Sunday, May 8, 2011

Camogli - A visit to the town of the Houses of Wives

One of my many character flaws is that I am easily distracted.   Life takes a hold of me by the throat, shakes me around a little bit and I fly off in an unanticipated direction focused, or obsessed as Ollie calls it, with some random project until I get distracted by something else.  My most recent focus has been my ongoing quest for an Italian driver's license, a cautionary tale I will discuss in detail in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, I've begun to miss writing my blog.  So, I have decided to return from my hiatus, or recess as I prefer to think of it,  and tell you about our adventures from the last several months.


Not too far from Genova on the western side of the Portofino peninsula along the Gulf of Paradise, lies the little town of Camogli.  In Italian mogli means "wives" and this is the town of the houses of wives.  Now, with only 5000 or so inhabitants, it is hard to imagine that not so many years ago, this village was home to a fleet of 3000 ships and played a critical role in the Napoleonic wars and the war in the Crimea.  The name comes from the women who waited.  They ran the town and lived their lives while their husbands, brothers and sons went to sea, many to never return.

With the exception of the windows and the shutters, all the details of this building are painted...or maybe not...

Today, Camogli is famous for it's tall buildings and the beautiful trompe l'oeil paintings on their walls.
On the isola, stands the medieval Castel Dragone and the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta.  Once this was an island, separated from the land mass.
 Camogli's other claim to fame are the twin celebrations of the Feast of San Fortunato, the patron saint of the town, and the Sagra di Pesce, or fish sagra.  Yesterday, we decided to brave the crowds and travel to Camogli, about 1/2 hour away by train, for the Feast of San Fortunato.  The feast is symbolized by the burning of two enormous structures, one on each side of the town, started by a fireline reaching from the Castel Dragone.

One of the structures waiting to be lit at midnight.

The Carabinieri don't appear to be particularly concerned.
Also a special night for this young bride.

Unfortunately, as we got on the train, Ollie got his hand smashed in the door, so our enthusiasm for this excursion was significantly diminished.    Still, we were both hungry, so we sought out a restaurant I'd been thinking about for some time, and now was the perfect opportunity.  The Ristorante Taberna Mexicana Don Ricardo!  One of the few Mexican restaurants in this part of Italy.  Perfectly authentic, perhaps not, but the closest thing to a real burrito I've had since leaving California.

Today is the Fish Sagra, and we won't be returning since neither of us is particularly fond a fish, but the town pulls out all the stops for visitors from all over Italy and the world.

Today this enormous frying pan will be filled with frying fish to be handed out to the town's guests.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


One of Sarzana's charming streets
Before I tell about our trip to Sarzana, I need to make an admission.  My plan to take the Italian Driver's License test in Italian has changed.  I spent several weeks translating the manual, answering questions, and banging my head against the wall realizing all the while that I could still be doing this a year from now at the rate I've been going.  I was, however, committed to my plan of action until I learned that the test is changing on January 3, 2011.   Not only will the test no longer be offered in English, denying me any opportunity of even considering taking it in my mother tongue, but it's also going to be longer and harder.  Longer I can handle, harder...not so much.  In my smugness, I asked myself "how hard can this exam actually be?"  The response is "really hard"!  There are questions on the exam that are so unfamiliar, so hard!

...this means what?
...and this

...and everyone's favorite...right of way!
All of this stuff may be very familiar to European drivers, but for Americans, or at least Californians,  this is all new terrain.  Especially right of way.  None of that person to your right stuff, this is all about who passes in front of who's path...I can't even explain the concept I'm so confused.  There is no way I'm doing this in Italian, I'm not sure I can do it in English!! 

Anyway, back to Sarzana.  Until a few weeks ago, I'd never heard of Sarzana.  Even now I'm not quite sure what drew me to it.  From the train, it's an unprepossessing agricultural community similar to a hundred such towns in California's San Joaquin Valley, even down to the obligatory RV lot.  But, for some reason, when we got home from Pisa, I decided to do some quick research.  Sarzana lies about mid-way between La Spezia in the southernmost part of Liguria and Massa-Carrara in Tuscany.  I had assumed, because of the rather flat terrain, that Sarzana was in Tuscany, but to my surprise, it's a Ligurian town.  An even bigger surprise was that Sarzana has a pretty fascinating history.

