Robin wrote that a tour of the hill towns of Italy is “Everyone’s Favorite Day!”™ So today Jo, Dan, and I dutifully put on our sunglasses and long white scarfs and headed east. A few minutes later we pass through Monte Carlo, and then into Italy. No border crossing formalities… it’s all the European Union now. At the town of Ventimiglia we turn north and climb inland.
Within an hour after leaving Robin’s, we are in the medieval hill town of Dolceacqua. A high-arching stone bridge crosses the river into the old city, and back 1,500 years. You enter the city through a dark tunnel which soon becomes a deep narrow canyon, stone walls rising 40 feet to either side, punctuated with small shuttered windows. High overhead, small stone struts held the walls apart.
I relive all of my dungeon-and-dragon days wandering through the maze of Dolceacqua. Stairs curve upwards and down from the main alley, leading to different levels of the city. Usually the sky is visible overhead, but occasionally you pass through a tunnel from one place to another. Some of the doorways open into small shops selling bread and salami, and old ladies smile at us and wish us a ‘buon giorno!’. It’s not hard to imagine invaders coming up these streets, finding locked door after locked door, getting lost, and being pummeled from above with rocks and arrows. We eventually reach the ruins of the castle at the top of the village, entering it during the closed lunch hour by climbing the ramparts from the back. We look down from the castle walls at the city we’ve conquered and cheer.
We drive on, stopping at a restaurant Robin recommended in Pigna, but it’s 2pm and they’re no longer seating people for lunch. We’re disappointed, because the restaurant is full of happy groups eating what look like wonderful lunches. But there is nothing to be done, so we continue up the toad towards Triova.
A kilometer out of town we are stopped by the police, who indicate that the road is closed. There is no way through. We must turn around.
We turn and take a side road up the mountain to the picturesque-looking hill town of Castel Vittório. We climb higher and higher, arriving in the village at the same time as a newlywed bride and groom. Air horns are being blown, sullen-looking teenagers in suits stand in the street attempting to stare us down, and I feel hugely out-of-place.
We ask at one restaurant, and then another. Neither is still serving lunch. Finally Jo asks at the restaurant where the wedding reception is being held. “Are you still serving lunch?” she asks in French. “If you are hungry, we have food for you” says the proprietor, with a grin. He shows us to a table and soon brings about a dozen plates to the table, stacking them one over another. “What is the cost of the meal?” asks a prudent Jo. “Don’t worry about that now” he says. “Just eat!” Fair enough.
He brings us a liter of wine and a jug of water. We forge out way through the antipasti. Just as we are finishing, the waiter brings us carpaccio. Thinly-sliced raw beef covered with sauce and herbs, it is amazing. Then comes turkey with a cream sauce, prosciutto, and salami.
We barely finish off this course when from the kitchen came an assortment of deep-friend savories, pizza, and puff pastry filled with mushrooms. Then three types of pasta… gnocchi with gorgonzola, egg noodles with pesto, and a spinach ravioli with meat sauce. Then a small salad and a large amount of meat… ox-tail stew, rich stewed beef & rabbit. No, we protest. We can’t eat any more. Nonsense, said the waiter. “Mangia! Mangia! This is life, you should eat because then you die!” he laughed and returned to the kitchen, leaving us the dishes of meat.
Lastly comes desert. Each of us gets a plate with a profiterole, tiramisu, and pannacotta. We eat it all, while complaining happily that we’d never had such a meal. A large group of french ladies near us staggers from their table, laughing and complaining that they had grown too fat to get up. “Nonsense!” shouts the waiter. “You can’t have gained more than two kilos!”
We eat lunch for over two hours. Every half hour Mama pokes her head out of the dining room, checks to see that everyone is happy, and then smiles and goes back to her cooking. I ask to take her picture, and she waves me into kitchen. Proudly she and papa show us a whole hog they’re roasting, then their son (our waiter) lifts Jo up and mugs for the camera, before hustling us back out of the kitchen to offer us grappa and espresso.
The entire feast ended up costing us €80, or about US$27 apiece, including wine, sparkling water, and coffee. An incredible deal, especially if you show up with a healthy appetite.
We decide to walk around town to work off a small part of our meals, and stagger uphill towards the church spire. A short ways along we come to the main square. To one side are a gossip of old women, talking animatedly. On the other side of the square are a grump of old men, playing cards and joking. From this square, 6 streets lead off to the various parts of town. (One can be seen in this photo leading up to the dark passage directly ahead.)
We walk around the town, through construction projects and by cracked plaster walls. It’s raining, but we don’t mind. The world seems freshened, alive in the way Italy has mastered. Italy has all of the love of life of the French, without the snobbishness.
Emerging at the top of the village, we continue along a woodland path, eating grapes and blackberries growing along the path. The trail curves around the side of the hill. Standing by a farm of corn and cabbage, we look back at Castel Vittório, through the gentle rain. I can’t imagine things looked any different a millennium ago.
To avoid having to backtrack, we drive uphill from the village, along a road which starts paved and rapidly becomes the original dirt track of the Romans. We bounce and bump along, dodging boulders emerging from the road, stopping for a goatherd and her flock. Occasionally there is a paved stretch of road, perhaps 100 meters long, before the road becomes dirt once again.
Soon we are in Baiardo, another hill town, built along a ridge between two valleys. A sign in english tells us that the ruins of the church there were once a site used by druids. We walk around the interior of the ruined church. Only the walls remain, and one incongruous chapel dedicated to Saint Christopher. Pigeons haunt the building, fluttering from rococo detail to rococo detail.
From Bairdo we continued onwards as the light dimmed. We stop once more, at an ancient chapel in the middle of nowhere. It’s in the scrub alongside the road, with only a stone steeple revealing its location. Inside are a broken stone angel and several bouquets of flowers. We’re all silent, standing beside the small church. Goat bells sound around us, and it grows dark.