Travel Diary: Europe, 2018

Previous posts

4.9.2018: Sydney to London
5.9.2018: London

6.9.2018: Canterbury, UK
7-9.2018: London City

8.9.2018: Greenwich, UK
8.9.2018: Goodwood Revival
9.9.2018: London

10.9.2018: Trip to Edinburgh
11.9.2018: Edinburgh

12.9.2018: Glasgow, Scotland
Stirling, Scotland
13.9.2018: Inverness, Scotland
Loch Ness, Scotland
14.9.2018: Train To Leeds, UK
15.9.2018: York, UK
16.9.2018: Leeds, Scarborough, UK
17.9.2018: Liverpool, UK
18.9.2018: Otley, Dawes, Grassington, Appleby-in-Westmoreland, UK
19.9.2018: Carlisle, UK
20.9.2018: Lake District, UK
21.9.2018: Hurworth, Whitby, UK
22.9.2018: Goathland, Robin Hoods Bay, UK
23.9.2018: Coverntry; UK
24.9.2018: Stratford-Upon-Avon; The Cotswolds, UK
25.9.2018: Cardiff and Swansea, Wales
26.9.2018: Aberfan, Merthyr Tidfil, Blaenavon, Wales
27.9.2018: Bath, UK
28.9.2018: Abergavenny, Llangollen, Wales
29.9.2018: Wilmslow, UK
30.9.2018: Manchester, UK
1.10.2018: Skipton, Bolton Abbey, UK
2.10.2018: Beverley, UK
3.10.2018: Beverley, UK
4.10.2018: Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK
5.10.2018: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
6.10.2018: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
7.10.2018: Rotterdam, Gouda, Utrecht, The Netherlands
8.10.2018: Cologne, Germany
9.10.2018: Nuremberg, Germany
10.10.2018: Salzburg, Austria
11.10.2018: Salzburg, Austria
12.10.2018: Innsbruck, Austria
13.10.2018: Zurich, Switzerland
15.10.2018: Milan, Italy
16.10.2018: Venice, Verona, Italy
17.10.2018, Turin, Italy
18.10.2018: Bologna, Modena, Italy
19.10.2018, Cremona, Italy
20.10.2018: Genoa, Italy

19th October 2018

Cremona is a small, well-kept mercantile city in the fertile Po Valley of northern Italy. There is no local wine region. There is no city university. There are no grandiose must-see sights. It is almost completely off the tourist radar. But what there is is just as appealing: music, especially, to us since we all love music, and one amongst us - Debbie - is a semi-retired music teacher, so Cremona was chosen as today's destination.

The history of this sleepy city is inexorably intertwined with violins and other stringed instruments. Cremona is the birthplace of the famous violin maker Antonio Stradivari; there were dozens of luthiers - makers of stringed instruments - just like him working in the city centre back then, and that tradition is still carried on today. More than 140 currently ply their trade in the city.

Stephen had conjured up an image in his mind of what the place was like based on reports in numerous travel journals he has read. His expectation was of a sleepy Italian village up in the hills, where violin makers worked away at their craft behind dusty, old shop windows, eager to share a coffee and a few tricks of their trade with the odd passer-by who had managed to stumble across their world.

This idyllic image was shattered as we stepped off the train after the hour-long journey across dead-flat plains from Milan, to be greeted by the sound of a truck's air brakes being applied, a couple of cars jostling to be first off up the road when the traffic lights turned green, and the smell of cow manure permeating the heavy Autumn mist that had just started to lift. A sign indicated that the town centre was some distance away so we headed down a narrow nondescript street towards it. We were greeted by a tractor that exhaled more odours of cow manure into the atmosphere as it passed us, and shared the road with a couple of locals walking or on bicycles. "Where are all the luthiers in the shop windows?" a somewhat shattered Stephen asked.

By now it was 10am, that time of day when Debbie reminds us that three hours has passed since she ate breakfast, and it's time for a cup of coffee, something to eat and a toilet stop. Fortunately we had just reached one of the town's deserted piazzas and so we found ourselves a little cafe that was open, where we enjoyed a particularly good cup of coffee - we are in Italy after all - and some tasty shortbread-style biscotti (the local lingo for biscuits).

After our comfort stop, we headed off to find the Cremona Violin Museum. It's the mecca of violin players the world over, sacred ground to those with a passionate love of classical music, and the violin in particular, and home to the largest collection of Stradivarius violins on the planet. Debbie was in violin heaven; Stephen wasn't quite there, as he prefers woodwind instruments to strings, but found it very interesting nonetheless; Steve enjoyed it too, but felt it could be enhanced with the addition of a brass section; Rona smiled sweetly and went along for the ride.

Piazza del Comune and The Baptistry

On the way to the Museum, we had passed through a corner of Piazza del Comune, and were blown away by some of its medieval architecture. After visiting the violin museum, we headed back there for a closer look, but not before we checked out the narrow streets around the Piazza where dozens of violinmakers ply their trade. We saw a few shop windows with half-made violins strewn across the work benches, but as we have found elsewhere in our travels in Italy, before midday is a little too early to expect anyone to be hard at work, except for maybe van drivers and train conductors.

The most imposing of Cremona's historic buildings was the Cathedral of Cremona with its annexed Baptistry. It constitutes one of the most notable sites for Romanesque-Gothic art in northern Italy. Its bell tower is the famous Torrazzo, symbol of the city and tallest pre-modern tower in Italy. Originally built in Romanesque style, with construction beginning in 1107, the cathedral has been restored and extended several times, with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements. The current facade was probably built in the 13th and the early 14th century.

The interior houses important works of art. The oldest are the frescoes of the Stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph in the southern and northern transept vaults (late 14th-early 15th century). Also from the Renaissance are the arch of the Stories of the Martyrs Marius and Marta, Audifax and Habakkuk, martyrs in Persia (best known as Arch of the Persian Martyrs, 1482), and the relief of Saint Himerius (1481-1484), both works by Giovanni Antonio Amadeo. Also notable is the urn of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, sculpted mostly by Benedetto Briosco (1506-1513), in the crypt.

Before coming to Italy, we had no idea that looking at amazing architecture generated a craving for food, but it apparently does, and so we immediately began looking for a nice place to have some lunch. We didn't have to look far; right over the street from the Cathedral was a nice looking cafe, so we sat ourselves down and perused the menu. As on previous days, we wanted to eat what the locals eat, and the menu was full of dishes utilising local produce with names that only an Italian could pronounce. After we had ordered, Debbie suggested we should photograph our surroundings so that when we got home, we could remember how wonderful it was to eat genuine Italian cuisine in the piazza opposite the Cathedral of Cremona (see photo above). Now why would she want to put herself through that?

When lunch arrived, the salads were enormous and very filling and much cheaper than what you would pay for a similar sized meal in one of Italy's big cities. Furthermore, our table was loaded with extras - olive oil, balsamic vinegar, potato chips, olives, crostini (an Italian appetizer consisting of small slices of grilled or toasted bread) and La Farinata (made from chick pea flour). Debbie found it all quite hilarious.

As we were hoping to do a little window shopping on Milan's Corso Buenos Aires later that afternoon, we headed back to the railway station after lunch, but not before trying some Terrone, otherwise known as Nougat. The name of this sweet that was first created in, and is the symbol of, Cremona, comes from the Latin verb 'torreo', which means 'to toast', a clear reference to the toasting of the almonds that are one of the main ingredients. Tradition, on the other hand, refers the origin to Torrione, the name that identified the Torrazzo in Cremona, the bell tower which is a symbol of the city.

Steve munching on a stick of chocolate terrone (nougat)

It is interesting who you bump into when you take a stroll down Milan's Corso Buenos Aires. We'd heard someone famous was in town, and thought it was perhaps someone very important. It wasn't, but Steve took Debbie's photo with him anyway.

20th October 2018

It was a little sad to leave our lovely apartment in Milan this morning. Our six days here have flown by very quickly, and our accommodation here had been a welcome change after the Tower in Zurich. Our AirBNB hostess, Alessandra, made us a delicious apple cake on our last night, half of which we decided to save and take with us, it was so delicious!

We said goodbye and made our way to the railway station with all our bags, to catch the train to Genoa (the Italians call it Genova). The unusual heat (the maximum temp. has been around 24 degrees C during our stay, and it is just 6 weeks out from the beginning of Winter) had increased the humidity, so the mist across the towns and surrounding farmlands was quite dense, restricting our view of the scenery. It also stopped us from keeping track of exactly where we were, and as a result, we missed seeing the damage caused by the bridge that collapsed here several months ago.

