Bulletin from Batumi

Having posted about Tbilisi, I should say that I’m now in Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city, a pleasure resort on the Black Sea. It is totally unlike Tbilisi in most ways, although it does share some of its problems with traffic congestion and pollution – whereas English has become Tbilisi’s second language, here it’s Russian (and Turkish), and the city has much less of a European feel to it. Whereas visitors to Tbilisi come mostly for culture (including food and wine!), they come to Batumi for the casinos (not the beach, which is stoney and polluted). President Saakashvili (see my Tbilisi post), in his mad rush to boost the Georgian economy as fast as possible, decided that Batumi should become the Las Vegas of the Black Sea, and brought in major hotel and casino chains with massive tax breaks. He encouraged a surreal mishmash of exuberant architecture that (like Las Vegas) is definitely worth a flying visit at least. I’m not going to write a lot, but I will post some photos of these buildings below (loosely, from north to south).

While the over-the-top kitschy exuberance of Batumi’s new buildings still thrills, or at least provokes giggles, I do sense that the project has gone ever so slightly off the boil since Saakashvili left office (and the country – he moved to Ukraine to become governor of Odessa, but then fell out with the political establishment there and is currently stateless). The Chinese pagoda no longer houses a Chinese restaurant, the windmill restaurant is no longer Dutch-themed, the Tower Brewery no longer brews its own beer – they all now serve fairly basic Georgian food for holidaymakers. And the Chacha Fountain no longer flows with chacha (Georgian grappa) once a week (in fact it allegedly only worked once, as in one time only).

There are also hints of juicy scandal associated with Donald Trump, which I don’t think will make it into the book. In 2012 the future US president met Georgia’s President Saakashvili in Batumi to launch a Trump Tower project here – Trump was only going to sell his name rather than actually investing in the project, but it was a typical piece of grandstanding aimed at helping Saakashvili’s UNM party in upcoming elections. However in August 2017 a long investigative article in the New Yorker by Adam Davidson suggested there might be rather more to it, as part of a murky network of money-laundering and tax avoidance. It might, or might not, play a significant rôle in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s election campaign – it would also be pretty poor PR for Georgia, even though Saakashvili is long gone from the country. The Georgian developer, Silk Road Group, still hopes to build the tower – at one point they talked of calling it T Tower, so that Trump’s name could be attached after he leaves the presidency, but now it’s more likely to be called the Silk Road Tower.

Donald Trump Junior’s notorious June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York City, when he hoped to buy Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton, was also attended by Irakli Kaveladze, a Moscow-based Georgian businessman representing the Russian oligarch who set up the meeting. Kaveladze has been accused by congressional investigators of a scheme to launder US$1.4 billion of largely Russian money through US banks (he denies the allegations and says he attended the meeting as a translator). I don’t think there’s any connection with Georgian-born New York property developer Tamir Sapir, who built a hotel-condo block that became Trump Soho after The Donald bought an 18% share of the project in 2005.

I remember walking past the site for the Trump Tower in Punta del Este, Uruguay, as well, but it seems that one really is being built and will be finished in 2018.

As for practical news, I’ll just say that trains are becoming a better and better alternative to marshrutka minibuses, especially for the Tbilisi-Batumi journey – you can take a sleeper, or a fast day train operated by double-deck electric-multiple-units (which were ordered from the Swiss company Stadler for Moscow’s airport express, but when the rouble lost value they couldn’t afford the whole fleet, and Georgia and Azerbaijan got together to make an offer that Stadler couldn’t refuse). Personally I don’t think marshrutka drivers are actually suicidal, but after four weeks travelling around Georgia I’m finding the marshrutka experience (the death-defying overtaking, in particular, as well as all the waiting around) just a bit wearying, and so I thoroughly recommend train travel instead.

A new station called Batumi Central opened out of the blue just as we were going to print with the last edition – we couldn’t cover it properly because the book would have needed re-indexing, but it got mentioned. It’s not at all central, being at least 2km north of town, but is still more convenient than the previous terminus at Makhindjauri (and it’s served by the same buses, which is handy).

People often ask why the trains don’t call at Kutaisi, Georgia’s third city, which is just off the main line, and I suggest getting off at the small station of Rioni, just south of the city, where taxis await. In fact by the summer of 2018 there will be a new 2-kilometre loop to a station at Kutaisi Airport (Georgia’s booming low-cost hub), where all trains will apparently stop. This isn’t so close to Kutaisi itself, but coming from Batumi it will be a handy place to change to a bus or taxi into the city.

Batumi from the north (near Batumi Central station), with the Alphabetic Tower to the right.
This was built to house a Technical University – with a Ferris Wheel in the façade, for some reason.
The Technical University building, with a statue of well-known child-murderer Medea.
Batumi’s award-winning on one side a petrol station, on the other a McDonalds building.
The Public Service Hall dwarfed by the Alliance Tower, floors 1 to 6 of which will house a Marriott Courtyard hotel.
The Parthenon – a restaurant, of course.
The Colosseum and the Upside-Down restaurant.

Tbilisi – lots for the new mayor to do

Tbilisi is a lovely, fascinating city, with its mix of cultures, cuisines and architecture, but it is also horribly congested and polluted, due above all to its population’s addiction to cheap and filthy second-hand cars, imported from Europe and Japan (many of them are right-hand-drive, which given the urgency of every Georgian driver’s need to overtake is also very dangerous). I wrote an open letter to the mayor in the pages of Georgia Today on my last visit, three years ago, and the city’s problems have only got worse since then. So I’ve written a new one (below).

Georgia held local elections on Saturday (21 October 2017), for mayors and councils, and Tbilisi elected a new mayor (the old one went off to be ambassador to Germany). The new mayor is Kakha Kaladze, who was captain of Georgia’s soccer team for many years and a key player for AC Milan. Since retiring he has been a leading figure in the Georgian Dream coalition, which was set up with the specific aim of removing the barnstorming and increasingly authoritarian president Mikheil Saakashvili from power. It was led and funded by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was prime minister for a year before handing over the office but keeping the power behind the scenes. It’s a strange situation for a country to be in. Kaladze impressed as deputy prime minister and energy minister, I’m told, working hard to master an unfamiliar brief, until resigning in July 2017 to campaign for mayor.

I keep hearing the same old complaint here that ‘our politicians are all useless, they never do anything for us’ – and it’s true, they’re not producing any of Saakashvili’s grandstanding projects, but it’s quite wrong to say that the government is doing nothing – in a month of travelling around the country I’ve seen roads being built and paved, railway tunnels being excavated, gas supplies being brought to more villages, and museums and theatres closed for major refurbishments. Of course, what people really want is a massive boost to the economy and some serious job creation – and tourism is booming, with guesthouses and hotels bursting at the seams this summer and many more being built. In foreign policy, the government has managed to keep a balance between looking west and not annoying Russia. So what more do people want from their government? I was fascinated to see that the Czechs have also this week elected the billionaire oligarch Andrej Babis to lead their government. Is this all part of the same rebellious phenomenon which led to Brexit and Trump? But in fact the Georgian Dream, having comprehensively outspent the other parties, managed to win just over 50% of the vote in most cities, conveniently avoiding the need for run-off elections.

Anyway, here’s the article (also – with a couple of minor cuts – on the Georgia Today website) – I’ve added a few photos here :

 

Dear Mayor Kaladze, congratulations on your election and the best of luck in your new job. Now it’s time to get to work! I am the author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia and I am currently in Georgia researching the 6th edition of this book. Three years ago I wrote your predecessor, Davit Narmania, an open letter in this newspaper pointing out various problems with Tbilisi’s streets and its transport system and suggesting some ways to tackle them. Very little has been done since then, and the fundamental problem, the addiction of the Tbiliselebis to their cars, has clearly got worse.

There are various reasons for this, but one is that there is absolutely no real enforcement of parking restrictions and other traffic laws – people leave their vehicles wherever they want, on footways, in the middle of roadworks, blocking disabled access points. This is illegal, and in June 2016 your predecessor promised to clear the pavements/sidewalks of parked cars by September of that year – you’ll have noticed that this did not happen. It is simply a matter of enforcement – we know that the Georgian police can be reformed more or less overnight, and they have recently managed to crack down effectively on drinking and driving. I think it’s time to do it again – instead of driving around with loudhailers telling stopped drivers to move on, they should enforce laws against using phones while driving, not wearing seatbelts (sitting on the lapbelt does not count), red-light jumping and speeding – and above all ticket, clamp or tow cars that are parked on the footways and sidewalks. The points-based driving licence is a good start, but only if the police actually take an interest in these offences. And while you’re at it, tell them not to drive around with their emergency lights flashing – otherwise what have you got when it’s a real emergency? As in so many cases, Georgia needs to look at basic standard practice in the countries to the west. Somewhere like, oh, maybe Milano.

The problem, of course, is not just traffic congestion, the fact that it takes so long to get anywhere and then there’s nowhere to park when you get there, it’s also that it’s almost impossible to cycle in Tbilisi or to go out in a wheelchair, and it’s also the fact that the city’s air is foul and dangerous. Georgia has become a repository for Europe’s crappiest worn-out cars – half of the cars in Tbilisi are apparently over 20 years old, and every day another 170 cars enter Georgia, 130 of which are over ten years old. Naturally these are filthy – and as I’m sure you know, an International Energy Agency study identified Georgia as having the world’s highest mortality rate due to air pollution (household and outdoor) in 2012. I was astonished to hear that air pollution is checked at just three sites in Tbilisi, and not 24 hours a day (and that the government roadworthiness test was actually voluntary for over ten years). At least the government is finally acting to restrict the imports of right-hand-drive cars, which are obviously accidents waiting to happen.

The absence of an effective city planning system also creates huge problems – not just the aesthetic impact of out-of-place tower blocks suddenly appearing in residential districts, but also the number of vehicles that suddenly have to use those narrow residential streets, and to find parking spaces – not to mention the pollution caused by the construction process. And the city has to stop selling plots of land off for one Lari – whether to Bidzina Ivanishvili or anyone else, it doesn’t matter, but this just feeds the chaos. Roadworks are another disaster area in the city – I couldn’t believe that pedestrians had been forced to walk right on Rustaveli Avenue without any protective

barriers for the years that the Galleria has been under construction! It’s very easy to oblige contractors to install signs and barriers. Again, look at standard practice to the west.

 

In July 2017 your predecessor produced a Green City Action Plan, aiming to control congestion and construction, to improve bus services (including continuing to replace the old yellow buses with blue ones fuelled by compressed natural gas, as well as introducing bus lanes and bus-priority traffic lights), and to produce a cycling strategy. I live in Cambridge, where over a quarter of the population cycles to work, and this is not unusual across Western Europe. Obviously the kilometre-long cycle track on Pekini Avenue has attracted some derision, with people asking how on earth they’re meant to get to it, but do please stick with it! Yes, a cycling strategy has to be about getting people from door to door, on safe roads throughout, but it’s also important to have some visible headline projects to spread the message. But why is there no indication whether cycling is permitted in the contraflow bus lane on Davit Agmashenebelis? Why is there no cycle route through Rikhe Park, or behind the Public Service Hall – and indeed why can’t we have a riverside route the whole length of the city? Having double three-lane highways on either side of the Mtkvari just feeds the city’s car addiction.

But the first and simplest thing to do is to install cycle parking across the city (but especially at schools and universities) – and proper Sheffield Stands, please, not those thin things we see in a few places now that don’t actually support a bike.

In my letter of three years ago, I asked why so many buses terminated at Baratashvilis Street – couldn’t they be linked up to allow longer more useful journeys that people are currently using cars for? Likewise for the routes terminating at Orbeliani Square – link them up! Keep them moving! But alas, I see nothing has changed – I was at Ortachala the other day, wanting to go to Chugureti – but every single bus was going to Baratashvilis Street. Luckily I was able to change on the embankment to route 31, going to Station Square. And where did it go? To Baratashvilis Street! And then the whole length of Rustaveli, and not to the Marjanishvilis Bridge but all the way to the Circus and Tamar Mepe – so I had quite a walk back to where I wanted to be. I know the ticket inspectors like to do all their checks at Baratashvilis St, but that’s really no reason for all the buses to go there.

At least the airport bus (route 37) is now operated by the bigger new blue buses, a huge help to all the people just trying to get from Rustaveli to Avlabari without waiting at Baratashvilis St. Speaking of the airport, the train is utterly pointless at the moment (I was the only passenger going all the way when I tried it out) – to be any use it has to run hourly (calling at Samgori and Didube for metro and marshrutka connections) to say Gori. If you were really ambitious you could look for a Park-and-Ride site near Mtskheta.

I also mentioned Galaction Tabidze as an example of how NOT to do pedestrianisation – the recently pedestrianised east end of Davit Agmashenebelis is a far better piece of work, so could you please now go back to Tabidze and fix it?

 

 

 

 

 

And I haven’t even mentioned rubbish and recycling! You have lots to do, Mayor Kaladze – good luck!

 

Getting away from it all in Tusheti, Georgia

Train; bus; plane; bus; metro; marshrutka (minibus); taxi; four-wheel-drive – and after about 27 hours travel and almost no sleep I made it to Tusheti, the remotest part of Georgia, across the watershed of the High Caucasus near Daghestan and Azerbaijan. It can only be reached by a four-wheel-drive-only track across a virtually 3,000-metre-high pass that is closed by snow from mid-October to May. I’m here to research a sixth edition of my Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia, and it’s only because I’m huddled in my chilly room without wifi and with just one dim energy-saving light bulb (powered by solar panels that clearly aren’t seeing enough sunlight) that I’m writing this.

Georgia’s other two mountain areas are far more accessible – Kazbegi (or Stepantsminda) on the Georgian Military Highway, the road to Russia, and Svaneti with a road that was totally rebuilt in 2011, cutting the driving time from Zugdidi to Mestia from 6 hours to under 3 – and both are getting pretty busy. Svaneti in particular is easily reached from Kutaisi airport, Georgia’s booming low-cost airline hub, and is attracting considerable numbers of hikers seeking some seriously tough back-country adventure. There are also many new guesthouses in the main town, Mestia, and in other villages, which are busy with tourists seeking a less strenuous, more cultural, experience. Tusheti, however, remains remote and mysterious, and will do so as long as the road remains so rough (no, you can’t fly in, short of chartering a helicopter – while Mestia does have an airport). But now I hear of plans to drive a tunnel through the mountains from Pankisi (which until recently had the reputation of being a hideout for Chechen guerrillas and jihadists, because it has a small Muslim population, although most are peaceful Sufis). If this were ever to happen, it would be a disaster for Tusheti – it would be flooded with tourists, many just on day trips, yet large hotels would be built, and the virgin pine forests would doubtless be plundered. They hope for World Bank funding for the tunnel – if there’s any sign of that, I will be leading the campaign to block it.

When I first went to Svaneti at the end of the 1990s it had a well-earned reputation for lawlessness and banditry, and only a few carefully guided tourists ever went there – the idea that we would now be wanting to protect other areas from Svaneti-style over-touristification would have been utterly laughable. But here we are.

Anyway, it’s bright and cold and very beautiful here – there’s snow already at the end of September and more is falling on the pass. The guesthouse owners are closing up two weeks earlier than usual, nailing up tarpaulins over their balconies and all other openings, and heading down to their winter homes in Kvemo Alvani (where they also grow all the vegetables that are brought up to Tusheti in summer). Many of them can drive down, but all the cows, horses and sheep have to walk over the pass and down, one of the last great transhumances that used to be common in mountain areas around the world but have now almost vanished. They follow the 4WD road, with vehicles forcing their way through, and are still on the move in the dark at 8pm with a couple of herders on foot, while others on horses go ahead and build fires at improvised campsites. Sheep leave first, at the end of September, with the cows and horses following; it takes them three days from Omalo in Tusheti to Kvemo Alvani, where they stay until November. Then they  walk on to the Vashlovani area near the border of Azerbaijan, taking a week, and return to Kvemo Alvani at the end of April. Again the sheep leave first for Tusheti, at the end of May (as soon as it’s possible to hike over the pass), and the cows and horses follow soon after – there’s a great video on YouTube of horses sliding down on their haunches on the snowy slope from the pass. It was a great privilege to see this, and if anyone wants to travel with the herders I can put them in touch with someone who can arrange it.

