Navigating Genoa, Columbus’ Maritime Sea Town

Boats Bobbing in the Harbor of Porto Antico

When I was in grade school, I fell in love with Christopher Columbus, the early explorer and navigator. He sounded so adventurous – a man who sailed the high seas, braving storms and seasickness as he made his way to the New World. So when I had the opportunity to stay in Genoa for a few days, knowing this was his place of birth, I was ready to do my own exploring.

Genoa is famous for several reasons, one of which is the magnificent harbor, the Porto Antico. It is a real network of wharfs, piers and board walks backed by tall commercial buildings and stately villas.

This harbor has quite a history. It was the center of ancient trades from 400 AD up to the Middle Ages, reaching the height of power in 1100. By then Genoa prospered as a major Maritime Republic through trade, shipbuilding and banking. As the most powerful navy in the Mediterranean, Genoa controlled the sea. As I walked around the harbor, it was easy to imagine mighty ships bedecked with flags and surrounded by a bustle of boats coming and going on the sea lanes.

A Spanish Galleon at the Port

I found this 17th century style Spanish Galleon fittingly named II Galeone Neptune. Built in Tunisia for Roman Polanski’s film “Pirates,” the 1500 ton ship is currently a tourist attraction with a 5 euro charge to walk aboard and explore its murky depths while hobnobbing with the pirate crew. In 2011 this galleon portrayed the ship, “Jolly Roger” in the TV miniseries, “Neverland.”

II Galeone Neptune
II Galeone Neptune
Glorious Sunset over the Old Harbor
Glorious Sunset over the Old Harbor
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The Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) of Genoa with the Turtle Pool

Turtles, turtles everywhere! The pool was swimming with them. It must have been a recent hatching. They kept crawling out only to slip back into the water, attracting a lot of attention.

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Aristocratic Turtles Conversing while Sunbathing–AND balancing on the pool rim!

The Palazzo Reale is a large aristocratic residence which has been splendidly decorated by three great Genoese dynasties. The Balbis built it between 1643 and 1650, afterwards passing to the Durazzos, who decorated it between the end of the 17th to 18th centuries. Finally the Savoy dynasty of the 19th century put on the finishing touches. Impeccably dressed and highly maintained, the palace is a pleasure to walk through.

There are over 100 paintings in the palace, most by 17th century Genoese artists as well as frescoes by some of the most important Baroque and Rococo artists of the time.

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The dazzling Hall of Mirrors in the Palace. It made me think of Phantom of the Opera.
Uniquely Sculptured Mermen?
Uniquely Sculpted Mermen
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Via Garibaldi is Genoa’s old wealthy district with stately mansions. I enjoyed strolling up and down this street numerous times.
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Galleria Mazzini Genova is a beautiful covered walkway with rows of antique shops and cafe’s
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Piazza Raffaele de Ferrari is famous for its magnificent fountain. As the main piazza of Genoa, it is the financial and business center of the city. Armed police are stationed outside the banks.
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Christopher Columbus supposedly lived here. Overgrown with ivy, what’s left of his house is just outside the medieval district.
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12th century Torri di Porta Soprana is the gateway to the old medieval district of Genoa. Some of the ancient outer walls are still standing.
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Cobbled streets inside the medieval district. Notice the dip and sway of the street. Several churches in this area had similar floors. Many feet have pitter patted over them down through the centuries.

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Looking outward from the old to the modern Genoa

Genoa is a modern city with a lingering presence of past generations. The medieval center is remarkably well-preserved and not to be missed. The striking contrasts between old and new is strongly evident throughout the city and a delight to explore.

Charles Dickens summed up the city of Genoa very well in his quote..

“It is a place that ‘grows upon you’ every day. There seems to be always something to find out in it. There are the most extraordinary alleys and by-ways to walk about in. You can lose your way (what a comfort that is, when you are idle!) twenty times a day, if you like; and turn up again, under the most unexpected and surprising difficulties. It abounds in the strangest contrasts; things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful, and offensive, break upon the view at every turn.”
― Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy

 

Scarlino ~ Tuscany’s Tucked Away Hamlet

Scarlino- looking down from part of the old fortress wall.
Scarlino- as seen from the old fortress wall 

While standing in a Tuscan vineyard full of ripened purple fruit to stretch my legs during a long car ride from Pisa to Rome, I found myself captivated by a vision that appeared straight out of a Brothers Grimm storybook. Sitting high above me in a fairytale setting was the castle village of Scarlino. Located only 62 miles SW of Florence and a short way inland from the coast, Scarlino looked like an island floating on a sea of green trees. Blocky beige houses tumbled down the hillside, hemmed in by ancient stone walls and oak-filled forests.

Small medieval hilltop hamlets have always had a magical effect on me. They leave me curious and compelled to see more, as if they held a secret ready to be discovered. Scarlino was no exception, and I quickly decided take a temporary detour to the top.

After driving up a few switchbacks, I rolled my little car through the old medieval gateway and into the quiet village.

Scarlino Archway

Narrow cobbled streets took me to rustic corners, tiny piazzas and tall brick buildings. Bits of the 11th century fortress walls, great for a perch, provided expansive views of the surrounding countryside. To the west, the Mediterranean shimmered endlessly toward the horizon. Located only twelve miles from the coast, Scarlino (scherl in the Lombard tongue, meaning lookout-post) offered a perfect opportunity to experience Tuscany without the waves of tourists.

Vines and flowers grew around crumbling rock in crisscross formation and stonework felt warm to touch. I passed by several coffee bars, restaurants, and tiny food shops. Small gatherings of locals sat about the piazzas engaged in conversation.

While relishing the expansive view from the wall, an elderly gentleman in dark worn slacks and a white t-shirt approached me for a visit. In a town where very few speak English, typical of small villages like this, our language limitations were no barrier. His wink and broad toothy smile gave me reassurance that I had made a friend.

Typical Medieval Street in Scarlino-
Scarlino is a maze of Medieval streets.

My short stroll through the village provided some authentic Italian nooks and crannies that are so enjoyable to stumble across. Below is the backside of a restaurant that, on the other side, offered birds eye views of the valley below from a flagstone terrace. Bright red geraniums light up this old crumbling wall.

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A bit of history….

Afterwards, I found a chance to look up the history of Scarlino on my laptop. My strong attachment to a place always involves the past and I love to investigate. What I found is that archaeologists have discovered remains of a small village where Scarlino is today, composed of wooden huts surrounded by a boundary wall dating from the Late Bronze Age (10th – 12th century BC). Since then, communities have come and gone, including Etruscan settlements, until the early medieval ages when Scarlino became an established village with a castle fortress.

Scarlino Castle- Five Sided and Oddly Shaped Towers
Scarlino Castle ~ Five sided with odd-shaped towers

Rocca Aldobrandeschi, its ancient castle, is worthy of exploring. Although much of it is no longer existing, the ancient grounds, towers and views fascinated me. According to documentation, it was in existence by 973 AD. and was once a stronghold for the northern city of Pisa. Originally owned by the powerful Aldobrandeschi family, the village and castle were conquered by Pisa in 1164. During this time, political and military expansion dominated the goals of the wealthy and prestigious. By the 13th century, Pisa had permanently imposed its authority along the nearby Tyrrhenian coastline.

Curiously built with five sides and three odd-shaped towers, the castle is strategically positioned overlooking the valley on one side and the coast on the other. A wide panorama of patchwork fields in variegated green surrounded the village from below. Opposite, rolling hills of oak give way to the distant open expanse of the Mediterranean sea. Today the castle is used for local shows and cultural events.

 

Rocco Aldobrandesca- Castello di Scarlino
Rocca Aldobrandesca- Castello di Scarlino sits like a fairytale

 

‘Cave Canem,’ The Wild Dogs of Pompeii

Wild dog “A dog has the soul of a philosopher.”   Plato

In 2008, the Italian government declared a state of emergency for Pompeii, Italy. The situation hasn’t improved since then and more deterioration has occurred due to embezzlement of funds appointed for restoration projects. Among the disintegrating ruins are wild or abandoned dogs. Many are seen lying about in the shade of ancient walls and ditches.

During my time in Pompeii, my heart was captivated by these forgotten dogs that seemed to want human companionship but were so afraid to trust. So they stayed in the shadows, the only visible inhabitants among the ancient rubble. In today’s ancient ruins of Pompeii, the result of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD., most of these dogs are callously dumped off by people who no longer want them. Few of them have been spayed or neutered so puppies add to the homeless population.

“Bless the beasts and the children, for the world can never be the world they see.” CarpentersPompyPompeii relaxation dog Why do they stay? Potential food dispensers, the tourists, often provide tasty treats and attention that keep these dogs here among the ruins. With more than two million visitors to Pompeii each year, their chances of finding morsels are very good. (C)Ave Canem, meaning “Hail Dog,” is an organization that began in November of 2010, geared toward promoting dog adoption. Originally funded by the government, it is now run by volunteers. The idea is to control the stray dog population while keeping the dogs well-being in mind. The program is essential as new strays appear regularly.

Nearly 132,000 euros was allocated to the (C)ave Canem project by the Italian government to gather the dogs, sterilize them, provide them with veterinary care and promote their adoption. Dog houses were scattered around the site. The project found homes for 26 of the 55 stray dogs in Pompeii. Sadly, most of the money was embezzled by the then-Commissioner for Pompeii, Marcello Fiori, now under indictment for corruption. Marcello had been given charge of the 2010 restoration campaign known as Pompeii Viva, which means Living Pompeii.

