Tag Archives: Italy

Almost Four Days in Genoa and One Book

We booked a short break back in March thinking that it might be our last chance to join the EU citizen passport queue but once again we were reprieved. Or at least that’s how I think of it. This time we were heading for Genoa, home of two of my favourite things to eat: focaccia and pesto – the real thing not that stuff out of a jar. After a fabulously warm and sunny Easter weekend at home, we tried not to be disappointed as the rain lashed the cab windscreen on our way to our apartment but failed. Being British we were prepared and strode out into the narrow medieval streets of the old town with their many-storied buildings shaking our heads politely at the umbrella sellers. Our first impression of Genoa was of nicely faded grandeur which reminded me a little of Lisbon.

The next day, minds on our stomachs as ever, we headed off to the Mercato Orientale by way of the stupendously grand Via 20 Settembre – a shopping street with gorgeously decorated colonnades, resplendent with mosaic pavements and painted ceilings. Genoa is known as ‘La Superba’, a reference to its glorious past evident from the street’s extravagant decoration. The market was a treat, too, full of stalls displaying beautiful produce including purple asparagus, courgette flowers and shiny aubergines, some of which we snapped up for supper.

If Via 20 Settembre hadn’t rubbed in Genoa’s past glories there was no escaping them on Via Garibaldi which is filled with impressive palazzos. The city owes its Unesco World Heritage status largely to these extravagant but often beautiful buildings which hosted the state visits of the great and possibly not so good in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We returned to the Via Garibaldi for an aperitivo before supper, alerted by the excellent Travel Gourmet, whose blog I consulted frequently (almost obsessively) while in Genoa, to the delicious snacks served alongside drinks rather like tapas. We each had a glass of bone-dry prosecco at the Baribaldi, chosen by H who can’t resist a pun, and felt so much better at the prospect of yet more rain afterwards.

Thursday was Liberation Day in Italy, and for us, too, with some sunshine and swifts flying past as H opened our apartments’ shutters. We took ourselves off for a stroll along the Corso Italia, looking out to sea with the many locals walking their splendid dogs, several of which looked as if they belonged in the mountains. The afternoon was taken up with visiting a few of those flamboyant palazzos on the Via Garibaldi which turned out to be even more overwrought inside than their exteriors suggested. I couldn’t help feeling Genoa’s nobility were trying to outdo each other rather like the owners of the outrageously decorated art nouveau villas we’d marvelled at in Riga, Budapest and Antwerp.

Another day, another palazzo, this one – the Palazzo di Andrea Doria – commissioned by the eponymous admiral instrumental in regaining Genoa from the French in the sixteenth century. His palace is quite stunning, opulent yet not nearly as florid as those lining the Via Garibaldi. Not exactly understated either, of course, but I found it much more appealing and its gardens are gorgeous, filled with roses and lavender already in bloom. We loved it although H described it as a bit ‘Trumpian’ given Doria’s penchant for having himself and his cronies portrayed as conquering Roman heroes.

We spent our last afternoon ambling around the city, taking the funicular up one of its steep hills and admiring the view then wandering back to our apartment through streets lined with tiny shops. Rather like our experience in Lille, we’d heard few foreign tourists throughout our stay which seemed a shame. That said, Genoa Cover imageclearly has a life of its own rather than relying on pandering to the likes of me for its income which is surely a good thing.

And the book? Set in 1930s Montreal, Heather O’Neill’s The Lonely Hearts Hotel tells the story of two orphans besotted with each other but separated when Pierrot is adopted by a rich man, escaping the brutality of the orphanage but left yearning for his soulmate. O’Neill’s imaginative, sometimes heartrending novel is a tale of gangsters, vaudeville, ambition, beauty and above all, love. It went down very well.

Walking in the Dolomites, the pleasures of the pudding buffet and a few books

View from Hotel Freina, SelvaI’d love to board a train at my local station and travel all the way to the Dolomites by rail but that would entail a good deal of time, organisation and probably money so we did the next best thing and flew from our local airport to Munich where we spent our first evening having dinner outside in the Englischer Garten, a huge park in the middle of the city, then caught the train through Austria over the Brenner Pass down into Italy the next morning. We stayed in two different places, first in the tiny village of Badia then moving on to Selva which felt like a metropolis in comparison although it’s not much more than a village itself. We walked our socks off and then some, which was just as well given the five course meals in the second hotel not to mention the pudding buffet laden with seductive treats.

