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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Liguria the superb*

Question: Which of these three fellow bus passengers is most likely not Canadian? A. The one who describes the “washroom” on the bus as out of order; B. The one carrying a Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack; C. The one with a maple leaf flag and badge prominently displayed on her backpack, who says “That’s awesome!” in a loud voice. If you guessed C, I’ll bet my passport (or at least one of them) that the maple leaf passenger is from the United States. I can confirm that A was, in fact, Canadian; I have been recognised (Berlin 2008) as having come from Canada by my MEC bag.

There are over a hundred tunnels along the coast from the French to the Italian Riviera. We seemed to pass through each one of them by road. The journey was some of the most spectacular scenery, close between mountains and the sea, punctuated constantly by tunnels. 

In other respects, it was the least eventful border crossing I can remember. I didn’t even see a “Welcome” sign, just noticed that road signs were suddenly in Italian. What a difference from my first crossing between France and Italy, in those pre-Schengen days. The train juddered to a halt and a moustached police officer with a dog entered our compartment. The dog was very interested in my case, and I had to open it for inspection. No, I hadn’t borrowed the bag from a dodgy relative (Mom?); it was the jar of peanut butter that my dear friend Fritz, under the impression that I couldn’t get peanut butter during three months in England, had sent me by sea mail. I’m sure the shipping cost more than the peanut butter; fortunately I didn’t have to surrender it to the Italian police. I do miss Fritz.

This time, our bus driver was French, and the first (and only) stereotypical Gaul we’ve encountered on our travels. Unlike previous French drivers, who gamely announced “Sorry for the late” and “Be sure to forget—not to forget” in English, this one was angry, and shouted and gesticulated throughout the journey. Mostly at other drivers, though also in animated conversation with a passenger in the front row. To his credit, he announced several times clearly (in French) that we would have only thirty minutes for our lunch stop, and Dieu help us if we boarded the bus late. We were all back on board within half an hour. The driver then proceeded to light his own cigarette, and continue to smoke it while walking up and down the aisle of the parked bus, counting passengers. He then forgot to put on the air conditioning until one of us reminded him; I suspect it was to avoid his highly illegal French smoke getting in the AC and causing him problems down the road. He dropped us at a stop in Genoa, no bus station in sight, angrily yelling about somebody else.

In Italy, we’re taking trains.

Liguria, northern Italy, was at one time the Republic of Genoa. It’s sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the Appennines, which is how I found myself taking a snack break partway up a mountain called Ramaceto. It was Sunday morning and the church bells were really going to town. I felt a pang of guilt for once again not being in church on Sunday, even though I wouldn’t have understood much of the service. (I needn’t have worried; Ramaceto is topped by a chapel and a statue of Mary. She’s followed us all the way from Ireland.)

There was a candy wrapper lying along the trail. Normally while hiking, I’d be disgusted to see litter. But as we hadn’t seen a soul the whole way up the hot mountain (though not as hot as Sainte-Victoire), I admit a sign of humanity made me feel less alone. Surely we would survive to see our cousins, at whose house we were staying, again.

There was a tea bag on the final ascent and I stopped appreciating wrappers. But that sense of isolation was something I hadn't experienced, certainly not in Ireland, where hillwalking was on national park trails with people from many countries. We saw exactly one other person on the plateau of Ramaceto, a ragged-looking pilgrim who carried a sleeping mat and said he’d run out of food. (One of the reasons always to carry extra lunch.) It’s a beautiful mountain, which can be seen from our cousins’ window. It isn’t on tourist maps though. And, as our pilgrim friend had discovered, even in the village you can’t buy anything to eat. There are no shops anymore.

I’ve been in more rural places, but not many. There is a road, and the church, whose bells peal regularly throughout the day. You can hear them across the valley. Sitting up here in the mountains, with  the moon and stars at night, knowing that wolves are out there somewhere. It is not the Italy of the guidebooks.

And that’s a good thing. Italy, like Spain, hasn’t always existed; it’s a bunch of different places, and Liguria isn’t one I’d ever visited or knew anything about. In fact I was looking forward to our time in Italy for where I didn’t have to go.

I hasten to say that the well-known cities of Italy are unforgettable. Everyone should visit Pisa or Pompeii, and it is said of Rome, in particular, that you could spend a lifetime there and still not see it all. As for Florence, it’s a gift to humanity. But I have been to all those places, and so, while I know I’ve only scratched the surface of them, I could resist the checklist mentality. I can see a different and less urban side of Italy.

We’d never have stayed in this village without knowing someone here, which is the beauty of it. Even Genoa, the port city of Liguria that was once on a par with Venice, is not on must-see traveler’s lists the way that Rome, Florence, and Venice itself are. Which is kind of a shame, because there’s a lot of beauty in the old city. But it was also kind of nice to feel we were discovering something for ourselves.

Standing at the top of Ramaceto, however, looking down at the sea from one direction and the village from another, the rest of the world seemed forlornly far away.

