Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Campiglia to Portovernere, Beyond the Cinque Terre

Liguria, home to the Italian Riviera, is one of Italy's smallest regions. It sits in the wide, sweeping arch of northwestern Italy facing the Ligurian Sea with the Apennine Mountains forming a majestic backdrop. In between is a land of steep valleys that drop precipitously to a crystalline blue/green sea. Picturesque fishing villages cling to its coast, including the Cinque Terre, five seaside towns that are so special that in 1997 they were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once a well-kept secret, the five towns are now part of the Cinque Terre National Park and have become one of Italy's best-known and most visited tourist spots. On weekends, especially in summer, the beautiful trail along the sea that connects the five towns is crowded with walkers. 

What many people don't know is that just south of the Cinque Terre is another town, Portovenere, that is every bit as beautiful as the other five. Portovenere is part of the same Park that encompasses the Cinque Terre, but it is not as closely linked as the other five towns. It's a three to four hour hike from Riomaggiore, the most southern of the Cinque Terre, to Portovenere. 

Portovenere can be reached by car, but we took the train from Pisa to La Spezia and then a bus to Le Grazie, where we began our hike. All this was easily accomplished with the aide of our friend Francesca, who knows every twist and turn of all the hiking trails in the area. After getting off the bus, it was just a short walk to the trailhead. 

Not a hike for the faint of heart, the trail begins on an ancient mulattiera. These mule trails, found all over Italy, were once the public roads that connected villages, particularly in mountainous areas. Our mulattiera, composed of thousands of steps made of local stones, zigzagged through the forest climbing quickly and steeply toward the medieval village of Campiglia, our first stop. 

Campiglia is well worth the climb. From the piazza in front of the church, there is a view of the busy harbor of the Gulf of La Spezia, the Ligurian Sea and the Apennine Mountains. On this day, clouds covered the lower slopes of the mountains so that the majestic peaks appeared suspended in a dreamscape of sea and sky.   

In the gastronomic world, Campiglia is known for its high-quality saffron, made from the stems of the crocus plant. (It takes about 150,000 flowers to make one kilo of saffron.) In times past, the saffron was made only from the wild crocuses that grow in profusion on the surrounding hills. About 10 years ago, however, the town began cultivating crocus and now has a thriving industry.  

Fortunately for us, the cafe on the main street in Campiglia was closed and in our search for another, we discovered Piccoloblu, a charming cafe/restaurant, where everything is homemade using local products. Sitting in the sun with an incredible view of the sea, we sampled several offerings, including the best onion focaccia I have ever tasted. Fortified, we struck out for Portovenere. 

Just outside of Campiglia were two signs indicating trails to Portovenere - one marked difficoltoso.  "Not so difficult," said Francesca, "and much more beautiful than the other." The difficulty is the steepness of the descent and the loose rocks underfoot. The beauty is everything: the distant mountains, the sun-baked cliffs of Monte Castellana aglow with flowering plants and, of course, the sea on both sides of the promontory that runs swiftly downhill to Portovenere. 

Midway along the path is a rocky plateau, where the sun on the rocks turned spring into summer. It was a perfect place for a snack (hiking makes you hungry) and a leisurely look at the almost surreal panorama of Portovenere and the islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto. If I ever get around to writing my book, "Great Picnic Spots of the World," this place will surely be in it. The warmth of the sun also coaxed forth some early wild asparagus that we gathered in anticipation of a evening frittata.  

As we got closer to Portovenere, the larger panorama gave way to beautiful details: the black and white facade of the 11th-century Chiesa di San Pietro on its rocky perch high above the sea, the imposing Genovese military fortress, and the Golfo dei Poeti, an inlet that was admired by poets from Petrarch to Byron. Beyond we could see fishing boats in the harbor and the quayside lined with brightly-colored medieval buildings.  

It started to rain just after we reached Portovenere, but it was a light drizzle that only added to the romance of the town and the sea. We visited the church and walked the old, medieval main street, where every store sold local products, including rich, creamy pesto from nearby Genova.  

Then it was back to Pisa for a wonderful meal prepared by Francesca's husband, Fabrizio, that included a frittata with the wild, freshly-gathered asparagus.

