The prehistoric caves of southern France

I’ve led a few hiking trips in the Dordogne and Lot valleys over the last two decades, visiting a few painted caves along the way, but recently I helped with another trip that visited six of the area’s most valuable prehistoric caves and two replica caves. Almost every day we were visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, even including the replicas of the Lascaux and Chauvet caves – impressive, but I have to say that the World Heritage List is suffering from clear over-inflation (following this I went to Normandy and Brittany, where both the D-Day beaches and Carnac are candidates for WHL status). To be clear, virtually all caves are prehistoric, but the term ‘prehistoric caves’ refers to those that have relics of prehistoric cultures, and especially the rock paintings and engravings that make this area so amazing for anyone who’s interested in ancient cultures.

 We moved from west to east, and from the newest site to the oldest. Archeologists have laid out a grid of prehistoric cultures, defined mainly by their increasingly sophisticated techniques for making flint tools, and named after the various sites where they were first identified. The oldest ones are Neanderthal, the more recent ones Homo sapiens (including Cro-Magnon man) – but the distinction between Neanderthal and sapiens is less and less important, and it’s by no means clear that they are even separate species (in any case both are descended from Homo heidelbergensis). It’s now clear that they interbred – about 20% of their DNA is shared, and everyone of us nowadays has up to 4% of Neanderthal DNA in our genome. Neanderthals had a larger brain than us, they buried their dead carefully and looked after their sick and elderly; they had big babies (so perhaps a longer gestation period than us), and fair skin and blond or red hair. Over 160,000 years ago, Neanderthals developed the Levallois technique of making multiple flint blades from one piece of stone, which required an abstract conception of a series of tools being within that flint, and possibly required language too. And the Mousterian culture (from 160,000 to 40,000 years ago), named after the Le Moustier rock shelters 10km northeast of Les Eyzies, is associated with Neanderthal man here but with Homo sapiens in North Africa and the Middle East. After this, about 40,000 years ago (50,000 years ago in Africa), there was an evolutionary Great Leap Forward, when suddenly humans started to make large amounts of tools in specialised shapes, using bone as well as stone, as well as multi-part weapons, twine nets and sewn clothing, as well as cave art, sculptures and musical instruments. Just as the megafauna worldwide vanished when Homo sapiens arrived, so too the Neanderthals disappeared – but it’s too easy to say they were killed, they were clearly out-competed and to some extent at least absorbed. In fact the last Neanderthals apparently survived in Gibraltar until as recently as 28,000 years ago (yes, that site is also a candidate for the World Heritage List).

 People also talk of Ice Age art, as the last major glaciation lasted from about 110,000 to 10,000 years ago (with the last maximum from about 24,000 to 12,000 years ago) – but don’t think that there were glaciers in this area, it was in fact mostly open steppe-tundra, like most of western and central Europe and Eurasia (although most of Britain, Scandinavia and the Alps were under ice). Many of the caves were later blocked by mudslides and rockfalls, after the climate changed, which preserved them from climatic or human interference until the end of the nineteenth century. Nowadays it’s a lush green area with winding rivers (the Dordogne and Vézère) and limestone cliffs with many caves and even more rock overhangs that served as shelters.

 Lascaux

We started with Lascaux, which was painted by Homo sapiens about 15,000 years ago, during the Magdalenian period – this was the first cave to be closed to the public (due to algae and calcite deposits appearing, as the climate inside the cave was changed by human visitors) and replaced by a replica. When Lascaux-2 opened a couple of hundred metres away in 1983, it was greeted as an astonishing technical feat and was very busy for much of the year; however, in 2016 a new high-tech interpretation centre known as Lascaux-4 opened down on the edge of the village of Montignac (Lascaux-3 is a touring exhibition, launched in 2012), incorporating a far more detailed and complete replica. Almost all visitors now go there, but we’ve stuck with Lascaux-2, now blissfully peaceful, where the excellent guides can give you their full attention. Fittingly, it is now itself a historical monument. The paintings really are amazing, in a distinctive style that show horses and bison with small heads, short legs and curved bellies; there are also some squares or grids in an abstract pattern that clearly had some meaning.

 Les Eyzies, the Font de Gaume and nearby

 We moved on to Les Eyzies, a village that is known as the Capital of Prehistory – indeed, it’s home to the Musée National de Préhistoire, which has excellent coverage – one tends just to think in terms of cave art, but there’s a huge amount of other material here, such as flint blades and fat female figures, although the texts are only in French.

 You can also visit the adjacent Abri Pataud (Pataud Shelter, an overhanging rock which sheltered more than forty groups of wandering reindeer hunters between 35,000 and 20,000 years ago, with a carving of an ibex on the ceiling), and the Abri Cro-Magnon (Magnon’s Hole Shelter), near the station, where the first clearly modern human remains (buried around 28,000 years ago) were found in 1868 by workers building the railway.

 On the eastern edge of town is the fabulous Font de Gaume, the only cave in France with polychrome paintings that is still open to the public; only 78 people are allowed in per day and you can’t book ahead (apart from a small quota for groups) – you really do have to get up early and queue at the ticket office from about 07.00 (it opens at 09.30). There are benches with numbered seats outside, so you know where you are in the queue, And you can’t buy tickets for someone else – everyone has to be there at the time of purchase.

 From the ticket office it’s a 400-metre walk to the entry, where a medieval building used to stand (you can still see the square holes where beams were fixed); there were originally paintings from right inside the entry but these did not survive. Beyond what were two narrow passages (now widened and with the floor lowered) you’ll come to the first paintings – in all there are 200 here, mostly created around 14,000 years ago in the Magdalenian period, of bison, horses, mammoths and reindeer, as well as one woolly rhino and one wolf (you won’t see all of these on the tour).

 The Font de Gaume may actually be connected to the Combarelles  cave – they’re just a couple of kilometres apart, and were discovered a mere four days apart, in 1901 (the caves were known before then, of course, but the art was not). Visitor numbers are severely limited here too, with just 42 people allowed in per day (buy your tickets at the Font de Gaume). Unusually, it’s known for its engravings, which are in fact not carved into the rock itself but into the fine layer of silt covering it – but this does not prevent them from being just as artistically impressive. The tour covers about 400 metres over 45 minutes, with about 600 engravings created in two phases, perhaps 40,000 and 12,000 years ago; there are no mammoths here, and some are hybrids and some have human faces.

 It’s just a couple of kilometres further to Bernifal, the first of the private caves, which is reached by a ten-minute walk through hornbeam woods; you need to phone (33 674 963043) to talk to the owner and book a visit – he only speaks French, and likewise the tour will be in French. There are over a hundred engravings and paintings here, including horses, bison, mammoths and ibex, created about 12,000 years ago.

 A little way east of Combarelles is the Cap Blanc rock shelter, where there’s a sculpted frieze of horses that uses the natural contours of the rock to stunning effect. There’s a lifesize horse in the centre with two others on either side in mirror image, then a pair of bison were probably added later (there’s a new theory that the bison were carved first, but this seems unlikely). The carvings were covered in sediment until they were discovered in 1909, when the lower part was unfortunately destroyed by pickaxe-wielding labourers. A young woman was buried in front of the frieze about 14,000 years ago, around the time the carvings were created – some people imagine she was one of the artists, but that’s probably romantic wishful thinking (she’s now in the Field Museum in Chicago). It’s also run by the state and with tickets sold at the Font de Gaume – but 210 visitors are allowed per day and it can actually be booked in advance.

 Just across the valley, there’s also the Grotte de Commarque, under the château of the same name, which has carvings possibly by the same artist; it’s not open, but there’s a 3D film at the château, which is worth visiting in its own right.

 The Grotte de Rouffignac, about 10km north of Les Eyzies as the crow flies (further by road), is privately owned, and and has a high wide entrance, so that its existence has always been known; the first 700 metres of the top level (of three) were not suitable for cave art, but electric trains now clank along to take visitors to the paintings, from the Magdalenian period (12,000 to 14,000 years ago) when mammoths and woolly rhinos grazed the freezing steppes outside. After another 300 metres you’ll reach the Great Ceiling, with images of 66 animals above a sinkhole which seems to have been some kind of sanctum or holy of holies, with one of the very few images of a human profile hidden in it. The animals here are perfectly proportioned (well, the ibex less than the horses and other animals), unlike the stylised images of the Lascaux style; it’s thought that two or three artists worked at the same time, having crept a kilometre deep into the cave, let’s not forget. The mammoths are outlined in black, using manganese oxide powder, while the mammoths are engraved by the artists’ fingers in the thin later of clay covering the rock. You also see hollows dug out by cave bears to hibernate in, and scratches made by their claws, though it’s not sure whether they were wielded by the bears themselves or by humans.

 On our way east from the Dordogne, we stopped at Cougnac, where there are two adjacent privately-run caves – first you’ll visit one to see a fine display of stalactites and stalagmites (you’re actually allowed to take photos here, unlike all the painted caves), and then you’ll be taken to the second, 300 metres away, via a wine cellar under a farmhouse. Like so many of these caves, it was blocked by a mud-slide and preserved in suspended animation for thousands of years. It’s just a hundred metres to the paintings of mammoths, ibex and three giant elk (25,000 to 30,000 years old), many making use of the natural shapes of the cave wall to bulk out the animals’ contours. My colleague Annie says this is her favourite of the caves, and it’s easy to see why – far from the tourist hordes, it’s full of interest and variety, with for instance one realistic mammoth and some abstract ones; two men, or perhaps wolves, being speared, multiple colours (charcoal, manganese oxide and ochre), including ochre colouring on columns that frame the image of an ibex, and the possibility that stalactites were played like a xylophone.

 On previous trips, about twenty years ago, I vaguely remember taking clients to La Roque Saint Christophe, a rock shelter in a cliff across the Vézère river from Le Moustier. This sheltered both Neanderthals (c50,000 years ago) and Cro-Magnon people (c25,000 years ago), and was then a medieval troglodyte settlement until it was destroyed in 1588, in the Wars of Religion.

 I’ve also visited the cave of Pech Merle, to the south at Cabrerets in the Lot département, half an hour east of Cahors, which is another of the rare painted caves that are still open to the public in limited numbers. Stretching up to one and half kilometres from the entrance are paintings from the Gravettian period (about 25,000 years ago), and other paintings and engravings that may have been created in the Magdalenian (about 16,000 years ago). In addition to mammoth, reindeer and bovids, it’s known for its striking spotted horses, for handprints, and for the footprints of a teenage boy, almost a kilometre from the entrance.

 And finally

To the east of the Massif Central, arriving in the Rhône valley, the Grotte Chauvet (more correctly but rarely known as the Grotte du Vallon Pont d’Arc, because Jean-Marie Chauvet was just one of the group of discoverers) holds some of the finest and most important examples of cave art – it was discovered fairly recently, in 1994, and was never opened to the general public. Instead, there’s a new tourist site two kilometres away (known as Grotte Chauvet 2), opened in 2015, with an excellent replica and other interactive displays, café and shop. The replica is ten times the size of Lascaux-4 and is highly accurate except that the floor is smooth and level, unpainted sections have been omitted and there’s a guard-rail as well as an audio system that allows several groups to follow each other through – some people can forget that they’re in a facsimile, but I certainly couldn’t.

