Contretemps with the Italian motorways

My adventures were not quite over.  In the morning Charles accompanied me to where I had left the car, beside the splendid (largest in Europe) 19th century Catiglione Cemetery.  Because he was waving me off I unwisely did not spend the time setting my GPS system.

Charles’ last words to me were to avoid taking the motorway to Milan.  So when I  emerged from a tunnel to be faced with an instant choice of Milan to the Left and Livorno to the right, I went right – only to spot too late that the sign said Milano and Ventimiglia.  I then had to drive the whole way round Genoa before another exit came up.

There I carefully avoided the Telepass lanes, thinking I had chosen one for bank cards – only to discover it was for another ticket system.  My cash and bank card rejected, I pressed the button for help, and got a flood of Itlian.  I pressed again, saying sorry, I didnt speak Italian, and a ticket was spewed out of the machine and the barrier raised.  It was only later, over a coffee that I worked out that this was a fine for non-payment – for 77 euros!

I’ve written a complain (in English) and await a reply.


I got a reply: no apology but an instruction to pay 70 centimes, if necessary by bank draft!  Anyhow this was an improvement on 77 euros.

Genoa – churches, palaces and views

Piazza Fontana Marose

I could get used to hotel life, particularly one with such excellent breakfasts, friendly staff and perfect location – in the Piazza Fontana Marose, with the Via Garibaldi at one end and Via Luccoli going down the hill to Charles and Pierre’s place.

The view from my bedroom window was of course of a palazzo.  The piazza is home to three: the Palazzi Spinola, Interiano and Negrone.

The 15th century Palazzo Spinola dei Marmi (now the Bank of Sardinia) is next to my hotel. I love the black and white bands of marble. Like lots of the important palaces it was on the city’s list of places to play host to important visitors and later one of these years was Josephine Bonaparte. I find the Palazzo Negrone, on the left of the second photo, less impressive.  But a nice view to wake up to.


We kicked off to an early start: lots of ground to cover in my one full day in Genoa.  The day ended up making yesterday’s trek a little stroll.

To quote Mark Twain again:

I have not been to church so often in a long time as I have in the last few weeks. The people in these old lands seem to make churches their specialty.

I loved the exteriors but as an atheist from a Protestant culture I have to say that I find the interiors of many Catholic churches bizarrely over the top ornamented. Photography is forbidden in these churches, so you are spared these pictures, but I regret not being able to take them to help me remember which church was which!

San Matteo
The first we visited, the 13th century San Matteo, is part of the Piazza San Matteo – a visual gem. The church and the houses that surround the piazza belonged to the rich and powerful Doria family. Again, I love the black and white Gothic facades.

San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo is Genoa’s cathedral. It seems to have taken a few more centuries to be built and was never completed.  But it is magnificent and I particularly loved the columns, or rather ‘colonnettes’ supporting the three great arches at the West end. 

 Another case of every inch, literally, being covered inside by paintings, cherubs, gilt…

Chiesa del Gesu

This was a pleasant 16th century church, set in a piazza dominated by the Palazzo Ducale.  It featured two Reubens paintings which I did not think particularly good, but I liked its elegant proportions and the light shining on the gilt decoration. 

San Donato

Lastly we visited this much earlier Romanesque church.  My main memory is of a charming Flemish triptych in one of the side chapels.

After that morning packed with churches, we made our way out through the magnificent giant old city wall.  We passed the house dating from the time of  Christopher Columbus and then went down towards the harbour for lunch.

My appreciation of the old port was blemished by total fatigue!  But also, the port has suffered from some pretty dreadful commercial development and worst of all, an unsightly dual carriageway – albeit high up – cutting off the port from what would once have beena handsome sea front.

Funicular to panorama

After lunch we took one of the three funiculars up to the hills above Genoa – a great way to appreciate that Genoa is packed onto a hilly terrain.  The track was almost vertical and mostly underground.  At the top we should have had amazing views of the city, but the weather had decided to become misty and sombre. Still, there was a dramatic view of the Lanterna, the 15th century lighthouse, still in use, which is one of the world’s oldest and tallest.

