` An Escape to the Olive Riviera - Olive Oil Times

An Escape to the Olive Riviera

May. 3, 2011
Laura Rose

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To expe­ri­ence a taste of the orig­i­nal Riviera, with­out the swells of tourists on the Côte d’Azur, Portofino, and Cinque Terre, Portovenere is the great escape. Along the rich, agri­cul­tural coast of Liguria, wild and cul­ti­vated olive trees cover the scenery in a cool green, cul­mi­nat­ing in this awe-inspir­ing out­post of Riviera life.

Portovenere, con­nected to the Cinque Terre by the same cliff-cling­ing hik­ing paths but prac­ti­cally unknown in com­par­i­son, is off the radar enough to main­tain its authen­tic cui­sine, includ­ing the prized Taggiasca olive oil that grows only in this area. It is dra­mat­i­cally sit­u­ated on a rocky cliff jut­ting into the Gulf of Poets, so named for stir­ring the hearts of Lord Byron, Petrarch, and Dante, among oth­ers. Few trav­el­ers real­ize that the pop­u­lar hik­ing paths of Cinque Terre stretch as far as the iso­lated and idyl­lic town of Portovenere, and so it has man­aged to main­tain a small town feeling.

Portovenere, or the Port of Venus, gets its name from the ancient Roman tem­ple ded­i­cated to the god­dess of beauty which was con­structed, appro­pri­ately, on the tip of this breath­tak­ing precipice. There is only one real street in this town. Restaurants hug the water­front and some cob­ble­stone alley­ways ascend­ing the town’s cliff, con­nected by hushed, nar­row stair­ways over­laid with branches spilling over the stone walls of tucked-away gar­dens. Climbing a few flights up from the main square brings you to one such secret gar­den, the Orto di Lello, one of the few places to stay in this clois­tered town. The olive tree-speck­led yard, with an ancient olive press at the cen­ter, pro­duces enough home­made olive oil each year to keep the kitchen running.

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Giovanni Pizzurno, grand­son of Lello, the house’s name­sake, is known to greet vis­i­tors with local olive oil and a plate of the native Taggiasca olives paired, nat­u­rally, with a bot­tle of local white wine. Perched as it is on the side of this ris­ing cliff, the gar­den gives you a sweep­ing view of the teal blue Ligurian sea below and the neigh­bor­ing island of Palmaria, as well as the tree-lined sum­mit of the town, delin­eated by the long, snaking wall and mon­u­men­tal edi­fice with its 13th cen­tury cas­tle. Just behind the cas­tle is the hik­ing path along the rocky coast which takes you past a majes­tic water­fall before you join a swarm of tourists on the bet­ter know Cinque Terre paths. But here at L’Orto di Lello, you can sit tran­quilly in one of the swings strung from the olive trees and calmly con­sider the entire mag­nif­i­cent landscape.

L’Orto di Lello is an agri­t­ur­ismo, a place where you can enjoy the coun­try­side for your vaca­tion. Rooms that are more like pri­vate lit­tle houses gather around the cen­tral gar­den. Giovanni, who has just recently opened his grandfather’s prop­erty for vis­i­tors, is full of his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion and local facts, a story-telling guide that brings this beau­ti­ful region to life. The house was part of an old feu­dal agri­cul­tural sys­tem, and the walls have lasted the thou­sand years since, he recounts. From the grass, he plucks out a long shaft that looks like wheat and sucks out the sap, show­ing me how you can sur­vive with­out water with these plants around.

For a hearty local din­ner, Giovanni makes friendly intro­duc­tions for us at the cozy Osteria Baracco, where three gen­er­a­tions of the Bertirotti fam­ily serve up Ligurian spe­cial­ties seeped in plenty of the local olive oil, right across from the town’s olioteca Bansigo, a pur­veyor of the one of the best olive oils pro­duced in the area. Giovanni quit his job as an adver­tis­ing exec­u­tive to turn his grandfather’s prop­erty into an agri­t­ur­ismo, and his plea­sure in the life here is infec­tious. He gives me a wedge of Baracco’s fresh anchovy focac­cia gleam­ing with oil, and I can taste how sweet the life is here on the Olive Riviera.

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