Best places for Mediterranean food: France, Italy and Spain, a toast to the coast

Just over 2000 years ago, the Romans built an amphitheatre near the city of Luni, on the north-west coast of Italy. Luni, decorated with marble from the nearby mountains of Carrara, was so magnificent that passing pirates thought they had reached Rome, and kept trying to conquer it.

Just under 2000 years ago, the Romans built another amphitheatre near the town of Tarracon, on the north-east coast of Spain. It became the entertainment centre for visiting tourists from Rome, and in the 2nd century, the crowd enjoyed watching a Christian bishop named Fructuosos get martyred there.

Last year those two amphitheatres were the bookends of a journey undertaken by me and Lucio Galletto (who runs Sydney's legendary Lucio's Italian restaurant, in Paddington in the city's inner-east).

We were in search of the origins of three great cuisines: the Catalan, the Provencal and the Ligurian. We ended up writing a book called Coastline – The shared food of Mediterranean France, Italy and Spain, published this week.

The midpoint of the journey was Marseille, which grew from a Greek trading post called Massalia, set up 2600 years ago. The Greeks had sailed around the western Mediterranean carrying cooking pots, olive oil, saffron and a recipe for fish stew made with the first three items on that list. Their fish stew evolved into bouillabaisse, zuppa di pesce and sarsuela, a tale we tell in Coastline.

When Lucio and I started the project, we were planning a food and travel book about "the river of gold" – the olive oil – that flows from western Italy through Provence to eastern Spain. That was before Brexit, Trump and the rise of Le Pen.

Now the book seems as much political as gastronomic. At a time when politicians are trying to divide peoples, to build walls and fences between us, Coastline celebrates the things that unite humans – food, drink and talk, shared around the table.

And while our theories might provoke a few debates over whether particular dishes were originated by the Catalans or the Provencals or the Ligurians, any debates can be easily settled over a meal.

We did our arduous research over numerous visits, consuming countless paellas, aiolis, ratatouilles, focaccias, pestos and seafood soups, and meeting countless farmers, fisherfolk and cooks. Looking back on those trips, I realised it might be possible to condense our travels into one three-week Mediterranean holiday, full of frivolous feeding and serious scholarship. Here's how I suggest you approach it.

PISA TO GENOA, VIA CARRARA AND THE CINQUE TERRE

There is a perfectly good train line from Pisa to Genoa, but if you take it, you'll miss most of the places worth seeing along Liguria's Riviera di Levante (coast of the rising sun). Best to fly into Pisa, hire a car at the airport and leave the car in Genoa about a week later.

Don't get distracted by the Leaning Tower. You should drive initially to Bocca di Magra, a fishing village on the border of Liguria and Tuscany. The name means "mouth of the Magra River". At the spot where the river enters the sea, Lucio Galletto's family built a shack on the sand in 1950, and it grew into a sprawling restaurant called Capannina Ciccio. That's where you can linger while you plan your travels.

The Romans arrived here about 200BC, pacified the local Liguri tribe, and used marble from Carrara to build a naval base from which they sailed to invade Hispania. They terraced the surrounding hills and planted olive groves and chestnut forests to feed future armies. Nowadays you have to pay an admission fee to wander around the ruins of their city of Luni and its amphitheatre, capable of seating 7000.

About 1500 years later, Michelangelo sourced his marble from Carrara and scribbled what look like menus for dinner parties, including sketches and notes about herrings, anchovies, fennel and ravioli.

The anchovies Michelangelo loved were probably caught to the west of here, near the five fishing villages known as the Cinque Terre. The villages snuggle into clefts between steep cliffs, and the rock faces are laced with terraces on which grapes were grown for wine.

The towns between the Cinque Terre and Genoa are all pretty, but we think the most interesting is Camogli. The name literally means "house of wives" – a reference to the women left behind when the local fishermen and cruise ship captains went away for weeks at a time. A couple of streets in from the port, you'll find masterpieces of Ligurian trompe l'oeil – 18th-century apartment blocks with blank facades upon which have been painted balconies, pediments, shutters, washing lines, even cats on windowsills in impeccably deceptive 3D.

GENOA TO MARSEILLE, VIA NICE

Leave the car in Genoa, grab a pasta with pesto in the old town, and take the train to Nice, where you should visit the flower market called Cours Saleya, any day but Monday. The fragrance that fills your nose comes not from the blooms but from a stall that has been selling socca here since the 1920s.