Villa del Principe

Charles and Pierre had one last treasure to show me: a palazzo built by Andrea Doria, a wealthy and powerful admiral in 16th century Genoa. At first I was disappointed: we arrived by train and the huge but rather tired looking palazzo is surrounded by roads and trains, and its former glorious south-facing gardens now look over docks and a raised motorway.

The villa and its former glorious gardens have suffered from years of neglect, culminating in serious damage during the Second World War, when it was bombed by the Allies, who mistakenly thought it was the German headquarters, when actually they were in a nearby hotel.

The gardens are sad, though there is clearly work going on to restore them.  But the interior produced some absolute gems. You come first to a covered but exterior gallery, with frescoes of telve warriors of the Doria family, dressed bizarrely as Romans. Then you come to a hall with a superb ceiling frescoe of Jupiter (by this time I had been told no photos, unfortunately).

But what I will always remember is the astounding 15th cent Flemish tapestries recounting the feats of Alexander the Great.  I’ve never really been a fan of tapestries but these were absolutely splendid.  We spent quite some time working out the dramas being enacted. (I have reproduced the postcards, given the absence of photos).

That was then enough, despite the fact that I could see many more treasures in the galleries beyond.  But a suitable end to my day and a half in Genoawith my mad but dear friends Charles and Pierre.


Arrival in Genoa

Looking back on the day – I arrived at midday – it was incredible and crazy what we packed into the afternoon and evening.


I was met at the station on Wednesday by Charles and Pierre and whisked off on a long bus ride to Nervi, an outlying suburb of Genoa. It was a sublime sunny day – a relief after days of rain. We walked along a promenade to a restaurant with a magnificent sea view, basked in the sun eating another delicious fish based meal. 

Via Garibaldi

Afterwards – a siesta?  Mais non. Back to the centre of town and a ‘stroll’ (Charles, who is never tired, striding ahead, and Pierre and me limping behind) along Via Garibaldi.

This is a stunning road of sixteenth century palaces, each with a sumptuous entrance hall leading to a magnificent courtyard. A manifestation of the wealth of the Genoan aristrocacy.  The road was designed just above the existing old town and one end finishes in the Piazza Fontane Marose, where I was staying.  (A perfect location.)

It was too late (and I didn’t have energy left for tours of the palaces, several of which are open to the public, but we did peer into several and walked round one of the biggest, now the Town Hall!

Difficult to do justice to the palaces when tired, not wishing to hold the others back, and when not doing the tours.  Also, the immense front facades are difficult to photograph, even though the street is wider than the older streets of the Historic Centre. I’ll just have to come back – no hardship.

Via Luccoli

From Via Garibaldi we descended down into the old, medieval city.  Charles and Pierre live in a second floor flat on the Via Luccoli, which runs through this quarter and is buzzing with life.  The buildings are all tall, dark, in massive stone, with their original medieval windows evidently replaced through the centuries. But you get the sense that people are living on all the floors above the – mainly quite smart – shops.

I’ve just discovered Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, thanks to the Internet and Project Gutenberg and plan to dip into it further, but here is his take on Genoa streets:

These people here live in the heaviest, highest, broadest, darkest, solidest houses one can imagine. Each one might “laugh a siege to scorn.” A hundred feet front and a hundred high is about the style, and you go up three flights of stairs before you begin to come upon signs of occupancy. Everything is stone, and stone of the heaviest—floors, stairways, mantels, benches—everything. The walls are four to five feet thick. The streets generally are four or five to eight feet wide and as crooked as a corkscrew. You go along one of these gloomy cracks, and look up and behold the sky like a mere ribbon of light, far above your head, where the tops of the tall houses on either side of the street bend almost together. You feel as if you were at the bottom of some tremendous abyss, with all the world far above you. You wind in and out and here and there, in the most mysterious way, and have no more idea of the points of the compass than if you were a blind man. You can never persuade yourself that these are actually streets, and the frowning, dingy, monstrous houses dwellings, till you see one of these beautiful, prettily dressed women emerge from them—see her emerge from a dark, dreary-looking den that looks dungeon all over, from the ground away halfway up to heaven. And then you wonder that such a charming moth could come from such a forbidding shell as that.

The entrance to Charles and Pierres place is a bit like that: a dingy door in a side yard, up two flights of stairs that have seen better days – and then you enter a flat which dates partly back to the middle ages.  When they bought it I disapproved, because of the stairs and because it is not really big enough, but now I understand why they fell for it.  The sitting room in particular has lots of character.