The Cittadella
Sarzana is in a highly strategic position on the via Francigena, the main road used by the Romans to reach northern Europe.  But even after the Romans were long gone, the Republics of Genova, Pisa and Florence, fought for control over this small piece of real estate because it commanded access to the north.  The citadel pictured above was built by Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of Florence around 1488.  It has 6 towers, 2 of which you can see here, and a moat.  Unfortunately the moat is empty because this would be especially cool with water and crocodiles.  Not that they have crocodiles in Italy, but maybe they could import some.

More fortifications on the hill above the Citadel possibly built by the Genovese
In 1572 Sarzana finally became part of the Republic of Genova and is today the easternmost outpost of Liguria.  The blending of two different cultures, the Ligurian and the Tuscan is evident both in the cuisine, which is remarkably fishless for a Ligurian town, and the architecture.

The day we were in Sarzana was the last day of the Festival delle Mente. Initially I was pretty excited at the prospect of lots of food with mint in it.  Then, it sunk in that it was a festival about mente not menta.  A festival celebrating the mind not mint.  As you can imagine, the possibilities for embarrassment are unlimited when speaking a foreign language.

Piazza Matteotti is famous for it's triangular piazza
In August, all of the antiques dealers display their wares throughout the elegant streets of the centro storico.  But even without antiques, there are some wonderful small shops here often guarded by their very own guard dogs.

Actually probably a better doorstop than guard dog.

Although Sarzana is very small, only about 20,000, it's close enough to La Spezia and other larger cities to warrant a longer stay with an eye to life in a small town.  We still don't know the status of our apartment and apparently won't for some time, so we'll continue to explore.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The last train to Lucca

As you will recall, in my last post I told you that trains were the best way to see Italy.  I stand by my position, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I must tell you that there are a few little issues you should be aware of when traveling in Italy by train.  First of all, the trains are occasionally late.  OK, I said full disclosure, so let's be honest here, how about often late...even...usually late.  Normally that's not a problem,  except, and this brings us to little issue number 2, when your connection is due to leave 10 minutes after your original train is due to arrive.  It is virtually guaranteed that if you have 10 minutes between train #1 and train #2, train #2 will be long gone by the time you get to your connection point.  Unlike #1 trains, #2 trains are always on time.

This brings us to our next little issue.  The next train leaving for your destination leaves in either 1 1/2 hours or 1 1/2 minutes.  Do not, I repeat, do not allow the guy at the ticket counter to change your ticket to the one that leaves in 90 seconds.  I don't care if you are a world class sprinter, you cannot catch that train.   These trains wait for no man and you will reach the train just as the door closes.  I don't know if it's a rule, or a law of physics or something, but take my word for it,  I have a lot of experience with this phenomenon!  

My train station - Stazione Brignole

Another similar phenomenon is one that only occurs in the larger train stations like mine in Genova. That is the last minute change of platform.  When train #1 is really late, 30 seconds before your train pulls into the station, there will be an announcement that it is arriving at a different binario, or platform, than the one you're standing on.  If you're lucky, this announcement will be made in a language you understand, but oftentimes, it's only in Italian.  Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the rest of the travelers on your platform.  If they suddenly start running for the stairs, do not assume that there's been a bomb threat.  Grab your stuff and follow the crowd.  Not that you're going to catch this train, because it will invariably be 6 platforms over and require running down one flight of stairs, through the tunnel, running up another flight of stairs and leaping over luggage, dogs and other travelers in the process,  but you can't claim to be a competent traveler if you don't at least try.

My other train stations Stazione Principe 

Without going into the gory details of our particular train trip, yesterday Ollie and I went to Lucca to meet my long-suffering friend Alyson and her daughter Antonia.  I say long-suffering because Alyson has been on the receiving end of my erratic travel schedule on more than one occasion.  Knowing full well that the odds of our getting to Lucca at the planned rendevous time of 10:30 were remote at best, she still embarked from Florence on her mission of mercy,  namely... bringing me some chorizo from Spain.  Fortunately, she likes Lucca, so when I textted her that our train was making funny noises and moving v...e...r..y slow, she was able to happily occupy herself until we got to our meeting place at 12:45.

My favorite train, the Eurostar
Something new to entertain the travelers.  That's a bed of nails at his feet.

As an aside, and because we spent most of our time in Lucca enjoying a great Lucchese lunch and visiting with Alyson and Antonia, and thus only took a couple of pictures, I want to tell you about another hazard of Italian train travel.  That is train station bathrooms.  There are two kinds of bathrooms.  Regular ones like you'd see in any city in the US or Europe, and self-cleaning ones.  The train station in Viareggio, where we languished for an hour and a half after missing our connection, has the latter.  The self-cleaning ones require that you insert a 50 centesimi coin into the slot allowing you to enter into a fully automated toilet.  It's self flushing, dispenses only 10 sheets of toilet paper, 10 seconds worth of water 2 times, an appropriate amount of soap, and a quick blow dry.  When you're done, push a button and the door opens.  But here's the scary part.  After you escape from this stainless steel box, it washes itself.  If you're standing outside, you can hear the thunderous roar of water jets hosing the place down.  Makes you wonder what people have been doing in there. 

Do as I say, not as I do.  Validate your train ticket, cause you'll be €40+ euros poorer if you don't

The trick of these toilets,  is that you have to use the aforementioned items.  I happen to be married to the only guy I know, over the age of 17, who will spend 50 centesimi to comb his hair.  As I'm standing outside, waiting for Ollie to come out, I hear a loud pounding coming from the bathroom.  Ollie, is that you?  The door won't open!  Did you push the button?  Of course I pushed the button!!!  Well push it again!  Not that button, you just set the alarm off...I scream over the squeal of sirens.  Did you flush the toilet? I didn't use the toilet!  Well flush it anyway!!  Between the sirens and the flashing strobe light over my head, I'm beginning to get a headache, but finally the door opens.  There he stands, brush in hand, but with beautifully combed hair, looking only a little distraught.  I probably shouldn't have told him my fear of being involuntarily washed down in one of these things. 

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, no one ever showed up to help.   This causes me to wonder how long he might have been stuck in there had we not figured out the magic sequence to make the door open.  It's one thing to miss your train because your connection was late, another thing all together to miss it because you were locked in the auto-toilet.

Porta San Pietro, one of the entrances into the centro storico

What little we saw in the short time we spent in Lucca has caused us to plan a trip back in the next few weeks, but for a couple of days rather than a couple of hours.  I will, however,  post a few pictures to whet your appetite for a post all about this beautiful and elegant city.

The centro storico is completely encircled by these walls.
Piazza Cittadella with a statue of Puccini near his home.
One of Lucca's attractive streets.
Lucca is a city of bicycles.  Sometimes this is good, sometimes not depending on the skill of the driver.  At least with a motor scooter you can hear it coming.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Oh the angst!  Can one be angst ridden?  Or feeling angst-ish?  Because that is a perfect description of my state of mind at the moment.  Since I try not to wallow in those kinds of feelings,  rather than spending the day sulking like I wanted, on Friday we went to Pisa.

One of the joys of living in Italy is that you can get up in the morning and say, "let's go to Pisa" and actually do it without having to make plane reservations.  We hopped on the train at Stazione Brignole and two hours later were walking the streets of Pisa after a pleasant, uneventful ride.

For those of you unfamiliar with Italian geography, Pisa is about 85 miles southeast of here in the region of Tuscany.  Now the best thing about going to Tuscany is the lack of Ligurian food.  Here I must apologize to all my Genovese friends and family, but the delicate food of Genova just doesn't do it for me.  I prefer the bolder flavors of central and southern Italy, so part of my mission to Pisa was to get something to eat that was neither pesto nor fish.

Our trip to Pisa was the first step in our exploration of potential new homes.  Not that we ever considered living in Pisa, but it is time to start looking around with an eye to what we like and what we don't like about other places, and Pisa was as good a place to start as any...and it has the Campo dei Miracoli.