Socca is a chickpea pancake baked in a wood-fire oven a couple of blocks away and carried, still warm in its giant tray, to the flower market by a bicyclist pulling a little trailer.

Nice is a fine two-day town, and after that you can continue along the French Riviera to Marseille. Your first point of pilgrimage must be Le Vieux Port, to stand on the spot where the Greeks landed in 600BC, and to visit the nearby museum of Greek bits and pieces.

Now walk up Rue Canebiere (Cannabis Street) and turn right into Rue Longue des Capucins (Long Street of the Capuchin monks). At number 10, step inside a shop called Saladin Epices du Monde, pass the giant bowls of multicoloured olives and the boxes of dried mushrooms, and look at the legacy of those Greeks – 80 hessian bags set out on long tables, containing dried flavourings for all the great dishes of the Mediterranean.

The labels on the bags include: Epices paella; Preparation pesto; Melange pour mozzarella alla Caprese; Court bouillon poisson; Nyora Espagnol concasse; Melange poisson grillade; Sel de Camargue; Preparation bruschetta a la tomate; Petal de rose moul; Preparation puttanesca.

The only significant absence is any bag labelled as being helpful in the preparation of bouillabaisse. No shopkeeper would have the nerve to offer that kind of short cut in Marseille. Bouillabaisse is part of this city's identity, and there are strict rules about getting it right.

To learn the rules, you must take a 10-minute taxi ride from Le Vieux Port to a blue and white clifftop restaurant called Le Rhul. Which has been serving a definitive bouillabaisse (in two courses, of course) since 1948. We say definitive, because Le Rhul was a founding member of the Bouillabasse Charter, a club (cabal? conspiracy?) of nine restaurateurs who set the standards on what the best bouillabaisse can and cannot contain.

If you want to know how the landscape looked at the time the Greeks rowed up, catch a bus or train to the neighbouring village of Cassis and board one of the boats that regularly motor through turquoise water around the extraordinary limestone fiords known as Les Calanques. No wonder the Greeks were impressed enough to unload their cooking pots here.

MARSEILLE TO GIRONA, VIA COLLIOURE

The train to Spain runs mainly by the sea, so it's a relaxing journey to Collioure, the border town in the part of France that is claimed by the Catalans. It has a couple of clean pebbly beaches for swimming and pretty lanes full of anchovy outlets and artisan shops, but your point of pilgrimage should be a hotel-bar-restaurant called Les Templiers.

Several small Picassos used to hang in the bar. Young Pablo gave them to the hotel in exchange for meals, as did an assortment of other painters from the artist colony that established itself in the area over the first three decades of the 20th century.

An evil customer stole one of the Picassos, causing Rene Pous, the owner of Les Templiers, to lock the other contributions away and replace them with a photo of the maestro standing next to him above a dedication: "Pour mon ami, Rene Pous. Pablo Picasso."

The train from Collioure to Girona in Spain takes about 2½ hours. Walk into the old town and check out the laneways through which Arya Stark kept running, and the cathedral that fell victim to Cersei's firepots in the latest series of Game of Thrones. Then hire a car to explore the Costa Brava (arranging to leave the car in Barcelona).

If you're a Salvador Dali fan, go to Cadaques and the adjoining village of Portlligat, then work your way down the coast to Empuries, the remains of what was probably the first major Greek settlement in Spain.

The Romans arrived a few hundred years after the Greeks and started their own town up the hill from the trading post. Roman writers at the time complained about the smell drifting up from the stone vats where the Greeks were making fish sauce out of the rotting innards of tuna, but the Roman empire soon became addicted to the sauce.

GIRONA TO BARCELONA, VIA TARRAGONA

Although Barcelona is closer to Girona than Tarragona, we suggest you bypass it initially and head for the town with the second amphitheatre, because parking is far easier in Tarragona than in the Catalan capital. The citizens of sunny Tarragona are proud their town was established by Roman invaders about 200BC, and they celebrate that history by using the name romesco for their signature sauce, made with almonds and peppers.

Tarragona's other claim to fame is the quality of its paella (Catalonia's rice fields are just to the south, producing the short grain rice sometimes known as bomba).

Two days will suffice for Tarragona, and then you should go north to Barcelona. You already know about its fabulous architecture and its street life. We spent most of our time in the most exhilarating food market in Europe – La Boqueria de Sant Josep, established in 1217 (its name apparently coming from "boc", a dialect word for goat, which is about the only food not sold there now).

