I was lucky enough to spend Christmas and New Year in Genoa. Years ago, when the children were young, we regularly spent seaside holidays in Monterosso Al Mare in the Cinque Terre region of coastal Liguria, but we never visited the nearby city. This time getting there and back, however, was something of a nightmare.
Given COVID-19 checks, passport checks, security checks, and customs checks, officialdom has never been more bossy and exhausting. 'Boots off shoes on', 'Belts off', 'Legs apart', 'Hands in the air', they shout at me. Are there actually any 89-year-old terrorists I wonder? But finally every document has been checked and re-checked, every question answered, and we leave Milan for Genoa. Having risen in Glasgow at 7.25am, we reach our apartment in Genoa almost exactly 12 hours later, after a day that seemed to go on forever.
Never mind, Genoa was worth the wait. Our apartment was splendid – spacious and elegantly furnished. It looked straight across the city's large harbour, full of yachts and launches, and out to the Mediterranean beyond. Later, it emerged that the street below, with its array of small shops and booths, had been almost taken over by recent immigrants and refugees from Libya and elsewhere. But, in every other way, Genoa is a classic Italian city full of fine, public buildings, impressive streets and squares. It strikes one as a well-to-do, prosperous city.
During our two-week visit, I saw only two people begging, and no-one sleeping in a shop door. Shops, cafes and restaurants all seemed busy. A large food market in the centre is hugely impressive: row upon row of stalls offering an enormous range of food of every kind. Fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, fine wines. Almost nothing is pre-packaged. Slow food rather than fast food clearly remains Italy's choice. Yet the old style market is no longer the only choice.
On Hogmanay morning we shopped in Eataly, a modern chain store so successful it now has outlets in New York City and Chicago. Its success is a result of combining the up-to-date with the traditional. Established on the upper level of a modern building, it is attractively trendy in a style that contrasts with our dull and boring supermarkets. Yet it preserves in its layout characteristics of the traditional Italian market stalls: food is laid out in such a way that the shopper picks up the items he chooses – once again almost nothing is prepacked. Perhaps Eataly will open one day in the UK.
Walking around the city, doing some shopping (I bought a classy overcoat), sitting in cafes over coffee or a glass of wine, and observing the people all around, my impression was of a confidant population very much at ease with itself. Perhaps it's the success of the EU – and Italy's major role in it – which is in question here. Or is it just what The Guardian
recently called 'the unaccustomed sense of stability and calm' that Italy is currently enjoying under its current Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank?
On two days between Christmas and New Year we made excursions to two places along the Ligurian coast. The first was to Nervi, once a fishing village, now more of a holiday resort. Leaving the railway station, one made one's way to the town itself along a striking, red-tiled footpath on a cliff high above the Mediterranean waves crashing and foaming on the jagged, black rocks below.
Not every shop and café in Nervi was open at this time of year, but we were far from being the only visitors enjoying this spectacular resort. It sports a small harbour and a pebbly beach in the space between two outcrops of the wave-battered black rocks. The view out and across the Mediterranean is splendid – not least because this afternoon the clouds have disappeared and the sun is as bright as if it were summer, and the perfect blue sky is streaked only with the long white exhaust trails of passing aircraft.
Arriving and leaving from Milan, the temperature was much like Glasgow's. But here in seaside Nervi it was very different – quite mild if not actually warm. Having had lunch in the Da Pino Ristorante – mine was lovely spaghetti al vongole – we walked back along the tiled path, finding the view more intoxicating than the wine at lunch.
Next day, we made our second trip along the coast. This time to a small town called Bogliasco. Quite similar to Nervi, Bogliasco also offered splendid views out across the Mediterranean once again in bright sunshine. The dominant Portofino peninsula created the sweep of the town's small bay. As before, surprisingly big waves crashed into the black, coastal rocks creating clouds of foamy spray. I sat for a time just taking in the gleaming sea scene while the others climbed higher up into the town. Later, I joined them in the gardens around a mock fortress built in the 19th century.
On 2 January, our last day, we took the funicular up to the topmost section of Genoa. Joined there by friends from London, we enjoyed a celebratory lunch in the Ristorante Allegrogrande 1917. From its lofty setting, the views once again were splendid. It seemed an appropriate way to end our spectacular trip to Genoa in winter.
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow