up, but I decided not to look.
We continued on a narrow, scary, spotty road that I wasn’t entirely sure would go anywhere except maybe end at the crest of a hill, but it wound around tight corners and dipped past orchards then past some Stations of the Cross, the last six of which were in the yard of an old Catholic church with another outstanding view. Everything here has a view, everything is on the side of a steep hill and most of the hills are dedicated to either pretty olive trees or grape vines. The hills are terraced, which I didn’t realize they did in Italy, with old stone walls holding the form. Azure and I have knee-jerk reactions to take pictures of anything made of stone because it looks quaint or ancient, but everything is made of stone, so the pictures are “dime a dozen.”
In fact, that looming city that crowned the hill? Dime a dozen. The next day we went up a neighboring valley and saw no less than five cities perched magnificently on hills above rivers – pastel, rectangular continuations of the cliffs from which they rise. You’ve seen the pictures of Cinque Terre – there must be hundreds of towns with those appealing features in the Northern Italian hills. There’ll be a stone church and maybe a stone fortress at the center, then out from there the houses with their maze of stone streets that are basically wide enough for two sets of shoulders (which reminded us of the Rio favela).
Outside the walls the river is lined with gardens growing neat rows of whatever – leeks or cabbage or hearty leafy greens. There are orange and lemon trees with ripe fruit right now which is just vulgar considering how cold it is in some parts of the world. Yesterday we actually saw kiwis growing on a trelase and I asked an old woman whether they grew naturally here. She talked for 30 seconds about how to take care of the kiwi plants, during which time I listened and nodded furiously. At the end she asked me, “Capito?” – did you understand? “Non, parli Francese?” – no, do you speak French? While traveling I’ve learned that often you don’t need to speak the same language to communicate, but this was not one of those times. She kept talking about the kiwis and made a gesture: scissors with one hand pretending to cut the fingers off the other hand. I have no idea what that meant. Maybe pruning? A threat? We went our separate ways having not really contributed greatly to each other’s lives.
Az and I returned to our homebase – an ancient tangled knot of a town called Dolceacqua – and we started hiking up, behind the town to what we’d heard was the best meal in the area, only four kilometers away, uphill. Azure wrote a great recap of the experience here.
We’re back in Nice and tomorrow we’re heading to a farm for our first wwoof experience.