Eating up miles, drinking in scenery, motoring from Nice to Tuscany
A part of the Italian Riviera, the Cinque Terre towns include Vernazza, a former fishing village now busy with tourists. The tower of its castle overlooks the sea. (Drake Bennet/Globe Staff)
PARIS - Americans may think we invented the road trip, but we're not alone. There is a long, proud tradition of car tourism in France and Italy. Europeans drive less than Americans, and their cars are smaller; on the Italian highway, one quickly becomes accustomed to seeing hatchbacks that would fit comfortably in the cargo bed of a midsized pickup truck. Still, it's not a coincidence that the most prestigious restaurant guide in the world is put out by a French tire company. The Michelin Guide started as a way to get people to explore France by car, sampling the gastronomy of the country's different regions and, presumably, wearing out their tires in the process.
That's a bit of what we had in mind when we found out that one of our friends was marrying a French woman in Paris in June, and another marrying an Italian woman in eastern Tuscany. With only two weeks separating the weddings, why not, we thought, simply spend the time making our way from one to the other, from the sun-glutted Côte d'Azur through the cliff-top towns of Liguria down into the Tuscan valleys of Chianti and Orcia?
The Monday after our first wedding, we took the high-speed train from Paris to Nice, the starting point for our drive. We checked into our hotel, our room overlooking an un-picturesque pedestrian street lined with chain stores and vendors selling windup toys, knockoff bags, and spray-paint art. Only a few blocks away was the grand Place Masséna, the main square of the city, wide and rectangular, lined by palm trees and coral-colored, porticoed buildings, with a dramatic fountain at one end.
For visitors who are so inclined, there is no shortage of enchanting spots around Nice worth a day trip: the sculpture gardens of the Fondation Maeght, the aristocrat and millionaire playground of St. Jean de Cap Ferrat, the town of Grasse, perfume capital of the world. We didn't do any of that. A little more than $20 buys a day in a comfortable chaise longue at one of the many beach clubs that line Nice's Baie des Anges, and we spent our day in town reading, sunbathing, and accumulating an impressive tab: Rouget with niçoise vegetables and a salad with giant sweet langoustines, plus a half bottle of rosé, rang in at around $52. Behind us was the famed Promenade des Anglais, with its phalanx of grand hotels and casinos. Toward sunset a team from a French fashion magazine showed up on the beach to do a photo shoot, the model wearing something that looked like a belted pink curtain with a collar.
Three hours on the autostrada separates Nice from Genoa. The coastal terrain is wrinkled into sharp valleys, and driving along one gets the queasy sensation of never actually being on the ground - one moment you're barreling through a long, dark tunnel, the next you're on a bridge high above a chasm.
By lunchtime we were in Genoa, the seedily beautiful port city that is the capital of Liguria. We managed, in our afternoon there, to check out the gray-and-white-striped duomo, to visit a few of the notable churches and palazzos, and to get lost in its web of narrow streets. We would turn a corner and be in a small, perfectly proportioned piazza, and then we would turn another and be in an alley lined with prostitutes. We climbed up the many stairs to the Castelletto, the fortress-like promontory just north of the Galleria Garibaldi, and took in the views of the sprawling city and its industrial port below.
Genovese cuisine relies heavily on seafood, so it was with particular chagrin that we learned that the region's fishermen were on strike because of high gas prices (as high as they got in the United States this summer, they were more than twice that in Europe). The strike accompanied us throughout Liguria, decimating menus. In Genoa, rabbit cooked in white wine with pine nuts and olives was a worthy substitution, and we ended up sampling several versions of the pesto the region is known for. Octopus, for some reason, was still available, in a few delicious variations.
From Genoa it is a short drive to perhaps the prettiest part of the Italian Riviera, the small peninsula ending with the town of Portofino. Portofino's beauty is matched only by its high prices, catering as it does to the inhabitants of the yachts docked in its harbor. Better to stay in Santa Margherita Ligure, a less glitzy but lovely town 3 miles away.
