Family and food in Victoria BC

I remember, over a decade ago, taking the ferry from Bellingham, Washington, up the Inside Passage to Juneau on my way to update the Rough Guide to Alaska. A fantastic (freebie) trip, with endless vistas of pine-clad mountains vanishing into wispy cloud, and some whales and bald eagles – but before that we had to pass between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Locals call it all ‘the ocean’, but this is in fact the Georgia Strait (and part of the Salish Sea). Anyway, to the east there was a pall of smog over the Lower Fraser Valley, where Vancouver sits, but to the west all was clear. No doubt it’s partly because the Pacific breezes can clear the fumes more effectively, but even so it was a moment of realisation that despite all the very cool aspects of life in Vancouver (see my next post), Victoria would be where I’d rather spend time. I’ve known the city since I was very young (indeed I spent a term at elementary school there) and it’s a place I could still live in.

My latest visit – the first time I’ve been thinking in terms of writing about the place – brought a couple of themes to mind. The first is that it has some interesting similarities with my home town of Cambridge (UK) – above all the simple fact that both are growing too fast, with unaffordable housing costs and creaking infrastructure. Cambridge has recently been bundled up with neighbouring dormitory villages as the Greater Cambridge Partnership (formerly the Greater Cambridge City Deal) while Greater Victoria is now the Capital Regional District. Victoria has always been the capital of British Columbia, but it used to be a very quiet place, with not a lot going on when the legislature wasn’t in session (Vancouver has always been the economic powerhouse, of course). Nowadays, tech and other new industries have brought an inrush of educated younger people, and tourism has also grown a lot, with three or four cruise ships a day docking in summer. Almost 10,000 people moved to Greater Victoria between 2015 and 2017, and suddenly we find there’s a population of 384,000 (against 250,000 in Greater Cambridge). The price of an average two-storey house in Victoria in 2017 was 11.1% higher than in 2016, at C$741,924. Both places have a shortage of affordable housing, and in both places the tech-savvy millennials don’t want to be out in the suburbs, they want to be within walking or cycling distance of work and pubs; they’re more outdoorsy in Victoria, not surprisingly, but there’s a shared cycling/microbrew vibe.

The other thing I noticed this time was that family and continuity are a surprisingly important feature. It’s easy to think that everything in North America has just appeared fully formed in the last few years (well, decades), but of course places like this have fairly ancient roots – and that’s before you look at the First Nations culture that’s been here for at least 4,000 years. In my first day here we happened to visit The Dutch Bakery (founded in 1955, now run by the third generation of the Schaddelee family), Robinson’s Outdoor Store (founded in 1929 and recently handed over to the fourth generation of the Robinson family), Rogers’ Chocolates (founded in 1885 and still proudly family-owned, though admittedly not by the Rogers family), Russell Books (founded in Montréal in 1961 and now run by the third generation), and Munro’s Books (founded in 1963 by Jim and Alice Munro and handed over to four senior staff members in 2014). As an aside, Victoria is incredibly lucky to have such great bookshops – Russell Books is a wonderful warren of a place that claims to be Canada’s largest secondhand bookshop (although 30% of its stock is new), while Munro’s, in its beautifully restored Neoclassical bank building, is slightly more upmarket – it was founded by Jim and Alice Munro, but in 1972 they divorced and Alice returned to her native southwestern Ontario which provided such a rich vein of material for her writing that she only ended up winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Then there’s Ivy’s Bookshop in Oak Bay, where my grandparents lived (founded in 1964 and still going strong, although the legendary Ivy is no more); and there’s a decent university bookshop at UVic too.

I also came across Viberg (founded in 1931 and now run by the third generation), who produce amazing handmade boots, Mattick’s Farm, founded in the 1940s and now known as a fine restaurant and shopping centre, and Mosi Bakery and Ottavio, descendants of The Italian Bakery, founded in 1925. The Butchart Gardens, Vancouver Island’s biggest tourist attraction with over a million visitors a year (not all of them off cruise ships) was founded in 1921 by Jennie Butchart and is now owned by her great-granddaughter. All excellent establishments, which I hope says something about the slightly deeper-rooted unAmerican way things are done here.

Winter illuminations at the Butchart Gardens
Food and drink

A local freebie foodie magazine claims that BC is the healthiest Canadian province and the third healthiest place on earth, and puts it down to healthy eating. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they. Personally I think it’s more due to exercise, as a lot of people walk every day, in addition to the more exciting activities. I was delighted to see Rebar still there on Bastion Square after over 30 years (that continuity thing again). There are lots of other juice and smoothie bars – haskap, also known as honeyberry or blue honeysuckle, is the new superfood, it seems – you heard it here first. In the meantime people here use cranberries with everything! At least in the run-up to Christmas – in baking, salads, sauce, juiced and as craisins (dried, like raisins). Blueberries are also available. There’s a strong foodie culture in Victoria, centred on the Food Eco District (FED…), a 3 by 4 blocks area between Broughton, Johnson, Douglas and Quadra Streets that’s home to independent, sustainability-minded, restaurants and cafés, as well as urban gardens. Fishhook exemplifies the local version of fusion cuisine, fish and seafood with Asian spices (the mussels vin’daloo also uses white wine, as you might guess) – it’s very popular and is now opening a second branch at Mermaid Wharf.

We ate at the excellent Royal Spice – its owners ran the very popular Masala Bites downtown, which closed due to an excess of mice on the premises (now known as Mousalagate…) – they also offer calamari pakora and mussels curry, as well as the standards. And yet it’s surprisingly hard to find basic spices such as fenugreek in the regular food stores here.

Dark Matter at the Royal Spice

Brunch is the other big thing on the Victoria food scene, with apparently over 100 cafés, restaurants and pubs offering the mid-morning equivalent of high tea. But it can be hard to tell, as restaurants start filling up for lunch from 11.30 or even earlier – and people eat at 6 or 6.30 in the evenings.

As you’d expect, I also checked out the beer, and I was impressed. Admittedly I was mainly drinking from bottles, not draught, but Hoyne’s Dark Matter was a favourite, and the slightly less dark Creepy Uncle Dunkel (from Moon Underwater), Scotch Ale (Wolf Brewery, Nanaimo) and Race Rocks amber (Lighthouse Brewing Company) were good too. Another Victoria brewery is Phillips, whose beers are apparently good (they opened their own maltworks in 2015, and have a tasting room opening early in 2018); they also have the Phillips Fermentarium Distillery, but I’m told their tonic waters are awful. The Île Sauvage brewery, opening in spring 2018 on Bridge St in Rock Bay, will specialise in sour beers, something I’ve only come across in Berlin – they were great for a hot summer’s day, but I’m not sure about them for all-year drinking.

Liechtenstein – little but quite lovely

Having knocked off a swift post on Davos a couple of months back, I thought I should do something similar on the next place I stopped, Liechtenstein (its capital, Vaduz, is almost an anagram of Davos, but not quite). It’s taken a while, but anyway, here it is. I’ve been there a few times in the past when updating the Switzerland chapter of the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, and always enjoyed it. I used to stay, courtesy of the Swiss youth hostels association, in Schaan, a few kilometres north of Vaduz and rather livelier and less stuffy, I’m told. There is some striking modern architecture in both towns. Vaduz really is tiny and there are only a couple of good hotels and no really cheap ones. The other alternative, apart from Schaan, is the Malbun ski resort (at 1600m), which can be reached all year round by Liechtenstein’s excellent bus system (30 minutes by the hourly bus 21). Most of the principality lies on the flood plain of the Rhine (which forms the border with Switzerland), but on the eastern (Austrian) side there are some seriously impressive mountains and good hiking opportunities.

The only real development since my last visit, in terms of the tourist experience, is the opening in 2015 of the Hilti Art Foundation, essentially an extension of the main art gallery in Vaduz, the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein (they’re linked by a short tunnel). There’s a similar focus on twentieth-century art, largely Germanic (Hodler, Kirchner, Kandinsky, Beckmann and Klee) as well as Léger, Giacometti and Picasso. Kirchner, of course, was the main attraction in Davos. Hilti is Liechtenstein’s only internationally known company, selling its power tools and fasteners worldwide. There’s also an excellent sushi bar at the art museum!

I also visited the Prince’s Kunstkammer or Treasure Chamber (also on Vaduz’s one pedestrian street, Städtle) for the first time. Opened in 2015, it has a pretty rigorous security set-up – you enter one by one through a security gate using tokens sold at the nearby tourist office (CHF8 each; free for under-16s). There’s a replica of the crown, which was made in 1626 and stolen in 1781, lots of Fabergé (etc) eggs, guns and prints – nothing too thrilling. The family’s main collection is in Vienna where they lived until 1938, when they established themselves here and gained credit for shepherding the principality through the Second World War without provoking a German invasion. The princely castle, set dramatically above Vaduz, is not open to visitors, but I do recommend the National Museum, beautifully presented in two historic buildings and a modern extension. The Lichtensteiner Brewery is also not bad, with a fairly decent Weissbier among other beers.

Squeezed between Austria and Switzerland, Liechtenstein has a Customs Union with Switzerland, uses the Swiss Franc as its currency and seems a bit Swiss in terms of its infrastructure and general efficiency; however the railway which runs across the country is operated by the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB). This was totally closed for trackwork for the whole of June 2017, and it now takes just five minutes to cover the nine kilometres across the principality. It’s a shame that the hereditary prince or his transport minions didn’t take the opportunity to lengthen the platforms at Schaan and request the ÖBB to stop the Zürich-Wien RailJet trains there – at the moment the only service is a local shuttle between Sargans and Feldkirch which runs nine times a day each way, Mondays to Fridays only. You don’t need to use this – get off at Sargans (Switzerland) or Feldkirch (Austria) and catch bus no.11 which links the two via Vaduz and Schaan.

A short stay in Svaneti

I’m now in Svaneti, the best known of Georgia’s mountain regions, both because of the stunning views of Europe’s highest peaks (Elbruz – although that’s wholly in Russia – Ushba, Shkhara and Tetnuldi, all over 4,700m in altitude) and because of its rugged and authentic mountain culture. When I first came here in 1998 it literally was bandit country and you couldn’t go out of town without a guide and not at all at night – now it’s quite the opposite and tourists are flocking here, although there are a few complaints about over-charging… New guesthouses are sprouting up everywhere and from the sound of it it’s pretty hard to find a bed in August without a reservation. There’s a new ski resort too (the second one here) so it’s getting pretty busy in winter too.

Evening light on Tetnuldi, seen from Mestia

One thing that made a huge difference was the rebuilding of the road in from Zugdidi to Mestia in 2011 – the journey time was halved, from six hours to three, and it became much more comfortable and less stressful. Now the concrete surface is decaying, and only being repaired where absolutely necessary, possibly due to its being yet another of former President Saakashvili’s signature projects that the the present government prefers to forget about.

The phrase ‘daylight robbery’ may still be applied to the marshrutkas from Zugdidi to Mestia, which still charge 20 lari. This was fair enough when it took six hours, but it really should have been cut when the new road was completed – the fact that it costs only 5 lari more to go to Kutaisi and 35 lari to go all the way to Tbilisi makes this pretty obvious.

I’ve also just been in Racha, another lovely wild mountain district to the east of Svaneti – there’s no risk of a tourism boom here until the road along the Rioni river from Kutaisi is rebuilt (although there is a decent road from the Tbilisi direction). Marshrutkas charge 7 lari from Kutaisi to Oni, which currently takes 3 hours, the same as Zugdidi to Mestia (and 9 lari to Oni, half an hour further).