The Baptistry with the Duomo and the Campanile in the background.
There are so many fabulous places to explore in Pisa, but these buildings are so stunning it's hard to drag yourself away from them. It's harder still to get pictures of them without a hundred tourists posing as if they're holding up the tower.  Why do people do that?  It's very odd.

The entrance to the duomo
The rear of the duomo with just a few of the bazillion tourists there.

The baptistry
The campanile, better known as the Leaning Tower
I could happily spend days photographing this thing.
detail of the campanile
More detail
It is impossible to describe how shocking it is when you first see this tower.  It is both larger than I expected and the angle even greater.  Although visitors are once again allowed to climb the tower, I respectfully declined.  Between a fear of heights and a fear of buildings falling over, better judgment kept me on the ground. 

The Arno and Pisa looking strangely similar to Florence.

Palazzo di Cavalieri
details of the grafitti on Palazzo di Cavalieri
Our impressions of Pisa?  Nice, typical Tuscan town, pretty medieval centro, and not like Genova at all!!  It was like being in a different country!  The first thing you notice is the smell.  Where's the sea?  It can't be that far from here.  After all, Pisa was one of the Maritime Republics until Genova smashed it like a bug in 1284.  Well, as it turns out, the city of Pisa is 8 miles from the Marina of Pisa.  The furthest inland part of Genova isn't 8 miles from the Ligurian Sea!  I mean, rivers are nice and all, and the Arno is a good size river, unfortunately with a propensity to flood, but the sea is just, well...bigger.  The sea has a presence if you will.  And then there's the lack of mountains.

The Sea of Liguria with Genova in the background.
 Pisa is also a town clearly dedicated to tourism.  I have no objection to tourism, I'm often a tourist myself, but I really don't want to live in the middle of swarms of them.  After a day of being surrounded by every language but Italian, we came to the agreement that Pisa wasn't going to be for us.  We got a little more insight into our likes and dislikes, ate at a very nice little restaurant in via San Frediano, but were happy to head for the train station.

After a day full of sightseeing and being sated with good Tuscan food, the Eurostar swooped us up for a somewhat more eventful ride than this morning's.  Here I want to provide a word of caution to visitors to Italy.  Trains are the absolute best way to see this country.  They go almost everywhere you want to go, are fast, comfortable, reasonably priced and you don't have to find a place to park them.  But, they are not free from petty criminals.  Case in point...on our way home we rode in a largely empty car, large enough for the few people riding to spread out and take a nap.  One young woman placed her backpack on the seat facing her and went to sleep.  As we were about to stop in Chiavari, the conductor came into our car to check tickets and found a small group of men riding without tickets.  As they were ushered off the train, one of them grabbed the backpack and got off.  Fortunately, the young woman woke up in time to realize the backpack was gone and warned the conductor who recovered it and the thief.  So, it turned out to be a happy ending for everyone but him.  Lesson: Come ride our trains, but keep one eye open.

What surprised us most about our trip occurred when we arrived back in Genova.  As we got off the train, we both said in unison "it's good to be home"!  Has Genova become home?  Did we choose the perfect place the first time?  It's too early to know for sure, and we have lots of exploring yet to do, but it was quite an eyeopener.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Didn't see this one coming.

 CurveBall - The curveball, is a type of pitch in baseball thrown with a characteristic grip and hand movement that imparts forward spin to the ball causing it to dive in a downward path as it approaches the plate...and smacks you right in the head.  Wikipedia... sort of.

 Yesterday in the midst of celebrating our first anniversary of life in Italy we received some news that has us both spinning.  Moments before we left to have dinner at one of Genova's finest restaurants La Buca di San Matteo, I received an email that our landlady had died.  This was not a surprising death since she was 85 years old, but sad nevertheless, and raises issues we were, quite frankly, unprepared to deal with.

My favorite restaurant in another Doria building.

Under Italian law, tenants have very significant rights including the right to live out the term of a lease agreement.  There are however, some exceptions.  The most significant of these is where the owner needs to reside in the apartment as their prima casa.  Will the heirs need to live in our apartment.  Will they want to sell it to someone who will need it as their prima casa?  Do they understand that we already live they care????  We don't have the answer to any of these questions and the landlady's attorney doesn't even know who the heirs are yet to ask them.  All she knows is that there's a bunch of them. This really doesn't sound good. 

