Things have changed a bit, and these days a trattoria can be virtually indistinguishable from a restaurant, although not black tie. Prices and food quality vary, so when you find one you like, you'll probably want to go back to it.
Naturally we found one a bit further away; I've mentioned, and shown proof of, my being persuaded to join Russ (it's either that or be frogmarched) on his early morning walks in the hills above Prato, and on one of these we sniffed out an unlikely looking building set beneath the road. "La Fontana" -The Fountain - is a trattoria named after a mountain spring at it's door, where locals come to sit on the sides of the fountain, chat in the cool and fill their bottles.
|Too early to be serving, but the dining room opens up under the vine|
La Fontana is about 25 minutes brisk walk from where we're living, up a hill and accessed by a road so narrow that you have to hug the wall or back yourself into the bushes on the side whenever a car passes. But luckily friends here have a car, so we went with them the first time; the second time we took a taxi there and walked home - good for the digestion as the saying goes, and a nice thing to do in these summer/autumn evenings.
It's a lovely spot, looking out over Prato to the hills in the distance. I initially had no idea that the specialty here is bistecca fiorentina, a Tuscan favourite which is essentially a T bone or porterhouse steak grilled over coals. A bit of a 'whoops' for me, not being a red meat eater, although I can cope with a mouthful on the odd occasion - if it's very very good or if I'm being very polite. There was fish on the menu, but it was dried, salted cod which I confess I haven't yet tried. I'm sure it's good, and I have enjoyed salt cod in Norway, but I was attracted more to a pear and cheese ravioli, home made of course, served with a rocket sauce -this turned out to be absolutely delicious, with either a salad or grilled vegetables. . .
So good that I ordered it again the second time we went, followed by a freshly baked orange souffle with chocolate sauce, which was equally as good. . .
The house red wine was absolutely excellent and very reasonably priced; Stefano, our waiter, was faultless, and all the dishes were of really high quality - great flavour, presentation and cooked perfectly.
|Chicken grilling over the coals|
The men had the steak, and I have to say that it was impressive; I did try a mouthful, and found it was full of flavour and so tender it could be cut with a spoon. Apparently this quality comes from the huge white oxen raised near Arezzo, Chianina beef, but of course it also has to be perfectly cooked. There's no ordering how you want your steak cooked here, it's only served one way- medium rare.
|Working the magic|
I'm going to keep this fairly short, as there's been so much written about the Cinque Terre, and almost everyone on the planet must know someone who's been. Russ and I did a 'reccy' before returning to stay in Riomaggiore and walk the track, catching a boat from Portovenare to get a feel for this part of the Italian riviera from the sea.
It's quite evident that it's taken generations, from the 7th Century AD, in fact, to build up the terraces to grow olives and grapes and household vegetables; and the houses are really a testament to tenacity and determination to survive. The original settlers were literally chased over the cliffs to escape various occupations, and the houses cling to ridges where you think no one in their right minds would build.
It's a UNESCO World Heritage site now, understandably, and is still not accessible by car; you need to walk the paths connecting the villages, take a train, or go by boat. Walking is the way to see it if at all possible - it can be walked in one day, but if you're not in a hurry the whole place is gorgeous, so our advice would be to at least stay another day and enjoy just being there. Eat some of the great prawns, octopus and anchovies and enjoy the sea and the sun.
|Looking back at Monterosso|
|Vernazza - stop and have a swim before you start off to Corniglia|
|No one said it was flat!|
|Grapes and olives dominate|
We took the train to the northernmost village, Monterosso, then walked to Vernazza where we stopped for a coffee, pizza and a welcome swim before walking on to Corniglia. The track between Corniglia and Manarola is short, but closed due to slips and has been for some time, apparently; for the more intrepid, however, there is a' high' track, a 3 hour detour, a challenge Russ found irresistible. Anne, Terry and I told him the sun had got to him and opted for the more sensible option of the train, having already walked for 5 hours. We'd ambled the twenty minutes along the track from Vioreggio to Manarola the previous day, so we considered it was time for another swim and a well earned prosecco.
The trail between the five villages (the Sentiero Azzuro), is one of the most popular in Italy. Be warned, it can be crowded and is far from flat. We passed several hikers who were very red in the face and obviously hot and stressed; but if you're reasonably fit it is only 12km long in all, the trail is well maintained, and the views are magnificent. Of course, you can choose just to walk part of the trail if you're pressed for time or not as fit as you'd like to be.