Tuesday, 5 May 2015


I went to an interesting food tasting some time ago in the city centre. It was a vegan brunch in a cafe on San Vincenzo, near Brignole. As a recent convert to a vegerian diet, I was quite keen to see what would be on offer. I was not dissappointed, there was a delicious buffet prepared by volunteers. Dishes included Thai spiced red rice and vegetables, hummous and various salads, all very tasty. No wonder every table was taken. I am not a vegan (yet) but since that day, I have noticed that there is a bit of a lifestyle battle going on here. It all comes down to food. 

 Italy must be one of the easiest countries in the world to be a vegetarian/vegan. Fresh vegetables are available in numerous little corner shops, boxes full of goodness overflowing to the pavements. There are festivals dedicated to vegetables, such as artichokes and pumpkins, all over Italy. Every single restaurant and cafe has a vegetarian option in the menu and it is not limp green lettuce leaves with couple of tomatoes and bread crutons drowned with mayonnaise calling itself Caesar. No, there are delicate dishes such as a vegetable pie, torta di verdure (a Ligurian speciality), grilled vegetables, eggplants cooked with tomatoes and mozzarella, not to forget the good old pesto Genovese; there is foccaccia and farinata, a chick pea tart, often mixed with artichokes or zucchini...the choice is endless. 

A meatless diet is more than simply eating differently: it is often also a statement and for many, an ethical choice too. No vegan wants to cause pain to any living creature, which means that all dairy is out, as well as eggs and honey. The vegan way of life is becoming more popular as people are more aware of the modern farming methods, where their food comes from in general, animal rights and the environmental impact of meat production. I have serious issues with these myself. 

The vegetarian/vegan trend has clearly had an impact in supermarkets, which is a sure sign that there is a critical mass of customers interested in meatless alternatives.There are shops in Genoa specialising in organic and plant based products (Natura Si on Corso Europa is a popular destination), but even our small supermarket around the corner has started adding vegetarian/vegan products on the shelves. Tofu, soya burgers, eggless mayonnaise, seitan ragu, soya milk, ice cream and yoghurt have found an audience even in this little suburb. The local health food shop (erboristeria) has sunflower and chia seeds, different varieties of flours and nutritional yeast. There is also a boom in magazines offering vegetarian and vegan recipes only. Just before Easter a very visible campaign with huge posters on buses in Genoa, asked people not to buy lamb. 
   However, plant based special products, which are meant to imitate meat or chicken, are not necessarily healthy or cheap, on the contrary. Because meatless products need to be tasty, there can be a surprisingly high amount of salt and sugar in some of them. So, I am still reading labels.
 It has been months now and I feel fantastic and energetic; a different world really. No regrets. 


Friday, 6 March 2015


I just have to write about Sicily, where we went at the end of February.  This belongs to the category of "One Finn's attempt to understand life in Italy" and besides, there is a direct Ryan Air flight from Genoa to Trapani and a direct train connection to Palermo, so it is kind of justified...
  Travelling outside the main tourism  season is quite a fascinating experience. The weather is unpredictable, there are only a handful of other tourists.  The downside is that hotels, restaurants and shops are not necessarily open.This gives a different perspective, but if sunshine is not an absolute must, there is no reason not to do it! 


The early evening flight from Genoa to Trapani was only 1 1/2 hours, so no huge stress. Trapani itself is about 100 km from Palermo. But this time we decided to skip Trapani altogether and headed up to the mountains to a small town called Erice, 750 metres above the sea level. 
  As soon as the taxi reached the small and narrow road leading to Erice, we were suddenly surrounded by sea of mist. It came from nowhere. The driver could barely see the road, the fog and darkness surrounding us was pretty spooky. When we finally arrived to the hotel, Il Carmine (,www.ilcarmine.com/en/ ) it was raining heavily too. 
  It was already 8 PM and we had to find a place to eat after dumping the bags at the hotel. Exploring a medieval stone town for the very first time in pitch darkness, rain and pratically no street lights was quite interesting. Practically no people about to ask directions. But Erice is a tiny place, so we did find a restaurant, which has to be the best in Erice: Monte San Giuliano.

Warm and welcoming, the kitchen produced a mouthwatering meal, the first taste of Sicily, so fresh and delicious that the rain, fog and darkness simply vanished.

Unfortunately the fog was still there the next morning, but it was kind of pretty too. Different, definitely. We decided to explore Erice and walked around its small and compact city centre.

Lively in the summer months, I am sure! And apparantely it is nice and cool too in August, thanks to the altitude.

This town is famous for mosaics and the entrance to a well known, -  must visit -  Pasticceria Maria Grammattico, was just one example of this.

Don't even think about being on a strictly calory controlled diet while in Sicily... There is a tiny connection with Genoa too - a sweet piece of pastry called "Genovese con crema"... YUM!

The main attraction in Erice is Castello di Venere, where the Temple of Venus is located. In 12th and 13th centuries Erice was the centre of a cult celebrating Venus, the goddness of love. Sacred prostitutes lived in the Temple of Venus and revealed all the secrets in elaborate rituals to their customers. There are remains of bath houses inside the temple. On this cold, winter day I had an Umberto Eco - moment. This castle was just like the one I imagined when I read "The Name of the Rose" and if you have read it, you know what I mean.
  The weather did not do justice to Erice, but it is a place to which I would like to return one day.


The journey continued by road to Palermo. We had a local guide (worth having if time is short), Francesca, who drove us from Erice to Palermo. On the way there we managed to cover a wide range of topics, stretching from ancient history to current Sicilian politics and the fight against the mafia (a subject impossible to avoid). In between we stopped in Segesta, a 5th century temple, sitting on top of a hill.

This temple was built by the Elymnians and it has 36 columns. It is said that on a windy day the columns produce an organ like effect and if you listen very carefully, it could even be called music.

Palermo was not bathing in sunshine either, but the weather did not really matter as this is a city buzzing with life at any time of the year. The best way to see it all, is to walk around. The number of byzantine and baroque churches, statues and palazzos is staggering. Combine that with lively street markets selling everything from food to vintage stuff, busy traffic, unexpected taste sensations of cheap and delicious food sold in the streets.... wow. It takes some time to take it all in.

There is art and historically important sights everywhere you go.

Paintings and mosaics in the churches are well preserved.

Palermo is also a fascinating mixture of arabic-jewish-italian culture. In some parts of the city street signs are in Italian, Arabic and Hebrew.

We came across this very sad scene in the centre of Palermo, in the cathedral square. Some people were protesting against unemployement and saying that they are desperate enough to kill themselves. The fire brigade was at the scene, ready to rescue anyone who might jump from the roof.

Guess what this building is? No, it is not an ancient temple. It is the Palermo Post Office, built by fascists. It is so pompous and grand, that it took me several minutes before I recovered after collapsing with laughter.


After four days in Sicily, it was time to return back to Genoa. I decided to take the scenic route back as there is a direct night train from Palermo to Genoa. It would have been far too much of a hassle to fly anyway, as my suitcase was full of olive oil, pasta sauce and all kinds of little things, totally above the tiny weight allowances passengers are offered by airlines these days. Besides, I don't like flying and try to avoid it, if I can...
The train left Palermo at 12.57, on time.

I had a cabin for two ladies, booked in advance through the Trenitalia website. Even though the train had clearly seen some better days, it was not too bad. At least it was clean. It was still daylight and the train followed the coastline. Big waves and beautiful sea views.

I had luckily bought some food and water before leaving Palermo,  as it turned out that there was no dining car or even a simple coffee cart on the train. I had the luxury of having the whole cabin to myself until we arrived three hours later to Messina, where my travelling companion joined me to share the cabin all the way to Genoa, She was very nice, so we rattled along fine.
 At Messina, the train was loaded onto the ferry. Passengers stayed on the train during the 40 minute crossing. The whole operation was very smooth and efficient. The only problem was that passengers were not told that the toilet will be closed in Messina for the duration of the crossing. I was pretty desperate by the time we arrived to the other side an hour later. But as soon as we arrived to the port and rolled on to the station, the toilets were opened. Wish I had known about this in advance, though.
  The train journey took about 19 hours. The train was fairly full, there was also a conductor for each carriage. He gave everyone orange juice, a bottle of water and a sweet pastry thing for breakfast.
In the morning he knocked on the door 15 minutes before the train arrived to Genoa Brignole. On time. The journey was pretty painless and I was happy I chose to travel by train - fine ending to a great trip!