The best way to explore the peninsula is to take a half-day hike from the village of Camogli to Portofino. Starting with a gentle climb through a mossy forest, the trail drops steeply to San Fruttuoso, a 10th-century abbey on a tiny, pebbled beach, where a handful of basic restaurants offer cold beer and fresh seafood. After climbing out of the valley, the trail hugs the hillside a couple hundred yards above the sea before descending through pastures and olive groves and into Portofino, with its characteristic pink, yellow, and ochre buildings and the dramatic, armlike promontory sheltering its harbor.
That evening we headed south again on the highway, turning off after 25 miles onto the smaller road that, through a series of steep, single-lane switchbacks, would take us to Vernazza, one of the towns of the Cinque Terre.
Cinque Terre is a world away from the genteel Riviera. Its visitors tend to arrive with overstuffed backpacks rather than matched Louis Vuitton luggage. The five towns, stretched along 6 miles of coastline, look like brightly colored barnacles clustered on the crenellated cliffs. Vernazza, with its small square port and precipitous cliffs, is the loveliest of them.
People don't just visit Cinque Terre, they hike it. Our first morning there, we walked the entire length of the trail that links the five towns in what started as a mist and developed into a pelting rain. We went quickly, muttering angrily at the weather and passing slower hikers with disdain. The trail gets progressively steeper from south to north, and the best round trip from Vernazza is to head north, tackling the toughest segment, to Monterosso, in the morning, before crowds clog it. Then take the ferry south along the coast to Riomaggiore, the southernmost town, and hike back through Manarola and Corniglia.
From there we marched on to Corniglia, the town just over the ridge from Vernazza, and stopped for lunch. Hidden in an alleyway, De Mananan restaurant was bustling with locals and soggy hikers, all happily devouring plates of delicious homemade pasta, steamed mussels in tomato sauce, and roasted rabbit. The pesto there was the best we had in Liguria. When we emerged afterward, the sun was out, sparkling on the puddles and the Mediterranean far below. We shed our rain gear for the couple miles back to Vernazza, the most beautiful leg of the walk.
The next day we left the coast and headed southeast into Tuscany. At our first stop, Lucca, we spent a few sunny hours strolling the famous grassy ramparts before heading on to Siena. Lucca is farther off the tourist track than Siena (or than San Gimignano, which we had planned to visit until the tour buses scared us off). But Siena should not be missed, with its famous fan-shaped campo and ornate duomo. The afternoon we were there was gray and wet, so the famous orange brick was muted, but the mist added to its medieval aura.
Late in the afternoon, we took shelter from a sudden shower in the nearest storefront we could find, a salumeria with a bespectacled boar's head over the door. The proprietor, a theatrical man with the mustache of an archduke, offered us tasting platters of meats, cheeses, and spreads and glasses of house wine as an Amy Winehouse CD played on repeat in the background. (When we asked whether he was a fan, he told us with what seemed genuine outrage that she had once visited his shop and turned down his marriage proposal.)
That evening we made our way north along the famed Chianti Road, nervously watching the gas gauge. There seemed to be a local diesel shortage: Two gas stations had been out, and we were running perilously low. As we crept on, coasting down the hills to conserve fuel, the sun dropped below the clouds, giving a glow to the tiny towns and the rows of grape vines on the hillsides below. After dark, in the town of Radda, we pulled up to the Villa Miranda, an old roadside inn with thick stone walls and half-timbered ceilings. We checked in, then ate supper in the quiet dining room. Miranda herself - an effusive 80-year-old with forearms that looked like they could knead road tar into pillowy pasta dough - served us her legendary ribollita (bread and vegetable "soup" with a consistency more like polenta) and savory pappardelle with wild boar sauce and lasagna, then Florentine grilled steak.
In the next room, Miranda and her friends were watching the Italian national soccer team suffer defeat by the Dutch. Periodic groans filtered into the dining room, and after dessert they invited us to join them for a glass of grappa to watch the disappointing end. As we walked up the gravel drive to our room, its terrace overlooking the swimming pool and the vineyards beyond, the thought occurred to us that it would not be such a bad place to run out of gas.
Rebecca Weiner and Drake Bennett can be reached at DrBennett@globe.com.