Marble, Lard and the Cinque Terre

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
1
17
45
Trip End May 13, 2009


Loading Map
Map your own trip!
Map Options
Show trip route
Hide lines
shadow

Flag of Italy  , Italian Riviera,
Saturday, May 10, 2008

I read many years ago about the marble quarries of Carrara, whole mountainsides carved away over the last 2000 years to build everything from Imperial Rome to contemporary sculptures.
Once we hit the coast of Tuscany and drove a little north they came into view - you see in the distance what looks lie snow-capped mountains but as you come closer you can see the mountains have been cut away to reveal their marble whiteness. Marble here is everywhere - even the sea-breaks are made of marble and we lie on them to get a feel - smooth and warm.
We drive through the town of Carrara (unfortunately the Museum of Marble is closed) and up into the mountains. It is truly an amazing scene - whole mountainsides have been cut open and offcuts and large blocks of marble are lying casually by the road sides. Ant-size trucks drive up steep zig-zag roads in the quarries to collect their next load. We drive up incredibly steep and narrow roads, hoping not to meet one of these monster trucks coming the other way, until it gets so steep and rough that it would be foolhardy to go on (ok no wisecracks about other foolhardy things I have done).
So what better to do than have lunch, especially as the nearest village is Collonata. I have been told about, and once eaten its specialty, Lardo di Collonata. We park in the marble-paved piazza (everything here is marble - if I had a truck I could have loaded thousands of euros worth of marble lying by the side of the road), then walk up marble stairs to a small restaurant. The menu is mainly populated with lard dishes and Yvonne has a dubious look on her face as I translate the various offerings.
In a number of countries people tend to have an unhealthy and confused attitude to fat - on the one hand much of the population eats pre-prepared and fast food that is loaded with large quantities of fat (of a particularly nasty and harmful kind), while on the other hand many people have an almost pathological fear of fat and only buy foods that are low-fat and try to exclude any fat as far as possible from their diet.
Well, the specialty here is pure, natural pork lard. I order a mixed plate of lard on bread - lard with honey, lard with herbs, lard cream etc, and eat it happily while Yvonne tries hard to look unperturbed while eating her plate of tomato and cheese - it's velvety smooth with a mildly rich flavour, quite delicious. I offer her a taste and she reluctantly accepts and finds it's actually quite good.
The lard was originally made by workers in the marble quarries - they perfected a process in which they put pork fat, salt, juniper, etc in marble containers and after some months the result was this pure creamy white lard (similar colour to marble) which is sliced thinly and eaten like prosciutto. We walk past a Larderia and I buy some lard chocolates (lard used instead of butter) and the genial owner invites us in to the workshop to see how it's made.
We return to the coast and we motor on past the port of La Spezia to the Cinqueterre (five lands), the name given to the coastal area on the edge of Tuscany and Liguria made up of the towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
We stay in a hostel high in the hills behind in a tiny town called Biassa and next day take the ferry from Riomaggiore to Vernazza. Having possibly raised my cholesterol level by a massive amount the previous day through the ingestion of a fair amount of lard I need to do something to counteract the effect, so along with hundreds of other people we are going to walk along the path that winds along the cliffs and coves joining these towns together. It's reasonably warm and we soon work up some perspiration as we climb the path. To use a number of clichés - the sea sparkles, the sun shines doen from the azure sky, the sheer cliffs drop to the sea, the aquamarine sea laps gently on the rocks, the scent of flowers and plants is everywhere, etc. It's truly picturesque and gorgeous and the only fly in the ointment is the number of fellow walkers on the path - it's feels like the busy main street of a town - there are people huffing and puffing, people with boots suitable for climbing Mt Everest with walking sticks and backpacks, ladies in heels, people with sandals and socks - please, I know it's comfortable, but only at home thank you very much :).
Above and around us are steep terraces, built by the local people over hundreds, possibly thousands of years, and planted with either grape vines (the area is famous for its white wines, which we can verify are delicious) or lemon trees. The locals have come up with an ingenious solution for the back-breaking work on the terraces. A round steel rod (like a micro-monorail) snakes through most properties and a small device with a seat on it runs along this, optionally towing a container that enables produce to be loaded and taken up to the road. These monorails often plunge straight down the hillside, so it would be like riding the big dipper at Luna Park.
The towns are tiny and picturesque - tiny pebble beach, little lanes, fishing nets, boats upturned in the streets, and buzzing with local colour and hot and thirsty tourists. We scramble down to a beach as I am hot and want to go for a swim - beach here means section of coast with smooth (and slippery) rocks and we manage to find just enough relatively flat rock to lie down and sunbake. It's still very early in the season and the water is refreshing, but no colder than swimming at home at the height of summer.
The last half hour of the walk, from Manarola onward is along a wide concrete path called Via dell'Amore (street of love), no doubt a catchy name dreamed up by someone to increase business, and now the excuse for masses of love graffiti, and the crowds now become like those shopping at Christmas.
Strategically sited at the end of Via dell'Amore is a funky bar, which we drop into for a refreshing white wine, and find the whole terrace overlooking the sea has been taken over by a wedding party from Sydney. The scene is quite amusing - in one part there's Yvonne and I (hot and sweaty, well at least me) who have just walked 4 hours up hill and down cliff, there's a couple of carabinieri resplendent in their uniforms standing at the bar having an afternoon coffee, and on the terrace the wedding party - girls with overly short dresses and impossibly high heels and white legs, young red-faced men (from sunburn and drink) with shirts hanging out and loose ties, ordering beer and multi-coloured cocktails. We could be in a pub in Sydney, but here we are in a bar on a cliff in the Cinqueterre looking over the Ligurian Sea.
Ater a couple more days exploring the nearby area we head off north towards our next major destination, Lake Como. We drive to Parma (home to prosciutto and parmigiano) and as we are walking along the street I see a group of colourfully-dressed black people outside a building. We go in and find a whole church full of people dressed in their best - women with gorgeously coloured dresses, shoes and headgear, and men in sharp suits, bright shirts and funky, long-toed shoes. I ask someone what is happening and it's Sunday, May 11 - Mother's Day. The people are from counties such as Somalia and Eritrea and the service is in English.
So we find a nice little restaurant after this and have a Mother's Day lunch for Yvonne - naturally the antipasto is a selection of cured meats, scattered with parmigiano - not measly shavings, as you typically get in Australia, but hunks of it you can pick up and eat whole. The prosciutto was sweet/salty and velvety in texture and the other meats were all delicious variations with their subtle differences. I've forgotten the rest of the things I ate (I think it may have been horsemeat - it's so easy to forget if you don't write things down right away), but we did have the full 4 courses, a bottle of wine, and digestivo, of course - limoncello for Yvonne and grappa for me.
Much as it would have been nice to have a nap we still had some way to go so we drove over the flat Po plain (the only sizeable flat area in Italy), past the fields where virtually all the rice is grown in Italy, and up to Bergamo for the night, in the foothills of the Alps. Bergamo is one of those places which very few foreign tourists get to in Italy. It is ringed by beautiful hills with lovely mansions dotted throughout and was a favourite place of Stendhal, the French author. He was stationed here as a young officer in Napoleon's Army and stayed in one of the palaces with a noble family.
Bergamo is made up of the modern lower city, and the old upper town ringed by walls on a high hill directly north. We have a quick look through the upper town in the morning, stop for views over the hills and the Po plain, then drive down the mountain and head for our next stop, Lake Como.
Slideshow Report as Spam

Post your own travel photos for friends and family More Pictures

Use this image in your site

Copy and paste this html: