Hiking: Italians Do It Better

Author Jackie Townsend finds herself on an Italian hike so delicious it’s disorienting
Hiking: Italians Do It Better

Illustration Jason Raish

Mangialonga, literally translated, The Long Meal, is an annual Italian event celebrating harvest. The website describes it as a “4 km non-competitive enogastronomic hike along the wine pathway of La Morra, Italy.” Oddly, I don’t see many, if any, Americans among the 800 or so people milling around Piazza Castello on this bright, sunny Langhe afternoon, as we prepare to set off on a journey through this spectacularly unknown wine country. (The Americans, by the way, are in Tuscany.)

We are here with my husband’s Italian cousins, a reunion of sorts. I’m unsure, exactly, how long four kilometers is, and am worried about my choice of shoes—Fitflops. (I know these Italians—there will be no sneakers.) As we join the cousins in the piazza, I’m relieved to see that they are dressed as if for a stroll, a passeggiata—loafers, khakis, polos, the women in stylish flats, tanks and sundresses.

After equipping us with a wine glass—not a plastic glass but a glass glass, one with a stem—and a neck pouch to carry it in, the organizers send us off the edge of the piazza’s precipice, down a cobbled, switchback path, steep and narrow and lined with a thin, useless guardrail. To gaze out at the horizon—a patchwork of green, rolling hills where vines, full and bursting, slant in all directions—would be to risk slipping over the side. We’ve been given no rules to follow. No waivers to sign. No maps, no guide.

I switchback with one cousin, then another, catching up on lives, until, at last, the path levels off into a village walled in stone, where laundry hangs in balconies and flowers grow on window sills. We stop at a roadside booth offering us our first glass of heaven. I’m hot and thirsty, and so happy about this first glass of wine that I really don’t care what type of wine it is: Vini di Will Grill Fåscht, a Swiss wine of all things, typical of the Montalto Ligure commune in the Liguria region. It is delightful, very refreshing, perfect really.

A bit further on we come upon a small piazza and a looming campanile from which bells chime. Volunteers pour us dolcetto and offer paper plates of salumi nostrani e lardo in a disorganized fashion that feels about right. It is only now, forking this piece of pig fat into my mouth, that I appreciate the ingenuity of the pouch, for I can stand holding three things (plate, fork and wine glass) with only two hands. From there, the path turns off into a vineyard where fruit-heavy vines rise up on either side. Someone plucks a purple grape and hands it to me. I pop it into my mouth, clandestinely, as if anyone here might forbid me this pleasure of discovering, for the first time, what a real grape tastes like.

I begin to lose perspective. Are we going up the hill or down? We spill out of the vineyard onto the second stop and everyone remains strangely patient, considerate, friendly. I take a paper bowl of Tajarin al sugo di carne (meat pasta) to a patch of unkempt grass where groups of Italians sit immersed in intimate conversation. My wine glass with its traces of Nebbiolo, Barbera, and/or Langhe (I have lost track) is already empty. The pasta deserves seconds, and probably thirds.

I move slower to the next stop, walking with the pregnant cousin now, the one in the bolo hat who speaks no English and yet whom I seem to understand completely. Together we climb along a dirt trail that leads into a forest. I plow into its darkness without hesitation only because the pregnant cousin has done just that before me. We traverse down a steep, muddy decline—treacherous, I think, in the back of my wine-soaked mind as I duck under a tree branch and step over a fallen log. I worry that the pregnant cousin will fall, but when I say something to this effect out loud no one answers. “Boh.” You Americans worry too much.

Stop four is mysteriously uncrowded. The bocconcini di vitello (Piedmontese beef with polenta) might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I don’t say this out loud because I am with Italians, people who eat like this every day: gorgeous, vibrant, intimate people who know how to cook, eat and make love. When they admit that this polenta is, in fact, quite good, to me, the Americana, it means that it’s ridiculously fantastic.

I find a piece of curb along with the others and eat. There is a buzz in the air and inside me. Someone goes and refills my glass because I don’t think I will be able to move again, so heavy am I with contentment. I have not, by the way, seen one broken wine glass, one paper plate tossed on the ground, not one group of belligerent rabble-rousers.

I fall onto my back because someone across from me has done just that. Why does it always feel so different here?

Jackie Townsend is the author of the novels The Absence of Evelyn, Imperfect Pairings and Reel Life.