Starting the new year in a fort

New Years Day, January 1, 2012. The beginning of a new year and the end of our family time together.

The day before New Year’s eve, Tim, my mother and I were driving the hills above the villa in search of a local restaurant. We were lost and cranky. The restaurant was nowhere in sight. But suddenly we saw a sign for Ristorante Forte Mace’. This was not what we were looking for, but we thought we should check it out. We drove up to what looked like a fortification, set deep into the ground, atop a hill. Which is exactly what it was.

Forte Mace'

The restaurant was closed, but we peered in the window and soon a young woman and her mother came out. We explained, in broken Italian and a bit of Spanish, that there were 8 of us and we were hoping to have dinner on San Silvestro. They told us that they were full for San Silvestro, but could serve us on the following day, lunch at 1:00. A quick tour of the restaurant, a change of plan, and we gratefully accepted.

The entrance to the restaurant

Ristorante Forte Mace’ sits tucked into the hillside, high above the Gulf of La Spezia.

The view from the fort of the Gulf of La Spezia

Built in 1889, the fort provided land defense for the entire region. It was in total disrepair when purchased 14 years ago by the present owners. The have turned it into an extraordinary family restaurant and it was there that we spent New Year’s Day.

What we did not know was that the family opened the restaurant exclusively for us. We were the only diners, and they prepared a very special meal for us.

The son of the family, the business manager for the restaurant, speaks some English and was able to guide us through our meal. We started by ordering delicious local wines and began our way through the extraordinary menu, starting with the Antipasto Desgustazione.

We all shared plates of:

  • Bruschetta al lardo
  • Cipolline in agrondolce all’alloro
  • Crostini con acciughe
  • Torta di farro
  • Torta di zucca gialla

Our little Italian phrase book didn’t help with the subtleties of this menu, but we were able to get the gist of most things. Each taste was unique and special. The Cipolline (baby onions) in a slightly sweet sauce, the fresh anchovies and the Torta di faro (a hearty kind of grain) were especially memorable. The Bruschetta al lardo was amazing, soft and buttery. We were only a bit shocked when we looked at the menu and realized that it was lard.

For the pasta course we each had a choice:

  • Ravioli all spezzina al ragu di carne tradizionale
  • Gnocchi di farina di castagne con crema di zola
  • Gnocchi aromatizzati all zafferanao con speck e radicchio rosso
  • Pansotti con salsa di noci
  • Tagliolini al ragu bianco di granchio

We all shared around tastes of each dish. Meghan’s gnocchi di farina di castagne (chestnut flour) were really surprising and delicious, as were the gnocchi with red radicchio that Lewis had. While in La Spezia we have found a number of dishes that use red radicchio. I love the slightly bitter taste and burnt colour that it adds. I ordered Pansotti con salsa di noci, which were lovely fresh little stuffed pastas in a subtle and soft nut sauce. Amazingly delicate.

For Secondi Piatti we chose from:

  • Salsicce con patate al forno
  • Tagliata con scaglie di grana e rucola
  • Filetto di maiale al marsala
  • Coniglio fritto con melanzane grigliate
  • Acciughe fritte con insalata

We searched through the phrase book and placed our orders. A lot of us had the Tagliata con scaglie di grana e rucola. Thin slices of rare beef, mounded with shavings of Parmesan cheese on a bed of arugula. The perfect combination and incredibly delicious. Tim braved the Coniglio fritto con melanzane grigliate, little fried pieces of rabbit with grilled eggplant. They use a lot of rabbit in this part of Italy and Tim said it was marvellous, although not unlike chicken.

By the time that we had eaten all of these courses, there was very little room for Dolce. However, the owners had especially made a nut torte, so I willingly had a bit – light and airy, it was the perfect way to end the meal.

Well, not quite the end. When we found that the grandmother of the family makes homemade limoncello, we knew that we wanted to cap off the meal with a glass (or two).

Very full and very happy

Then the father of the family came out from the kitchen saying “Come. Come” to my mother. As he began to guide her out the door, Tim & I followed and he took us on a full tour of the fort. He is the one who has done the bulk of the restoration work, by hand, and we were shown a slideshow of the renovation process. This is more than just a little family restaurant. The daughter and her mother do most of the cooking and we saw a sign for the Italian Cooking Academy on the wall. They serve the specialities of the Ligurian coast and do it with grace and symplicity. The son does the business side and was our host for the afternoon since he was able to speak English.

This is a family that has poured their hearts into creating a unique experience for everyone who comes there. This was more than a meal. We were welcomed into their world and we felt incredibly privileged to be there with them.

By the time we left we were hugging and introducing our children as “Alessandro, Magdalena, e Luigi”, something which I suspect will go into family lore and which Tim & I won’t be able to live down. Laughing until our faces and sides hurt, we rolled down the hill, along the ancient path, to the villa. It was an amazing way to usher in a new year.

Portovenere

Portovenere is on a promontory that juts into the western edge of the Gulf of La Spezia. A 30-minute bus ride from the city of La Spezia, the roads snake along the coast to take you from the work-a-day world of La Spezia to a resort and fishing town of startling beauty.

Portovenere

A piazza runs the length of the town, with restaurants spilling out into the sunshine. Fishing boats bob on the docks and ferry people over to the island of Palmaria, directly across from the town. It is a picture perfect Riviera town.

The Romans built an outpost here as a base en route from Gaul to Spain. The Byzantines, Lombards, the Genovese and Napoleon all passed through, leaving their marks. We walked around the piazza with our jaws dropped. It was our first experience of this kind of Mediterranean beauty.

Tim & Maddy walking by the docks

The path led upwards on cobbled steps to the Chiesa di San Pietro.

Chiesa di San Pietro

Traces of a Roman temple have been found here. The temple is thought to have been dedicated to Venus from which came the name “Portus Veneris” —  Porto Venere. Like most sacred places, successive generations have added and adapted according to needs, and so the Chiesa di San Pietro is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Built of white and black marble in the Gothic-Genoese style, it sits right on the edge of the water. A “back door” leads out to a small stone platform overlooking the bay. A perfect sun trap.

Mother Laurie Lewis behind Chiesa di San Pietro

The church sits on the edge of a large square with access to the Grotta Arpaia. The Grotta Arpaia opens out to the other side of the promontory and has steps walking down to the rocks below.

Grotta Arpaia

The Grotto is dedicated to the poet Byron. Byron and Shelly both spent a lot of time in Portovenere and in Lerici.  Byron made this grotto famous by swimming from here around the promontory and on across the bay to Lerici. Shelly was not so lucky, nor so adept at swimming. He drowned in the bay when his boat capsized, sailing from Lerici.

We explored the winding cobbled streets, with homes, shops and restaurants tucked into narrow alleyways and along steep stairs.

Narrow streets winding up the cliff

A labyrinth of walkways led us to the Chiesa di San Lorenzo, built in 1130. Tim & I were passing by on an upper level right beside the bells as they started to chime. We were almost deafened by the sound. But we were close enough to hear, well, really to feel, the harmonics of the two toned bells. An extraordinary experience.

Chiesa di San Lorenzo,

We walked higher, to the outer ramparts of the Castle, built in 1161. But rather than go in, Tim & I became distracted by a cemetery on the edge of the cliff below the castle. The cemetery has a few mausoleums, but the final resting places are mostly in marble walls facing the ocean. Apparently there is a rotational system – for the first generation after your death you get a fairly prominent position. Gradually, your remains are moved to one of the less accessible places. All in all, we think it is a lovely place to honour the memory of a loved one.

A beautiful final resting place

We ended the day thoughtfully, and happily bundled our family back to the villa for dinner.

Tim on the dock of Portovenere, Lerici in the distance across the bay

A sunny Christmas morning

Before coming to Italy, we warned ourselves that the end of December would be wintery and cold. We were prepared for grey rain, but decided that the weather didn’t really matter. We thought it would be fun just to be together, eating wonderful Italian food and drinking local wines.

What we had not expected were hot sunny days, breakfasts and lunches on the terrace and long walks on the hillsides. Christmas Day broke with a thunderously beautiful sunrise. Unbelievably, it was warm enough for us to have our Prosecco, bread, cheese and smoked salmon sitting out on the terrace overlooking the sea. Church bells chimed as we launched into our Panatone.

Breakfast on Christmas morning
Celebrating with Prosecco

The villa is right beside the AVG, “Antica Via del Golfo”, a centuries old trail that connects surrounding towns and villages. Walking down it, we can get to La Spezia in about 15 minutes. Walking up takes a lot longer, and is brutal on the thigh muscles. It is really steep. But when we are on the path we invariably meet someone much older than us walking comfortably, not breathlessly panting as we are. We’re always greeted by a cheery buon giorno, or buona sera. So walk up we do, as often as possible, if only to save face and justify the huge quantities of food we can not resist eating.

The AVG also gives a unique opportunity to hike up the mountain and explore remote villages with breathtaking views. The path crosses a zig zag road with hairpin turns, clearly beloved of Italian drivers. It is the kind of road that Italian movies make famous. But walking the path gives you time to explore and see the pace of other people’s lives.

A view from the AVG, with a view of the La Spezia Gulf

On Christmas morning we headed up, unsure of where it would take us but mostly just wanting an excuse to walk and talk in the sunshine. We walked higher and higher up the mountain, surrounded by a feeling of celebration and the joy of being alive. We may see each other all together only once a year, but we know how to reconnect quickly, on a mountain top.

Maddy, Xan, Lewis and Amanda. Christmas morning in Italy