To see more photos, click here.

A presto, 

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Populonia, An Etruscan City by the Sea

We're in Pisa, having left behind the bright lights of Paris and the bustling street views. Our apartment here  looks down on the rooftops of medieval buildings, into gardens hidden from view at street level, and out beyond the town to the gentle, undulating Pisan Hills. To get to this sun-filled room with a view, we have to climb 89 time-worn, stone steps. Inside all is open and modern, but the building shows its age in the huge oak beams, the brick-lined ceiling and the thick stone walls. (Click here to read about the medieval skyscrapers of Pisa.)

As old as Pisa is, however, it is a newcomer on the Italian stage when compared with Populonia, an Etruscan city south of Pisa on the Bay of Baratti. Named for the Etruscan version of the god Bacchus and famous in antiquity for its wine, Populonia's origins go back almost 3,000 years.

The Etruscans have intrigued me ever since my Italian grandfather told me about an Etruscan chariot discovered in his hometown of Monteleone di Spoleto. Now housed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the chariot is one of the great treasures of the Etruscan civilization. So, on a recent sunny and warm Sunday when our friends Fabrizio and Roberta proposed a visit to Populonia, we gladly accepted. 

An hour's drive through the verdant Tuscan countryside brought us to the little weekend cottage of Roberta's brother not far from the ancient town. After introductions and warm Italian greetings, the four of us set off through the hills for a 10-mile hike that would take us down to the port of Populonia and then up to the fortified part of the town, known as Populonia Alta. 

It is uncertain if the Etruscans were a people indigenous to Italy or if they migrated to the Italian peninsula, most probably from the Near East. Although examples of the Etruscan language are found on their tombstones and in one or two fragments of written texts, there is no Etruscan "Rosetta Stone" to aid modern linguists. It is known, however, that the Etruscans were at the height of their power, both commercially and militarily, in about the 5th century b.c. In the following centuries, the Etruscan civilization was gradually assimilated into the Greek and Roman cultures.  

Our walk began in the rolling hills where the Etruscans once farmed wheat and cultivated their vineyards. As we topped the last hill, we got our first view of the beautiful wide curve of the Bay of Baratti lined with the remains of forges from the 4th century b.c. Its curiously sparkling black sand is all that remains of the profitable metal industry of the Etruscans, who exploited the rich cooper ore in the area of Populonia and later the iron ore from the nearby island of Elba. 

The Romans and all who followed continued the mining, depleting the area of its metal resources and producing enormous mountains of slag that buried all traces of the once-great Etruscan city. As the centuries passed, all that was left of Etruscan Populonia was the memory of its name. 

As we stood on the beach, however, we could see the remains of metal forges, large groups of Etruscan tombs and an enormous round tumulus. Although some Etruscan artifacts were found in the early 1800s, it was not until 1897 that the first tombs of ancient Populonia were uncovered by a self-taught Italian archeologist named Isidoro Falchi. In 1929, an Italian mining company began operations to extract valuable metals that still remained in the huge slag heaps. As the material was removed, more traces of Etruscan Populonia began to emerge. The downside, according to some archeologists,  was that the use of heavy machinery not only destroyed many items, but also profoundly modified the stratigraphic distribution of the archeological find.

In spite of this, the necropolis of Populonia is still one of the most important monuments of the Etruscan civilization. Along with an industrial area and an extensive Roman-style acropolis, the necropolis can be seen at the Archeological Park of Baratti and Populonia

Since it takes many hours to visit the park, we decided to leave it for another day. Instead, we walked along the sea to the edge of the port and then uphill on the Romanella Path. Although rebuilt many times over the centuries, the path is the same one used by the Etruscans to get from the industrial lower part of their city to the fortified town above. As we walked, we passed long stretches of the original Etruscan wall that dates to the first half of the 5th century B.C. 

We ate our picnic lunch in front of the imposing 15th century fortress built by the Lords of nearby Piombino, using the foundation of an earlier Etruscan building and stones from Etruscan tombs. Beneath us were the remains of the acropolis and a view out across the sea to the island of Elba just visible on the horizon. We sat a while in the sunshine, had an espresso in a cafe (in Italy, there's always a cafe nearby) and then headed downhill.  

Our return route took us along the edge of the archeological park with a view of many of the tombs, across fields and down a wooded path back to the cottage. We arrived just in time for a glass of wine and the last few pieces of a delicious frittata made with spring leeks. After recounting the day's adventures, we said our goodbyes and headed back to the much-more "modern" Pisa.

To see more photos, click here.

A presto,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nice - A French/Italian Interlude

After two months of almost constant grey skies, the sun was shining brightly on our last day in Paris. We were headed for Pisa, via Nice where JR was attending a math conference. If the weather held, we would have a beautiful flight. As if to compensate us for all the rainy days, the skies stayed clear and about an hour or so out of Paris, a shimmering mass appeared on the horizon. Then, below our eyes, the snow-covered jagged peaks of the French Alps took shape and rose above the surrounding landscape almost as high, it seemed, as the sky itself. As the plane came in for a landing at the Nice airport a short time later, we had an unparalleled view of the entire Côte d'Azur.

Nice is a perfect transition between the bright lights of Paris and the small-town, medieval atmosphere of Pisa, where we will be for the next two months. Although much smaller than Paris, Nice is still a big and bustling city. And it offers some things that Paris does not: the Mediterranean Sea, the mountains of the Pre-Alps, blue skies and warm sunshine. The town also has a real Italian feel - not surprising since Nice was part of Italy until 1860 - and on the streets you hear lots of people speaking Italian. 

Traveling with us was a good friend from Paris, Adrian Leeds, who was looking for and found an apartment to buy in Vieux Nice, the oldest part of the city. While JR was hard at work pushing back the frontiers of mathematics, Adrian and I trekked up and down hundreds of steep stone stairs (no elevators in old Nice) looking at apartments that ranged from awful to okay. Then on the third day, we found the one that was the diamond in the rough - a great view, a balcony, big windows and high ceilings. To read more, (or to rent the apartment when the renovations are finished) go to Adrian's site here.

With the apartment taken care of, Adrian and I had time to enjoy Nice's Carnaval, an 18-day long party that fills the streets with floats, flowers, confetti and lots of happy people. We ate lunch on the touristy, but beautiful and sunny Cours Saleya, a salade niçoise for Adrian and soccca for me. (Socca is a flavorful chick-pea flour crepe that's made in a pizza oven and served with olive oil and lots of pepper. My favorite socca in Nice is at the Socca d'Or on rue Bonaparte near the Port.) On her last day in town, Adrian and I celebrated at La Petite Mason, a great restaurant just around the corner from her new apartment.

Modern-day travelers love Nice for its mild climate, its beaches, the wide sweep of the Baie des Anges (the Bay of Angels), and the long Promenade des Anglais, where you can walk for miles along the sea. It seems the area has always been attractive to people, since what are thought to be the oldest human settlements in Europe are located near Nice at Terra Amata. The Greeks came to the area around 350B.C. and gave the town the name Nikaia, the forerunner of its modern name, after Nike, the goddess of victory. When the Romans arrived in the beginning of the 1st century, they built Cemenelum in the protective hills high above the sea in the area of Nice now known as Cimiez. 

Once on my own, that's where I headed to see the extensive Gallo-Roman ruins and the Cimiez-Cemenelum Archeological Museum, located in the Jardins de Cimiez. The park, fragrant with olive, pine and cypress trees, is also home to a beautiful 17th century Genoese villa that houses the Matisse Museum. Matisse spent the last 40 years of his life in Nice and the museum has a good collection of his works. Within sight of the museum is the elegant Hotel Regina, where Matisse lived, and the cemetery of the Franciscan Monastery of Cimiez, where the artist is buried.

On Saturday, the last day of our stay in Nice and also coincidentally my birthday, JR and I took the train to Menton for lunch at Mirazur, a restaurant with a spectacular view and food to match. (In 2009, Chef Mauro Colagreco's Mirazur made the S.Pelligrino 50 Best Restaurants in the World List.)

After meeting the chef, who gave us a tour of the kitchen, we said our goodbyes, walked along the sea, found a cozy niche among the rocks, and sat in the sun.

Next stop - Pisa.

To see more photos, click here.

A presto,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor