If you’re flying Cheap Air, vacation doesn’t start until you reach your destination. Cramped. Petty. Infuriating. They pat you gently with a pittance for airfare, then give you a saber thrust to the wallet for check-in, luggage and seatbelts. Ok, I exaggerate about the seatbelts. But the safety card on the back of the seat in front of you reads, “In case of emergency, please have your credit card ready.”
I’m reminded of the retail quip: Quality, Service, Price, pick any two. With Cheap Air, you only get one pick and it doesn’t begin with Q or S.
The vacation roars off when we leave Pisa Airport behind and step out into the blazing sunshine. Waiting for us is Danni, our dapper, dark haired Italian chauffeur, attired in a lightweight gray suit, with a smile as broad and bright as a morning sunrise. On our lengthy Mercedes ride from Pisa to Monterosso, Danni captures us with a running commentary about Cinque Terre and personal glimpses into Italian family life. “My momma loves to cook and now she tells me I shouldn’t eat so much! Momma Mia!” He pats his stomach and waves his hands. The rest of us are staring at the road.
We're headed to Cinque Terre, a lovely spot along the Italian Riviera. Cinque Terre means five lands and in fact is five villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Cornelia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. The area is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The white mountains of Carrara marble flash by as we fly with desperate speed down the Autopista. Ignoring our white knuckles and terrified stares, Danni enthralls us with things to do and see. I ask about the economic situation in Italy. ‘Momma Mia!”, plus more hand waving, thankfully without screeching brakes and ripping metal. Danni lives a charmed life and we’re grateful.
Ever been on twists and turns, up and down mountains, on a steep road suited for donkeys and skateboards? Ever faced a determined wide bus when you’re staring down a cliff that drops off into the steep, rocky infinite? Sporty. Engaging. Didn’t know I could hold my breath that long. Anything else I notice? Besides the white knuckles and blood dripping from my lower lip? Olive trees. Miles of stumpy trees with green and silvered leaves. Speckles of tiny communities of three or four stone houses reclaimed years ago from the rugged landscape.
We’re riding a time machine back into the charming Italy of the 1950s and it gets better from there.
Cinque Terre is a marvelous necklace of jeweled towns strewn across green mountains and the rocky coast of the startlingly blue Mediterranean.
Looking down from our splendid, hillside accommodations, I marvel at azure waters, placid harbor and sandy beaches. Anchored sailboats ride the gently ruffled sea. Families wander the long, curving beach, while the setting sun casts a magnificent orange glow over the forested mountains and towns.
Monterossa itself, the largest of the five towns, is a warm and friendly place. In only a day, I catch more smiles than I’d seen in a year. Makes me want to make Italy my home.
Our local taxi driver, Mateo, carries us downhill on an impossibly winding road to the city proper, then steers us to a wonderfully rustic seafood restaurant that we will visit more than once, La Barcaccia. Rustic yes, but the food stands out, as does our smiling, chatty waitress, Sabina. A soft, blueberry flavored aperitif magically appears, accompanied by a plate of farinata, a skillet bread made from chickpea flour.
|Farinata and blueberry infused white wine|
RECIPE: Mix a cup of chickpea flour with a pinch or two of salt. Add a cup or so of water and mix well. Continue to add enough cold water to make a thin soup. Leave it for 30 minutes to allow the flour to absorb water. If it froths, scape off and discard the froth. After soaking, the gruel will still be fairly thin. Dot in a few dry herbs, if you want. Pour portions of the batter into a hot, well-greased skillet as you would pancake batter. (Most recipes call for the dough to sit for as long as four hours, but I had great luck leaving it only 30 minutes.)
|Succulent mussels in a light tomato broth|
Then comes fresh fish, crispy calamari, Parma ham, greens with a bare sparkle of lemon and local olive oil. A local white wine salves the pain of being in this coastal paradise and having to face four days of exploring wonderful, sunny villages awash with friendly natives. Momma Mia!
End of Part I