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.
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.
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.
Our Christmases have always looked a bit like an archetypal Christmas card. We decorate a tree with ancient ornaments, curl up by a roaring fire, and watch puffy snowflakes weigh down the enormous pine trees outside our windows.
But we knew that this year we would break with tradition. Since we are on the road, we decided that we would all gather as a family in Italy. Through the magic of the internet we found Villa Maggiano, a luxurious villa outside of La Spezia on the Italian Riviera. We headed there from our various parts of the world to rendezvous for Christmas.
La Spezia is a busy little city of 95,600 about an hour’s drive from Genoa, on the Ligurian coast. Tim and I flew from London into Genoa, and rented a car to drive to the villa. It had been 5 months since I had driven a car and the twists, turns and roundabouts were sobering, to say the least. On the edge of the city, we headed up a mountain and, fourteen hair-pin turns later, found ourselves at The Villa Maggiano.
Set in an olive grove, the villa comfortably sleeps 8 and has a large brick terrace that looks out over La Spezia and the Golfo dei Poeti. Naval and container ships crisscross the bay. The Appennino mountain range in the distance changes colour throughout the day as the sun moves across the horizon and reflects off of the snow capped peaks.
Each bedroom of the villa has a view of the sea and the mountains, and every morning the sun shocks us awake by its beauty. Every night, lights twinkle on the hills and the shoreline, and the mountains fade into silhouette. Could we ask for a better place to spend Christmas with the family?
Our host, Sarah Ferrari, had decorated the villa with poinsettias, wreaths and Christmas ornaments. She greeted us with a large basket of Italian goodies, and wine from the family vineyard, making us feel at home and ready to kick off the festive season.
Tim and I had a couple of days in which to prepare for Christmas Eve, when the family would all be together at last. We headed down to negotiate the vast market in the centre of La Spezia. This is not a tourist area, and few people speak English. Neither of us speak Italian but we figured out how to ask for ingredients, how to ask for more, how to ask for less. As La Spezia is on the coast, there were about a dozen fish stalls filled with mounds of Branzino (like sea bass), Baccalà (dried salt cod), scampi, mussels, squid, cuttlefish, swordfish, tuna and eels, still moving on their icy bed. There were aisles of cheese and meat stalls with fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano (Parma is just down the road), various ages of Pecorino, Gorgonzola, Prosciutto, Carpaccio, and many things we couldn’t identify. There were rows and rows of fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, nut vendors and olive merchants.
We tried (unsuccessfully) to stop ourselves from buying too much. But Christmas is a time for eating and drinking. And a gathering of the Lewis/Wynne-Jones clan happens only once a year, which justifies all kinds of excess. With an over-full larder, we created our Christmas Eve feast.
Opening the first of a number of bottles of Prosecco (a case of 12 for 15 euros) we began with an antipasto of olives, marinated artichokes, roasted peppers and fabulous focaccia bread. La Spezia is known for its focaccia and it is deliciously oily and salty, with chunks of olives imbedded into the dough. We followed this with a simple Pesto alla Genoese. This is the region that invented pesto and we bought a big tub of it at the market. It was like no pesto I have ever made or tasted before. Unlike other basils, Ligurian basil is grown organically and out of the direct sunlight to keep it fresh and sweet. The result is a smooth and lemony pesto.
We followed the pasta course with Tim’s fabulous “Melanzane (eggplant) alla Parmigiano”, which he has perfected over the last month, and slices from a buttery and soft pork roast that we had bought from the neighbourhood Macelleria (butcher), rolled with garlic and rosemary.
A light salad of mixed greens from the market cleansed our pallets. Amongst other greens, I had bought a lettuce head that was yellow, flecked with magenta. I don’t know what it is called, but it was slightly bitter and so beautiful.
We finished the meal with some fruit, biscotti and dessert wine. Fireworks were exploding over the bay, and the bells chimed from numerous churches. In several of the coast towns below us, they were welcoming the arrival of the baby Jesus from the sea. “La Madonna, San Giuseppe e Gesu Bambino arrivano dal mare”.
Not a snowflake in sight. Our family Christmas spirit burned bright.