 The discoverers had to make their way through a virtual river of cave bear bones two metres deep (the remains of at least two hundred bears) to find first red marks on the walls and then animal paintings. The thin layer of clay on the walls was mostly removed to allow painting, but there are finger-etchings in clay in some places. The paintings are twice as old as those at Lascaux, mostly by Cro-Magnon people 36,000 years ago (in the Aurignacian period), with some more 28,000 years ago (in the Gravettian period), and perhaps earlier as well, and there’s a very different bestiary of at least thirteen animal types, as well as humans and a sort of half-human half-bull. Lions were important in cave art, but not for some reason the cave bears (we can probably assume that the painters did not enter in winter when the bears were here); the only prehistoric paintings of a cave panther and an owl are here, as well as positive and negative handprints in ochre, of men, women and children. About five hundred of the 940 images are abstract or unidentifiable.

 All in all, the artistry in these caves is consistently amazing, but I got a bit tired of people saying ‘they were as good as Picasso!’ (In the caves the people come and go, talking of Picasso and Michelangelo). As it happens, I went to a Picasso exhibition in Avignon the day after visiting the Grotte Chauvet and – I’m sorry – there’s no comparison. Like the cave painters he was a great natural draughtsman, but he was also full of new ideas, constantly reinventing himself (while also paying homage to his artistic inheritance), and changed the course of modern art several times.

By the way, absolutely no photography is allowed in any of the caves (even the replicas), so here are a few copies from postcards of Lascaux. Not great, but that’s all you’re getting.

Food and drink

I also managed to eat some superb meals – it’s a very meaty culture (duck, foie gras…), but with a bit of warning they’ll produce great vegetarian meals. In Les Ezyies we had no less than six great meals at the Hôtel Les Glycines and a really good dinner at Le Centenaire, while the Hôtel Cro-Magnon serves good classic French food for a slightly lower cost. In Sarlat, L’Adresse was fantastic and I gather that Gueule et Gozier is at the same level (the owner is Filipino, so there’s creative use of Asian spices); L’Entrepôte was not bad.

 This was classically-based cuisine, but in Avignon on-trend things such as poke bowls and ceviche were on offer, and crumble popped up regularly too – not what we’d call a crumble in Britain, but rather a patch of crumb topping on a dish.

As for wine… I think I said enough (for now) at the end of my Avignon post.

Albania – a real alternative

Although there’s been a lot of media hot air about Montenegro in recent years, Albania is currently more interesting, and it’s become a great destination for slightly more enterprising backpackers. I passed through fairly quickly, with less than a week to spare between staying with friends in Montenegro and with family in Corfu, and would love to come again when the weather permits me to spend time in the mountains (it rained every day in mid-May). So I went from north to south fairly close to the coast, from Shkodër to Tirana, Berat and Gjirokaster, finishing at the port of Sarandë – all interesting towns with plenty of history. The country was, not surprisingly, green and fertile, but I didn’t see many of the mushroom-like pillboxes (tiny bunkers) that one heard so much about a couple of decades back – an indicator of how time passes. Now Albania seems much like the other southern Balkan countries, if a little poorer and thus more ‘authentic’.

 There’s now little sign of the strong folk culture that I found in places like Transylvania in the early 1990s and was probably going strong here at the same time. Albania’s been through some turmoil, not just its peculiarly warped form of communism (from 1945 to 1990) but then the pyramid-savings scams that brought the country to its knees in 1997 and unleashed a particularly anarchic uprising, with over 2,000 killed and UN peacekeepers sent in to restore order. Tribal feuds that it was assumed were finished and done for raised their ugly heads again, and the place seemed like an utterly failed state – I’d recently read about the build-up to this in Robert Carver’s fascinating The Accursed Mountains (1998) (and briefly in Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules; 1995). Another brief rebellion broke out in 1998 after the assassination of opposition leader Azem Hajdari. Nowadays the main towns feel perfectly safe and welcoming, and I certainly never felt I needed to wear a moneybelt or not go out after dark.

 Having said that, there are more tourists than I expected – not on a Kotor-like scale(though cruise ships seem to be arriving), but there’s a steady flow of backpackers staying in hostels (and there are quite a few of those in all the tourist centres) as well as coach parties in hotels. The main roads are decent, and the main towns are only a couple of hours apart; there are also very slow (but spectacularly cheap) trains between Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, Vlorë and Elbasan – see below for more on Tirana’s stations.

 Northern Albania – Shkodër
Rozafa castle

I was first in Shkodër, gateway from Montenegro (by the routes from Podgorica and from Ulcinj on the coast) – it’s a very pleasant place without a huge amount to see, although I was taken by the quantity of cyclists, mostly managing to keep an umbrella upright and still stop and steer safely. The Rozafa castle is 3km south (a local bus shuttles along the main road) and gives great views after a stiff little climb, but there’s really nothing to see inside. In the town centre there’s a fairly poor history museum, in an attractive nineteenth-century building. The going rate for museums is 150-200 Lek (GBP 1-1.40) – there’s a new Photography Museum which charges 700 Lek, which I didn’t visit. Nor did I get to the Site of Witness and Memory on Edith Durham (southeast of the centre), in the former Security Police headquarters – now a memorial to the victims of communist terror. Otherwise there are a couple of Roman Catholic churches built in the 1890s and the English-style clock tower, dating from 1868.