PS I have just seen that a cheese-maker from Tusheti has won first prize at Slow Food’s cheese festival in Italy – which provides an interesting link to my previous post on Parma and Italian food!

The Abanos Pass

PPS I did also see sheep been taken south over the pass from Kazbegi, so here’s a photo of that, just for the record –

A slice of Parma

Parma is a temple to Italy’s three great loves, food, music and art, and they like to cycle too (even the recent African immigrants, unlike elsewhere in Italy), so what’s not to like? And any town that has a bookshop that’s been open since 1829 (Libreria Fiaccadori, Via al Duomo 8 – open seven days a week, and to midnight from June to August!) is my kind of town.

Starting with food, the Slow Food movement (now prominent worldwide) may have started in Bra, in Piedmont (and been triggered by the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome in 1986), but nowadays Parma has a fair claim to be the epicentre of the movement towards sustainable production of traditional local food and drink, thanks above all to the global fame of its ham and cheese, and the measures put in place to protect them from competition, above all from the rapacious and unscrupulous global agroindustry. I speak, of course, of prosciutto crudo di Parma (Parma ham) and Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese). I won’t go into details, but in order to gain the EU’s Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (Designation of Protected Origin), producers have to follow a very specific process for sourcing and processing these foodstuffs, and can then command a premium price for them. Parma has also been designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

A similar concept to Slow Food is Cucina Povera or Poor Cooking – not just peasant cooking (which is usually great, worldwide, except perhaps in North Korea) but a specific adaptation to the poverty of peasants in Italy in the late nineteenth century (the time of the great migration to the USA. of course) and after the two world wars – people learnt to cook with the cheapest ingredients, such as potatoes, beans and lentils, with any meat used coming from offcuts. This has now become fashionable as a way to cut excess, to get back to a simple traditional lifestyle, and simply as a healthier option.

Anyway, the best Parma ham comes from the hills to the south of the city, especially the Langhirano valley, where there are around 500 authorised producers (and a ham museum in Langhirano village), and also to the north along the River Po, where the ultra-lean culatello ham is produced. Parmesan cheese is produced on the plains north of the city, and there’s also been a large tomato-processing industry in the area since the nineteenth century. Some local dishes include tortelli d’erbetta (ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese, nutmeg and spinach), tortellini filled with pumpkin and savoury cheese and served with a butter sauce, and torta fritta, fried dough pillows served with thin slices of Parma ham. Some dishes come with an appropriate amount of shaved Parmesan on top – do not wantonly smother your food with grated Parrmesan, that’s as dumb as drowning it in ketchup. And putting Parmesan on pizza is a crime against gastronomy. Speaking of pizza, it’s acceptable to have a beer (just one) with pizza, but otherwise you should drink wine with Italian food. Quite right too. Lambrusco is one of the local wines, and nothing like what you imagine – it’s still spritzy (but many Italian table wines actually have a bit of fizz to them, surprisingly) but the dry and semi-dry (secco and semisecco) styles go really well with local food.

It’s easy to visit producers, especially with the TastyBus Foodseeing tour or similar. I’ll say more about Italian food (and beer) below.

As for music, Parma’s main claim to fame is that Guiseppe Verdi was born nearby, and there’s an annual festival of his music in the city – but the lyric soprano Renata Tebaldi was also born nearby and studied at Parma’s conservatoire. There was a Tebaldi exhibition in the castle of Torrechiara in Langhirano, but this was replaced in 2014 by a new museum dedicated to her at the Villa Pallavicino in Busseto. The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena, just down the road.

And finally (and rather lengthily) art – the Galleria Nazionale has a great collection, including a simply perfect representation of ideal beauty by Leonardo da Vinci – there’s much less Flemish and Dutch art here then in Genova and Torino, and more Gothic and Renaissance Italian art. It’s housed in the huge red-brick Palazzo della Pilota, which was remodelled internally between the 1970s and 1990s by the local architect Guido Canali – you enter through the remarkably large Teatro Farnese, built in 1619 and rebuilt in 1956 after damage in World War II, then a funky metal walkway leads backstage and across to the gallery. The earlier old masters include Daddi and Gaddi, Veneziano, Spinello Aretino and Fra Angelico (his lovely Madonna of Humility) and Giovanni di Paolo, Bici di Lorenzo and Neri de Bici; there’s an Annunciation by someone close to Botticelli, and nice pieces by Jacopo Loschi, the leading Parmesan painter of the second half of the fifteenth century, straddling the Late Gothic and the early Renaissance. After La Scapiliata, Leonardo’s lovely head of a young girl, I found that the rooms beyond in the north wing were closed except for a group visit at 5pm – I don’t know if this is a permanent arrangement. Until then, I went out past some portraits of the later Bourbon rulers of Parma to a fine Neoclassical hall (1825, with Canova’s statue of Maria Luigia of Austria (Duchess of Parma 1816-47) and a massive muscular second-century Hercules found in 1724 on the Palatine Hill in Rome) and then the galleries created by Maria Luigia to display the works of Correggio (c.1489-1534), the leading painter of the Parma School, though these are too sentimental for my taste. There’s also work by Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, 1503-40), the leading early Mannerist painter (and one of the first etchers), who was as his nickname implies born in Parma. You’ll also see Agostino Carracci (brother of the better-known Anibale), who died in Parma in 1602.

Returning at 5pm, the lower part of the northwest wing houses less important fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists from Parma and the Po area, such as Alessandro Araldi, Cristoforo Caselli, Filippo Mazzola (father of Parmigianino), Dosso Dossi and the rather twee Il Garofalo from Ferrara. Upstairs, there are works by Michelangelo Anselmi (1491-1554), who was born in Lucca only because his father was exiled from Parma, and was living here by 1520. Slightly surprisingly, there’s also a portrait of Erasmus by the studio of Holbein. Another metal walkway leads up to a former hayloft, now a great space for displaying larger paintings – there are portraits of the ruling Farnese family by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli (c.1500-69), a Mannerist who was born and lived in Parma, marrying Parmigianino’s cousin, as well as works by Annibale Carracci (the better-known one – a small self-portrait and a big Dead Christ), Frans Pourbus the Older, Tintoretto, Palma Il Giovane, Agostino Carracci and Lambert Sustris – there must be a law that every gallery in northern Italy has exactly one work by this Venice-based Dutch painter. Don’t miss the small but very striking El Greco of Christ Healing the Blind (1573-6). Other local artists include Giovanni Battista Tinti (1558-1604) and Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), who moved to Rome and adopted the new Baroque style.

Going down and back, there’s work by Guercino, various seventeenth-century portraits including some from the studio of van Dyck, then the usual slew of dull eighteenth-century paintings before reaching Tiepolo, Bellotto (four definitely by him plus two attributed) and Canaletto, with various views of Parma (from the 1860s) and prints from 1557 on as you head for the exit.

Parma’s second-best gallery is the Pinacoteca Stuard, in a wing of the tenth-century Benedictine nunnery of San Paolo, which has a less locally-focussed collection including works by Niccolo di Tommaso, Bicci di Lorenzo, Giovanni di Francesco (formerly attributed to Uccello), Van Eyck, a follower of Lippi, Parmigianino and Domenichino, and upstairs Lanfranco, Valerio Castello (from Genova) and a follower of Guercino. On the other side of the nunnery, you can visit the abbess’s rooms, decorated by Correggio et al in 1519 then shut up and forgotten from 1524 to 1774 – there’s a copy of the Last Supper by Alessandro Araldi, then after the chapterhouse (with good carved stalls), a room with the vault painted by Araldi and then the highlight, the Camera di San Paolo, where Correggio decorated the vault of the abbess’s private dining room to simulate a pergola with vivacious mythological frescoes that are considered one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art. The pagan subject matter seems out of place in a nunnery, but San Paolo’s convent was known for good living and lax rules. While there, it’s also worth popping into the Castello dei Burratini, a free museum of puppetry with a good video of a puppet playing the piano and puppeteers working and singing too.


In 1530-4 Correggio also painted the cupola of the duomo (cathedral), which was consecrated in about 1106, with a Gothic campanile added in 1284-94 and side chapels in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The apse was painted by Bedoli, as well as the vaults of the choir and the nave (c.1557). The interior is totally covered with frescoes, some very Mannerist in style; there are some older ones in side chapels such as the Capella del Comune. Alongside the duomo is the amazing Baptistery, a highlight of the transition from Romanesque to early Gothic architecture. It was built in 1196-1216 and decorated then with sculptures by Benedetto Antelanni and his workshop – the seemingly random sculptures in niches all around the base of the Baptistery is known as the Zooforo (or zoophorus), a series of 75 panels of symbolic and fantastical subjects. The highlight is its umbrella vault, frescoed in the 1220s with sixteen segments radiating from the keystone and six concentric horizontal bands, depicting scenes from the life of Abraham; the life of John the Baptist; Christ in Glory with the Virgin and the Baptist, prophets and kings; the Apostles and Evangelists; the celestial Jerusalem; and heaven with a red bullseye at the top representing the Empyrean.

Your ticket includes the Diocesan Museum, which is small but decent enough (with information in Italian only) – you’ll go down to the foundations of some third-century Roman walls and then see Roman coins and ceramics from the cathedral area, then carvings from the first churches, fairly simple mosaics – and thankfully no vestments, which are what I always expect to see in diocesan museums!

There’s more Correggio in the church of St John the Evangelist behind the duomo, where the cupola frescoes were painted by the man himself in 1520-24 and the nave frieze by his studio, while the Bono chapel (the fifth on the right) houses two Correggio canvases; the nave vault was painted by Anselmi (1521-3). The chancel is very Baroque, and the façade was added in 1607 and the 75m-high campanile in 1613. Finally, Pamigianino was commissioned to paint the frescoes of the cupola of Santa Maria della Steccata, built in 1521-39 – he only finished the Three Wise and Three Foolish Virgins (1526-7), high in front of the altar, which show remarkable skill in modelling.

A few thoughts about (salty and bitter) Italian food

When I travel in France or Switzerland I’m used to waking up a couple of times in the night to drink water, due to what is for me (who basically doesn’t use salt) over-salted cooking. In Italy I wake up five or six times a night, the food really is that salty. I do always claim that Italian food, especially in the south, is the world’s best food for vegetarians, but in the dark of the night it can seem like hard work. Of course, Italians also like bitter coffee (cappuccino is famously served only in the mornings, after that you have to take it strong and bitter) – happily there is an alternative, as Italy serves up the world’s best hot chocolates, some so thick you could almost stand a spoon up in the cup. (Forget about tea, they don’t have a clue.) They also have a thing about after-dinner digestivos, also known as amaro (‘bitter’), just to make the point clear.

Thankfully, there are some pleasantly light and sparkling pre-dinner drinks – the cocktail of the year seems to be the Hugo, a blend of gin, prosecco and elderflower cordial with tonic or soda water. You can also order a Black Hugo (reddish, really), with forest fruits. There are also some excessively sweet after-dinner drinks, such as moscato.

It is worth stressing that gelato is both unsalted and lower in fat than ice cream – definitely tasty and healthy, as far as pure indulgence goes. As it happens I’m writing this in Georgia, where the food is also wonderful for vegetarians (there’ll be a dish of meat, but it’s just set down on the table surrounded by wonderful salads and other vegetable dishes, and you just pick and choose what you want) – and most of the food is not particularly salty, apart from the cheese, which is … hard work.

Italian friends want me to mention that there’s been a craft beer revolution since the 1990s, but… no, I don’t think so. There are a few interesting breweries, some working closely with artisan food producers in the spirit of the Slow Food movement (see the Unionbirrai website), but basically beer remains something to be drunk with pizza, and Italian custom doesn’t really allow it to break out of that straightjacket. Having said that, it’s not just industrial yellow beer – acceptable red beers such as Moretti Rosso are widely available.