Italian Vignettes

Etruscan Graffiti – Taggers owe their trade to the ancient race wiped out by Julius Caesar; the above banner is the façade of a home in Cortona and the word graffiti comes from such handiwork. Scholars still debate their origins and they have come up in conversation a surprising amount of times since we’ve been in Europe. A traveler we met at Locanda del Barbaresco said that a recent study was released saying that the Etruscans may have come from Turkey as the white cows prevalent in Piedmont have genetic ties to the oryx. The mystery continues.

Finding Funghi – Order the mushrooms in Piedmont! We happened to be in Alba during the annual truffle festival, which lasts for the entire month of October. On a hike around Palanfre on a misty afternoon, we amused ourselves by spotting various mushrooms along the trail, which was very well kept, considering the fact that we didn’t see any park rangers the entire time we were there. We saw a few Papa Smurf-type homes that are probably poisonous but these here are black trumpet – edible and scrumptious!

Corniglia lurking behind the vines

Cinque Terre Beta – Even though this trail is on every tourist to Liguria’s radar, it is well worth it to do the hike, but only from Monterosso to Riomaggiore. The southernmost two towns, Manarola and Riomaggiore, are connected by a straight cement footpath that is crowded and the complete opposite of charming so it’s better to end on that note, rather than start with it. Considering how many people hike the CT, it is shocking how badly marked the trail is; we got lost a few times and walked on the road in parts between Vernazza and Manarola. Okay, we were a tad tired of walking up and down hills because route 2, the flatter one that runs virtually parallel to the coast, was closed, but still! We hiked trail 7, which had a few steep muddy climbs that began from the roadside and ended farther along the same roads, but was otherwise amazingly beautiful and atmospheric. We plucked fresh figs and blueberries from branches and vines invading the path in parts, and snaked through vineyards, which we hope get kickbacks from the Italian parks commission!

Torta de Pasquale from a cafe in Genova

Ligurian Snack Foods – Don’t be tempted by pizza in Liguria if you are looking for a quick snack.  This is not Naples and the pizza we tried could be compared to average pizza from the United States (no offense to the pizza makers- it was not bad, just not exceptional!)  Stick with snacks Ligurians have been enjoying for centuries: Torta Pasquale and Farina con Stracchino.  The latter is for those who enjoy simple oily deliciousness- a savory pastry made with chickpea flour filled with a gooey, melting stracchino cheese or pesto.  Filling fast food, Ligurian style.  Torta Pasquale (Easter Tart) seems to have a storied pedigree of Biblical proportions.  Originally made with 33 layers of pastry to represent Jesus’ 33 years on Earth, this flavorful tart now has at least six layers of pastry and is filled with dark greens such as spinach or artichokes, as well as ricotta, fresh goat cheese, and egg.

A trophy for trofie – Liguria is famed for its pesto, most commonly served with freshly made trofie, a slight twirl of egg pasta 1-2 inches long. We had it once at Hotel Nazionale in Vernante and once in Monterosso al Mare at Trattoria Oscar; it was excellent both times but perhaps a tad better in Monterosso. More than any other type of pasta, trofie tests the mettle of pasta makers as its thickness and shape is paramount to the pesto being able to stick to it and provide a satisfying, chewy bounce with every bite.

Order what you want! – Italian menus might seem daunting at first, but don’t be afraid to order what you want.  While the traditional meal will be offered in three to four courses (antipasti, primi, secondi and dessert) there is no shame in ordering just and antipasti and then a primi for example.  Or just a primi and then a secondi for those looking to curb the carbs.   This strategy works especially well if two or more people are sharing since everyone can order something different without being forced to order too much food.  And be sure to save room for wine – wine prices are lower in much of Italy than anywhere else in Western Europe!

Starting a problem before trekking up to the lakes

Bouldering over Lago de Alberghi

Bouldering Galore – On our treks in Piedmont, we came across what appeared to be untouched bouldering routes. There were no telltale chalk marks or greasy ledges, and furthermore, it was a beautiful day and we were the only ones there! So if you are into the sport, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring along shoes and a crash mat and try a few problems. We didn’t have any gear on us but still had fun monkeying around.

Delicious wine made by the Manera family, who runs Locanda dei Barbaresco

Piedmontese Hospitality – We’ll never forget lovable Lorenzo at Locanda de Barbaresco or charming Christian and his brother (sorry we don’t know your name!) at Hotel Nazionale. Both went above and beyond the call of duty and made our stays at their properties so memorable that we’ll be evangelizing about them to everyone we know until you all go meet them – andiamo!

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