Monday, April 21, 2014

A trip to Italy, at a fraction of the cost of Coogan's jolly

Questi Giorni quando vieni il belle sole

La la la la............ etc etc

On days like these when skies are blue and fields are green

Some months ago, after half term getaway plans were scuttled by fallen trees and flooding rivers, Madam mooted the idea of a Trip to Italy (Yes Coogan and Brydon, the truth's out, we know where you get your ideas from) Rome was investigated but apparently Easter’s quite “the thing” in Rome and hotel prices are subsequently hiked. Florence was mentioned, but the Italian match fishing schedule was consulted and from my point of view, nothing was on (I once visited Firenze as a teenager and spent the whole day watching a fishing match oblivious to all that the Medicis had put on for us) The Naples and Amalfi box was already ticked, Venice would be visited out of season and we have big plans for the Italian lakes later in life with a comfortable car and an ipod full of Matt Munro. Over a cup of tea and a slice of fruit cake a switch was flicked and flights booked for four nights in Genoa, birthplace of Christopher Colombus, on the Italian Riviera.

At the airport, the customary routine of spreading the contents of my camera bag across several benches in order to remove a bottle opener and corkscrew was run through, much to madam’s ire as her first question on entering any airport is always “did you take your penknife out of your camera bag?” My relationship with the world’s airport security has now reached a stage where gifts are expected and we subsequently spent a large part of our stay in Genoa seeking out an appropriate penknife or corkscrew that we could present to security on our return, flowers and chocolates simply would not do.

In a ground breaking venture between two football teams, initiated by Tony Pulis that bridged the Cotswolds divide, the hotel in which we were due to stay was titled The Bristol Palace Hotel. A grand old lady that many had said would seem a tad tired. The paint brushes had been out prior to our arrival and both madam and myself describe it as one of the best we have stayed in. Our room on the sixth floor allowed us to take in a spectacular eliptical staircase made of marble that rose through the centre of the building, a stunning piece of construction that despite its flimsy design remained in place throughout our stay.

After a brief lunchtime sharpener of Prosecco and a few bits of meat we sallied forth into an interesting city with surprises at every corner, due in part to the complexity of the substantial medieval quarter. It’s little surprise that Colombus proved such a whizz at navigation, half an hour in with our map clutched tight, we turned a corner expecting to find sea and instead found a hill, where we hoped to find a Palazzo a Council building stood, after a few hours confusion we checked the map’s title to make sure it wasn’t the one of Turin.

Not content with seeking out corkscrews at the airport the East German secret police are also breaking new ground in the world of Lingerie and Nightwear,

while followers of The Mighty Boosh massed outside one store hoping to catch a glimpse of a recalcitrant ape.

On the waterfront, Marlon was conspicuous by his absence but “The Bigo” had been chucked up, not in his honour, but as nod to the importance of the port. Erected during the city’s tenure as European city of culture it was designed by Renzo Piano and is reassuringly over engineered, it is inspired by a ship’s derrick that lifts loads into the hold. The structure dominated the harbour and included a lift of sorts that purported to be the finest view in Genoa, and did indeed provide a great view of the water and boats, even for one not so comfortable with heights.

Aside from the spidery crane, the main feature of the waterfront is the aquarium. I don’t normally do aquariums, I like fish and have visited some pretty poor aquatic emporia over the years, but this one was just about ok.
Housed in waterfront wharf buildings and a redundant container ship, it too was erected during Genoa’s tenure as the European city of culture and claims to be the second largest aquarium in Europe. There were the usual eels, rays and sharks, along with some oddities such as flying fish and a trio of massive Manatees that I had yet to tick off in my Eye Spy book of fish.
Jelly fish were good, and a tribute to Darwin and his thoughts on evolution were a surprise in a town gearing itself up for a week long nod to the Resurrection , but all were bested by a pod of dolphins assembled from rescue cases from various water parks around the world, Unsuitable for release back into the wild they now had the best part of a large container ship to swim around in,

Madam thought she had stumbled across the world’s biggest Plasma screen TV and waited patiently for Pointless, but it was a side viewing window for the gargantuan tank and the two dolphins who sped into view were immediately christened Xander and Richard


Emerging blinking into the sun we wandered the streets of the medieval quarter for the remainder of the day, taking in all manner of shops some of which were marginally bigger than our airing cupboard. A dog friendly city, they are frequent visitors to shops, sometimes on a lead, sometimes not. A dachschund we encountered on the second floor of a department store contemplated a purchase in the haberdashery department, which in the grand scheme of things didn't seem too remarkable until you consider that the only way it could have got up to the needles and pins department was via the escalator.
and one senior Labrador had been trained to man the till in a chi chi home-ware store.


Dining in a covered arcade at the unimaginatively titled but highly recommended Europa Restaurant we were served and entertained by Charles, a genial cove of Nigerian descent with a razor sharp wit and fluent in ten languages. He ran through half of his repertoire during our short stay and ought to be employed in the United Nations. The food was ok, but Charles was the highlight of the evening, as he thanked our country for colonising his in the Nineteenth century providing him with the opportunity to learn the beautiful English Language.

