Must admit: I am not amused by the whole Christmas celebrations phenomenon, probably because my grandmother's family was both very Italian and very religious and, bless her, she forced us onto catholic marathons of micro, uber-boring events, spending those infamous three weeks between December and January amongst prayers and food. Tons of food. So we'd spend our days between escaping from auntie's atrocious breath and a rigid bench of an extremely cold church. Because Tuscans do not heat places, especially public places where you are supposed to stay still for hours. So I tested my strength and capability to sit down for two hours without either yawning and shaking. I also helped bringing grocery from Antonello's place to nonna's home back and forth, hundreds of times, and carried bags of unknown relatives who came and go, stayed too long and spoke of subjects that seemed the most vapid to me. They were having a certain kind of fun, something I would have discovered years after, it is actually way better than any disco or pub gathering with desperate teen agers. I was a magnificent nineteen mankind, exactly ten years ago, and I decided I would make the most out of my Italian Christmas time.
Our casa, home, is few meters away from a very unconventional nativity place, as we call it 'Presepe', in Manarola, a tiny village of the Cinque Terre, the second counting from Riomaggiore. There are just a few families living there and mine is probably the most numerous one. Not many youngster to stroll around and chat, but many oldies to learn from, if one can be bothered listening before twenty-five. One of these, Mr Mario (see, Andreoli), achieved a World Record for the largest nativity scene in the world. It will not be hard to find precious works of craftsmanship even in the smallest villages of Italy, however, what impressed me about this story, was how much passion at any age can help reaching outstanding achievements… Mario, a retired railway worker who is also the Presepe Guy, is working as usual in his cellar to make his Sciacchetrà wine, when Nonna sends me to fetch one of his bottles. It is in fact tradition to taste it during festivities and sip it during some rare meditative moments with aged cheese. This wine, a fresh and unique native wine of Cinque Terre, features a name that comes from the Ligurian dialect; it indicates the crushing of grapes (sciac = rinse) and removal of the skins during fermentation (tra = between). In brackets, it's made from selected Bosco, Vermentino and Albarola grapes, the same used for the production of dry white wine, left for a long time to dry on racks.
When I enter the cellar I am struck by the sweet smell of grapes’ withering in shad and think that it was worth slogging on the steep vineyard terraces to harvest it, first, and get my bottom off the couch as per nonna's order, second. I, for the first time, get aware there's a world of feelings out there, a universe of questions and matters I have never come across, a dimension of pleasures for grown-ups that are licit and right for me. Mario hands over the slim bottle of this precious Riserva amber wine he claims “it requires 18-20 kg of grapes and three years aging in barrels to make this tiny bottle”. Mario follows me out of his cellar and walks to my side stepping down the hill to go back to Manarola. He must have read my mind. He carries on talking to me as if it is the very first time he has seen me “…when I started in 1976, I would not expect it to be included in the Guinness Book of Records, for sure. They counted 8 km of electric cables, 17,000 bulbs and nearly 300 life-size figures. Impressive, isn’t?”. Yes, impressive - I think, while casting a eye to Mario’s nativity place that is now covering the whole hilltop. I recall all of a sudden nonna asking me to bring Mario empty ricotta cheese boxes, which I considered a nonsense, if not after finding out he was using them as heads of sheep. At a closer look, I can single out strips of blinds strung together to create different stylized figures. Just amazing. I realize I am craving for sunset to enjoy the crib glowing on the hill behind Manarola, an impressive display of lights that perfectly recreates the magical atmosphere of Christmas. I realize this is the same stuff I have been looking at for years, but it is different. I am different, at this point.
I remember when I was a child. Some visitors would came to Manarola off season searching for a strano, un certo, nativity place, without any clue of where finding it. I would rush to Mario’s house yelling "Mario! Light the crib up!". All of a sudden the air would fill up with amazement and admiration. It was just magical. I realize I would love to show this place to my family when I grow-up… I am on my tenth Christmas in Italy now, and I named my first son Mario. (And my second Isabella after nonna’s). I have become a regular villa renter, apart from visiting my relatives from time to time, because there's nothing more appealing than feeling home in Italy. So far we preferred Tuscany, but it won't be long until we try Umbria, Marche and the Langhe - since everybody's telling marvelous stories about them. I personally adore this region, because it makes me feel like I am going to the roots of my favorite self. Sometimes it is so basic, so one-plus-one-is-two that I feel like I am being healed.
I love the Tuscan philosophy of ingredients, rather than the cuisine. I adore the red wine, I even love their tasteless bread that is the perfect companion for my beloved extra virgin olive oil. Anyway, we are staying in Lucca this year, because I want to go to Manarola and want to show Isabella the Leaning Tower in Pisa. Last, but not least, we want to go to Florence for some Christmas shopping, so Lucca is conveniently positioned. I have been assigned a concierge whom I plan to marry my next life, a bigger-than-life red head girl who's been able to book an English speaking Santa for my kids last year on the night of December 24th and knows Mario, Manarola as I do and every single corner of Tuscany and Liguria. Her name's Serena and she's hopefully married to an Italian guy from Pisa…”...what a shame!”, local people say..(see, people from Pisa are the most hated in Tuscany since the Middle-ages…). We will go wine tasting, oil tasting, pasta making, purse shaking. I will be happy to reach my personal default. My wife is thrilled, and so am I, because I love to see her face every time we arrive back in Manarola, where we met, by the way, ten years ago, after Mass, escaping from some terribly breathed auntie.
Presepe di Manarola
Cinque Terre National Park
Manarola, SP, Italy
Ph: + 39 0187 762602
Contact: Serena Giovannoni, www.wishversilia.it