Front Door Floor Mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii
Cave Canem ~ Front Door Floor Mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet, Ancient Pompeii

Dogs have been an integral part of family life for centuries, including Pompeii, as can be seen by this uniquely well-preserved floor mosaic found in the Pompeii excavations.

My New Home! And I have a buddy....
My New Home! And I have a buddy….

Fortunately, a portion of these dogs find loving homes and people who nourish their bodies, minds and spirits. It is with hard work and dedication that the volunteers of (C)Ave Canem keep up their never-ending quest to find good homes for these orphaned dogs.

Sweet Lilli
Sweet Lilli Found Love

“There is honor in being a dog.”  Aristotle

Cycling Italy in the Shadow of the ‘Giro’

The Giro d’Italia is a cycling road race in Italy equivalent to the Tour de France. Top professional cyclists from around the world gather to compete in one of the most grueling road races, covering every region of Italy. The three-week competition began May 4th, which sent the competitors on a designated route of 2,116 miles.  Diverse terrain through valleys and mountains in cold and wet weather conditions made this year’s event one of the more brutal in recent memory. This 96th edition of the race began in Naples and finished in Brescia.

Adnan on the Passo Campolongo
Adnan on the Passo Campolongo~ all photos credit of Adnan Kadir

Adnan Kadir, an avid cyclist and friend from my own hometown of Portland, Oregon, just returned from Italy. Accompanied by his fellow cycling athletes and his French-made Cyfac bicycle, he had planned this trip to overlap with the Giro d’Italia. As anticipated, they observed two days of the race while also cycling through Italy along some of the same designated routes, passing through the rolling hills and vineyards of Tuscany and up into the mountains of northern Italy. The first two weeks of his trip were handled by what he describes as a ‘stellar’ outfitter called InGamba.

Adnan's Cycling Gang
Adnan’s Cycling Friends
Giro d'Italia racing through town
Giro d’Italia whips through a village-the 4th guy back is the race leader, and eventually winner, Vincenzo Nibali, wearing the Maglia Rosa (pink winning jersey)

Adnan described the Giro d’Italia as one big cultural event. The cyclists in the Giro rode in a rolling enclosure between official vehicles while police kept cars off the road. He saw people pack themselves along the roadside as the racers came through. Several actually broke rank and ran beside the riders. This year’s route took the competitors up the steep ascent through the mountains of northern Italy to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, the highest point at an altitude of 7,550 feet. On the final stages of the climb, the road was surrounded by huge banks of snow. Last year’s racing route took the cyclists to the top of Mt. Vesuvius and on to Sicily for a couple of days.

Adnan and the Sella
Adnan with the Sella behind him

One of Adnan’s favorite rides while in Italy was around the Sella Ronda. This ride is about 90 km and takes in the Passo Gardena, Passo Campolongo, Passo Pordio, Passo Sella, and finishes on the pass where his hotel was located, the Passo Pinei. They started in sunshine but encountered snow while climbing the Sella.

Snow Zone
Snow Zone-Adnan with friend Christoph from Munich

Is competing in the Giro d’Italia a goal of Adnans? Not at this point in his life, he assured me. “After spending a year racing in Europe, I liked racing but I didn’t love it. I wanted to use my brain, so I came back home and went to grad school.” Good choice! Adnan has raced in Guam, competed in a 7-day mountain bike race in the TransRockies in Canada as well as a 7-day road race, the TransAlp, in Europe (2008). Today he races 2-3 times a week around home.

Spiazzi
Cyclist resting in Spiazzi
Caprese
Caprese, an easy favorite

Adnan is his own boss. Not only does he live adventurously, but he is an entrepreneur as well. He organizes training camps and cycling trips and works as a cycling/triathlon coach through his company Aeolus Endurance Sport. But not all of his fellow athletes are in the same country. With the help of a power meter, specifically the QuarQ power meter, he can utilize remote coaching. Adnan is also a partner in LifeCycle Adventures cycling tours, which operates in California, Oregon and Hawaii. Here is a great short promo video where Adnan explains what he does- https://vimeo.com/66683243

Piazza Pastrengo
Piazza Pastrengo

There are loads of hotels around Italy that cater to riders. One that Adnan stayed in and recommends was the Enjoy Hotel Garda, but there is a whole network of them all around Italy (bikehotels.it).

Adnan and pals on ridge
Adnan and pals on ridge

“The ride to Asciano was on a magnificent ridgetop. The fog cleared and the sun came out, revealing amazing views in every direction. After Asciano, I rode through the sunny valley back to Lecchi, stopping for coffee in the sunshine in Castelnuovo Berardenga.”