All in all, there’s a serious risk of overcrowding in Svaneti, with tourist numbers destroying the thing they’re seeking. Once you’ve seen the back alleys of Mestia and Ushguli, with their medieval defensive towers looming above, the best thing is to go hiking, and that is still a great way to get away from the crowds and enjoy the scenery. The Trans Caucasian Trail is an inspiring volunteer project to create a through-hiking route along the lines of the Appalachian Trail, for backpackers willing to carry a tent and supplies for several days (although in some places it’s possible to hike from village guesthouse to village guesthouse). This summer (2017) their trail crews were working to the west of Mestia, where there are far fewer hikers than to the east – there’s already a popular four-day route from Mestia to Ushguli, which can be done village-to-village without camping. There’ll be more on this in the new edition of my Bradt guide to Georgia, of course.

One clear benefit of this kind of project is that some villages which had been virtually abandoned, with just a few people coming up to graze cattle in summer, have been revived, with inhabitants returning because of the opportunities brought by tourism.

Svaneti has free electricity, a Soviet bribe to allow construction of the huge Enguri hydro-electric dam (the power is also shared with the secessionist region of Abkhazia, but that’s another story) – and the inevitable result is that the switching and transmission gear is more or less unmaintained and power-cuts are frequent (if not too long). More dams are coming to Svaneti, despite protests at the lack of environmental scrutiny, so the electricity will probably continue to be free, but I’d be happier to see them investing in solar power, as in Tusheti. Internet access is also very unreliable, and the water supply tends to be fairly low pressure. All of this, of course, must be linked to the huge increase in the number of visitors. All in all, it’s great to see people flocking to these stunning mountains, but the tourism boom needs to be managed a bit better.

How to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. [It’s rather gratifying – this picture was picked up by another blog and got talked about a lot, so that the mayor of Mestia had to say he’d at least get the blue roof painted over. It turns out the house was built by a Svan living in the USA who soon died, alas.]
More sympathetic guesthouse construction in Mestia

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.

Uruguay updated

The brand-new third edition of my Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay has just landed on my desk, and it looks great! This is one of the four guidebooks I’m still actively involved with (Uruguay and Georgia for Bradt, Romania and Wales for the Rough Guides), and as all four of them are in theory on a three-year updating cycle it’s clear that I can’t just do one update per year. This year I did Wales in the spring (well, two chapters of it – see here) and am off now in the autumn to do Georgia – but I decided that I didn’t want to go to Uruguay as well, so Bradt found the estimable Sean Connolly to step in for this edition. he’s added an interesting new box on border disputes (p.355) and new material on nature reserves in the far north-west. I’m grateful to him for doing such a thorough job, as updaters can sometime be a bit shy.

Looking at the proofs a couple of months ago, I was amazed by how well I could visualise almost everywhere – it was like a tour of the country in three days. No need for virtual reality headsets! And it is a lovely country, I really enjoyed my virtual visit. It was also interesting how many typos there were in the previous edition – clearly it was finished in a bit of a rush. This one is much better.

So what’s new? The world’s only 3D meat museum, it seems (in Montevideo, page 141). And on the same page, the Museo Andes 1972, telling the story of the October 1972 plane crash high in the Andes and the 72-day struggle to survive of the Uruguayan rugby players and others on board. There are also lots of new hostels – the Hostel Punta Ballena Bar (p.214) seems particularly good, while the marijuana-themed THC Hostel (p.234) may be of interest to some – Uruguay has legalised marijuana for residents, but is keen not to encourage marijuana tourism. In the Colonia area, just across the estuary from Buenos Aires, La Posadita de la Plaza (p.288) seems very interesting, and there are lots of niche gourmet places outside Colonia such as Le Moment Posada Boutique (p.290). There are also new nature reserves in the far northwest of the country, a new bus terminal in Paysandú and one under construction in Tacuarembó.

A few things have come up since we finished editing – from next year Norwegian will be flying from London to Buenos Aires – this will probably become the cheapest route to Uruguay. And, less importantly, in the world of soccer, Manchester United defender Guillermo Varela has rejoined Peñarol in Montevideo, and Gus Poyet resigned a few weeks ago as manager of Shanghai Shenhua. Edinson Cavani, until now the star striker at Paris St-Germain, is having to adjust to playing alongside Brazilian superstar Neymar.

And it seems that I have written an e-book (my first!) on Montevideo – actually it’s just the Montevideo text (and a bit more) from the previous edition of Uruguay, but it may be useful to somebody. It actually came out in 2014, so I assume a new edition will be out before too long.

Davos – just dropping in

I spend a lot of time in Switzerland every summer (on expenses, thank goodness), usually going to familiar towns and hiking routes, and I have nothing new to say about them – but I did manage a quick visit to somewhere new and vaguely interesting this year. Davos used to be known for TB sanatoria and as the setting of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and as a ski resort (some people confuse it with neighbouring Klosters, thinking this is where the British royal family ski). Now it seems to be better known for the World Economic Forum, where the likes of Bill Gates, George Soros and Bono confer with the world’s political and industrial leaders. We actually stayed in the Intercontinental, where the high-fliers stay during the WEF – it looms over the town like a cruise liner over Venice, but its design is actually said to be inspired by a pine-cone. It’s very comfortable, but you probably didn’t need to be told that. We usually stay in the more historic Hotel Schatzalp, also sitting a funicular ride above the town. There are plenty of other hotels, and a youth hostel, now rebranded as Youthpalace Davos.

However for me the main interest, apart from excellent hiking, was discovering that the painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had lived here for the last two decades of his life. He came in 1917 after suffering a breakdown while serving in the German army, and lived here until his suicide in 1938 – he had been targeted by the Nazis in the notorious Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937, which attacked Jewish and modernist artists. I knew about Kirchner’s earlier career due to writing the Bradt guide to Dresden, where he had co-founded Die Brücke (The Bridge), the group which created German Expressionism. Here in Davos he developed a late style which was more abstract and emblematic, and much less angst-ridden than early Expressionism – I liked it very much. There’s a selection of these works in the small but perfectly formed Kirchner Museum, a simple glass-box design with bare concrete walls inside which has won various architectural awards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s also the admirable Heimat Museum, covering traditional local life and history (and less than half the cost of the Kirchner Museum), and a Winter Sports Museum, which I haven’t visited.

Most of the town’s restaurants seem to be Italian – we ate at Da Elio and Der Pate (The Godfather, with plenty of moody shots of Marlon Brando), both busy and cheery and exactly what Italian restaurants should be. The food was excellent too (pizza, pasta and more), and the prices were fair for Switzerland. I couldn’t help noticing that there’s a large number of mini-supermarkets here (and bigger ones too) – there are multiple branches of Co-op, Spar, Migros and Migrolino (a mini-Migros, on railway stations and so on).

Did I say excellent hiking??

Genoa or Genova?

After a summer in which the media (the Guardian in particular – see this and this) carried regular reports on how cities like Venice (and Florence, and Barcelona, and others) were so overwhelmed by tourism that there are now anti-tourism protests and demands for local authorities to restrict tourist numbers, it seemed that I should suggest Genova as an alternative to Venice. (I prefer to use the local names, eg Genova, but it seems a bit pointless in the case of Venezia.) After all, they were the two great maritime trading republics of Renaissance Italy, and both have a wonderful legacy of art and architecture from their heydays. But in the end I have to admit that there are clear and obvious reasons why Venice is likely to receive (‘welcome’ would not be the right word) 20 million tourists this year and Genova is not. Venice is simply one of the most beautiful and magical places in the world, while Genova is a crowded workaday port where tourism is just a minor business.

While Venice was establishing colonies and trading settlements in the Adriatic and Eastern Mediterranean, Genova was doing the same, in the Black Sea and Crimea (where I came across their traces while writing my guides to Ukraine and Georgia) and also in Corsica, as mentioned here. By the mid-fourteenth century these had mostly been lost to the advancing Ottomans, and Genova’s merchants moved into banking, in particular providing the kingdom of Spain with large loans at very high interest rates, only affordable because of the flow of gold from South America. Spain gradually forced a change to longer-term loans at much lower rates, but Genova and its bankers became immensely rich and spent the wealth on art and culture, so that the period from 1560 to 1640 became known as the Genoese century.

This was when Genova’s own World Heritage Site, known as the Strade Nuove and the Palazzi dei Rolli, was created – the Strada Nouva or New Street (now Strada Garibaldi) was laid out after 1550 on the hilly edge of the then city (it has now climbed right up every available hill in the area, requiring a slightly Valparaíso-esque system of funiculars and escalators to reach them all), but the term Strade Nuove (plural) also includes Via Cairoli and Via Balbi. They were created to allow the city’s leading families to build immense new palaces – they were listed on official Rolls (Rolli) that obliged them to take turns hosting official guests to the city, rather than building an official government police. Now 42 palaces (of well over 100 in all) are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List; the tourist office organises regular tours, but the easiest and most obvious ones to visit are the three housing the city’s art galleries – get your ticket from the shop in the Palazzo Bianco then start with the Palazzo Rosso, across the road, before returning to the Palazzo Bianco and the linked Palazzo Tursi. Most of the palazzi were built by 1588, but the Rosso and Bianco were built a century later. In 1622 Rubens had published a famous and very influential book of engravings of the Palazzi di Genova, quite a feat seeing how hard it is to photograph the palazzi on this narrow street, less than 8m wide (see below).

 

The Palazzo Rosso was built for the two Brignole-Sale brothers, so it has two equally grand piani nobili or reception floors – the lower is a pure art gallery, while the upper has more of the original décor. They have some of the big names of the Italian Renaissance here – Andrea del Sarto, Bassano, Guercino, Sassoferrato, Titian, Tintoretto (circle of) and Veronese, as well as a surprisingly good portrait of a gentleman by an unknown Venetian from the end of the sixteenth century or the start of the seventeenth – scholars still have plenty of work to do. There are also, of course, various Genoese artists who weren’t bad at all, the best being Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), as well as Bernardo Castello (1557-1629), Cesare Corte (1550-1613), and the eighteenth-century sculptors Bernardo and Francesco Schiaffino. There’s also a good crop of Flemish art, as is quite normal in Italy due to the large numbers of northern artists travelling south. Here we have a good portrait by Willem Key (1515-68), who I hadn’t come across before, an uninspiring Deposition from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, who I usually find wonderful, plus Joos van der Cleve, Frans Pourbus, Hendrick Avercamp, Abraham Teniers, a series of the months of the year by Jan Wildens and, not exactly Flemish, a Dürer portrait of a young man. Upstairs they also have seven portraits of the Borgnone-Sale family by van Dyck, who spent the years 1621 to 1627 in Genova. Next you should take the lift to the 6th floor and go up to the rooftop viewpoint, for great photos of the city, and in particular the narrow Strada Nuova and its palaces. Then it’s down to the 4th floor to visit a couple of apartments, one with family portraits, big Chinese vases and library furniture (c.1840) by Henry Thomas Peters, and the other created in 1955 for the museum’s director, with a mix of modern (notably the fireplace) and ancient.

In the Palazzo Bianco (also built for the Brignone-Sale family) there are more paintings by Luca Cambiaso (including a self-portrait) and Veronese, plus Palma Il Giovane, Caravaggio and Simon Vouet; on the second floor the focus is on Tuscany, with a very striking Filippino Lippi (of Saints Sebastian, John the Baptist and Francis; 1503) facing the top of the stairs, and a Vasari portrait, as well as works by the three Spaniards Zurbarán, Ribera and Murillo, and more Flemish and Dutch art, including paintings by Gerard David, Jan Provoost, Joos van Cleve, Jan Matsys, Joos de Momper, Nicolaes Maes, Jan Steen and Aer van der Meer, as well as van Dyck, Rubens and Memling. There are more Genoese artists, Gioacchino Assereto (1600–49), Orazio de Ferrari (1606-57), and moving into the Baroque period Valerio Castello (1624-59), Domenico Piola (1628-1703) and his son Pablo Gerolamo Piola (1666-1724). A modern tunnel (with exhibits of textiles and stone carvings) takes you to the Palazzo Tursi via the garden, with a few remains of the church of San Francisco in Castellotto (1255-1302), burial place of the first doge of Genova, Simone Boccanegra, and of the Empress Margaret of Brabant, who died of plague here in 1311.

The Palazzo Tursi (1565-79) has a few eighteenth-century works, including by the Genoese Gregorio de Ferrari (c.1647–1726) and Alessandro Magnasco (1667-1749), plus Canova’s sculpture of the Penitent Magdalene (c.1795), which was wildly popular at the time (Stendhal called it ‘the greatest work of modern times’) but also highly controversial due to the use of a metal crucifix and, apparently, waxed hair, blurring the boundaries of art and nature. There are also exhibits of weights and measures from the fifteenth century on, medals, coins, pharmacy jars and dishes, seventeenth-century Brussels tapestries and finally the Paganini room, celebrating the first great virtuoso violinist, born in Genova in 1782 – the centrepiece is his legendary Cannone (Canon) violin, made by Guarneri in 1743.

You can also visit a couple of palaces on via Balbi, notably the Palazzo Reale (or Palazzo Stefano Balbi), which was built between 1643 and 1650 and enlarged after 1824 when became the Genova home of the House of Savoy (rulers of Piedmont, Sardinia, and from 1861 of the united Italy). It probably retains more of its original furnishings and frescoes than any other of the city’s palaces (although they could do with sprucing up), and there’s a fine art collection here too, including paintings by Bernardo Strozzi, Bassano, Tintoretto, Luca Giordano, van Dyck and Guercino, and sculptures by Filippo Parodi. Across the road, it’s worth stepping into the courtyard of the Palazzo dell’Universita, built in 1634-40 for the Jesuits, and as grand a palace as any in the city – it’s no wonder they were expelled a century later. Since 1775 it has been the seat of the city’s university, and you’re free to look in and admire the lions on Parodi’s grand staircase.

It’s not far from via Balbi to the Villa Principe, also known as the Palazzo de Andrea Doria, near the railway station on Piazza del Principe – this was begun in 1529 by Andrea Doria, the great admiral of the Habsburg Empire, who was able to walk from the port to his palace through his magnificent gardens. After extensive bomb damage during World War II (hmmm, maybe being so close to the docks wasn’t such a great idea after all) the gardens have been beautifully restored to their seventeenth-century condition, with the imposing Fountain of Neptune (1601) as their centrepiece, and can be visited without payment. The villa (which you do have to pay to visit) was decorated internally with mythological frescoes and plasterwork by Perino del Vaga (a pupil of Raphael, who later became the leading painter in Rome), as well as seventeenth-century tapestries and paintings by del Piombo, Bronzino and Piola. The Habsburg emperor Charles V was a regular guest here of Andrea Doria, and in 1877 the villa became the winter home of the composer Giuseppe Verdi.

Finally, you shouldn’t miss the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), between Piazza Matteoti and Piazza De Ferrari, not because it is old and beautiful – it was largely rebuilt in Neoclassical style after a fire in 1777 – but because it houses an excellent programme of exhibitions and events.