The flowers were stupendous, undoubtedly our favourite part of the holiday. It was like Alpine flowers - dolomiteswalking through someone’s magnificent garden. Each time we thought that we’d seen all there was to see we spotted another species. The secret, so I’m told, should you want to sow your own wild flower meadow, is to strip out all fertilisers Alpine flowers - Dolomitesotherwise grass will take over. Consequently there were many more flowers where there were no cows, if you get my drift. It’s entirely spoiled me for walks through British meadowland where I’ve oohed and ahhed over cranesbill, chicory and poppies which now seem a bit tame but I’m sure I’ll get over it in time, just as I’ll get over the absence of the pudding buffet every night.

And, yes, I did manage to fit in a little holiday reading while H pored over maps and walking guides which is his particular way of relaxing. Thumbs firmly down for Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, I’m afraid, over written and over-rated. Had I not been hit by a wave of horror that I might run out of books I’d have given it up. Thumbs up for Ellen Feldman’s empathetic and absorbing Next to Love about three American women dealing with the fallout from the Second World War; for Beth Gutcheon’s elegant, quietly understated Gossip, about friendship, love and social mores which has a surprisingly dramatic conclusion; and for Karl Taro Greenfield’s acerbic Triburbia about a group of men living in New York’s Tribeca who think of themselves as Cover imageartists, far superior to the men in suits moving into the area. Richard C. Morais’s Buddhaland, Brooklyn was a nice easy read about an inward-looking Japanese monk transplanted to America and his gradual unbending, while Tim Glencross’s Barbarians – the state-of-the-nation novel I mentioned in my second books to look out for in May post – was entertaining but enjoyed much more by H than me. Last, but far from least, I’d been saving Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend set in 1950s Naples for this holiday – very different from the serenely beautiful, alpine beauty of the Dolomites but Italy nevertheless. It’s the first in a trilogy about the intense, sometimes bumpy friendship between Elena, who narrates the novel, and the fiercely intelligent Lila, struggling with the violence and poverty which characterises their neighbourhood. I finished it yesterday evening – what an ending!

Re-entry into real life has been very much eased by finding that I’ve been nominated by several bloggers whose posts are always stimulating for a Very Inspiring Blogger award. What lovely news to come back to. I’ll be nominating my own VIBs next week.

All Roads Lead to Urbino

Cover imageI’m a sucker for biographical notes and always disappointed when they merely list previous books with a tight little sentence about where the author lives if you’re lucky. Partly nosiness on my part I’ll admit but often a little knowledge of an author’s life illuminates their writing. Reading one of Roma Tearne’s novels without knowing that she had fled Sri Lanka at the age of ten or that she had trained as a painter and filmmaker would not be quite the experience it is with that knowledge. All five of her novels have a Sri Lankan connection and in the case of The Road to Urbino art plays a significant role. It begins with the line ‘Last night I dreamt I was in Talaimannar again’, an odd echo of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, as Ras tells his story to Elizabeth, the barrister who is defending him against a charge of terrorism. Ras has stolen a precious Italian painting, partly for sheer love of it and partly to draw attention to the injustices still perpetrated in his home country. Interwoven with Ras’s testimony are the stories of the two men unwittingly instrumental in bringing about the theft: Charles Boyar, a renowned art historian who recognising Ras’s love of art has taken him under his wing, and Charles’s self absorbed friend Alex Benson. It’s a story of love, loss and obsession: Ras longs for his daughter Lola who he deserted when she was a child; Charles and his wife Delia share an intense passion for each other and Alex remains obsessed with Delia, decades after their brief affair has ended. The anguish of war is never far away but Tearne’s belief in the redemptive power of art shines through this powerful book. Her artistic training is evident not just in the knowledge with which she writes about Italian Renaissance art but also in her painterly descriptions of the Tuscan countryside, so vivid that you can almost hear the cicadas.

I’m off on my hols for a week and had I been going to Italy I would have saved The Road to Urbino to take with me but as it is I’ll be closer to home and hoping to make inroads into the groaning TBR pile.