Then I saw them. More hikers! They had obviously come up a different trail from another village, and were making a beeline for the summit. T. remarked that we’d toiled up the mountain all morning in solitude, only to find our lunch break interrupted by a bunch of other people. (She put it more graciously than that, of course.)

They were all Italian speakers, which made me feel better. They might not have been local—our cousins’ village only has 250 inhabitants, and almost all of the families have lived there for generations. But they weren’t French or German or English speakers, and that made me feel as if I’d discovered something, too.  (We could communicate enough that one of them offered to take a picture of us both.)


I’ve been writing about my languages, or lack thereof. If my Spanish was bad, my Italian is almost nonexistent. I guess a language in another alphabet would be even more challenging, as I can at least guess some words on Italian signs, but starting a conversation would not be a good idea. And here is where the difference between speaking a language a little or badly, and not at all, became apparent again.

When something non-English comes out of my mouth, it is most likely to be French. This results in lots of mistakes like saying “oui” when I mean to say “si”. When this happens, as when I was asking for coffee in a town on the Ligurian Riviera, the coffee lady took me for a French speaker and addressed me in that language. Clearly she knew I had no clue in Italian, so at least we were making progress.

I was most trepidatious about the ufficio postale. Post offices can be challenges anywhere, but mailing a package from Spain had been time-consuming enough, and I knew I would need help in Italy. There was only one person at the counter who dealt with packages, and when I asked hopefully “Parla inglese?” she assured me she did not. I then asked if she spoke French.

Un peu,” was the answer. It’s exactly what I say when someone asks me, and by gum, a little is enough to get things done in a post office. T. came over to the counter to remind me to stop saying oui

“But I mean to say oui! We are using French—it’s the only language we have in common!”

I don’t know how long the Italian mail will take to deliver my extraordinarily expensive package. But I know if the post office lady and I didn’t both have bad French, we would be there to this day, an unbridgeable gulf between my English and her Italian.

The day our cousins, one of them a native of Genoa, spent showing us around his hometown was a revelation. After the near silence of the village (broken only by church bells and the all-day crowing of roosters), a city felt overstimulating, and even hotter. Luckily the narrow streets of the centro storico are mostly shady, and there are patios. 
Detail of Cathedral San Lorenzo, rumored to hold the Holy Grail, a relic of the crusading years (1097-1101)

Genoa from one of its many high points, accessible by public transit elevator
In its mediaeval and Grand Tour heydays, Genoa rivaled and even eclipsed Venice. I assume that the reason everyone goes to Venice nowadays is the canals. Both cities have doge’s palaces, marvelous old architecture, and a history with Marco Polo (Venice claims him; Genoa locked him up). Those of us with U.S. origins know that Genoa produced Christopher Columbus, a figure who did not, in fact, “discover America” but does keep following us around through these travels, from Madrid to Barcelona.

Strade Nuove, the street of palaces
Imperial Spain may have sent Columbus to discover what he thought was the East, but the money came from Genoa. That is, the money that didn’t stay here. Casa San Giorgio is the first bank in history, and Genovans continued to be very good at holding onto their money. It isn’t ostentatious, but there’s a lot behind the facades of the Palazzi dei Rolli.

Strangely, Genoa also claims one of the darkest accomplishments in history: the introduction of the Black Death to Europe. Its sailors, fleeing the siege of Caffa in Crimea, unwittingly carried the plague home to Genoa, in the same way the ships sailing into New York Harbor for the 1976 Bicentennial may or may not have brought the virus that causes AIDS. The 1347 plague is thought to have killed one out of every three people in Europe.

But Genovese life wasn’t all plague deaths and despoiling the Americas. The people of Genoa and Liguria found time to create some of the tastiest foods we know: pesto, focaccia, and pansotti with walnut sauce, just to name three. I know these things are widely for sale in supermarkets, but they don’t taste the same as homemade in their native region. What does?  

When we did a village-to-village hike in the Cinque Terre, we kept telling ourselves that friends in their seventies had done it a few years ago, and we couldn’t be shown up by them! It turns out they’d done a coastal walk that was somewhat less arduous than climbing up to the clifftops. I considered it making up for the hike we couldn’t do in France.
Manarola, with its steeply terraced vineyards
 It is true that the old people of Liguria seem to get out and enjoy themselves. The ladies were seated in the shade at the top of Genoa where we went to get gelato, fans in hand. The men were in groups playing cards or boccia down by the beach. Or standing in a row at their local coffee bar, drinking glasses of prosecco at 11:00 in the morning. The coffee there was the best deal I’ve found.

Our last day we visited Camogli on the coast. That area gave the world focaccia con formaggio, a delicious cheesy focaccia that doesn’t resemble any I had ever had abroad. Then we took a boat to the 10th-century abbey of San Fruttuoso. It’s a weird place: this ancient abbey facing right onto the sea, now surrounded by beach and bars. Somehow it seems fitting for this beautiful region of Italy: the sacred and the recreational, all mixed up together. Like life, really.


*Nicholas Walton, Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Among the many witty comments, our personal favorite is, "by gum, a little [French] is enough to get things done in a post office." Groove & Pop