 Tirana

From there I took a slow bus (lots of picking up and setting down) to Tirana, which as expected is largely a mess of communist concrete, but with many redeeming features. I was pleased to find a small new herb and wild flower garden on the central Skanderbeg Square – this is now a wide gently domed plaza above a car park, but I was also pleased to see plenty of cyclists crossing it. Unfortunately the main arteries to the bus stations and out of the city are horribly traffic-choked and not fit for cycling. Architecturally, the city is known for a few Italian Fascist-style buildings, such as the national bank, and for its programme of making unattractive concrete blocks more attractive by painting them – I was led to expect lurid graffiti art, but saw only pastel Italian tones – but I didn’t get everywhere. The ‘Tirana 2030’ project aims to return a bit more nature to the cityscape, and will with luck be nothing like the crass Skopje 2014 project.

 Unfortunately Tirana’s railway station was closed in 2013 and replaced with a multi-carriageway road to rearrange the city’s traffic jams, with trains moved Ryanair-style to Vorë, 16km away; from 2015 trains made it as far as Kashar, an industrial area about 7km northwest of the centre along the Durrës highway. A new bus and train interchange is supposedly to be built in Laprakë, a bit closer to the centre, but as successive governments have been happy to let the railway system collapse this seems unlikely to happen. In truth, one government signs up to a project and the next starves it of funds and cancels it – in particular, a contract was awarded to GE to build a railway to Tirana’s airport in 2005 and then cancelled, costing the government €14 million. Governments keep on putting modern railway stations in places that can only really be reached by car – see the new TGV line in Morocco, and I gather this has also happened with the new line to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

 The city does have a few decent museums – the national history museum starts well, with good archeological displays with information in English, but then goes downhill upstairs (as it were). There’s good coverage of the kingdom of Illyria, which came into being by the end of the fifth century BC, and under the legendary Queen Teuta covered the whole Croatian coast as well as Albania; the Illyrians produced several Roman emperors (most notable Justinian) but simply vanished from the historical record in the seventh century AD. The coverage of the medieval and modern periods is less good, but there’s some interesting stuff – I’d thought Skanderbeg was a purely local hero, but he (George Kastrioti) turns out to have been an equal of the great John Hunyadi (Iancu de Hunedoara), who I’ve come across many times in Romania – they formed an alliance against the Turks, winning a great victory at Niš in 1443. The Castrati petrol stations are named after him (that’s his helmet in the logo), not after the Italian singers with very high voices.

 Nearby, the Bunk’Art-2 museum is housed in the bunker beneath the Ministry of Internal Affairs, built in 1981-6 (the present entry and exit outside the ministry are recent additions). This was one of the last ‘great works’ of Hoxha’s bunkerisation project, which began in the early 1970s and produced 175,000 bunkers and pillboxes across the country. In 24 rooms, it covers the history of the country’s Gendarmerie and the Sigurimi (Security Police), founded in 1944 as soon as the communists began their takeover (its founder was himself arrested and shot in 1948). Between 1944 and 1991 over 6,000 people were executed and over 30,000 political prisoners were held in labour camps; in addition the Border Forces (established in 1949) killed about 1,000 Albanian citizens attempting to leave their prison of a country. It’s a well-presented museum, and you can scan the AR logo for an augmented reality experience. In the eastern suburbs, the original Bunk’Art 1 (in Hoxha’s atomic bunker) displays a broader view of everyday life under communism.

 Hoxha’s Pyramid (built as his tomb and museum in 1988 and briefly used as a conference centre after 1991) is a sad wreck, and the nearby Bloku area, where the senior communists lived and where the hottest bars and clubs are supposedly located, seemed pretty dull to me.

 Having recently been visiting the shrines of Sufi saints in Uzbekistan, I was interested to see that the Bektashi order of dervishes has its global headquarters in Tirana. Founded in Anatolia in the thirteenth century by Haji Bektash Veli from Bukhara, it was particularly popular with the janissaries (such as Mimar Sinan), elite Ottoman soldiers taken as boys from Christian villages in the Balkans – and somehow it found its way back to this part of the world. You can also visit the House of the Dervish Khorasani, Khorasan also being in Uzbekistan. Albania was of course officially atheist in the communist period and is now of no particular religion – there are Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox believers, and they don’t particularly care. Anyway, you’re welcome to visit their headquarters, just east of the centre, and there’s a small museum beneath the mosque (I also saw Bektashi tombs in Gjirokaster castle – below).

 What’s more, Albania has welcomed 3,000 Iranian dissidents of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq from Iraq (where the pro-Iranian regime regularly allowed military attacks on their camp) to a new settlement, known as Ashraf 3, halfway between Tirana and the coast. It doesn’t get many visitors as yet, but there’s also a museum here, covering a hundred years of shocking struggle for human rights in Iran.

South of Tirana –  Berat, Gjirokaster, Sarandë and Butrint

Heading south from Tirana, I found Berat and Gjirokaster both slightly reminiscent of Plovdiv, with their steep cobbled alleys and Turkish-style merchants’ houses. The historic centre of Berat is about 2.5km from the bus station (walk or take a bus, clearly cast off from Paris or the Netherlands) – start with the view from the bridge over the Osumit River, linking Gorica, the Christian quarter to the south, and Magdalem, the Muslim quarter that rises up row upon row to the hill-top Kalasa citadel. On the main road in Magdalem you’ll find the remains of the eighteenth-century Pasha’s Palace and alongside it the Royal Mosque (originally the Sultan Mosque, built for Beyazit II at the end of the fifteenth century), the Helvetti Tekke (a Sufi prayer hall, rebuilt in 1782) and a nineteenth-century caravanserai and inn for dervishes. The mosques are currently being restored by TIKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, which I also noticed at work in Kosova.

 Opposite the Helvetti Tekke I stumbled across the Edward Lear Gallery (not in any tourist literature that I’d seen – it’s free, and open 08.00 to 14.00 except Mondays) – Lear, who was a superb painter and engraver as well as a composer of nonsense poetry, stopped here in 1848 and 1859, and described it as a ‘wonderfully picturesque place’. The gallery has some useful background information on him and one of his paintings, of Mount Tomor, a peak of 2417 metres which was the ancient home of the Illyrian gods and is still the object of a pilgrimage on the Feast of the Assumption in August. The gallery has four biggish rooms, exhibiting temporary shows by local artists, most titled either ‘portrait’ or ‘landscape’ – they’re really not too bad. Lear wasn’t the first western European artist to pass through, as a certain William Martin Leake had been here in 1805, and Charles Cockerill in 1813, not to mention the Irish writer Robert Walsh in 1828; more famously, Lord Byron and John Cam Hobhouse passed though in 1808, although their meeting with the local despot Ali Pasha took place in Tepelena (there’s a reference to the ‘glittering minarets of Tepelen’ in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage).

 Above the Pasha’s Palace, alleys lead uphill past the Ethnographic Museum to the citadel. Originally built in the fifth and sixth centuries under the Byzantine emperors Theodosius II and Justinian I (though the present walls were erected mainly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), this is still inhabited by several hundred people and there are some pleasant cafés here as well as four churches built between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, plus the Church of the Holy Trinity, built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, on the slope outside the walls.

 Gjirokaster, as you’d expect from the name (from the same Latin root as Chester, Worcester, Gloucester etc etc), is all about the castle, although you can also visit some fine Ottoman townhouses. Inhabited by the fourth century BC, the first walls were built in the sixth century and what you see now was built mainly by the Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks, who captured it in 1417. Ali Pasha (see above) was backed by the British government at the time, which explains the British cannon on display. Once inside the castle, you can go along an avenue of artillery to reach the very dated Arms Museum, which inevitably also covers the struggles of the Partisans against the Nazis. Rather more interesting is the newish (2012) Museum of Gjirokaster, which opened at 10.00, an hour late, but never mind – it covers local history from 20,000 years ago to 2005, when the city, its houses crumbling due to emigration, was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as well as brief mentions of local bats and vultures, and the isopolyphonic songs of southern Albania, also protected by UNESCO (on the intangible cultural heritage list) – iso refers to the drone part of these four-part songs. Outside on the ramparts you’ll see an American T33 jet which crash-landed at Rinas in 1957 (photos taken in 1988 show it in rather better condition than today), but there’s also an interesting story about a Dakota that came down near Elbasan in 1943 with 26 nurses and medics on board – after attempts to fly them out under the Germans’ noses failed they were eventually marched 800 miles (clearly not in a straight line) to the coast for evacuation to Italy.

 There are almost no old buildings in Sarandë (although there are a couple of derelict warehouses near the port that could be repurposed), but the sprawl of fairly low-rise apartment blocks is not unpleasant, mainly because of its setting and the pleasant people strolling on the promenade and running the hotels and restaurants. Nor is it traffic-choked because, unlike Kotor, it has several parallel roads. Nevertheless, there seem to be no controls on the spread of new buildings up the hills and along the coast, and it’s a comfort that the fabulous classical ruins of Butrint are a safe distance away (19km south, to be precise).

 Butrint is fantastic – the hourly bus from Sarandë terminates near the entrance, where a small ferry crosses the outlet from Butrint lagoon to a couple of small villages that have grown up on silt banks that have built up since the city was founded, possibly in the aftermath of the Trojan War (Virgil has Aeneas stopping here) and certainly by the twelfth century BC. The Greek settlement became Roman, then Byzantine and then Venetian, and there are remains from all these phases; the sixth-century baptistery and basilica are particularly impressive, but it’s a shame that the almost intact mosaic of the baptistery is almost always kept under sand, due to the frequency of flooding here. One could well make a case for replacing it with a modern replica and moving it to the decent little museum under the Venetian fort. On the other hand, it was fun watching turtles swimming in the Greek theatre. In fact the whole area is a national park, and I saw a large slowworm or something like it not far from the tourist loop.

Durrës and Elbasan are commonly agreed to be dumps; Paul Theroux’s account of arriving in Durrës in 1994, on a ferry full of stolen cars, is a superb account of a totally failed country, although it obviously has improved since.

Practicalities

I stayed in hostels, which can now be found in all the country’s major towns and which offer the best way of getting information as well as a cheery welcome and a good breakfast. The ones I stayed in in Shkodër and Tirana are both in older houses that survived amid concrete blocks right in the city centres. This was even more true of Berat, where the Berat Backpackers  hostel was in a lovely old house in the Gorica quarter looking across the river to Magdalem (both on the World Heritage List) and the Kala or Citadel. The hostel was known as Scotty’s, having been founded in 2009 by an Englishman (a Geordie, to be exact) – bizarrely, he’d sold it the day before I arrived (although a manager had run it for him for the last couple of years), to the owner of another hostel, a very likeable local chap who seems very capable and speaks excellent English. In Gjirokaster the Dutch-run Stone City Hostel was even better, and rightly won a 2019 Hoscar award – it’s another old house, with spacious common area, squeaky-clean washroom, and superb breakfast – how it is that wholegrain bread is available I don’t know, but homemade fig jam is a constant in this area. But do say if you don’t want your fried egg solid. Finally, my hostel in Sarandë was clean and spacious, with one of the most hospitable owners you could ask for, and just a minute or so from the ferry terminal. I enjoyed the hostels on this whole trip from Istanbul to Albania – it’s a region which seems to attract interesting travellers, not just people looking for cheap beer and ticking off a few compulsory sights. Even so, there are far too many who just hole up on their bunks watching films on their phones (and slowing down the internet for everyone else) – call that travel? And a lot of young people who wouldn’t smoke at home seem go mad when travelling here – something I noticed in Vietnam too.

