In a narrow dark alleyway, tucked between expensive shops, designer clothes and grand old palazzo buildings, is Maria’s, a simple trattoria with quintessential red checked tablecloths covering long tables, all crammed into a warren of rooms.
We are in Genova for a photography exhibition and to take advantage of big city shops. We don’t buy anything; this is a day of looking, but there is time for lunch before we catch the train back home. Nudged in the direction of da Maria by our guidebook (we were actually trying to track down a restaurant we had eaten in 11 years ago), we wait while men spill out of the narrow doorway and as we then file in, it is still not clear if this tiny place can accommodate us. It is almost bursting at the seams. We are directed upstairs where rooms lead into others, all worked by their own waitress. We find a couple of spaces at the end of a table for 6 and are almost immediately joined by 4 others. I am next to the dumb waiter and although a little distracting, proves to be quite handy in matching dishes to those on the hand written menu. It is also allows me to easily check for the absence of nuts. The waitress shouts down the dumb waiter, scribbles on the one menu that has been passing around the room and waits for it to come back with the all clear.
The menu, for such a tiny place, is extensive: there are at least 5 primi and almost a side of A4 of secondi with 3 vegetarian options. M and I both have the minestrone and while M chooses the stuffed anchovies for his second course, I opt for the octopus and potato salad. The food arrives with alarming speed but still looks like it has just been freshly cooked for the individual diner. As the dumb waiter is unloaded, the waitresses all gather round and pick out plates unerringly for their rooms. It is impressive to watch. The food is equally impressive.
It is essentially a pranzo di lavoro. The place is full of workers, although here they are in suits rather than hi vis. They don’t linger and the 4 people on our table are replaced by two others before we start our secondo. The price is the same too – 10 euro for a primo and secondo, with the only difference being there is a choice of wine or water, not both, and no coffee. In a city centre, to find such value is surprising. And welcomed, of course.
We are given a slip to take downstairs to the till. While M pays, I pick up a card with the history of da Maria. The trattoria has been in existence for 100 years, having moved from its original location in the 1930s to where it is now. It has been in the same family passing from the original Maria to her daughter-in-law, also called Maria who started work there in the 1940s. Sadly, the card tells us that she has ‘left us’ in 2008. The staff all wear a simple uniform of t shirt and jeans. On the t shirt is written: da Maria per sempre, la storia continua…. (Maria’s forever, the story continues..)
You can tell the work on the house is now taking up less of our time. Last Sunday we were off eating fish cooked in a giant frying pan. Yesterday, we headed off to Montecarlo……..no, not the Montecarlo but a small medieval hill village to the east of Lucca where over the weekend, a number of small wineries and vineyards opened to the public for a wine tasting tour.
We went with a couple of friends who had been before so we also had some insider knowledge. For 15 euro per person, we bought a wine tasting kit, comprising a glass, a glass holder, a program event and the use of a 5 mini buses/coaches which drove along 5 different routes. Each one would drive in a continuous loop, dropping you off, allowing you to spend as much time as you wanted at each winery. When you had finished, you just waited for the bus to come back and take you to the next one on the route.
From the main square, with the aid of a map detailing the locations of the wineries and the routes, we chose our first bus on the Vermentino line and off we went. This bus was actually a coach. The roads were narrow and windy. M was sitting by the window. All of a sudden he had gone very quiet. ‘What’s up?’ I asked. ‘This bus is too big for the road. I keep thinking we are going to leave it at any minute’. ‘But we are not that high and there is no drop. There is actually nowhere to go’. Nonetheless, when we got back on, M took the aisle seat much to the amusement of our friends!
At the first winery, I started with a prosecco. And then another. And another. Different varieties of course and all very palatable but all going down far too quickly! M was on the red. Our friends did the same, us two girls sticking to the fizzy/white, the men to the reds. I am not good at lunchtime drinking at the best of times (this tour started at midday) and it was hot, perhaps the first real hot day we have had so far. I knew I would have to pace myself.
After this one, I stuck to one tasting at each place. Much more manageable and if we were really lucky, some free offerings of bread drizzled with the local olive oil (or at one vineyard, some pecorino cheese), made it a lot easier!
In our opinion, the best wineries (not necessarily with the best wine) were those that offered a tour around the cellars, explaining the process of winemaking. Some had set up stands in the grounds, others also offered products to try and buy such as jams, chutneys, cheese, sausage, salami, all produced by themselves. Some seemed family run, others were on a much larger scale. All of them had both fantastic buildings and amazing views.
At some point during the afternoon, we all felt the need for food and liquid of the non-alcoholic kind. So, it was off on another bus to a recommended vineyard where we had panini with porchetta, a bottle of water and a sit down in the shade!
At one point, we were back in the main square to catch a bus on another line when I commented on how much cooler it now was. As one of our friends pointed out, it was now actually 6:00pm. No wonder! This bus took us to just the one fattoria but it was worth it. The approach to the building itself was through the vineyards. It was picturesque to say the least. When we got there, the wines didn’t disappoint. The tasting itself was in the cellar with the most ridiculously sized barrels, the biggest we had seen all day. It was the perfect one to end on.
At 7:15pm, we called it a day. We were flagging but our experienced friends decided to carry on to the last two vineyards. It was a great day, and one that will definitely be going on the calendar for next year.
Camogli is a fishing village on the Ligurian coast, just to the north of Portofino in the direction of Genova. On the second Sunday in May it holds its annual Sagra del Pesce (Fish Festival) to celebrate San Fortunato, the patron saint of fishermen. Today was the 66th sagra to be held. After a blessing by the priest, a huge frying pan measuring 4 metres in diameter and with a handle 6 metres long is used to fry literally tons of fish. In the past, these were distributed free but such is the increase in popularity, there is now a charge.
I have been wanting to go to this sagra for a long time, since, in fact, the first time I read about it on a trip out here in 2001 (if my memory serves me correctly) but it was only today that I finally got there.
Even the hunters have to clear up after themselves. Not too far from these bins we saw a group of hunters surrounding two skinned boars, hanging ready for butchering. Not a pleasant sight but one we have to accept living in this area.
Perhaps more worrying was a recent newspaper article reporting of how two deer and a wild boar had been attacked by wolves in the area. One of the deer was found on the edge of our village by local farmers. This is not the first report of wolves in the Lunigiana but obviously having them just outside our village is a little too close for comfort.
Some things are not worth doing more than once. Watching a living nativity (presepe vivente) is one of them. On Boxing Day evening, we headed to a village about 40 minutes away from us to see a very well publicised one, when 2 km outside of the village, the traffic ground to a halt. We peered into the darkness but couldn’t see the reason for the hold up. Surely, it was not related to the presepe event? Finally a policeman walked the line of cars, telling us to turn round, park in the town we had just driven through and catch a shuttle bus (no mention of this on any of the posters, I might add). So, yes it was. Some cars decided to park at the first available spot, while we followed others to the somewhat limited parking. We gave up, planning to try again the next night.
So yesterday we left even earlier and drove straight into the village, were waved into the car park by men in hi-vis with fluorescent torches, and just as we thought we had timed it right, an attendant came over to tell us to park in the neighbouring town and catch a shuttle bus. Again? Luckily another directed us to a spot on the verge and we abandoned the car there. We marched off to the start of the event to find a massive queue, at least 20 people wide and without checking just where this queue went, we joined it 5 minutes before the presepe was due to start.
We waited. And waited. Every 5 minutes, we shuffled forward 8 paces or so. Each time we were jostled and buffeted as people tried to forge their way ahead. We saw people immediately in front of us almost disappear out of our line of vision, mine certainly. Yet M and I barely seemed to move. This village is hemmed in on one side by mountains and therefore, in stark contrast to the balmy temperatures during the day, it was now freezing. Earlier, I had my feet in the sea; now I could barely feel my toes. It was only the body heat of the crowds that kept the rest of me warm, along with my left hand that M grabbed tightly to ensure we were not separated.
Many times we wondered if we should just give up and go home, as others were doing, but every time we moved, there was a glimmer of hope that we might just reach the entrance and see what all the fuss was about. People around us entertained themselves with their mobile phones but nobody complained. We watched the YouTube videos and face book updates of those around us and I marvelled at those families with young children that were surprisingly well behaved and patient.
An hour and a half later we could see the start. We’ve made it, we thought, but it took another 15 minutes to reach the ticket booth. Finally we were on our way, but by this time, the novelty had really worn off. Still a queue, although now almost in single file, we shuffled up uneven stone steps on what appeared to be a tour of the village. Every now and then we passed an open doorway, with someone in character, either weaving, carving, making bread and so on. Centurions passed us on the stairs but we just glanced, overtook those who stopped to take photos and took shortcuts where possible in a bid to get to the manger.
An hour later, we arrived. From cleverly constructed scenes, stables with live animals, and all the traditional craftsmen and women along the way, I couldn’t help feeling that the final scene was something of a letdown as we were led into a grotto (yes, a real one!) which lacked any sense of authenticity. Maybe it was to keep the baby Jesus warm or just to make a circular route out of the village but even so, it seemed at odds with everything we had just passed. I snapped a photo, along with everyone else, and then we left.
Was it worth the wait? Yes, in that it was really well executed, the whole village was dedicated to it and the torch-lit streets and alleyways and the huge star hoisted above the village, all added to the atmosphere. Had we not been so cold or were perhaps better prepared, we might have enjoyed it more. Earlier, at the coast, we stopped in a small church to light a candle and looked at a display of presepe from around the world. Standing in front of these nativity scenes, each unique in their own way, at least allowed some time for reflection. I think I’ll stick to figurines in future.