String City is for anyone visiting the Italian city of Genoa - without the usual travel guide stuff. A description of true Mediterranean atmospheres and captions of everyday life in Italy, for those who prefer to find their own way around - with the occasional nudge in the right direction.


Farinata: What Sailors in a Storm Can Do With Chickpeas

The cold wind slices it's way through the narrow alleys of the old city. It ruffles your hair and chills your ears until you can feel it through to your brain. It finds its way into any opening you may have forgotten in your clothing: down the back of your neck, up the bottom end of the back of your windbreaker, or even up through the ankles of your trousers.

You never know when to expect it. You leave home and it's warm out. You feel stupid walking around with a jacket - overdressed. After all, it's not Winter yet. So you leave home without it. Then out of nowhere the wind picks up and you stand there in your T-shirt freezing. This is Autumn, and surprisingly enough it has been a rather dry Autumn this year. It usually rains heavily for weeks and during that time the temperature drops drastically.

The cool air is still a novelty after the hot summer months, it seems to give you new-found energy (although you feel dead tired by the time evening comes). And at this time of the year there is nothing better than a piece of hot farinata to warm you from the inside. Better yet if you can eat it while you walk, taking in the sights and sounds of the city while you savor one of its most valued specialties.

If you have never tried it, it's very hard to describe. It must be one of the simplest dishes around, made only from chickpea flour, water, and a bit of salt and olive oil. It tastes heavenly. But be sure to eat it hot. It's still good when it's cold, but not as good as when it just comes out of the oven.

The recipe is quite simple: the Wikipedia page in Italian suggests mixing one part chickpea flour to three or for parts water in a terracotta bowl.

You then mix it in, making sure not to leave any lumps. The mixture must then be left to rest in the bowl for a few hours (from two to ten... apparently you decide). Mix it from time to time so that the flour doesn't settle on the bottom.

When you are ready to cook it, pour some olive oil in the traditional copper tray, called "teglia" in Italian. Again, the Wikipedia page suggests one part olive oil to 5 or 10 parts chickpea flour used in the batter (or you can just pour the oil into the tray, until the surface is covered with a layer of olive oil).

Traditionally, farinata is prepared in a wood-burning oven (like pizza), which must be hot. If you are cooking in a normal oven at home, 200 °C will be enough. They then suggest putting the tray into the preheated oven for a few minutes before cooking the actual farinata. This is supposed to prevent the farinata from sticking to the tray.

You then remove the froth from the surface of your batter with a spoon, and using a ladle you pour the mixture into the heated tray, starting at the center. The mixture should cover the tray with a 5-10 mm layer. It should not be thicker than 10 mm.

You then cook it until it turns golden brown, as you can see in the picture. In a pizza oven, the cooking temperatures are a bit higher so it takes much less time. A cookbook I have at home suggests 30 minutes at 200 °C in your home oven, obviously while keeping an eye on it to see that the color is right.

This is truly an ancient dish. There are records of ancient Greek and ancient Roman recipes for pureed legumes mixed with water and oil and baked to form a similar result.

One legend that Wikipedia mentions sets 1284 as the year of its creation. Apparently, that year Genoa defeated Pisa (both powerful maritime republics at that time) in the battle of Meloria. The prisoners they took were put to work rowing the ships back to Genoa, but the ships got caught in a violent storm. Sacks of chickpea flour and barrels of oil were thrown around, mixing together on the deck.

When the storm was over and the sailors discovered this mess, they had no other supplies and were forced to collect whatever they could off of the deck and eat it as it was. Raw chickpea flour and oil must have been quite nauseating, and many of the sailors left their bowls in the sun. When they gathered them later on, they discovered the mixture had baked in the sun, and tasted much better.

When they got back to the port, they decided to try baking it in the oven, and the Genovesi have loved it ever since.


A Tour of the Forts Surrounding Genoa - Part 3

Having rested and enjoyed the view for a while, you leave the Forte del Diamante behind and make your way down the hill along a path which, as you can clearly see in the picture above, follows a zigzag route down the mountainside.

Your destination now is the Forte del Fratello Minore (in English: Little Brother Fort). As you come to the end of the zigzag stretch down from Forte del Diamante, you come to another fork in the road.

You take the path on the right, heading uphill, through the bushes as you can see in the picture. At the top of the hill you come to a relatively flat area. Here there was once also a Big Brother Fort (Forte del Fratello Maggiore), and you actually walk right over its ruins, without even noticing it if you're not careful. You'll see there are traces of brick walls at ground level, but nothing sticking up anymore. From here you get a good view of the Forte del Fratello Minore.

As you can see, the path from here is quite clear. Unfortunately, when you get there, you find the actual fort, just like the Forte del Diamante, is closed, and you can only look at it from the outside. However, there are plenty of interesting corners and things to explore around the outer walls.

As it is, what was once the entrance to this place now looks like this:

You leave this fort the way you came, but you'll notice on your way back that the path splits into two. Instead of heading back up towards the ruins of the Forte del Fratello Maggiore, you now stay on the right and head in the direction of the  city. This part of the walk is mostly in the open and in spring you'll find lots of wild flowers adding their color to the mountainside. Even in late summer, splashes of color are not as uncommon as you would expect, especially after the August heat.

The path now follows the top of the ridge, heading to the next fort in the tour, Forte Puin. You can see both the path and the fort here:

Forte Puin was built between 1815 and 1831, in the place of a previous fort dating back to 1742. It has been private property since 1963 and is reported to have been restored more than once in that time. The name Puin is said to come from "du Puin" in the local dialect, which in Italian would be "del Padrino", and in English "of the Godfather" - although that's as far as the local tourist brochure goes in the explanation, and you are left to figure out for yourself why it should be called that.

Having walked around to the front of the fort, you can walk right up to the gate and have a look in, and then head down the very grand stairway that leads away from the entrance towards the rest of the path. You then come to a point where the path splits again. This is marked by a large brick and rock thing in the middle, a larger, pointy part sitting on top of the smaller part - I suppose it was meant to be a signpost of some sort at some time, but there's nothing written on it. From here you'll see a fort surrounded by antennas up ahead, the fort eventually hiding behind the hill and leaving a lone antenna as a warning.

You can go up there to explore if you wish, but if instead you turn down to your left, the path takes you down a steep hill through what the signs advertise as the "valley of butterflies". There are truly millions of them. Obviously if you go in Spring there will be even more. The overall effect is quite magical the first time you walk through there, and along the way there are signs telling you what types of butterflies there are in the area so you know what to be on the lookout for.

This part of the walk comes to an end very quickly, and you find yourself, all of a sudden, next to a trattoria, with a barking dog down on your right and, if you're lucky, you may even get the chance to meet this horse who apparently belongs to the lady from the trattoria. The two of them kindly accepted to pose for a photo together.

You now come back to the path you first followed, and retrace your steps all the way back to the Funicolare station in Righi past the rescue dog training center and the archery club.

Overall this whole walk will only take you 3 or 4 hours, depending on how fast you walk and on how long you stop along the way to explore your surroundings. I think that makes it an even better walk because it doesn't take the entire day away from you and you get to see so much in that short amount of time.

You can also get a small pocket guide to a number of different walks among the forts (there are many others) from the local tourist office in via Garibaldi for about 50 cents. If you do happen to travel to Genoa sometime, take the morning to go on this walk, you won't regret it!


A Tour of the Forts Surrounding Genoa - Part 2

So you've reached the end of the first part of this tour of the forts in the hills surrounding Genoa. By now, you should have a good dose of fresh air in your lungs. That's good, you're going to need it. It felt like you were already on top of the mountain all this time. But there's a surprise just around the corner.

As you stand at the end of the path, turn your back on the road and the bar and look back the way you came. You'll see that there is another path going up to the right of the one you were on.

As you head up this pathway and disappear in the bush, you'll notice it just keeps climbing. Now, depending on how fit you are, doing it at a quick pace can be quite exhilarating. You feel like the mountain just keeps going up, and the further you go the more the North wind helps cool you down and seems to blow all your mental chatter away and soon it's just you and the hill. Here's what the path looks like during the first part:

The bush can get quite thick on the way up. The markings on rocks and trees are more confusing than anything. I've been up a number of times and I honestly think that it doesn't really matter which one you take, they all lead up the hill in the end. But to be on the safe side, I'd suggest always sticking to the path on the left hand side, since it seems to be the most direct route. After a while the trees and bushes start to fall back and you find yourself walking up the hill in what is usually long dry grass.

In the springtime the flowers in these parts of the mountain are incredible, but being autumn right now there are fewer of them. From this point on it is quite easy to follow the path up to the Forte del Diamante (literally Diamond Fort). As the wind constantly sweeps the mountainside and your heart races, as your legs start to feel seriously challenged for the first time so far, you look up and see this:

Yes, that's where you're headed, and it's further than it looks, but keep going, it's worth it. As you reach the top of the hill, almost at the same angle as the slope in front of you, you finally reach the outer rock wall of the fort, climb up the few steps leading up to the top of the walls, and take a moment to look around and catch your breath. The views that meet your eyes speak for themselves:

If you turn your back to the sea and look inland, you'll see both the Val Bisagno (on your right) and the Val Polcevera (on your left). These two valleys, which follow Genoa's two rivers inland, do not communicate much in everyday life. They are not directly accessible. To get from one to the other you either go all the way through the city, around the coast, and up the other side, or you get the highway (autostrada) which goes through a series of tunnels and gets you there much quicker. Yet from up here, they seem to all blend in to a single valley.

At 660 meters above sea level, you are high enough up to get some perspective on the city. Napoleon's troops were under siege in this fort in 1800 by the Austro-Piedmontese army. It was abandoned in 1914 and restored, to some extent, in 2005. You cannot go inside, but you can explore the outside for a while and just enjoy the views.

I'd suggest looking down that drop before lunch. It's a vertical shot with the lens pointed downwards. This is a great place to stop for a picnic and relax for a while before moving on with the tour. Also, the toughest climb is now behind you, so you can just think about enjoying the sites from here on.

If you go through the arch and around to the front of the fort (the part facing the sea) you'll get a breathtaking view of the Western part of the Ligurian coast. That's the part that goes towards the French border. The day I took these pictures it was a bit cloudy, but on a clear day you can see far along the coast, and from up here, on really clear days, you can even see Corsica on the horizon.

(to be continued)


A Tour of the Forts Surrounding Genoa - Part 1

Sometimes, with the help of the weather, the holiday vibe doesn't wait for you to be on holiday to try and take a hold of you. Fortunately, the weekend is always just around the corner. One of my absolute favorite one-day escapes is the tour of the forts surrounding Genoa in the hills behind the city.

One such area is the Parco delle Mura, a nature reserve on the upper edge of the city. From the city center it only takes a few minutes to get there. By car it takes about 5 minutes, up winding, sometimes incredibly steep roads, and once you arrive there is always plenty of parking. On foot, you can climb the hill in about 20 minutes, maybe half an hour if you wanted to take it easy.

The best way to get there, especially if you are exploring the city for the first time, is on the Zecca-Righi Funicolare. Now Largo Zecca, the lowest station on the line, is easy to miss because it is tucked away in a corner. The best way to make sure you find it is if you go towards Largo Zecca from Piazza della Nunziata. At the traffic light, on your left hand side, behind another little road going up the hill and one disappearing around the corner next to it. In that hidden corner you will see the little sign for the station.

If you are claustrophobic, this is perhaps not the best alternative, but it is really worth the ride. These tiny two carriages take you up the hill through tunnels and in between houses and gardens. Some of the stations are on such a slope that the platforms are entirely made up of stairs. It takes about 10 minutes to reach the top, you get an "inside" view of parts of the city you would not see otherwise, and the whole thing only costs you 1.50 euro for a standard AMT bus ticket.

When you reach the Righi station, at the top of the hill, don't leave the station without stopping for a second on the terraces on the roof of the station to look out over the city and see how far you've come.

As you exit the station, you will see two roads on your left hand side. One going uphill and the other going down. Take the one going down, and immediately turn on to the path leading through the trees next to the tennis court. This path will lead you all the way to the beginning of your actual walk, without having to walk in the middle of the road and dodge the cars.

This path is quite interesting itself, it takes you first past the local archery club, and later, after keeping to the right where you come to a fork in the road (seen in the picture above), past another club that trains rescue dogs. Finally, while skirting the old city walls, on the outside, you will spot the first of the forts you will visit during the day. This one is called Forte Sperone, and as you come to the end of this first path, you will keep Forte Sperone to your left and continue up the road to your right.

This road soon turns to a dusty mountain path, which follows a large pipeline. It's ancestor, an ancient aqueduct, runs along a similar route, but further down in the valley. You will find plenty of people out here, most running or riding their mountain bike, a few walking their dogs. Along this road, you come to a fork: on the left you will find a trattoria, and a route that goes more directly up to the forts surrounding the city. I like to take the other route on the right. It is a bit longer, and later on it is even a bit tougher, but I think it gives you a better idea of the countryside in Liguria (in case you're wondering, that's the name of this region of Italy).

