Published 20 October 1996 Style Magazine 172nd article
Serenade after sea major: Michael Winner, Gianni Franzi and Vanessa Perry at Trattoria Bar Gianni (Roberto Gromoli)
Fausto Allegri, concierge supreme of the Splendido, Portofino, was rampant. "Mr Winner," he said, "you will go to Cinque Terre, to the little town of Vernazza. There you will dine at the restaurant of Gianni Franzi. You need the boat for a day!" When Fausto speaks, clever people listen. "I'll go Monday," I decided. "It will be done," flourished Fausto. Thus programmed, I went down to the pool.
A couple of days later was that Monday. Fausto was agog. "To Cinque Terre!" he announced. The boatman, Roberto, clad in white with short trousers and epaulettes, looked glum. "Too dangerous," he said. I'm a Scorpio, we like to see things through. Arrangements must not be messed about. I walked out and looked down at the sea below. "Seems all right to me," I said. "He's the boatman," said Vanessa. "He knows . . ." "Mr Winner," said Fausto, leading me out again to the sea view, "you and I are sailors! It is all right, if it's rough, you can go slower and nearer to the coast." He instructed Roberto in Italian. He looked more nervous than ever. We drove the few minutes to Portofino, climbed down the steep stone steps between the houses and came out at the little harbour. There Roberto was laying blue towels out along the back of the speedboat. I noticed no other vessels were at sea. The boats in the harbour rocked up and down alarmingly. With Vanessa protesting, we set out. We came out of the shelter of the harbour and headed south along the beautiful Ligurian coast.
To say the boat rocked is untrue. It reared up at each wave, hit an open space between that wave and the next and crashed down with a great shake. The hull smashed onto the water below. Vanessa was terrified. Even I began to get worried. Roberto's expression was of grim reluctance. After 30 minutes we had reached the 5km beaches of Chiavari. "Let's go closer to land and slower," I said. We chugged along the endless beaches, people sat on sunbeds in the hot sun. We churned up and down alarmingly. "How much further to Vernazza?" I asked. "An hour and a quarter," said Roberto. "Turn back," I muttered, defeated. On the way back the cellular phone rang, it was Fausto: "This is not a boat trip, Fausto," I shouted. "It is a murder attempt. You are trying to kill me! You have failed!"
The staff at the Splendido found all this very funny. As I came down to dinner I said to the assistant manager: "Fausto tried to assassinate me!" "I know," said the manager, grinning, "but you came back, Mr Winner, you came back!" And he laughed. The next day the sea remained rough, but on Wednesday, our last day, it was okay. We set out again. Roberto was happy. We zipped along. Cinque Terre means five lands - incredible, bypassed towns, one perched on the cliff tops, old houses, churches, tiny, spectacularly beautiful. Vernazza had a small harbour, behind it a little square with a church on the left and houses with washing hung on lines with pulleys between green shutters, under the windows. Very few tourists, and most of those Italians.
The Trattoria Bar Gianni is another Winner special. There's a bar, an enormous open kitchen and a room of very old stone and brick walls with great wooden beams. Being summer, the activity was all in the square, facing the harbour and the sea. I let Gianni, wearing short tartan trousers and a dark pink shirt, recommend. "Appetiser is many styles of anchovies, is very good, is small fish. Can you take maybe one pasta? Small macaroni with scampi. Then we'll see," he said. Onto the immaculate white tablecloth was placed the local wine, Cinque Terre 1995 Cantina del Molo. Delicious. Little plates of starters surrounded us. Anchovies like this and like that. Cheese puffs. Some of the dishes hot, some cold. Sweet tomato and herring slices. Octopus, calamari. Just when I thought I'd had everything, some stuffed mussels arrived. This was the best starter I have ever eaten. Fresh, tasted of something. Incredible. The macaroni with scampi, brilliant. Don't tell me food in England has got good. Go to some village, population 700 or so, and see if you can get a meal like this. No chance. I finished off with chocolate mousse. A violinist appeared, playing Arrivederci Roma and other romantica. The waves broke with white tips across the rocks. Old women and children looked down from the windows of the yellow, terracotta and pink buildings, gazing at the theatre of the square below. I was playing Overweight Man Overeating; Vanessa, Young Girl with Ice Cream; Roberto, The Happy Seafarer. I like being part of Italian theatre. Beats real life any day.