One thing Mark Twain does not seem to have mentioned is Genoa’s dogs.  I have never seen so many dog owners promenading with their pooches, mainly but not all small and elegant.  And not a turd in sight!  In fact the streets were remarkably clean, though somewhat covered in white powder which Charles reckons is anti-rat stuff.

Vernazza and Manarola

Exploring Vernazza

This morning I ventured up the first part of the coastal trail towards Monterossa in order to get views back to Vernazza.

The path climbed up the cliff, high above the railway cutting.  I never cease to be amazed by the scale and number of tunnels in Liguria (there were about 100 between the French border and Genoa alone). It was more manageable than the village stroll I took yesterday afternoon, when I definitely needed my stick going down endless uneven steps – in the rain. All the same, I’m glad I’ve brought my stick again. Bits of the path remind me of the Cévennes when it rains: paths and steps become streams.

I had almost climbed to the point when I wanted to look back at Vernazza when I met a woman of my age ( I nearly wrote ‘an old woman’…). She seemed oblivious of my apology that I didn’t speak Italian and nattered on in a friendly way. Then she pointed at her rucksack. I thought she wanted me to zip it up. It turned out she was offering me a huge lemon. What a lovely gesture of friendship. But then – apart from my two ‘friends’ in the Genoa bus, I do find Italians very friendly. I realised later there were lemon trees growing on many of the terraces. 

The views back to Vernazza made the scramble worth while, though I do feel frustrated not to be able to do the whole trek, as I once would have.

Back in the village I peered in at a shop which sells fish and wine – the two traditional products of the area, but a funny combination. The young man explained he bought in the wine from local producers but that he and his father were fishermen.

Then I popped my head into the medieval church beside the harbour. Impressive but not charming. It feels more like a fortress than a church.

Now I’m waiting for the train to Manarola. There are about 2 dozen Japanese on the platform. I hope they are going further. Manarola is very small.

Exploring Manarola

An hour later: surprisingly Manorala feels bigger than Vernazza and VERY steep. I have just climbed to the top of the village, again looking for a panoramic viewpoint. The trail was steep but easier to negotiate than at Vernazza. When I got to the (stunning) viewpoint, the rain got heavier, so I whipped my camera out and snapped without composing before descending back down to Manarola.

The main impression so far of the village is the height of the houses – at least five stories high – and the deafening noise of water. Everywhere streams were thundering down the vertical landscape, under houses and in channels under the road. After lunch (scampi gnocchi) I strolled along a path skirting along the foot of the cliffs where I had walked in the morning. The path  has been made much easier for tourists. All the same I turned back , prudently, rather than walking to the next village.

Now I am awaiting my train back to Vernazza. The Japanese are here – except it turns out they are Korean, and there are 30 not 20!

I talked to a nice woman in the information/ tourist shop. She said in about a month they get inundated by tourists and this lasts till late autumn. It is hard sometimes to remain friendly and helpful, she said, but without tourism she would have to leave Manarola.

Back in Vernazza

I did one final explore. I climbed – I don’t know how many – steep steps up the hillside behind my b&b. I could not have contemplated this without the sturdy railings one finds everywhere. All the same I was glad of my stick on the way down (overtaken inevitably by two builders bounding down the steps with building materials on their shoulders). I had hesitated before undertaking this last sortie. Was it one trip too much? But it was worth seeing this different view of Vernazza, for which I already have a partisan preference.

My newly acquired fit its bracelet tells me that today I have walked 9 kilometres, taken over 12000 steps and climbed 44 floors. Wow! I feel very pleased with myself. Mysteriously my painful foot/ankle/leg decided to give me a break. Now I have just indulged in another good meal: prawn pasta followed by ice cream (couldn’t visit Italy without eating it once!) The other tables seem to be entirely American (discreet rather than loud).

Arrival in Vernazza

I was met at the station by my air bnb host, a charming young man called Gian Battista. I was glad of Gian’s help carrying my case as we climbed many steps to get there.The room is excellent: really tastefully decorated (ie my taste).

Despite the wild, wet and windy weather I started to explore Vernazza and instantly fell under its charm.