An hour after leaving Largo Zecca, if you look back towards the city this is what you'll see:

Not long after that, as the number of trees surrounding the path gradually increases, you come across something really surprising: the ancestor of the modern ice machine. The system worked like this: you dig a deep hole in the ground out in a cool, shady area of the mountain, pack compressed snow inside it during the colder months of the year (which then turned to ice), insulate the whole lot with straw and dry leaves, and sell it down in the city, carrying it down block by block on the back of a mule.

The neviera, as it is called in Italian, originally looked something like this:

What you see today, of course, makes you feel a bit more like Indiana Jones. There is no covering of any kind and the stone walls of the inside of the hole are just recognizable through the creepers and other plants growing in and around them. But if you look closely you can even see the small stairway that goes down one side to the bottom of the pit.

Back on the path, after about ten minutes you come to the end of the first part of the walk, just above a place called Trensasco. You will notice an actual road where you thought you were quite isolated from civilization, and even a small bar just a little way ahead.

(To be continued...)


Summer Stroll

There are few things more relaxing than a stroll along the water's edge in the evening.

Generation after generation of Italians have grown up this way and lived this way their whole life.

The sun sets - eventually. It only really gets dark at about 9.30 p.m. in summer. The air cools. Tanned bodies in sandals and light summer clothing wander aimlessly. It's all about the pleasure of the moment. Ice-creams are eaten. Little children get to stay up late because their parents couldn't bear to stay at home when the evening is so cool. Teenage summertime romances are enacted each and every evening like an ongoing play - in episodes. Ice-cream parlors, arcades, pubs and restaurants with waterfront tables. The occasional event on a makeshift stage: singers, plays, TV comedians making a little extra money during their off season, or beauty pageants where teenagers get to parade up and down in front of the whole town.

The Porto Antico area in Genoa is a city version of all this. In fact, the coast of the city is lined with urban versions of this scenario. Corso Italia is the historical seaside promenade, and further up along the coast is the Marina Aeroporto area, which is quite recent.

I often go out for an evening walk in the Porto Antico since I live nearby.
On the evening I took these pictures, I discovered that my favorite relaxing place in the city - a group of barges with park benches on them I also discussed in the aquarium post - is finally back in place and open to the public.

Being the middle of summer, there is plenty of activity even well past midnight. This floating club is a good example (ok, a blurry example but you get the idea).

But it's not too hard to find quieter places - even just a few meters away from the clubs.

The western end, around the Galata Museo del Mare, is much quieter in the evening. During opening hours, this is a very interesting museum that deals with the city's historical connection with the sea and the maritime world.

The eastern end, on the other hand, is much more lively, with lots of pubs and restaurants. The streetlights are even brighter for some reason. Families walk up and down eating ice-cream (the famous Italian gelato). This is a national summer pastime - I can think of at least five ice-cream places in that precise area alone. Single people head for the clubs in search of company. The brave head for the outdoor karaoke place - here everybody can see and hear you.

On this particular evening, a group of English students decided to have an evening swim right next to the Coast Guard's boats - and right in front of the karaoke place. They stole the scene for a while, attracting horrified looks from some and amused looks from everyone else. The locals wouldn't be caught dead swimming in there - it is a port after all, so the water is polluted. Soon people got used to them and the karaoke drowned out the excited squeals in the background. I am almost sure most of the squeals were coming from the English tourists and not from the few old men hanging over the railing wishing they could join in.

Just past the karaoke area is a long series of buildings known as the Magazzini del Cotone (Cotton Warehouses - which is what they were before they were turned into restaurants, pubs, cinemas, etc.). On the front side you can walk along and look at boats I assume to be parked in order of increasing wealth.
Somewhere in the middle they become luxury yachts and toward the end, most of the time, I think they should be called ships and I'm quite sure they could easily house a family of fifty.
After the last and largest vessel, the buildings come to the end, and it is suddenly more peaceful and you can stand or sit awhile, looking out across the port, taking in the cool sea breeze.

And then, finally, like millions of other Italians all around the peninsula, you turn around and stroll back in the opposite direction.


Almost Tropical

The humidity hangs in the air like a heavy, suffocating coat. You wake up feeling hungover even though you had nothing to drink the night before. Your joints ache and you start to wonder if maybe your dinner last night had been poisoned somehow.

You get up, go through the motions like every other day. Willing yourself on. So much so that you forget to look out the window and up at the sky.