Group heads out together
Alpt de Suisi
Adnan’s good friend Christoph from Munich at  Alpe de Suisi
Gate at Asciano
Heading for the Gate at Asciano, photo taken by fellow athlete Jenn Reither

*Promo from Giro d’Italia

Streets of San Gimignano
Streets of San Gimignano

Adnan left me with this one final off-bike experience that he had during his visit to Castello di Ama winery. Originally a walled fortress, wine is now produced and artists hosted who are required to produce one installation while they stay there. Adnan was impressed by how they integrated artwork into the winery spaces. After viewing the art, a gourmet dinner made by the resident chef awaited him and his friends. The food, he emphatically states, like his cycling trip, was unforgettable.

Morning in Chianti
Morning in Chianti

Assisi’s Stormy Farewell

EUROPE04 015The Feast of St. Francis was just ending the day I arrive in Assisi. Games and merrymaking brought many pilgrims from far and near to take part in the celebration of their most beloved saint. Francis’ basilica flows with heavenly music as choirs and orchestras let lose their poetic melodies. souvenir booths line the streets selling mementos while costumed revelers stroll the piazzas in medieval attire. This Feast commemorates the saint’s transition from this life to the afterlife. It is Assisi’s biggest day of the year.

The October weather is pleasant as I step off the train from Rome. The surrounding hills and valleys of Assisi bask in a golden autumn glow that looks surreal. Pilgrims who made the trek to the party begin to disperse as early morning fog dissipates from the valley floor. Little Assisi becomes its normal self once again. I haul my pull-bag and nap sack up the brick alleyway to a tall medieval house. A small room awaits me in the home of this private residence, complete with a little cot, a dresser, and a chair with desk. Enchanted with St. Francis since I was a small child, I’m eager to discover more about him during the week of my stay.

EUROPE04 020 Medieval Assisi’s brickwork architecture and clean wooden doorways cause me to feel as if I’ve stepped through a portal into the 13th century. Shops line the streets with local tradespeople at work making their pottery, shoes, breads and oils. Wine shops, aromatic trattorias, clothing boutiques, well-stocked book shops, gift shops and bakeries beckon to those passing by. Espresso and fresh-baked croissants infuse the early morning air. EUROPE04 024

Bright Frescoes inside St. Francis Basilica-Some by Giotto
Bright frescoes painted by Giotto inside St. Francis Basilica

Assisi keeps me fully engaged as I immerse myself in walking the path of Francis.

San Damiano
San Damiano
San Damiano Chapel
Chapel inside San Damiano

Birdsong trills through the air as I hike down the trail from the medieval village to San Damiano, the church St. Francis restored in 1205. Olive groves accentuate the countryside and the air is fresh and sweet. It is early Sunday morning and the church service begins inside the medieval chapel. Old and untouched, I almost expect to see Francis and his brothers walk through the door and take part in the humble service.

” All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”  St. Francis

My week in Assisi flits by all too quickly. On the eve of my departure, harmoniously angelic music plays inside St. Francis Basilica. An orchestra fills the entrance accompanied by candlelight which flickers and illuminates Giotto’s colorful frescoes. Women in black dresses and high heels accompany men in suits. I’m caught up in the sublimity of class and elegance on this warm enchanted evening. Little did I know that the following morning would temporarily quench the spell.

Night Time Assisi
Early morning in Assisi

Rain hammers against my windowpane as flashes of lightning illuminate the tiny room. It is 4:30 am. Oh fun…twenty minutes to be out the door and down the hill to catch my bus from medieval Assisi to the train station. I stumble and shiver in the dark while gathering my things together into one small malfunctioning pull-bag.

It doesn’t take me long to be on my way. St. Francis and his brothers come to mind as I turn the corner from my front door and drag my bag behind me down the wet cobblestone streets under a relentless downpour of rain. Their resolve to live in poverty causes me to wonder, in the midst of these miserable elements, how they did it. Dressed in only a habit and no shoes, they endured all kinds of weather, begging for their next meal. During my stay, I thoroughly enjoyed walking, in shoes and sunlight, where his twelfth century bare feet had trod.

Only a few lamps from small windows illuminate the darkness. As I brace myself against the pelting rain, I seek temporary refuge in a doorway. But the thresholds are shallow and provide no shelter. By the time I reach the bus stop, I’m drenched to the bone. My jeans and jacket cling to me like skin. Water runs off the ends of my disheveled hair.

The bus takes me to the station where I board my train to Florence. By the time I step out into the Renaissance city’s promising streaks of sunshine a few hours later, I’m beginning to dry out and warm up. Cradling a warm cappuccino, I take a moment to ponder my week in Assisi. It was magical. St. Francis and his friends are where I left them ~ dwelling within their cobbled medieval hometown of Assisi, virtually untouched by time. setting_sun Assisi