The next day we shuffled along Via Garibaldi, a remarkable street of palaces built by the nobs in the sixteenth century, to Palazzo Rosso, which was red and adorned with something called “Stucco”. Elaborately decorated inside with gilt, fancy frescos and spooky cherubs, the paintings weren’t up to much and the main drawing room was closed for restoration, so a chap in a smart jacket who spoke six languages and possibly worked at the Palazzo, asked us if we had a head for heights. In a pan european mix up of languages “Si” was confused with “No” “Bonjour” and “Uno Cerveza Por favour” and we were whisked up to the roof. Not to a window with safety rails looking out from under the rafters but a small platform precariously perched on the ridge of the six storey Palazzo where, if I had opened my eyes, I would have taken in one of the finest views in Genoa.

Next, an afternoon perusing downtown Genoa , where there are big shops and every ten yards a beggar on his knees in the middle of the pavement with his hand held out. I am sure terrible circumstances have led them to this way of life, but several old boys spent all day on their knees on cold concrete. Five minutes on my knees and the agonyometer soon starts to rise, as an opening gambit to getting your life back on track try standing up to shake your plastic cup. One chap lay face down in the street for much of the day which added to the drama of the begging experience, before we saw him strolling past our hotel later in the evening with several bags of shopping and a slightly scuffed nose.

The crusades feature highly in many of the churches, and the Genoese flag mimics the flag of St George. One small church in the shopping district had enough Knights templar imagery to cure Dan Brown’s erectile dysfunction at a single stroke,

Should he ever suffer from such a condition,

Which I am sure he doesn’t, as he’s virility personified on the inside jacket of his books......... Grrrrrr!.

The next day we embarked on our first funicular ride up to the Castellatto, more of a big lift really that raised us to a part of town where we sipped coffee in front of what we were assured was the finest view in Genoa. Ten minutes of sipping revealed that there was a significant generation gap in this part of town as the whole place was populated by Grandmothers wheeling grandchildren along the short promenade.

With a twitch of the eye (it was very strong coffee) we moved on to our next Funicular, a proper train type, rack and pinion affair that we honoured through the medium of song. As our ascent commenced our lung bursting “Jammo, Jammo, Funiculi, Funicular” drew mixed reviews from the remainder of the carriage which consisted mostly of casalinga and kids on their way back from school. We curtailed our rendition after the first verse and peered down at our shoes for the remainder of the journey.
After ten minutes we were at the top of the hill, and in eerie silence, we took in a veterinary surgery and a house with a garden whose occupier, when hanging out her washing, contemplated the finest view of Genoa.

We descended in silence, bar a brief burst of Torno a Surriento which seemed to upset some, who were understandably proud of their home town.

More shopping for Madam so I exited stage left and headed for the home of The Doge, The Palazzo Ducale, and with the furniture cleared out, now an art gallery hosting some swirly if disappointingly undisturbing pictures by Edvard Munch which was ok if a little limited. Downstairs, two hours flew by in a exhibition of photos by Gianni Berengo Gardin, a Genoese photographer who took photos when skill was required and cameras were not idiot proof. He turned down a proposal to join Robert Cappa et al at Magnum (nothing to do with Tom Selleck) preferring to work off his own bat; principally in Italy but also in other areas of Europe.
Beach shots of England in the seventies were fun, and his lengthy secondment with the Italian Rom Community encapsulated his championing of minority cultures,

but the stuff he produced in the 1960’s while attempting to demonstrate the inhumanity and brutality of Italy’s mental institutions proved more evocative than some of the swirly stuff in oil trumpeted upstairs and outside The Ducale on posters and banners.

Culture done, it was time for food. A restaurant was identified via the internet and we set out on our quest. After an hour bumbling about little streets, Madam’s ire, fuelled by no little hunger, brought about a relatively bloodless coup. I was required to relinquish my role as navigator, maps were handed over and I subsequently followed on a few yards behind as Madam forged a path to a restaurant titled Il Genovese.
We entered silently and took in a menu that we struggled to decipher; me through poor language skills, she, sans spectacles following skirmishes earlier in the piece. As if by magic the shopkeeper appeared who guided us through a simple Genovese menu while informing us that a group of journalists would be arriving soon to whom he would demonstrating the preparation of the green pesto for which Genoa is famed. A chaotic few hours ensued, which included journalists hanging from stairs, much flashing of bulbs, a queue of people waiting for a table and some of the finest Italian food that Madam and I have ever tasted. Two courses, top wine plus coffee for less than fifty zobs. With earlier navigational misdemeanours a distant memory, we returned to our hotel arm in arm, having booked a table for the following night, remarking that it knocked spots of some of the puffed up eateries to be found close to our home environs.

On our final day we did the food market which was a riot of colour, smells and food. Hams a hanging, buckets of pine nuts and towers of tomatoes, one small stall peddled a single big blob of gorgonzola which visibly relaxed towards the edge of the counter as we took a ten minute break for a one euro cup of top coffee, (yes one euro, Messrs Costa, Starbucks and Nero)

We caught the bus to the airport, handed over our gift of a corkscrew that we had carefully sourced in the city’s medieval quarter and, on a two hour flight, reflected on a city that had surprised us both. Yes there were some grubby bits, the odd bit of bunga bunga and some buildings are smothered with political graffiti, but it is an interesting place to spend a few days, with a rich heritage, an enormous medieval warren, fabulous palazzos and fantastic food. Compared to other Italian cities it is great value and yes it does have some great views.

I’d go again. But stay at the Bristol Palace hotel. it's something else.

To the extent that Bristol Palace are now our football team of first choice.

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