 In Shköder I ate well at Peja (possibly named after the cultural capital of Kosova), which serves authentic ‘slow food’, but surprisingly fast – I had great eggplant stuffed with apple (from Korça), followed by apple with baklava. I also drank a Puka beer, from Pukë (pronounced Puka), about 30km east of Shkodër, which had a bit of colour and taste to it, unlike all the anaemic lagers available elsewhere in the country. The Korça brewery does produce a dark beer as well as a lager, and I finally sampled that on my last night – pretty tangy and refreshing. In Gjirokaster I ate at Odaja, which was great – there’s an English menu which was clear about vegetarian (not vegan) dishes, which accounted for about a quarter of the list. I had their famous (at least at the Stone City Hostel) tomato balls, which were basically fritters (I also enjoyed them in Corfu) and qifqi rice balls (a Gjirokaster speciality, rather like arancini); imam bayildi is a sort of Turkish ratatouille, and oshaf is a fig dessert (I also saw snails for sale in Gjirokaster).

The Albanian language

Albanian is an Indo-European language, derived from Illyrian, which looks like nothing else with its double rrs and lls and its ë, and names like Urani Runbo. You won’t learn much (enough people speak some English), but do try to master Faleminderit (thank you). Po and jo (yes and no) are easily confused, but once I’d heard an Kosovar talking to his wife on the phone (po, po, po… po, po, po, like a dove) it became easier. The one word you’ll probably remember, as it’s on signs everywhere, is Shitet (for sale)….  By main roads you’ll see signs for Lavazh (in the Gheg north) or Lavazho (in the Tosk south) – at first I assumed it meant Armenian bread, but it fact it means car-wash – from the French, of course.

Istanbul – almost in Turkey

I was last in Istanbul in the 1990s, apart from changing planes on my way home from Georgia, so I was expecting some changes. In fact, a friend who visits every few years told me that the rate of infrastructure improvement had been even greater in the last decade or so, so I was expecting really big changes… To be honest, I’m not sure how much has really changed. Yes, there are three suspension bridges across the Bosphorus (only one visible from the city) and tunnels under it, and metro lines (one with a station on a new bridge above the Golden Horn), but in other respects the city doesn’t seem to me to have been transformed – which is good and bad.

French-built trams passing putside the Sublime Porte

As Caesar might have said, All Byzantium is divided into three parts – simplifying hugely, there’s Sultanahmet, the touristy area south of the Golden Horn (or Haliç), where all the Roman ruins and the greatest mosques are; there’s Beyoğlu, the area north of the Golden Horn, traditionally home to foreigners and their business interests and now the arts and nightlife area; and there’s Üsküdar and Kadiköy on the Asian shore, which are purely Turkish and mellow (I stayed a couple of nights there and enjoyed it). And then there are all the suburbs, where up to 18 million people live, but actually no-one mentions them. Sultanhamet, it has to be said, has been transformed, with many roads traffic-free, a modern tramway crossing the Galata Bridge and going right past all the main sights, and with innumerable hordes of tourists. Get to Haghia Sophia by 09.00 unless you want to queue for an hour, just like in Paris and Florence. It is in fact pretty well managed – yes, the touristy restaurants are expensive, yes, there are lots of Hello-where-you-from? ‘guides’ trying to get your business, but they are very much confined to this area of the city. In the evenings this area is actually quieter than it was, with many backpackers and other tourists now staying in Taksim and elsewhere.

I was pleasantly surprised to see ring-necked parakeets in this area, just like the ones that enliven London and Surrey nowadays. Istanbul is full of hooded crows too; however, the most enjoyable birding is from the ferries, where you’ll see Yelkouan shearwaters (once thought to be the same as the Balearic shearwaters in the western Med, but now identified as a separate species) – they seem to nest to the south in the Sea of Marmara but commute along the Bosphorus to feed in the Black Sea. There are plenty of cormorants too, and alpine swifts.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a house with a television and took the chance to watch From Russia with Love, the Bond movie that’s set in Istanbul and on the Orient Express towards Trieste. In one scene Bond is taken down into ‘Constantine’s reservoir’ beneath the Russian consulate, which they can spy on through a former submarine periscope – this is actually the Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarnici, built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian (the film-makers presumably thought no-one would have heard of Justinian, or that there was a more obvious link between Constantine and the city of Constantinople). It covers 9,800 square metres (with 336 columns with proper carved capitals, just like a church), but was not measured properly until World War I, when a folding boat was borrowed from a German submarine. Open to tourists since 1987, it’s dark and crowded, but well worth a visit. (Naturally Bond stayed at the ‘Kristal Palas on the heights of Pera’ with its ‘old rope-and-gravity lift’ – a thinly disguised version of the Pera Palace, recently restored to its Orient Express glory but still with its marvellous old lift.) I’d also suggest dropping down to the old waterfront to see the Little Haghia Sophia church, built by Justinian I and Theodora from 527, a church with a dome 17m across that was probably a prototype for its big brother up the hill (which makes it the city’s oldest surviving Byzantine monument) and also for the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It’s now a mosque but is easy to visit, beyond the basic requirement to dress decently and leave your shoes outside. And just inside the Topkapı Palace grounds, the Haghia Irene church is now open to visitors – it was second in size only to Haghia Sophia, but it’s much smaller and there’s nothing much to see inside (Haghia Sophia means Holy Wisdom and Haghia Irene means Holy Peace, but of course you knew that).