About 7pm, you need to start a bar crawl around the docks area called Barcelonetta – not for drinks but for snacks. You'll learn that tapas is not a Catalan word. They prefer to talk about pintxos or pinchos (literally "spikes") which are edibles held together by toothpicks.

Once you've filled up with pintxos, your second stomach will be ready for dinner about 9.30pm, which is when the locals come out to eat. You'll stagger back to your hotel about 1am.

Yes, the Catalans are the biggest foodies in Europe. You will not need to eat on the plane back to Australia.

Coastline: The shared food of Mediterranean France, Italy and Spain, is published by Murdoch Books (RRP $59.99).

TEN TOP SIGHTS AND EXPERIENCES ALONG THE COASTLINE

THE ROMAN AMPHITHEATRE, TARRAGONA, SPAIN

The huge amphitheatre by the sea is surrounded by gardens planted with the herbs, flowers and fruits that were loved by the locals 2000 years ago. The locals also loved watching Christians get slaughtered here by gladiators and tigers.

GIRONA CATHEDRAL, SPAIN

The 900-year-old Gothic Cathedral of St Mary in Girona has a beautiful display of  medieval relics, including a "Tapestry of the Creation" which shows how Christianity blended with Roman and pagan religions. The structure miraculously survived being blown up in the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

SALVADOR DALI'S HOUSE, CADAQUES, SPAIN

Stay in the village of Cadaques and take the 30-minute walk through cobbled lanes over the hill to Dali's mansion at Portlligat, which has giant porcelain eggs on the roof and more weirdness inside.

LES TEMPLIERS BAR, COLLIOURE, FRANCE

The border town of Collioure is a centre of the anchovy fishing industry, and the bar at the Hotel Les Templiers is crammed with paintings exchanged for meals by artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Dufy and Braque.

LES CALANQUES, NEAR MARSEILLE, FRANCE

Les Calanques are limestone fiords that slice into the cliffs near the village of Cassis, where the citizens of Marseille go for dirty weekends or long Sunday lunches. Best to see the cliffs and pebbly beaches by ferry, which leave Cassis on the hour.

THE COURS SALEYA MARKET, NICE, FRANCE

One end of Cours Saleya is a flower market, but the more interesting end displays the colourful produce that goes into Nicois cooking, and smells of the socca (chickpea pancake) you can carry away in a paper cone.

THE CORSO ITALIA, GENOA

Stroll along the Corso Italia from the old town to Boccadasse, which used to be a fishing village lined with stone cottages and is now a suburb, unchanged since the 18th century. Buy focaccia at a friggitoria (fryery) and munch as you walk.

VIA DELL'AMORE, CINQUE TERRE, ITALY

The Via dell'Amore is a cliff path which links the villages of Riomaggiore and Manarola, so named because lovers from the rival villages could meet in the middle. Parts of the path keep falling into the sea, so check how much has reopened before you set off.

THE RUINS OF LUNI, NEAR BOCCA DI MAGRA, ITALY

In the once-glorious Roman city of Luni, archaeologists have unearthed a mosaic floor with images of sea life from 2000 years ago and a boy riding a dolphin. From here, the invasion of Hispania was launched.

THE QUARRIES OF CARRARA, ITALY

The jagged white cliffs in the Fantiscritti quarry were where Michelangelo sourced his marble and where Dante supposedly gained his vision of what hell might look like.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/europe

spain.info

au.france.fr

itala.it

FLY

From Sydney or Melbourne fly to Pisa, Italy, with Qantas and its partners Emirates and Alitalia via Dubai and Rome, a flight taking about 27 hours. From Barcelona to Sydney or Melbourne, Emirates flies via Dubai, a flight time of about 22 hours. See qantas.com; emirates.com/au

DRIVE + TRAIN

Hiring a car at Pisa Airport and leaving it at Genoa railway station a week later would cost at least $260 from Europcar. The train from Genoa to Marseille would cost about $70. Train from Marseille to Girona would cost about $95. Hiring a car in Girona and leaving it in Barcelona a week later would cost at least $210 from Avis.

ABOUT THE WRITER

David Dale trained as a psychologist but decided he would do less harm to the cause of mental health if he went into journalism. He has been a reporter, columnist, foreign correspondent, restaurant critic, editor and broadcaster for the ABC and The Sydney Morning Herald. His books include Anatolia: Adventures in Turkish Cooking; with his latest being Coastline, written with Lucio Galletto.

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