Looking at the eastern most part of Casteletto from the top of Carignano.  The spire on the right is my castle.

Of course, our first reaction has been complete horror.  We've invested a lot of time and money in making this apartment exactly what we wanted.   But, as the reality begins to sink in, that we could get booted out of here in the next several months, we're beginning to consider our original plan...explore Italy until we find the perfect place. 

Do you think they'd let me keep this chandlier...and the ceiling medallion...

When we first decided to move to Italy, the plan was to move first to my ancestral comune in the hopes that the initial process would be easier for Ollie.  But, it was always our plan that Genova was just the first stop in finding the location that would be our permanent home.  Little did we realize that Genova would grab us by the throat, or that we would find this amazing apartment.   But Ollie is inclined, and I agree, that if we can't stay in our apartment, it's time to look at other parts of Italy.

From the Aquarium

So, while we wait for the other shoe to drop, we're going to go back to square one, or more accurately square one and a half, and start looking again at those places we first considered before we moved here.   Florence, Ascoli Piceno, Gaeta, the Castelli Romani, and a dozen other places we've discovered in the last year.

Can I live without foccaccia?

I can't say if or when this move will happen, but maybe, Between the Mountains and the Sea will be moving to Between the Mountains and someplace else.

Who'll give him walnuts?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Drinking From the Firehose of Knowledge

Piazza de Ferrari

Today is our one year anniversary in Italy.  For the last several weeks I've been thinking about this past year and what it means to live in this beautiful but complicated country.  But I've also been thinking about how completely nuts I've become trying to drink it all in and practically drowning in the process.  So, in no particular order, here's what I've learned so far...

... about living in Italy

Crazy, chaotic, frustrating, enigmatic, inscrutable, beautiful, fabulous Italy.  Warning: Not for the faint of heart.

Genova Nervi

...about electricity

It is not absolutely necessary to have the dishwasher and the hairdryer on at the same time.  The dishes can wait. 

St. George's baby dragon

...about learning Italian

If you speak it, it will come.  Piano, piano.

The Biosphere

...about Italian food

If you don't like fish, don't live in a port town.
If you don't want to eat cephalopods, learn what they're called in Italian.
If you want bucatini all'amatraciana either cook it yourself or move to Rome, 'cause you won't find it  here.
There are 300 different shapes of least.

Cattedrale di San Lorenzo

...about Italian television

Dreadful, completely dreadful.

Chiesa del Gesu'

...about soccer

You always know when a goal is scored whether you want to or not.  Law of Physics: Sound rises!

Lo stadio from our hill

...about being tall

There are advantages and disadvantages:

Advantage - When standing in the bus, people can't see you haven't done your roots in weeks.
Disadvantage - You can't sit down.

Advantage - When standing in the bus you can reach the bar along the top of the bus to hang on.
Disadvantage - Other people's heads are in your armpit, a situation that is socially awkward.
Advantage - My head isn't in someone else's armpit, a situation I go to great lengths to avoid...especially in summer.

Advantage - You can reach products on the highest shelf.
Disadvantage - Everyone knows you can reach so you spend half your time getting things off shelves for other people.

Advantage - You can wear things short people can't wear.
Disadvantage - None of those things are sold in Italy.
Palazzo Tursi

...about Italians

They're great, except that their idea of personal space and mine differ by about 12".

San Fruttuosa

...about being an Expat

My countries are my countries.  I don't love one the less because I live in the other.

Carlo Felice Opera House

...about husbands

You know you have a great one when he adopts your dream as his own, and only whines a little bit.

Castello Mackenzie from our dining room

...about blogging
Sometimes I would rather stick needles in my eyes.  Most of the time my little exercise in self-absorption is joyful and incredibly satisfying.

Chiesa di San Giorgio

...about things I miss

My kids
An American size refrigerator
My kids
ethnic food
My kids

Palazzo Ducale

...about things I don't miss


La Lanterna and the working port

...about Genova

Living in Genova is like peeling an onion, there's always another layer you didn't expect. 

...about the future, well, there's always...