Between Strada Garibaldi and the old port is the old town of Genova, a maze of alleys that used to be a filthy and dangerous no-go area; now it’s seeing some gentrification and has certainly been thoroughly cleaned up. At its heart is the duomo or cathedral of San Lorenzo, begun c.1098, consecrated in 1118 and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1296. The façade was completed in 1312, in what looks to me like a Pisan Gothic style (with a fine carving of the Martyrdom of San Lorenzo above the main door dating from c.1255), but much of the Romanesque interior remains. In the north aisle, the Chapel of St John the Baptist (1492-1608) is a little Renaissance masterpiece, with a statue by Domenico Gagini and a grand baldachino (1532-41). For a Brit, one interesting sight is an unexploded 15-inch shell near the southeastern corner of the cathedral – it was fired from HMS Malaya in a raid on the docks in February 1941, but went slightly astray. Naturally the fact that it failed to explode was ascribed to the Virgin Mary.

As for other churches, San Luca was rebuilt in 1626-50 and totally covered in frescoes by Piola, and there’s a sculpture of the Immaculate Conception by Filippo Parodi on the altar. And as Baroque monstrosities go, the Basilica dell’Annunziata isn’t too bad.

None of this adds up to a fraction of what’s on view in Venezia, and Genova doesn’t have that certa qualcosa (a certain something) that makes every visitor to Europe want to visit Venice, but still, it’s worth at least a day of anyone’s time.

Some practicalities

Genova is far better than Venezia only in terms of its restaurants – there’s almost nothing left in Venice that isn’t a tourist trap, but Genova has some excellent restaurants serving authentic local food. The city is famous above all for pesto genovese, the basil and garlic paste that, with a little pasta, makes a wonderfully satisfying meal on its own, and also for foccacia, a herby flat bread like a very basic pizza, but many people come here simply to eat seafood, such as lobster with pasta or squid ink risotto. I have no personal recommendations, but friends have enjoyed Panson, San Giorgio and Il Genovino. One place that caught my eye is Tiflis, an Italian-Georgian fusion place that I shall have to try as and when I next stop over here. (I’m about to go to Georgia to research the sixth edition of my Bradt guidebook.)

The mid-station of the Zecca-Righi funicular

I stayed at the official youth hostel, in a stunning location high above the city (with parakeets flying past, just like in London); it’s clean and decent enough but maintenance is not their strong point (that’s typically Italian, however). There’s a good bus service from the Brignole railway station, but if you walk up the steps cunningly concealed behind the hostel car park and walk to the right for ten minutes you’ll come to the top station of the Zecca-Righi funicular, which runs every 15 minutes (06.40 to midnight) down to the city centre with five stops (plus two in a tunnel where the balancing car is at a stop). It’s covered by the standard €1.50 AMT ticket which gives travel for 100 minutes on buses, funiculars and elevators, and the city’s rather basic metro, which covers a 7km route largely parallel to the waterfront from the Brignole railway station, via Piazza Principe, the city’s other main station, to Brin, just northwest of the centre. Principe is the station for the Stazione Marittima, which nowadays handles cruise ships (and there are usually one or two of them docked here), but the next station west, Dinegro, is the one for the ferry port, with ships leaving frequently for Corsica, Sardinia, Morocco, Tunisia and Malta. San Giorgio, between Brignole and Principe, is the station for the tourist information office, but the sign as you leave the metro sends you in diametrically the wrong direction – it’s to the right, not the left.

A new railway line, tunnelling through the hills just inland from the coast, should open in 2021 – in addition to linking to the high-speed network to Torino, Milano and beyond, it will also carry freight from the Ligurian ports and release capacity for the development of regional passenger services. I hope the new tunnels are maintained better than those along the coast towards the French border, through which trains travel fairly fast but rather bouncily.