Across the Golden Horn, the Beyoğlu district is now known for the contemporary art galleries opening here (particularly in Karaköy, formerly known as Galata); this was the European quarter (originally known as Pera, meaning Across [the Golden Horn] in Greek), home to the Byzantine city’s large Greek population and then to embassies and foreign banks. I went to SALT Galata (mainly a library and café, a victory of style and marketing over substance) and the Yapikredi Kültür Sanat Yayincilik (good modern galleries above a bookshop) and also the Taksim Sanat Galerisi, an institutional exhibition space in the Taksim Square metro station – they’re ok, but it all still seems a bit provincial and insular. Overall, Istanbul is not really the world city it claims to be – signs, websites and indeed people are all a bit monolingual, and clear addresses and directions are a foreign concept – be sure to plan ahead online. It may well make sense to buy the Museum Pass, but you won’t be given a leaflet or a list of the sites for which it’s valid – even so, you can cover the cost just on the major Sultanahmet sites. On the other hand quite a few monuments are closed for restoration, which puts the city in the mainstream of European capitals.

Maybe the opening of Istanbul Modern (a Tate Modern wannabe), now under construction in Tophane alongside the big new GalataPort cruise terminal, will change things; if you go there, do pop across the road to see what’s on at the Tophane-i Amire Culture and Art Centre (run by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University), an art gallery in a fifteenth-century cannon foundry.

Further up the hill in Beyoğlu is Taksim, a pretty anonymous modern area that is strangely popular with both Turks and many backpackers – yes, there’s a lively bar scene, but it’s really a bit of a rugby scrum and could be just about anywhere in the world (which may be part of the attraction). I’m told it’s changed fast since large numbers of migrants arrived from Syria and Iraq.

Food and drink

Happily, international restaurant/café chains have had very little impact here. My vegan food correspondent reports that he is a bit disappointed by the way veganism was trendy for about six months in 2018 but is now fading away; still, almost every eatery will have vegan options. The quintessential street food is nohutlu pilav, buttery rice with chickpeas (and optional chicken, hot peppers and ketchup), and I also saw a lot of mussels stuffed with rice being sold by street vendors. The beer is dull as dishwater – at least Gara Guzu (Black Sheep, in a local dialect – it should be Kara Kuzu) is trying, with its very adequate IPA, amber, red, black and blonde beers, but almost no-one seems to have heard of it. At least this is one place in the world where I can’t really sneer at hookah (nargileh) cafés as they are as authentic here as anywhere else. (It has to be noted, however, that the Turks don’t smoke cigarettes nearly as much as they did, which is a great blessing.)

Transport update

I arrived with Pegasus, the Turkish low-cost airline that flies from London Stansted (and, from July 2019, Manchester) to Sabiha Gokcen, Istanbul’s second airport, on the Asian side of the city. You might say that it’s its third airport, as Atatürk, the main international airport since 1953, was replaced in April 2019 by the new Istanbul Airport, the world’s largest with a capacity of 100 million passengers per year (and eventually double that) – but in September 2019 the new Beijing airport will open, also with a capacity of 100 million/year. My friend describes it as ‘mahoosive’ but well laid out; the rail link won’t open until late 2019 (continuing to Halkalı in 2020) but city buses go there and the new airport taxis are pretty good, he says.

Halkalı, 27km west of the city centre, is also the western terminal of the Marmaray Corridor, another major transport project completed in 2019 – a rail tunnel beneath the Bosphorus now links the two suburban lines along the coast of the Sea of Maramara, creating a 77km route that will bind the city’s two halves more closely together. Despite this, a road tunnel (opened in 2016) and the bridges, there’s still an unfeasibly large number of ferries jockeying for space as they link various points on the two shores – and a ferry ride remains one of the quintessential Istanbul experiences.

The Istanbul Kart is a rechargeable smart card that’s valid for travel on the city’s buses, trams, trains, metro, ferries and funiculars; it gives a 40% discount on fares, but there doesn’t seem to be a daily cap, unlike in London. It’s invaluable, but I struggled with the ticket machines which can refuse to take coins or give change for notes and fails to switch to English (likewise the website).

Political shenanigans

Turkey has a despicable government and leader, but one can’t blame Istanbul for that; the city, which generates 55% of Turkey’s exports, 60% of its imports and 16% of its jobs, stands for open and liberal attitudes against the authoritarian Islamism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey since 2014. Born in Istanbul, he rose to public notice as the city’s mayor (1994-8) before becoming prime minister then president. The so-called coup attempt of July 2016 led to over 50,000 arrests and over 160,000 people losing their jobs, with the free media, academia and civil society being virtually closed down (Turkey no longer has any interest in joining the EU, whatever Johnson and Farage say, preferring links with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Russia instead).

Local elections in March 2019 were held against a background of economic recession and 20% inflation, but Erdoğan claimed the elections were about the country’s ‘survival’ and portrayed the opposition as ‘enemies of the state’. His AKP won 51% of the vote nationally but lost the cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul – in Istanbul the almost unknown Ekrem İmamoğlu (running against a former prime minister) was leading by just 0.28% when the government stopped the count with 1% of ballot boxes still to be opened. Seventeen days later the government seemed to concede when İmamoğlu was allowed to take over the mayor’s office (although Erdoğan refused to shake his hand at an official function in Ankara). However, in May the government announced that the election in Istanbul would be run again on 23 June, supposedly because some electoral officials were not civil servants, some result papers had not been signed and tens of thousands of civil servants, sacked following the 2016 coup, should not have been allowed to vote; İmamoğlu was removed from office and the currency fell by more than 3%.

The increasingly dictatorial Erdoğan is determined to regain Istanbul, even doing the previously unthinkable and being vaguely nice to the Kurds to win a few votes from them. In which context I was delighted to see in April 2019 that France and Italy had finally recognised the Armenian genocide – the state’s attitude to this and to the Kurds has always been blatantly racist. Another friend is currently visiting Ani, the amazing ruined Armenian city just on the Turkish side of the border, and reports that the word ‘Armenian’ simply doesn’t appear on the information boards there.

In Istanbul the opposition seems unlikely to risk mass protests or a boycott of the re-run election, as the government would simply brand them as terrorists and arrest as many as possible; riot police and water cannon were stationed all over the city anyway when I was there in late April. With luck Erdoğan will turn out to have miscalculated and his actions will give İmamoğlu a more decisive victory in June – I will post a brief update here.

[24/6/19 – I’m glad to say that the re-run went very well for İmamoğlu, who took 54% of the vote, despite a barrage of AKP propaganda, and  is now established as mayor of Istanbul. Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility has definitely cracked, and there’s a sense that even his own party members are looking ahead to national elections and a post-Erdoğan era.]  

Falmouth is going places

Growing up in West Cornwall, I almost never went to Falmouth; my sister had friends who played in bands in sticky-floored pubs near the docks, but it wasn’t really for me. We’d go to Truro for shopping when our nearest town, Helston, fell short; we sometimes went to Penzance but I really didn’t know Falmouth, which required an awkward journey through the lanes around the Helford river. In those days it seemed thoroughly post-industrial (though admittedly never as run-down as Redruth and Camborne), but it has gentrified and the Sunday Times’ readers recently voted it their favourite town. It’s been hugely boosted by the transformation of the Art College (small but always prestigious enough) into a university (two in fact, as the University of Exeter shares its Tremough campus), so there are cool cafés and plenty of arty students (as boho as any in Dalston) to hang out in them, and the town even has a proper independent bookshop, something which much grander Truro can no longer support. The opening of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in 2003 put Falmouth on all the tourist maps, but the real marker of gentrification was the opening of a seafood restaurant by Rick Stein in 2010. When I was there a few weeks ago the Spring Festival was under way, with Science in the Pub events exactly like those I’d left behind in Cambridge!

There was no town here in medieval times, as the site was too exposed to attack from the sea until Henry VIII built Pendennis and St Mawes castles; it really only came into being after 1688 when the Post Office chose Falmouth as the port for its Packet Service to Spain and Portugal, and later across the empire. In 1805 news arrived here of Nelson’s victory, and death, at Trafalgar, from where it was carried to London (271 miles away) in just 37 hours, with 21 changes of horse (at a cost of £46 19s 1d), and in 1836 the Beagle, with Charles Darwin aboard, arrived here at the end of her voyage of circumnavigation. These are mentioned on various plaques, and in The Levelling Sea, a superb account of Falmouth’s history by Philip Marsden, who lives just a few miles away across the harbour. A couple of weeks after my last visit to Falmouth I was, by chance, in Nelson’s home village, which I will mention in another post.

The port declined in the late twentieth century, but the docks seem livelier these days, repairing ships including the Navy’s Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, and cruise ships now come in to the world’s third largest natural harbour. Admittedly most of them just get on buses to the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan, but one side effect may be that there’s still a good supply of public toilets, unlike the rest of Cornwall where the gruesomely penny-pinching county council is trying to close them or even to find private concerns willing to try to somehow keep them open.

The Old Custon House, Falmouth

The town centre loosely falls into two parts, the waterfront street from the Maritime Museum past the church, and The Moor, a square on the hillside just above. There are some great cafés and restaurants in the lower area, but the more hipster artisan coffee bars (and barbers) seem to be on The Moor and just above. I always pop in to Falmouth Art Gallery, at the bottom end of The Moor, because it’s free and has both interesting temporary shows and a permanent collection featuring leading Cornish artists (as well as John Singer Sargent and Tilly Kettle), but also because of their weird and wonderful automata. The most popular is the AutoWed, which you really can use for your wedding – it’s a product of Sam Lanyon’s Concept Shed, just a few hundred metres from the museum.

Pubs and restaurants

Falmouth still has plenty of pubs, and a remarkable number of them seem to be free houses, offering a wider choice of beers than those tied to one brewery. On the other hand, they tend not to bother much about food. For me, the best discovery recently in Falmouth has been Beerwolf Books, a pretty unique bookshop-pub in a eighteenth-century sea-captain’s house (I think). Surprisingly, it was once home to the Falmouth Working Men’s Club; it’s totally un-wheelchair accessible, alas. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but on balance you can ignore the bookshop room but you can’t ignore the bar, so it’s essentially a pub, and a very good one too. I was particularly pleased to find organic, vegetarian beer from my favourite Manchester brewery, Marble. They don’t do food, but next door in the same courtyard is the Courtyard Deli & Kitchen, using the finest local produce.

Other good pubs include the Boathouse, with stunning views across to Flushing and great beer, the Seven Stars on The Moor, with a lovely historic interior, and the ‘Front and the Working Boat, both by the harbour. I also hear good things of the HAND Bar; more a bar and bottle shop than a pub, it carries craft beers in bottles and kegs, including from Falmouth’s own Verdant Brewing.

As for food, in addition to Stein’s and the Courtyard, a few other tempting options are Pea Souk, a veggie café tucked away up an alley near Beerwolf (they serve takeaway drinks only if you bring your own cup), Stones Bakery, Fuel, Provedore (which is good for breakfast and lunch, and superb for evening tapas – no bookings, so get there early) and Cribbs, a genuine Caribbean restaurant whose owner came from St Vincent as chef on a cruise liner (he’s also just opened Bahama Mamas, a new café-bar on The Moor).

And of course a few words on public transport – the university campus now seems to attract buses from all over west Cornwall, and the Truro-Falmouth railway now has two trains an hour each way, while the main Plymouth-Truro-Penzance line just has one an hour – although this is soon to be increased to two an hour after signalling improvements.

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.

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.

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 (son of Bernardo, 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. [Work on the new tunnels was suspended for two years but restarted in July 2020, with completion now due at the end of 2022.]