Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Istanbul of Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, was born in Istanbul, in the neighbourhood of Beşiktaş to be precise. In his memoir "Istanbul: Memories of a City", he describes the city with its variegated reality and complex history, both honestly and passionately.

Yet, the Istanbul Pamuk writes about is not exactly the city we know today, modern and colourful, cosmopolitan and full of life. It is the city  he grew up in, one that looks back with nostalgia at its glorious past, which is no longer the capital of an empire but wished it still was. By the end of the book it becomes clear that the author uses Istanbul to talk about himself, and that the city becomes a double for the writer. It is undeniably true that the Istanbul of sultans and harems is long gone, but the city the author remembers, with decrepit wooden houses, pastry shops he visited as a child hand in hand with his mother, and dilapidated streets is not entirely a thing of the past. You can glimpse it now and then, if you happen to get lost or wander some of its more modest neighbourhoods, for example Fatih. Once inhabited by the middle-class of the city, the area around Eminönü is now prevalently a dilapidated neighbourhood that has been taken over by immigrants from other parts of the country.
View of Istanbul from the boat
This books helped me get in touch with Istanbul, understand its long history, and appreciate the apparent decay of some of its neighbourhoods and the shining newness of others. By reading this memoir you'll make the acquaintance of sultans and paşas, Western writers fascinated by the city, and the characteristic yalis. I understood something about these wooden houses on the shores of the Bosphorous only because I read this book. It is not apparent, by walking through the streets of the city or by taking a boat tour, how much of the city heritage was lost due to fires, decay and careless demolitions, for instance.

Istanbul panorama

Pamuk lingers on the memory of opulent Ottoman palaces falling to pieces, then he tries to explain how Ottoman minds used to think, through a quirky encyclopaedia of the city written by a certain Reşat Ekrem Koçu, explaining how the author freely inserted stories, personal opinions, anecdotes and even his sexual preferences into a publication that was inspired by Western encyclopedias but had a distinctive Turkish flavour. 
A wooden house in Sultanahmet

Pamuk's slow, descriptive style and his penchant for sad tones might be a bit hard to digest at first, but I think that this book is a great introduction to a complex city that has had a million lives since it was founded more than 2,500 years ago.

Galata Bridge

Sunday, 15 March 2015

What I love about Southern Europe

It's not a mystery that I love southern Europe. With this post, I just want to share the reasons why, and post some more pictures of four really special countries that have a place in my heart: Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Among the countries in Southern Europe that I haven't visited, Croatia, Montenegro and Malta are at the top of my list, and I might be able to visit some of them this year.


The blinding white of the marble of the temples and of the whitewashed houses in the islands are set against the blue sky of the even bluer sea: Greece is a country in white and blue, like its flag. And then of course how not to mention its incredible history, among the reasons that make Greece one of my favourite European countries? In Greece you're constantly walking in places whose history goes so far back that they are shrouded in legend: Knossos and the minotaur, the Acropolis and the first philosophers, but also the fascinating history of Atlantis, who many historians believe to be the enchanting island of Santorini. 

The Parthenon

This soldier in his strange attire, mounting the guard in front of the Parliament building in Athens, must have been very hot, given that there were almost 40° that day. One thing that I love about Greece is that at times it feels very familiar - Greece is Italy's "cousin" after all, as Greek people have told me endless times - and at other times it feels unfamiliar, almost exotic: the different alphabet and that incomprehensible but beautiful language, the culture that mixes Western and Ottoman, and the distinctive food.

Changing of the guard in Athens

It's really impossible not to fall in love with the relaxed pace of life of this Mediterranean country, especially in the islands: those whitewashed houses with colourful doors and stone pathways, the pots of flowers on display and the cats languidly brushing against them, everything there seems to be made to please the eye.

The beautiful village of Oia in Santorini


The mudejar architecture of Andalucía, the loudness of young people eating tapas in a bar while sipping their clara or a vermut, the vitality of its cities with cutting-edge contemporary art, I love this country so much that I decided to move here from Italy last July. I've visited Madrid and Toledo in the centre, Andalucía in the south, Barcelona and several towns in Catalonia, not to mention Zaragoza halfway between there and Madrid, but there is a lot more to see.  

The Alcázar in Seville, Andalucia

On my list of places that I still haven't visited in Spain but that are on my list I can mention Granada, Valencia, the Basque Country and Costa Brava. I'm sure that each one will have its own cultural richness, its own signature food, and magnificent landscapes to be enjoyed during sunny days.

Detail of the cathedral in Tarragona

The endless struggle between those whose love Barcelona and those who prefer Madrid will never end. Both cities have plenty to offer, they are beautiful, with plenty of sightseeing and renowned museums, with thousands of bars and little restaurants to try. What's more, even though we are speaking of bit cities, people are friendly, food is good, and the atmosphere is laid back.

View of Barcelona from Tibidabo


Being such a variegated country, with snow-capped mountains, great beaches, cities full of art and enchanting villages, even a person who spent most of her life in Italy has a lot to discover. Every new area explored has its own cuisine, its own history and traditions, its own dialect and regional pride. My favourite region is perhaps Tuscany: the countryside around Siena and the gracious dome in Florence, and the simplicity but richness of its cuisine are just two reasons that make me love this region of Italy.  Whenever I am in Tuscany - I have been four times I think - I have the feeling that everything is heart-felt, made with great care and expertise, not to mention imbued with history.

Statue of Garibaldi in Pisa

The north of Italy, foggy and cold in the winter, with elegant towns such as Verona or Mantova, not to mention the peaceful beauty of the lakes (Lake Maggiore is maybe my favourite), sets a harsh contrast to the chaos of the south, passionate, loud and enticing as it is. It almost seems impossible that the Amalfi Coast and Sicily are in the same country as Lake Como!  

The countryside near Padua
In Italian culture it is important to savour one's meals with friends or family, and to simply relax without getting too stressed. And of course art runs in our veins: I just love the amount of art and culture that I can absorb during a trip to a random Italian town.

Vatican Museums, Rome


A bit cranky, relegated to the last bit of land before the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is too often skipped in European itineraries, but it's a really beautiful country. Overwhelmed by the awareness of a great past and an uncertain present, Portugal has saudade written all over it. By simply walking the streets of Lisbon or by reading the poems of Pessoa, you actually perceive this feeling of longing and irreparable loss, felt in the melancholy of the fado.

An old tram in Porto
It is a pleasure to sit outside, enjoy the sun and order a plate of sardines or bacalhao, while having a chat with the friendly locals. Portugal is cheap, beautiful,  and what's more important still not overtly touristic. Here you don't have to bother about touts or being ripped off, but you can enjoy the authenticity of the place you're visting, the good weather, and the port wine of course!

Lisboa and its famous bridge

A street in Alfama, Lisbon
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