Friday, 20 February 2015


Last summer I was watching an athletic looking guy at the traffic lights, near Brignole station. He was in the middle of the road, throwing up colourful balls and catching them circus style. His audience were motorists waiting for the lights to change. The young man did his party trick and timed it so that he still had perhaps 30 seconds to run in between the cars to ask for money. Very few people gave him anything, but some did and the young man repeated his act for the next group of waiting motorists.  I saw him  from a bus window, thinking that -  at least -  he is trying to entertain people.
Just like in any reasonable sized city, there are beggars in Genova.
Roughly speaking there are two kinds. The first group are people offering a token service, such as car window clearners or young men walking around selling umbrellas, flowers, packets of tissues or simple African friendship bracelets. Or people playing an instrument - some of them can actually play a tune or two. 
  Then there is the second type: beggars coming to commuter trains, leaving multilingual messages on the seats, only to return couple of minutes later to collect possible contributions. There also seem to be the same, regular beggars kneeling on the portico on Via XX Settembre with signs saying in Italian "I am hungry, please help". Some of them come with dogs and sleeping bags. There are old ladies wearing very heavy winter coats, walking slowly and rattling plastic cups asking for money. Or people, who stop you on the street or outside supermarkets to ask for money.
  The problem is that even if I would like to help in some cases, I hesitate to do so. The urban legends about beggars who earn hundreds of euro per day could have something to do with it.  It is sad, when the feeling of being taken for a ride or being deceived, is stronger than the willingness to help.
   I always look at the general appearance: surprisingly often, the beggar is wearing brand new looking sports shoes. Or they can be seen talking to a cellphone while sitting on a box in a street corner with a hat in front of them. Sometimes it is obvious that this is a highly organised activity. Or what should I think when a "beggar" refuses to take a loaf of bread instead of money, despite a sign saying "I am hungry"?
   And then it happens, that we are reminded about a genuine need for help. A friend told me recently, how he had been rushing to a bus stop. A middle aged man, clearly a foreigner, tried to sell him a packet of tissues. My friend simply brushed him aside and said no. But for some reason, he turned back to have a closer look at the beggar. The man had stopped and burst into tears, his whole body shaking with grief. My friend went back, tried to hastily find some coins and gave them to him.
  When I heard this, I felt really bad about being such a cynic. Perhaps not everyone is part of a criminal gang. Now I have started to make some exceptions. But I will still not give anything to people with brand new looking sports shoes and cellphones. 

Saturday, 14 February 2015


Many famous foreigners have lived in Genoa, but I have always been particularly intrigued by one of them: Constance Wilde (1859-1898). Recently, I came across an interview with her grandson, Merlin Holland in the Daily Mail (UK) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2894289/Mystery-Oscar-Wilde-s-wife-s-death-solved-author-s-grandson.html and decided to go to Staglieno one rainy day, looking for her grave, which is in the English sector of the cemetary.
  Constance was a journalist and a feminist, but she is perhaps best known as wife of the Irish author Oscar Wilde. Oscar's homosexual relationship and subsequent imprisonment was a scandal, which forced Constance and her two sons, Vyvyan and Cyril,to leave London and live in exile. Constance spent her last years in Bogliasco and she loved the Ligurian Riviera. But what was the cause of her death in 1898, at age 40?

Oscar Wilde did come to Genoa to visit his ex- wife's grave. Despite the dramatic circumstances of their marriage and divorce they stayed relatively friendly with each other. It is worth reading Franny Moyle's biography "Constance-The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde"

At the time, it was believed that she died of syphilis, which she was said to have caught from her husband. But according to the Daily Mail, Constance's grandson Merlin Holland (son of Vyvyan) says that new evidence has emerged which suggests that she had a different illness alltogether: multiple sclerosis.
  Together with Dr Ashley H Robins, a specialist at University of Cape Town Medical School, Holland has read all 130 letters, which Constance wrote to her brother, frequently mentioning her poor health. Multiple sclerosis was a known illness at the time and Constance had the symptoms, but her doctors did not realise what it was. She describes her aches and pains in the letters in great detail. So, this might come hundred years later,  but at least the truth can now be told!

Constance Wilde, una giornalista inglese, una femminista, moglie dello scrittore Oscar Wilde, ha vissuto i suoi ultimi anni a Genova, a Bogliasco, dopo il divorzio da suo marito. Constance aveva volute scappare dallo scandalo quando suo marito era stato imprigionato a causa di una relazione omosessuale. Constance è morta nel 1898, a soli 40 anni, e seppellita nel Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno. Lei ha avuto due figli, Cyril e Vyvyan. 
Ma quale è stata a causa della morte di Constance? Secondo suo nipote, Merlin Holland, Constance non è morta di sifilide per colpa di suo marito, come tutto il mondo aveva creduto. Insieme a una dottoressa, Ashley H Robins, lui ha trovato prove che Constance aveva sofferto di un'altra malattia; sclerosi multipla. Questa malattia era conosciuta, ma i due medici di Constance non lo avevano capito. Holland ha parlato della nuova prova in una recente intervista con il Daily Mail (UK). 

Sunday, 8 February 2015


I have just been on a nice afternoon walk in a crispy cold February weather. After couple of days of rain, today was really beautiful here in Nervi. The sky was blue and there was a bright sunshine most of the day. Not totally unexpected then that the narrow streets were full of people: kids, mums and dads with pushchairs, couples and the elderly, who are often being helped by a family member. I am very fond of the afternoon walk, it is a great Italian tradition.
  Having said that, I also cannot help but noticing some interesting behaviour connected to the said tradition.
1. Stopping in the middle of the pavement to have a chat
Italians cannot pass by any friends by simply saying hello and moving on. No, they have to have a chat, however short. This means that they stop in the middle of the pavement effectively blocking everybody else who would ideally like to carry on with their walk without stopping all the time. At least here in Nervi, the pavements have been built decades, if not hundred years ago, when nobody had any reason to think that walkers could cause a traffic jam. They do. Normally you can pass by saying politely "permesso" and you will be able to move forward. I have bought the Nordic Walking Sticks, but I have not used them yet (partly, because they did not fit into the suitcase and are still stored in a different country altogether) but I wonder, if it would be wise to bring these to this environment at all, unless I would walk around 6.30 am instead in the afternoon?
2. Beaches are not only for the summer 
Even though the actual beach season has finished some months ago and there are no umbrellas or sunchairs around, this does not mean that beaches are not being used at all. On any given sunny day, there are people sitting on the beach, winter coats next to them and possibly wearing a t-shirt. It really does not matter that it is +7 C. The sunshine is enough.
3. The popularity of ice cream 
One might be forgiven to think that ice cream bars could not possibly survive during winter.  Wrong. Eating ice cream has very little to do with the seasons. It is eaten all the time. And yes, if it is a sunny day, every park bench & beach are full of people enjoying an ice cream. For me ice cream is so strongly associated with summer that having two deliciously flavoured scoops of ice cream in the middle of winter (even in a mild winter), it would not occur to me to have one. At least it didn't before moving to Italy. Now, I could consider it, but only just.

Friday, 16 January 2015


I love walking around Genoa. No matter how often I go, there is always something to see and discover. On one such walk I happened to be with my Italian friend Anna, whose knowledge of the history of the city is phenomenal. We were walking on a stone pavement in the city centre, when Anna stopped and started looking for something on the street. She asked:
"Did you know that hundred years ago, all these stone slabs were hand crafted by stone masons who then also decorated and signed them?"
So we are not walking on any old concrete slabs then?
I started looking at the pavement with a newly found curiosity.

Sure enough we found one such signature (pic above), hidden away in of the stones in a pavement leading to an alley. It was quite a revelation to realise that hundred years ago the pavement stones were not manufactured in some nameless factory, which produced thousands such slabs a day, but that every single one was painstakingly patiently made by stone masons who decorated every stone in their own style and treated this as an opportunity to leave their own mark in Genoa. Those stones have lasted to this day - respect!

Saturday, 15 November 2014


Today there was  a message on my cell. It is from the Comune di Genova informing all residents of the city that there is very heavy rain and a very real possibility of another major flooding.

I only need to look out of the window facing the street to know that it is true: there is already a small river flowing. Luckily the apartment we live in, is high above the street level but this is still worrying. There has been a thunder storm for couple of hours now.

People are being asked to stay inside and not to go outside unless absolutely necessary. No doubt a major traffic chaos will follow. We all knew that it was coming as the cell phone messages keep coming, Last week schools were closed for three days. If the situation has looked to be somewhat under control in the city centre of Genoa, it was far from it elsewhere in Liguria, for example in Santa Marghareta Liguria and Chiavari. And today there are already reports of rising water levels in other parts of Liguria too (www.ilsecoloxix.it)

This flower stand has been on the balcony and quickly filled in with water in couple of hours. 

It was only barely a month ago that the heavy rains caused major flooding in the city centre of Genoa. One person died, many had to abandon their homes and cars in great haste and millions of euro worth of damage was caused by flash floods. An army of volunteers,  quickly named as the "mud angels" started spontaneously arriving to the city centre to clean the mud, dirt and water. I was not here at that time, but the damage has been visible to this day, especially in the Brignole area, where many shop owners lost their stock and had to close down, temporarily or in some cases for good. Unfortunately insurance companies do not come to the rescue as flooding is not covered in most policies. Some businesses have tried to salvage what they could by selling flood damaged goods outside their premises. What has angered the residents of Genoa is that a similar devastating flood happened in 2011 and the city received emergency funding for essential infrastructure repairs. Very little has happened though because there was a dispute regarding the tender process of who should be awarded the contract and the money is still sitting somewhere three years later.