Undiscovered Italy (part 1): Genoa

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Undiscovered Italy

Nobody likes too many tourists. Whether you look for a destination off the beaten track or that bar ‘where the locals go,’ it makes sense to try and be original when travelling. I spent a year in Italy on the Erasmus project  a program that allows students from universities all over Europe to spend a term or two studying at a partner university abroad. This mini-series will include destinations that I discovered in Italy whilst on the Erasmus project, that I feel are overlooked by those on the Italian tourist trail. Buon viaggio…

I’m going to start with the place where I spent my year abroad on Erasmus – Genoa. No, that’s not Genovia, or Geneva. Genoa. This city is overlooked by many a traveller to Italy and it is not the highest scorer on the Italian beautiful city scale, but that’s because that is a ridiculously beautiful scale. However, when you arrive from the south on the motorway and are hit by the sight of the astonishingly steep Ligurian Apennines dropping down to the small plain where the city lies, which then falls dramatically over craggy cliffs onto the Mediterranean sea, it steals your breath. Genoa is caught between mountain and cliff, and that’s just the start.

nervi(Nervi, a district of Genoa. Author’s photo)

If there has ever been any good reason to visit Italy, it’s probably food. Pasta, pizza, gelato; we love it all. But Genoa has a few culinary secrets up its sleeve that are not so well known. This city is the birthplace of pesto, as the climate in the region of Liguria is favourable to the aromatic little basil plant. A well-known regional dish is trofie (a type of pasta) and fresh pesto. Look for pesto genovese D.O.P, which can be found in every supermarket in town. Novella is a good brand – you’ll never want the stuff in jars again! Genoa is also the home of focaccia. Focaccerie line the streets, from where you can buy fresh strips in greasy bags for less than a quid. Focaccia con formaggio is a variant from nearby town Recco, covered in hot, creamy cheese. Finally, you can find excellent seafood, as Genoa is a port town. Wander down to the port, where you’ll find fishmongers and the equivalent of fish and chip shops under the arcades (they fry the fish, no chips) lined with scores of gilled delicacies. I took my friends to Punta Vagno on the seafront at Corso Italia, where we had baby octopus in a rich tomato sauce.

corso firenze(Try trofie one lunch time during your visit. Author’s photo)

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Undiscovered Italy (part 2): Polignano a Mare

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Undiscovered Italy

Nobody likes too many tourists. Whether you look for a destination off the beaten track or that bar ‘where the locals go,’ it makes sense to try and be original when travelling. I spent a year in Italy on the Erasmus project  a program that allows students from universities all over Europe to spend a term or two studying at a partner university abroad. This mini-series will include destinations that I discovered in Italy whilst on the Erasmus project, that I feel are overlooked by those on the Italian tourist trail. Buon viaggio…

 Lined by the Adriatic Sea and the Gulf of Taranto, the region of Puglia answers the beach-seeker’s prayer, and is a worthy alternative to beaches overflowing with tourists in the north. Getting off the train at the small town of Polignano a Mare, just 20 minutes from the bustling port of Bari, follow your nose to the sea. Polignano a Mare is a geographical masterpiece; the old town lies perched on top of about 30 metres of rocky overhang that plummets down to the sea, forming a cove in the perfect shape of a circle down below.

DSCN0340(Sit on the beach, below 30m of rocky overhang http://souloftheheel.com)

I have already expressed my views on how brilliant Italian food is, and Puglia is no exception to the rule. Their regional pasta dish is orecchiette con cime di rapa (‘ear-shaped’ pasta with turnip tops). It sounds a bit suspect but Italian chefs are capable of turning the most humble vegetable into a scrumptious dish, and I would give it a try! After having tried the best pasta dish, try Polignano’s speciality: ice cream. The gelateria Caruso won the most prestigious ice cream competition in Italy this year, the Gelato d’oro, and their rich avocado flavour is a favourite amongst the customers. Just around the corner is another gelateria – and it would be rude not to try it out – Il Super Mago del Gelo. I loved their ‘special coffee,’ a divine mix of coffee, cream, homemade amaretto liqueur and lemon peel. If you feel like splashing out, Polignano a Mare is home to one of the most unusual restaurants in Italy, the Grotto Palazzesco, a restaurant in a grotto inside the cliff face.  Continue reading

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Undiscovered Italy (part 3) ‘The City of Two Seas’: Sestri Levante

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Undiscovered Italy

Nobody likes too many tourists. Whether you look for a destination off the beaten track or that bar ‘where the locals go,’ it makes sense to try and be original when travelling. I spent a year in Italy on the Erasmus project  a program that allows students from universities all over Europe to spend a term or two studying at a partner university abroad. This mini-series will include destinations that I discovered in Italy whilst on the Erasmus project, that I feel are overlooked by those on the Italian tourist trail. Buon viaggio…

I recently had the holiday from hell in Sestri Levante, with a psychopath turning up at the accommodation we were renting. But that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to have a great holiday in this brightly coloured beauty of a seaside town!

Nestled in a little cranny in the Italian Riviera, Sestri Levante is halfway between Genoa and La Spezia. Although the Italian Riviera is known for the luxury resort of Portofino and the picture-perfect five towns of Cinque Terre, Sestri Levante stands its ground. This is not only because it is internationally unknown as a holiday destination, but because of the uniqueness of its coastline. This town is dubbed ‘the city of two seas’ as it is situated on a promontory with the larger Baia delle Favole (Bay of Fables) on one side and the circular Baia del Silenzio (Bay of Silence) on the other side. That makes for a whole lot of coastline and some mind-bending panoramic views from the right vantage point. The Bay of Fables is thus named thanks to the writer Hans Christian Anderson, who resided in Sestri Levante in the early 19th century. I don’t blame him.

sestri(The City of Two Seas. www.duemarihotelsestrilevante.it) 

Sestri Levante’s original function was as a port, importing primary materials to be used inland. As the population is now just under 20,000 inhabitants, and will have been significantly smaller back in the stretches of time, it is safe to say that it has always been a sleepy little town. But that hasn’t prevented it from being subject to siege and attack from the two closest seafaring city-states of the medieval era – Genoa and Pisa. Like many other towns on this stretch of Italian coastline, Sestri Levante was very desirable land and changed hands between these two competing city-states until it came under feudal rule. The city-states of Venice and Lucca also tried, but unsuccessfully, to take over poor little Sestri Levante. Its inhabitants survived Turkish and Saracen rule until the unification of Italy. Italy only became a unified nation in 1861,which partly explains Italians’ preference for their region or town over their national identity.

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Undiscovered Italy (Part 4): Padua

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Undiscovered Italy

Nobody likes too many tourists. Whether you look for a destination off the beaten track or that bar ‘where the locals go,’ it makes sense to try and be original when travelling. I spent a year in Italy on the Erasmus project  a program that allows students from universities all over Europe to spend a term or two studying at a partner university abroad. This mini-series will include destinations that I discovered in Italy whilst on the Erasmus project, that I feel are overlooked by those on the Italian tourist trail. Buon viaggio…

Padua's elliptical piazza, Prato dell Valle. (Photographer: Pedro; Flickr)

Padua’s elliptical piazza, Prato dell Valle. (Photographer: Pedro; Flickr)

Have you heard of Verona? Yes. Have you heard of Venice? Of course. Have you heard of Padua? Possibly not. Most people who have visited the Veneto region, situated in the north-eastern reaches of Italy, will not have stopped in this historic university city of 200,000 people. It may be hard to compete with its more famous neighbours who are heavyweights in the tourism game, but I want to convince you to pay Padua a visit. The Bacchiglione River is a very good reason, for example. The river weaves through the city’s dense clusters of arcaded streets, with many bridges crossing its path (and who doesn’t love a beautiful bridge?) Padua is also home to Prato della Valle, a vast elliptical piazza lined with spectacular statues, and arguably contributes to making Padua a worthy contender amongst its neighbours.

In all honesty, I did not have high expectations before visiting Padua. My friend Kat and I were on our way to a residential weekend in Venice when Kat convinced me that Padua was worth visiting, telling me that her sister had actually spent a year studying there, and so we booked in to a cheap Airbnb for a few days.

Whilst on our trip, we found ourselves in the Scrovegni Chapel (as the weather was not fantastic in February) but having visited it, I would recommend a trip to Padua just to see this fantastic building! The artist Giotto was commissioned by the Scrovegni family to decorate the chapel in the early 14th century and it was meant to be a private chapel attached to their home.

Scrovegni Chapel conceals 700 years worth of art within its walls. (Photographer: Rhonda Oglesby; Flickr)

Scrovegni Chapel conceals 700 years worth of art within its walls. (Photographer: Rhonda Oglesby; Flickr)

You cannot prepare for your first dazzling sight of the bright blue frescoed walls of the chapel, which are still bright after 700 years. They depict terrifying scenes of hell and poignant stories of virtues and vices, 360 degrees around the walls. We spent hours in there gazing at the various alfrescos, fascinated by the fact that Dante had probably seen and been inspired by these walls before he wrote his masterpiece Inferno. Tickets were €13 full price and €8 for students, which was pretty reasonable as access to the informative tourist centre (which explains how an alfresco is made) is also included in the ticket price.

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