Trip to Sanremo

The first of this year’s Monuments (five oldest one day bike races), La Primavera goes from Milan to Sanremo. A parcours of almost 300km and, aside from the Turchino, all the hills are in the last 60km. I should add these are not difficult climbs, I’ve ascended them with ease having wisely eshewed the first 230km of the race route.

We always enjoy our day trips to Sanremo, particularly when the weather’s as fine as it was yesterday. We drive over early, park and head to the shops to buy all manner of Italian goodies. There are some great shops adjacent to the Palafiori which acts as race HQ for the day. We then enjoy a stroll, coffee and some harmless window shopping in the sunshine before lunch, the main event of the day.

I often choose a restaurant near the port where there are a veritable gaggle of good ones. This time I picked what is allegedly Sanremo’s finest just past the race finish. We were not disappointed and particularly enjoyed having the restaurant to ourselves. Mum and son run front of house while Dad cooks using local produce, largely fish, with the fruit and vegetables coming from his market garden. We chose the menu of the day which needed only a slight tweak to accommodate my dietary requirements.

Replete we headed back to race HQ to watch events unfold along the coast road. The views from the race helicopter were a fabulous advertisement for the Italian Riviera.

We first visited Sanremo in 2006 when it featured in the final stage of the long gone Tour of the Med. We watched the race from a pinch point on the Cipressa. The following month we stood on the finish line of Milano Sanremo, listened to the commentary, and saw Pippo Pozzato win. This was in the days before the organisers erected those lovely big screens at the finish.

I’ve been in Sanremo every year since to watch the race aside from 2011 (friend’s 60th birthday party) and 2017 (beloved’s broken leg). Generally, the weather’s been fine, aside from 2014 when it was cold, wet and snowy. Once again, it’s great fun watching the professional peloton riding on roads we have ridden on and know well. I can almost feel myself pedalling along with them – I wish!

There was a full house in the press room but we’d saved our seats early on. It wasn’t quite but almost beach towels on sunbeds! There’s always much discussion as to who’s going to win and the room seemed to be equally split between Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) and the defending champion, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). I really don’t mind who wins as long as it’s an exciting race.

The race winds up as it reaches the final two climbs, the Cipressa and Poggio. Riders stop casually chatting and everyone’s on high alert, favourites to the fore, keen not to miss what might be the winning break. The traditional early break comprised of riders from ProConti teams gets reeled in, riders launch attacks and counter-attacks, everyone looks around nervously, the crowds of spectators along the route grow thicker and deeper, some are even waving flares.

The bunch starts to thin out as soon as the peloton drives up the Cipressa. All back together with 25km to go, Fausto Masnada (Androni Giocattoli) was last man standing from the bunch of early escapees. Just 5km later and Niccolo Bonifazio (Direct Energie) sucks the wheel of a motorbike on the descent of the Cipressa and builds a slim advantage but he’s back in the pack well back before the climb of the Poggio. Now we’re into the last 10km and the peloton is flying.

The royal blue clad Quick Step team set the pace for the charge up the Poggio but their sprinter is well back so their efforts must be for Alaphilippe who recently won Strade Bianche. The Quick-Steppers are thinning out the bunch on the  Poggio, now it’s an EF-Drapac Cannondale rider, probably Simon Clarke, launching himself from the pack. Alaphilippe counters with 6km to go and goes straight past Clarke. Could this be the decisive move?

A whole host of favourites follow Alaphilippe’s wheel. The winner will come from this group. An Italian rider takes a flyer. Are we going to have another Italian winner after Nibali? Now they’re all eyeing one another as they hit the finishing straight on Via Roma. Some riders launch their sprints too early, but Alaphilippe times his burst for the line perfectly ahead of  Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) and former winner (2017) Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky). Alaphilippe falls into the arms of his soigneur, Yanky Germano, and we have tears of joy, tears of relief, and prosecco sprayed everywhere from the podium.

