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Travel Blog: Trieste and Verona – two sides of Italy

DSC03172Situated in the adjoining Italian regions of Fruili-Venezia Guilia and Vento, and only 160 miles apart, Trieste and Verona present two very different experiences of Italy.

Trieste seems off the radar of most tourists visiting Italy which is a shame as it’s a beautiful city with a fascinating history. Bordering Slovenia and Croatia, and having belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste is a cultural melting pot. It doesn’t feel typically Italian and this was reinforced during our stay when we witnessed some First World War commemorations in which  men dressed in their distinctive military costume were parading with the accompanying Trieste national flag.
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Following the Second World War, Trieste was declared an independent city state by the UN, sandwiched as it was between Italy and Communist Yugoslavia, and it was only given over to Italy in 1956. Many locals are committed to restoring Trieste’s free city status, the Free Trieste Movement  

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To experience its historical links with Vienna you only have to visit one of Trieste’s classical cafes such as Caffé San Marco with its emphasis on reading whilst enjoying great coffee.

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Coffee is central to Trieste’s economy as it is the HQ of Illy, Italy’s premier coffee roasting company, founded by an Austrian-Hungarian who based the production in Trieste as it was the main gateway port for the Austro-Hungarian empire. This allowed the imported coffee beans to be roasted and transported inland to Vienna, Budapest, etc.

You can still catch a tram from the port up the steep hillside to Opicina village where there is a main line railway station with connections to Vienna and beyond.DSC03230

If you get the tram towards Opicina, you can then walk across the hillside above Trieste to the village of Prosecco which gave its name to the local wine which has overtaken champagne as Britain’s favourite sparkling wine. Without even ordering it, we were served a half litre carafe of draft prosecco during our first restaurant meal (for 5 euros).

Trieste’s main claim to literary fame is being the place where James Joyce lived from 1905 until 1915, and where he completed Dubliners, his collection of short stories. I wonder whether he was timely with paying his rent, as he had no less than nine different addresses in ten years, all of which feature on the James Joyce walking trail. Apart from numerous plaques, there is a splendid statue of Joyce which marks the anniversary of his arrival in Trieste in 1904.

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The Pirona Pastry shop above which Joyce lived during 1910

Some additional twilight images of Trieste’s splendid harbour

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William Shakespeare  helped to establish  Verona‘s reputation as a romantic city, even though the Casa de Guiletta, complete with balcony, is a Disneyesque fantasy. It doesn’t stop thousands of young people leaving romantic messages in the alleyway to the house.

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Verona does of course have a magnificent (genuine) Roman amphitheatre (alas we were too early in the season to catch Adele). It would have been a superb venue for Pink Floyd to add to their classic 1971 performance in the ruins of Pompeii.

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As in most western countries, newspaper reading in Italy is sadly in decline – news kiosks are one of Italy’s most endearing institutions, but it is heartening to see some people still find time to enjoy the habit.

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During our stay in Verona we were struck by the hordes of Italian school children and students being shepherded around the historical sites and art galleries. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t always seem thrilled by the experience.

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Palazzo Ducale, Mantova

Mantova, a short train ride from Verona, is a beautiful sleepy town full of character. It has been designated Italian city of Culture for 2016 and the centro storico is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Any stay in Italy is an excuse for us to indulge in great food and wine, and this was no exception.

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Osteria La Mandorla, Verona

 

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Osteria Il Bertoldo

Travel Blog: Turin – the city of neon lights and stylish arcades

 

Turin seems to be a paradox. Whilst possessing over 10 miles of pedestrianised arcades (the largest area in Europe) through which to wander and enjoys its beautiful shops, cafes and restaurants, it is also home to Fiat and some of the worst air pollution in Europe.

The most striking feature of the city is the vast array of linear arcades offering perfect protection from the elements. They look particularly appealing at night.

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Piazza San Carlo

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Via Po

What adds a strongly retro flavour to some of the arcades is the presence of neon lights.

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Corso Vittoria Emanuel

Of course being Italy, and Turin being the home of Lavazza coffee, it is not surprising the city has a wealth of wonderful historic cafes. We regularly punctuated our exploration of the city  in order to venture beyond the stylish cafe facades to get our next shot of caffeine. Standing at the counter and watching the barista effortlessly serve up your next perfect espresso is one of the great joys of being in Italy.

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Caffe Vittorio Veneto 1878

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Caffe Universita

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Baratti e Milano 1875

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Caffe Fiorio 1845

The latter cafe doubles as a gelateria or ice cream cafe, and most of the cafes serve decent food, which is no surprise given Turin’s high culinary status.DSC02309

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Porto Di Savona 1863, Turin’s oldest restaurant

Another historical claim for Turin is that it saw the birth of the Italian film industry. Today film culture is especially celebrated in the National Museum of Cinema housed inside the majestic Mole Antonelliana tower.

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Inside, there is an interesting mix of displays with the strongest emphasis given to the Italian neo-realist movement of the late 1940s which featured such powerful films as Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City.

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Elsewhere in Turin we came across some contrasting cinemas varying from the 1934 art deco classic, the Lux, to the 1958 Cinema Romano,  the first officially recognised art house cinema in Italy, and the more contemporary art house cinema, Cinema Centrale.

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Turin featured very strongly in the 1969 British cult film, The Italian Job, which included scenes in the city centre’s streets and most famously the rooftop test circuit of the Fiat Lingotto Factory.

The factory closed in 1982, but the unusual structure towering over the track contains an art gallery designed to showcase the personal art collection of the late Gianni Agnelli, formerly head of Fiat.

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The factory itself also underwent a conversion to a shopping centre, offices, etc. The whole Lingotto redesign was overseen by Renzo Piano, the architect responsible for the controversial Shard building in London, Europe’s tallest building to date. The rampart used to enable cars to gain access to the roof is still evident next to the shopping centre.

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To get to Lingotto, we travelled on the latest section of the Turin metro network opened in 2011.

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It would seem that more investment in public transport is needed in Turin to help offset the pollution which was very evident during our stay.

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View from Mole Antonelliana tower

Earlier in December, the city made all public transport free to try and reduce the dangerous levels of pollution recorded in the city. It would seem that Turin’s prosperity based on the success of car production is now literally contributing to the choking to death of its citizens. It was sad to discover its once great tram network criss crossing the city has been reduced to just six routes. It seems not enough Italians can forgo their love of cars.

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One way to improve Turin’s air quality

Paris, December 2015

 

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We love visiting Paris in December when the Christmas lights adorn many of the city’s landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Saint Germain, the ferris wheel on Place du Concorde, etc. and when there are relatively few tourists to detract from the city’s charms.

However, this December proved to be a different, less comfortable experience for three main reasons. Firstly, we were visiting the city exactly a month after the November attacks which were responsible for 130 deaths. There was a noticeable armed security presence at various points in the city, and the Place de la République, which was the focal point for subsequent public demonstrations of solidarity, still contained a large array of expressions of grief and sadness, as well as social and political comment.

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On the Friday evening, after enjoying a meal in the 11th arrondisement, the streets and cafes seemed as lively as ever, but as we turned a corner on Rue Charonne, we were confronted by the huge collection of tributes left outside  La Belle Équipe restaurant where 19 people had died. The personal messages, pictures and flowers combined to create an intense feeling of tragic loss.

 

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La Belle Équipe

The shoes left at the scene of the Place de La République were the remainder of a silent protest to mark the presence in Paris of the Climate Change Conference. Street gatherings had been outlawed by the state of emergency imposed after the November 13th killings, and so 10,000 pairs of shoes were left in the square as a form of symbolic protest, a few of which remained when we visited.

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Whilst emerging from the metro at the Arc de Triomphe, we noticed traffic was barred as a large team of tankers sprayed water around the famous landmark. Rivers of yellow paint were running down the streets leading from the Arc. It transpired that Greenpeace had flooded the area with the paint as a publicity stunt aimed at the Climate Conference. From above it was meant to symbolise the power of the sun.

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News agency photo

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We came across another artistic response to the threat of climate change at the Pantheon where an Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, had installed a dozen large blocks of ice (or ‘mini-icebergs’) which were gradually melting during the Climate Change Conference.

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Needles to say there was some concern expressed about the energy consumption used to transport the ice all the way from Greenland to Paris.

It was evident from the array of political posters adorning the city’s billboards that there were important regional elections taking place, and in the first round the Front National had performed (not too surprising in the aftermath of the November attacks) to the dismay of many in the capital.

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They were less successful in the final round of elections the following week, but had still managed to poll more votes than in any other national election in France.

On a lighter note, there was much evidence of the popularity of Frank Sinatra, as on December 12th it was 100 years since his birth. We marked the occasion by watching his 1968 film, Detective, at the Cinema Mac Mahon, which famously featured in Jean Luc Godard’s 1960 classic new wave film, A Bout de Souffle.

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Finally, a few Winter images of our favourite Parisian park, the Luxembourg Gardens, which whatever the season, never loses its appeal.

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Travel blog: Impressions of Modern Russia

10 Cultural Observations from our recent visit to Russia

We arrived in St Petersburg from Helsinki by high speed train which was a very smooth way to cross the border into Russia, especially when compared to the chaotic and lengthy queues we experienced when departing from Moscow airport.

1. Moscow and St Petersburg are very large

Being used to navigating most European cities on foot, this was more of a challenge in Moscow and St Petersburg given the wide roads, high volume of traffic and jaywalking laws.

The Moscow road in the picture looks wet not because of any rain, but because of what seems to be a regime of daily road washing. Impressively, most public spaces in both cities are virtually litter free, gum free and graffiti free.