There was no announcement when we reached Genoa station and it was only when Stephen saw a cruise ship out of the window after the train had stopped that he realised we had reached our destination. We were caught totally off guard and had to make a mad dash for the exit. Rona had to prop the train door open, stopping it from leaving, until all four of us and our bags had exited the train.

Genoa is a sort of decayed glorious port town, whose decay, however, is what makes it so interesting and attractive. The facades of grand palaces are hidden in scruffy, tiny, quirky yet enticing alleyways, and there are really curious treats for anyone in virtually every alley. With pastel-coloured terracotta-roofed houses, artistic churches and lovely seaside villas, Genoa is a must see if you want to experience the "quintessential" Italy. Its streets are filled to the brim with outdoor cafes and bars, elegant designer boutiques, and restaurants.


We had allowed ourselves five hours to do a tour of Genoa city centre on foot, so we dropped our bags at the baggage storage facility and hit the town. Stephen and Rona had been there before and knew what we were in for; Steve and Debbie had little idea how quirky and interesting it would be, and were soon calling it a city of surprises.


Their first surprise came while walking down a narrow street (Via Garibaldi) and Stephen pointed to an entranceway on one of the many old buildings lining it and said, "have a look in there." They stepped through the doorway and were amazed to find they were standing in the courtyard of Palazzo Doria Tursi, a palace that is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Genoa: Le Strade Nuove. Italian for "New Streets", The Strade Nuove are a group of streets built by the Genoese aristocracy during the expansion of the city at a time when the Republic of Genoa was at the height of its financial and seafaring power.

Palazzo Doria Tursi

What we had entered was the courtyard of one of a group of palaces - most of which also date from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. They were associated with a particular system of 'public lodging' in private residences, whereby notable guests on State visits to the Republic were hosted in one of these palaces.

Palazzo Reale

Across the road from Palazzo Doria Tursi was the almost hidden gateway to the Palazzo Reale. Some of the Palazzi dei Rolli are used today as public buildings, museums, offices and private residences.

Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastat

A short distance away was the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastat, a Catholic cathedral. Stephen again suggested we take a look inside; the cathedral's decoration, which left us stunned as we gazed upward in awe at this magnificent spectacle, employed the major baroque studios and artists in Genoa in the 17th century.

A focal point of the city centre is the Piazza De Ferrari (above), around which are the Opera and the Palace of the Doges (behind the fountain). The Palazzo di San Giorgio was the headquarters of the Bank of Saint George (far right) and was the place where Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa composed The Travels of Marco Polo.

Genoese focaccia

Like most cities of northern Italy, Genoa is not only known for its architecture, but also its cuisine. Pesto sauce originates from the city of Genoa. It is used in many dishes, including pastas and pizzas - trying the one which is based on Pesto is a must to experience the traditional Genovese cuisine. Another must try from the Genovese or Ligurian cuisine is the focaccia, which essentially is a flat oven-baked Italian bread, which may be topped or stuffed with onions, herbs, or other foodstuffs. They are quite tasty and often cheaper than pizzas as we found out when we tried some for lunch.

The old town centre, dating from the 15th century

Another surprise ... an antique shop with a studded steel front door and an elaborately decorated ceiling featuring numerous frescoes.

The old port has been renovated, and currently contains some funky avant-garde modern architecture, a delightful marina, several seaside bars and shops, an aquarium and a full scale spanish gallion. Further around the bay beyond the old port we saw no less than seven cruise ships docked. According to the Port of Genoa website, there were another four cruise ships in another section of the port, three on slipways undergoing maintenance (the Northern Hemisphere's cruise season is presently winding down) and two under construction in the shipbuilding yards.

Steve on the lookout for his next yacht

A widely promoted historical site in Genoa is the house of Christopher Columbus just outside the Porta Soprana city gates. Many who go there leave feeling somewhat conned, as no one knows exactly where Columbus was born, raised and lived. It was somewhere in the vicinity. We ran out of time to visit his place, but Stephen and Rona had been there on a previous visit; however we did see a memorial to him outside Genoa Central Station (below).

Before we knew it we were on the train bound for our next destintion - La Spezia.

Stephen Yarrow and Debbie Hall

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