We had rather a long wait for the still-emotional winner who arrived at his press conference after a lengthy session in doping control, where he confirmed:

I came with the goal of winning this race. I’m just as proud of my win as I am of the work of my team today. What they’ve done for me is absolutely exceptional. I rode for the victory at the end bearing their dedication in mind. I recovered in the downhill after I sped up on the Poggio but I still thought it would be complicated to win considering the quality of the riders I was away with. I made a little effort to close the gap on Matteo Trentin as I knew he was very fast. Then I stayed calm and remained next to Peter Sagan. When Matej Mohoric launched the sprint, I knew I had to take his wheel straight away. Had he taken 20 metres, it would have been game over. I capped it off the nicest way I could. It’s pure joy.

Indeed, it was pure joy! We’d had a fantastic day out and topped it off at home with a small yet lavish supper with some of our Italian goodies. We’ll be doing it all again next week-end when we’re off to Turin.


The food in Italy

I’ve previously waxed lyrical about the food in Spain, now it’s the turn of our nearest neighbour Italy. Who doesn’t love pizza and pasta? Exactly! I’m so old I still remember eating in Birmingham’s first Italian restaurant, called Gino’s, which opened on the Smallbrook Ringway in the early 1960s. My father and I ate lunch there on Saturdays after my ballet lesson. I always had the set menu of  Minestrone, Spaghetti Bolognese and Apple Crumble. Three courses for 5/-! Of course, as we all now know there is no such Italian dish as Spag Bol.

Gino’s opened just after our first vacation in Italy where, at a family run hotel in Laigueglia, we ate a different pasta each day, all absolutely delicious and a total revelation. Don’t forget this would have been around the time that the pasta experience of many Brits was limited to tinned spaghetti hoops. Remember them? They were are truly disgusting and amazingly still around today.

Of course, there’s so much more to Italian cuisine than pizza and pasta, however it’s the Italian attitude to the latter which I think shapes their cuisine. Pasta is sacred in Italy and there are an infinite number of debates about how to make it, what sauce to serve with which type of pasta etc But why is Italian pasta soooo good?

It’s not rocket science. The bond between flour and water (and in some cases egg) is sacrosanct, and it must not be broken unnecessarily, compromised by sloppy cooking or aggressive saucing or tableware transgressions. That means cooking it properly, and relying on a system of vigilant testing to ensure it’s cooked al dente (barest thread of raw pasta remains in the centre of the pasta), no more.

Pasta should also be sauced sparingly, in the same way a French chef might dress a salad, carefully calibrating the heft and the intensity of the sauce to the pasta itself. That means refraining from unholy acts of aggression such as  adding oil to the boiling water, adding sauce to the pasta or cutting it with a knife and a fork. Above all, it means thinking about subtraction, not addition. Not what else can I add, but what can I take away?

Italian cuisine, at its very best, doesn’t seem to add up. A tangle of pasta threads, a few scraps of pork and a grating of cheese are transformed into something magical. 1 + 1 = 3: more alchemy than cooking. However, as in most things, it’s all about the quality of the ingredients.

Yes, more than genius cooks, Italians are genius shoppers intent on returning from the market with the best produce possible. Whether buying a single tomato or a kilo of sardines, be selective, demanding, relentless in your search for perfection. Let what’s best in the market guide your menu, not the other way round.

Restraint is the common bond between all great Italian regional cooking – a culture where Parmesan on many pastas (especially seafood-based pastas) is a sacrilege, and even a wedge of lemon can be seen as an assault on pristine seafood. Savour the taste and simplicity of every ingredient and remember less is almost always more. This also applies to their cooking of other dishes.

We’ve never eaten a poor meal in Italy and have often eaten lunchtime in restaurants whose offerings are targeted at the local working population. Three courses, wine, coffee and water for 11 – 15 Euros/head. It’s always delicious, home-made and we’ve never, ever been disappointed. It’s just simple, seasonal, local ingredients lovingly prepared.