The building on the left is the infamous Lubyanka Building, formerly the main KGB interrogation centre and prison, and now home to the FSB, the security department which has replaced the KGB. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current president, rose to power as head of the FSB from 1998 to 2000. It has become ever more powerful during Putin’s reign.

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2. The metros are works of art

Both Moscow and St Petersburg exhibit a wonderful spectacle of art in many of the cities’ metro stations.
​In the St Petersburg metro, you descend huge escalators as far as 280 feet below ground, with virtually no advertising, just beautiful up-lights and people alone in their thoughts or in conversation. Many of the most beautiful stations on the Moscow metro can be found on the Koltsevaya line (line 5) which circles the city.
What is more, the state run trains are super efficient. One train per minute on every line and minimal crush. Navigation can be a challenge if you can’t translate Russian, but never mind if you head off in the wrong direction, there’s another back in a minute.

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3. Disneyland East

Approaching the Kremlin and engaging with the (mostly Oriental) tourist queues, it felt like we were entering Disneyworld. Magical towers, lots of men and women in uniform, the changing of the guard ceremony, Lenin’s ‘waxwork’, Stalin and Putin lookalikes, and at night, a show stopping fireworks display.
To complete the escapist illusion, the adjacent historic GUM, formerly state department, store, has been transformed into a tawdry Mecca to western designer labels for the Moscow nouveaux riches or guests from the hideous neighbouring Four Seasons hotel.
Behind the decorative Kremlin walls lies the Senate building, hidden from public view, where Putin wields his (autocratic) authority.

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4. There is still some political dissent

Despite Putin’s mafia like state, there still seems some to be some evidence of political dissent – we came across a vigil/protest on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge by the Kremlin where Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Russian politician, had been murdered in February, days before he was to lead a march opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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In addition, the English language Moscow Times, available in our hotel, was surprisingly critical of the Putin regime, although recent changes in the newspaper’s ownership may reduce its independence.

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The police aren’t always alert to political protests

 

5. Some great (and virtually empty) art galleries

The Hermitage in St Petersburg contains a superb vast collection of impressionist and post impressionist art as well as pre-revolutionary Russian modernist art. Because it is labelled as the Schukin and Morozov collection (after two Russian collectors responsible for acquiring most of the paintings) in the recently renovated General Staff building across the square from the Winter Palace, few tourists seem to find their way there (we virtually stumbled on it by accident).
Even the newly installed entrance to the collection is very striking.

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There is also the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow which includes some interesting Soviet art.

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Yuri Pimenov 1927

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6. Lots of uniforms

Wherever we went, men and women in various uniforms would appear- cadets marching on the street, quartets of armed guards patrolling the metro, security officers galore, etc. It would seem to be the main source of employment in Moscow and St.Petersburg. Whose threat might warrant such a vast investment in security?

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7. Some beautiful old hotels

Both St Petersburg and Moscow have some very attractive restored hotels dating from the late 1890’s and early 1900’s which, given the recent collapse of the rouble, were very affordable, Below are pictures of: Moscow’s Hotel Metropol, a wonderful turn of the century art nouveau building, the Hotel Indigo in St Petersburg, and finally the exterior and interior of Moscow’s Hotel Baltshug Kempinski which dates from 1898.

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8. Food and Drink

Coffee chains, global and Russian, seem to be taking a hold and are popular with Russian students and ‘hipsters’. Restaurant food is a choice between traditional Russian restaurants and those aspiring to offer a more modern  menu. Alas, many of these suffer a confusion of identity trying to fuse Italian, French, Japanese and other cuisines in one menu. Even more depressing is the invasive music, making it seem more akin to visiting a dance club.

Two interesting differences in restaurant etiquette compared to dining in western Europe include firstly, having your empty plate whipped away by the waiter as soon as you’ve finished a course regardless of whether your dining companion has finished their course, and secondly. when requesting water, being given the choice of warm or cold.

On the street, it is quite common to see older women trying to make a living from selling some fruit and vegetables. You don’t have to look too far for evidence of the huge inequalities of wealth in modern Russia.

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9. Old vs the new

Moscow, in particular, exhibits a constant clash of its Soviet communist past, a revival of the Russian Orthodox church and its emergent capitalist culture. The middle picture features the former Krasny Oktyabr (Red October) chocolate factory and is now the focal point for a small island of art galleries, cafes, clubs, likened to London’s Shoreditch.

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The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of Stalin’s ‘seven sisters’ skyscraper buildings.

Below, the sun sets over Moscow’s ‘Canary Wharf which towers over the Kremlin.

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Picture                                              The Russian Orthodox church vies  with new office towers.

Moscow’s contrasting generations

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10. Beware of some of the taxis!

PictureComing out of Moscow’s Leningradksy railway station, we struggled to find any official taxis and after much bartering, ended up in what seemed like a private car which had a very strong smell of alcohol. The driver insisted on mentioning the Syrian war as he strove to locate our hotel on his sat nav. Half an hour later we were relieved to arrive safely at our destination.