As you sit having breakfast, the first sign that catches your attention is when the lights flicker almost imperceptibly. You've seen and felt all the signs before, but as usual the heat and humidity, combined with the commitments of everyday life, distract you.

You leave the house, uplifted as always by the stillness of the morning air. Only this time the stillness is yet another warning that you fail to notice.

A giant drop of something wet lands directly on your head. Never a pleasant experience in the old city - it could be anything. You look up, scowling, hoping to catch the culprit as he silently retreats into his window (or nest).

That's when you notice that the sky is not its usual bright blue. It's dark, almost black. At that moment the next drop hits you square on the forehead, and you understand just as the heavens open and a wall of water hits the city from above.

Like so many scared  animals, people dash for cover. You notice people in Bermuda shorts and sandals already soaked from head to toe.

The force of the rain is so strong, gutters and drainpipes fail to do their job and turn into miniature fountains. Hitting horizontal surfaces, the water bounces right back up again, creating an interesting two-way rain effect.

Like many of the other people who live here, you do your best to avoid getting completely soaked by sticking to the upwind side of the street or piazza. It's no use, of course, but you'll at least be able to fool yourself that it could have been worse.

As fast as possible, you make your way to the portico near the waterfront. Here, you can finally stand, relatively sheltered, and absorb the massive energy of the storm. You just stand there for a while in the crowded shelter. About ten people ask you if you want to buy an umbrella. Everyone and everything seems alive, vibrating.

Then, after a while, just as  quickly as it started, it stops. The air is cool - frizzante they say here (like mineral water - sparkling). In ten or twenty minutes time the sky will have turned completely blue again. The sun will be as hot as ever. But just for  today, in the shade it will be refreshing and the air will be less sticky and humid.

The city has had a well-needed wash. People who have been soaked through to the bone stand there and smile, refreshed, and quickly drying off in the morning sun.

And you continue on your way, all aches and groggy feelings finally gone.


Extending The Largest Aquarium in Europe

It has finally turned in to a hot, sticky, energy-zapping August here. Summer kept us waiting this year, and as is usually the case when that happens, the heat and humidity it finally brought with it are barely tolerable (ask any real Genovese).

Anyway, it's a Saturday evening and after over-filling my stomach I decided to go out for a walk along the water's edge in the very “touristy” part of the port known as the Porto Antico – which is ironic because in its current layout it is rather modern, and probably the newest part of the entire port – the rest being completely off-bounds to most people anyway.
I think the original work to modernize this part of the city was carried out for the 1994 commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the Americas.

Among other things, the Porto Antico area is home to the city's aquarium, which happens to be the largest in Europe, as well as the main tourist attraction, even for Italians from other parts of the country.

As I headed towards the sea, I noticed that there were more people than usual out this evening, and that's when I remembered they were installing the new extension to the aquarium, in the form of a giant dolphin tank.

The aquarium is designed like a tanker ship, parked alongside a pier that sticks out into the heart of the port. This pier is one of my favourite parts of the city, but not because of the aquarium (impressive as it may be).

If you walk straight past the aquarium and keep going until you get to the very end of the pier, you would normally reach this favourite place of mine: a series of three six retired barges that have been transformed into three floating public decks with railings all around the edges and lots of park benches to sit on, soaking up the sun or staring dreamily into the water, while the waves gently rock you.

This is perhaps one of the quietest, most peaceful and relaxing places you will find anywhere in the city although I have never been able to understand why.

Unfortunately, for several months now my beloved barges had been moved off to some remote and inaccessible corner of the port while dredging was carried out to make way for the dolphin tank, which has now been dragged through after it was built in a boatyard somewhere else in the port.

The front of the “ship”, which usually houses a restaurant, a curio shop and another public area with benches, was moved to one side; the dolphin tank attached in the middle; and then the front was added back on again.

I am happy to report that the barges now seem to have returned, although they are still closed off for now and not yet in their normal layout. Some further dredging is being carried out in the same area, so it may be a while before they are actually reinstated, but at least I can see them there.

On the downside, I measured the total length of the new dolphin tank module (a large swimming pool with an enclosed glass corridor along the public side of the deck next to it), and found that it measured roughly 100 of my own paces, walking slowly. At a run it would no doubt take me much less. I can only begin to imagine how many seconds it must take a dolphin to swim from one end to the other.

I will keep my eye on the situation and let you know when the barges are definitively back and just how happy the dolphins are looking once they move in...