WHEN you tire of the French Riviera’s celebrity lifestyle, the beautiful scenery, historic villages and delicious food of the Ligurian Mountains are the perfect tonic.
Discovering unusual fruit and vegetables is one of travel’s great pleasures and none is more charming than Italy’s Trompetta d’Albenga squash. Shaped like coiling French horns, these eye-catching cousins of the courgette dangle from garden fences throughout northern Italy, and in high summer they’re a delicately fresh seasonal treat. My first taste of these serpentine oddities was in the crumbling Ligurian mountain village of Acquetico where Bruno Polerro, a local farmer was proudly showing me around his vineyards. His wife Sara had cooked a torta di verdure (egg tart) and the sweet earthiness of the squash filling seemed to perfectly conjure up the very essence of idyllic Mediterranean summers.
Sara poured me a glass of their light fruity pigato white wine and explained how her grandfather used to travel down to the coast by donkey cart and sell his bottles to wine merchants. Eventually prices dropped so much it was hardly worth the effort and many local vineyards fell into neglect. The current passion for locally produced organic food and wine has led to a revival in the fortunes of Liguria’s small-scale wine and olive oil producers and tourists from the nearby Cote d’Azur and Riviera dei Fiori are beginning to discover the simple culinary treasures of these beautiful mountain villages.
I’d arrived the evening before at the unassuming Albergo Lorenzina in Colle di Nava, a popular centre for mountain hiking. A dark, creaky and decidedly old- fashioned hotel, my expectations for the restaurant were not great. But my doubts were dispelled when the waiter poured me a glass of the local Ormeasco di Pornassio red wine. Vibrantly coloured with a deep, bittersweet bouquet, this warming wine is the perfect aperitif for chilly mountain evenings.
The villages around Colle di Nava are famous for their cucina bianca (white cuisine), a style of cooking heavily dependent on dairy produce and simple vegetables such as leeks, potatoes and turnips that were once all that would grow in the poor mountain soil. Nowadays, with the addition of a few luxury ingredients such as game and truffles, cucina bianca is one of the best comfort foods you can find in Italy. Unfortunately, the menu wasn’t in English and my order soon descended into a hilarious game of charades.
“Bugs Bunny,” the waiter said doing a little hop as I enquired about a rabbit ravioli dish.
“Bambi!” he exclaimed, wiggling his fingers above his ears to translate venison.
The fluffy, light “Bugs Bunny” ravioli drizzled with butter was simply mouth-watering, as was the “Bambi” stew, its rich savoury sauce soaked up by a big dollop of quivering polenta.
The villages clinging to the mountainsides around Colle di Nava are beautiful jumbles of ancient lime-washed cottages. The skyline is pierced by graceful church campaniles staring at each other across thickly wooded ravines. In a medieval game of one-upmanship, many villages competed with their neighbours to attract pilgrims and some of the churches are stunning. The Sanctuary of Maria Maddalena near Lucinasco is one of the most beautiful. Set deep within an ancient oak forest and perched on a romantic rocky bluff overlooking a valley, this simple early Romanesque structure exudes an aura of ancient mystery. It’s the sort of place that sends your imagination spinning into flights of fancy and has probably always been a sacred spot. Sitting on the rocks watching lizards scurrying through the grass in the sultry heat, I could well imagine Roman legions tramping through these woods and pausing to make offerings to local woodland deities.
Early in the evening I drove up to the mountaintop village of Montegrosso for dinner at Ospedaje de Rodedendro, an acclaimed restaurant specialising in cucina bianca. I was early and so took a stroll around the village. It was late July, the height of the tourist season, but bar the odd snoozing cat, the steep cobbled lanes were totally deserted. A well-known problem in Liguria and the neigbouring Cote d’Azur is how to attract tourists away from the coast and with such a glittering array of glamorous resorts to choose from, this is no easy task. The Cote d’Azur tourist authority recently hit on the bright idea of offering a E1 Ticket Azur on local bus networks, and visitors to the French Riviera are beginning to discover the beautiful mountain hinterland in increasing numbers.
Saorge is the main attraction, a spectacular medieval town perched high on the precipitous cliffs of the Roya River Gorge. A principal stopping point on the historic salt road that once ran from Nice to Piedmont, ruined castles stare down on the town from mountaintops, bearing testimony to the importance of this once precious cargo. The most beautiful views are from the former monastery set on a breezy hillside above the town. This lovely Baroque building is now used as a writer’s retreat where guests stay in comfortable converted monk’s cells as charming as a boutique hotel. Multilingual student volunteers offer guided tours and tend to the gardens, leaving little baskets of fruit for visitors to help themselves. I picked up a handful of apricots and sat down on a grassy bank overlooking the gorge. In the afternoon heat a couple of students were strumming guitars, enjoying the fresh breezes wafting down from the nearby Alpine peaks. Budding authors would be hard pressed to find a more inspirational spot.
From Saorge I headed to the small town of Sospel for an evening concert held in the town’s grand cathedral. It was the first night of Les Baroquiales, an annual festival of early music that attracts orchestras and choirs from around the world. Prior to the concert, an outdoor reception was being held in a nearby square. Local dignitaries and musicians stood chatting and clutching flutes of kir royale while local kids stared saucer-eyed at waiters roaming around with trays of mouthwatering tarts. Inside the cathedral the candlelight reflecting off the golden altars created a magical backdrop for the liltingly beautiful Renaissance music.
The following morning I drove back to Nice for my return flight to the UK. As the plane took off, it banked sharply over the Mediterranean, opening up breathtaking views of the Cote d’Azur. Below me, speedboats were racing past luxury yachts, sending up plumes of white spray over the sapphire water. In the distance I could clearly see the hotels and casinos of Monte Carlo sparkling in the sunshine. It’s impossible not be wowed by this breathtaking coastline, but when you’re tired of all the glitz and glamour, you can always escape to the mountains and discover a far more mellow Dolce Vita.
THE FACTS easyJet flies from Edinburgh to Nice four times a week from March to October. Prices start at £69 return, www.easyjet.co.uk; for information on Liguria, visit www.turismoliguria.it and for the Cote d’Azur, visit www.cotedazur-tourisme.com
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
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