Italy: Venice

Venice, with the bell tower, Piazza san Marco and the Doges' Palace in the foregound
Venice, with the bell tower, Piazza san Marco and the Doges’ Palace in the foregound

Venice was the first stop on our ten days in Italy, and one of the most remarkable. Everyone knows, of course, that ‘Venice is built on an island in a lagoon’ (or words to that effect) but in my mind, at least, the lagoon was relatively small and the island had some open spaces, perhaps even some high ground. I was wrong on all counts. Venice proper is a smallish, very low, island jam-packed with buildings and riddled with alleys (no real streets) and canals wide and narrow.

The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal
Walking alongside one of the smaller canals
Our tour group walking alongside one of the smaller, less glamorous, canals

There are several smaller islands nearby, still in the lagoon, and most of them are similarly built up. The city outgrew the islands long ago and is connected to the (much larger) Mestre on the mainland via a road and rail causeway. We took the water-bus across to one of the nearest islands, San Giorgio, to ascend the bell tower of the eponymous church, my vantage point for the top photo and the one below.

Looking over the Giudecca and outer islands from San Giorgio; Venice itself is to the right of the picture

Everything in this picture is in the lagoon, except for the smudge of land on the horizon. Wikipedia tells us that, “The Venetian Lagoon stretches from the River Sile in the north to the Brenta in the south, with a surface area of around 550 square kilometres (210 sq mi). It is around 8% land, including Venice itself and many smaller islands. About 11% is permanently covered by open water, or canal, as the network of dredged channels are called, while around 80% consists of mud flats, tidal shallows and salt marshes. The lagoon is the largest wetland in the Mediterranean Basin.” This map makes the situation clear:

San Giorgio from Venice, (note gondolas - must be Venice)
San Giorgio from Venice (note gondolas – must be Venice)

The Biennale was in progress while we were in Venice, and we managed to see a little of it – see Venice and the Biennale, one of my ‘Gallery Crawl’ pages. The church of San Giorgio was the site of the last artwork on that page.

Liguria: pesto

Pesto class in Levanto

The day before we toured the Cinque Terre (previous post), we were treated to a brief foodie excursion: a talk about pesto and the chance to try making it. The venue was the back room of a classy, if touristy, fine-local-foods shop in Levanto and our teacher was its owner. We also sampled the local white wine, a variety which never makes it out of the region because the production is so small and the demand so high, and limoncello, a liqueur new to me but (apparently) not to the rest of the world.

Back to the pesto. Our teacher called it a regional classic and Claudia Roden (see Italian Delights) calls it “the prince of Ligurian dishes” so we were obviously in the right place. The recipe is quite simple: crush and mix pine nuts, salt, parmesan or pecorino, and basil; add olive oil and you’re done. Some versions, including Roden’s, add garlic as well but it is not traditional in all parts of Italy. (In fact, we discovered that garlic was not as prevalent in Italian food as we had expected from our Australian experiences. Then again, we were always in the North and perhaps it is used more commonly in the South.)

Recipes vary; of several I checked on the web, the closest to what we were taught is Jamie Oliver’s, here. His call for ‘handfuls’ of ingredients matches her style, too.

Traditional variations

  • Garlic: none, up to 3 or 4 cloves
  • Black pepper: not usually used
  • Cheese: parmesan, pecorino sardo or (for a stronger flavour) romano
  • Pine nuts: usually very lightly toasted, not browned; sometimes not toasted at all
  • Walnut or almond oil instead of olive oil

Varying the basil, cheese or oil doesn’t seem to make much difference to the end result as this (somewhat too exhaustive) blog post concludes. On the other hand, it did find a noticeable difference between the traditional mortar-and-pestle technique and the quick-and-easy blender method.

Non-traditional variations

  • Replace half of the basil with baby spinach to make a less full-flavoured pesto, or replace all of it with rocket, purple (Thai) basil, tomato or spinach; your favourite search engine will find lots of recipes.
  • Walnuts or cashews instead of pine nuts

One more thought, for the experimentalists in my audience: the basic pesto method is so adaptable that the list of pesto-like brews is potentially inexhaustible. Parsley and chickpeas? Coriander, Thai basil and cashew? Why not throw in a chilli or two while you’re at it? Serve it over rice or as side dish with curry? Have fun, but calling the result ‘pesto’ in front of a Ligurian chef may be dangerous to her/his health, or yours.

Liguria: the Cinque Terre

Liguria is a narrow, rugged sliver of Italy’s north-western coast centred on Genoa, and is famous for the “Italian Riviera“, especially Portofino and the spectacular scenery of the Cinque Terre.

We spent a couple of days in the Cinque Terre (literally “five lands”). In one whole day we walked from Manarola up to Volastra, a small hilltop village, and down again to Corniglia where we had lunch and several drinks (it was a very hot day – 38C), then took the train to Vernazza, had a swim and a granita, took the next train to Monterosso at the North end of the Cinque Terre and  swam again before taking the train back in the other direction to see Riomaggiore at the Southern end.

By then, unsurprisingly, it was evening and we had fish and chips from Tutti Fritti in the main street (yes, that’s a free plug, but the place deserves it for selling the best fried seafood I’ve ever had). If you want to know more about the famous walks in the district, this wikivoyage page will answer most of your questions; all I will do here is post a few photos to whet your enthusiasm.

Looking up from Manarola to the terraced hillside and the beginning of the hiking path
On the path near the beginning of the walk

Before too long we were high enough to look back down on our starting point and along the coast to our destination.

Looking back down to Manarola, tucked into its narrow valley

The terraces (all dry-stone walls) represent an unimaginable amount of manual labour, but over a couple of thousand years. Grapes are the main crop.

Looking north along the coast to Corniglia on the headland and Monterosso in the hazy distance
Corniglia from the inland side, some hours later. Walkers are just visible on the path at lower left.

Trains between the villages run frequently and are almost the only alternative to walking, since roads are minimal and don’t, in any case, reach the centre of most villages – the streets are far too narrow even when the hills aren’t too steep.

Swimmers in the tiny harbour at Vernazza
Swimmers in the tiny harbour at Vernazza

The church (left foreground) dates back to the 13th century, although its bell tower is considerably later.

stone church
Interior of the church in Vernazza, beautifully cool and calm
beach umbrellas
The main part of the beach at Monterosso

Beach space is at a premium in Cinque Terre because the beaches are few and small. Our tour guide told us that Monterosso provided the best swimming (and it does) but most of the beach is “private” and one hires a lounge and umbrella by the hour or day. That doesn’t seem to dent its popularity with the Europeans but we Aussies preferred to make use of the small public section down near the headland.

Riomaggiore, just on sunset