Reasons why we love visiting Alassio in Italy

We often spend a day or even a couple of days away in Italy, in Alassio. My youngest sister asked me why we go there so often. Fair point, why travel 90 minutes around the coast  – although it’s a lovely drive – to spend a few days enjoying the same weather as at home? You have to understand that for both of my sisters it is all about the weather and specifically whether it’s hot enough to sun bathe, their favourite leisure activity. Those two have farniente (doing nothing) down to a fine art.

On the other hand, my beloved and I are pretty much always on the go, particularly when we’re at home. There’s always something to do either in the apartment, or work-wise in the office. A few days away allows us to better relax and chill out. But why choose Alassio?

 1. We have found a charming hotel, with a thalassotherapy spa, which does great out-of-season offers. Of course, that generally means the town is OAP central. But we don’t mind even though, of course, we don’t think of ourselves as OAPs. The deal includes a splendid breakfast, and sometimes dinner, with plenty of options for me. If we deduct the daily cost of entry to the spa and breakfast, the hotel room is under Euros 60,00 per night, not bad for a spot 5 star luxury.
 2. Alassio is very familiar territory. It’s next door to where, aged eight, I spent my first Italian holiday. We returned firstly in 2009 with the cycling club and stayed in what is quite possibly one of the worst hotels in town. I hasten to add I was not responsible for booking it. We’ve since stayed in a number of much better and nicer hotels in the town for a similar price. And, although we know the place well, each year there are changes. A favourite restaurant or bar closes, but another great one opens. There’s plenty of choice all within walking distance either in the pedestrianised old town and/or overlooking the beach.
 3. Alassio has a sandy beach. Where we live, it’s stony. In my book, to qualify as a holiday resort, you have to have a sandy beach. This one is bordered by hotels and restaurants, rather than a road, giving it a real holiday feel. You won’t find me sunbathing on the beach but I do enjoy wandering barefoot along the wet sand or just sitting in a bar, in the sunshine, listening to the waves caress the shoreline. I find it a very relaxing sound.
4. The town is small enough to stroll around and the neighbouring towns are also within walking distance. As you know, there’s nothing I love more than a spot of window shopping. The town has an interesting mix of retail. A heady cocktail of Italian designer labels – so ruinous for the budget but great for window shopping – plenty of long-established quirky shops, all with that unmistakable splash of Italian design and flair, and very few chains. Now, I don’t come to the place to shop but I’d be lying if I didn’t own up to a few purchases over the years. However, you are far more likely to find me buying wine, vegetables and olive oil than shoes and handbags.
5. It’s a lovely area to cycle around and makes a welcome change from our usual routes. That said, we don’t always bring the bikes as we do like to profit from the spa, though it’s very welcome after several hours in the saddle. The main urban routes are busy with traffic but it doesn’t take long to be up, up and away, far from the madding crowd in the hills.
6. Aside from the shops, it’s an interesting town to wander around with plenty of architectural treats and some amazingly old doors and lights, which I’m sure could tell a few interesting tales. Property prices are on a par with parts of the Cote d’Azur and anything with a view of the sea has a high price tag. We’ve noted that the number of estate agents has mushroomed over the years. The town is constantly being updated and renovated. Some of the less well located hotels have been converted into apartments. My favourite places are the pretty pastel coloured former fishermen’s houses along the shoreline which are well-maintained and highly prized.
7. Despite its popularity with foreign visitors, particularly those that speak German, it’s largely an Italian town with a large local population which swells at the week-ends and holiday periods with smart Milanese and Torinese families. Out of season, you’ll find plenty, like us, who pop over from France for a change of air. It’s only a 90 minute drive away from the Cote d’Azur but its vibe is very different and from say Saint Tropez or Aix-en-Provence, both a similar driving time from home. Plus it’s way cheaper!
8. My final point is less about Alessio and more about Italy in general. Who doesn’t love Italian food? I can always find something to eat on an Italian menu and some of the restaurants cater well for both vegetarians and vegans. And let’s not forget about those Aperol Spritzs, enjoyed with a plateful of nibbles as the sun goes down. Of course, we drink them in many places but they taste so much better in Italy. Must be the all-important accompanying nibbles!