Genoa the Proud

Genoa’s historic moniker, La Superba (‘The Proud’), seems tragically inappropriate given the horror of the collapse of the Morandi Bridge a few weeks ago, killing 43 people. In our experience travelling through Italy, the country has always seemed to have two modern glories – its railways, which are for the most part brilliant if a tad shabby around the edges, and the system of autostrade, the marvellously engineered highways that deal contemptuously with most rugged terrain with tunnels that make light of mountains, and bridges and viaducts that seem to soar above the towns and valleys below. Natural disasters like earthquakes are one thing, and the Italians deal with those with equanimity, but this man-made failure strikes at the pride and confidence not just of Genoa, but of Italy as a whole.

For the city that we left just a few days before, the tragedy was still in the future, and for our ten days there Genoa did indeed still seem to be La Superba. It wasn’t our first visit, for we had departed on our cruise home from Genoa back in December last year, and had spent several days before we left exploring the city. But it was evident then that Genoa deserved more than that cursory exploration, so we decided it was a natural fit to spend some time there after our month in the south of France. We had a couple of days in the charming Italian Riviera town of Sanremo en route, and arrived on a hot and humid Monday to be deposited as close as the taxi driver could get to our apartment, which was right in the centre of the old town.

Genoa, as we remembered from our last visit, is a city of contrasts that can be, at first, quite dizzying. For example, the old town is an absolute warren of narrow alleyways, called caruggi, often barely four feet wide, shadowed by apartment tenements that are six and seven stories high. The effect can be claustrophobic, but at any minute that sensation can be relieved as one walks into a charming piazza lined with restaurants or bookshops or smart retailers, as pleasant as any in Italy. Only a few hundred yards uphill is one of the most charming and grand concentrations of 17th century palaces anywhere in the world – but on our way there, we found ourselves walking up a narrow street where dozens of tricked up prostitutes stood sentinel at their allotted doorways. These were ladies not only of the night, but of the day too, waiting long hours for a customer to turn up and make their day worthwhile. Going in the other direction, down on the waterfront, a truly stunning arc of brilliantly painted mansions that stood on what was once the waterfront is divided from an equally brilliant modern redevelopment of the current waterfront by an enormous elevated freeway that spears from one side of the city to the other, careless of the historic vista that it utterly destroys. See what I mean? A city of dizzying contrasts.

Genoa’s Caruggi can be claustrophobic, but are charming nevertheless

But the Genovese are proud of their city, and so they should be. They are proud that it is a working city, a busy port as it has been for most of its existence, and they see the grittiness that inevitably goes with that as something to be celebrated. As for that motorway across the harbourfront, well that’s just part of modern life, isn’t it? And it’s practical, after all. Not for the Genovese the walling off of the pretty bits into a tourist precinct: they want to live in their city, not be exiled to the suburbs and have to compete with hordes of foreigners for a space at a cafe whenever they do come into town. Not that they are unwelcoming of tourists, they’re not, but you definitely get the sense in the old town of Genoa that people live here as they have since the city was at the heart of a powerful maritime empire.

Genoa seems to tumble down to its harbour from the Ligurian hills

At one time, in the 15th century, Genoa was a power to rival Venice. Presided over by her Doges – of whom the most famous is the redoubtable Andrea Doria, a name that appears all over the place in Genoa. Her galleys – like the fine reconstructed example in the excellent Maritime Museum – controlled the western Mediterranean as surely as those of La Serenissima commanded the eastern trade routes. By the second half of the 16th Century, Genoa had gone into something of a decline, but in the 17th Century, when the Medici family finally contrived to send their own bank broke, the shrewd Genovese bankers stepped in just as the Spanish were wondering what to do with the rivers of gold that were flowing through their coffers, looted from the New World. Suddenly Genoa became the richest city in the Mediterranean, and their bankers proceeded to build grand mansions and palaces all over the city. Today, an astonishing 43 of them comprise a single world heritage listed museum network, the Palazzi dei Rolli; the three along the street that is today called the Via Garibaldi are just the largest and grandest of them, and house a magnificent art collection.

The Palazzo Reale, one of the amazing Palazzi dei Rolli

This capacity for renewal, something Genoa seems to have done several times in its long history, finds another expression down on the waterfront. The city tumbles down from the Ligurian hills into a kind of natural amphitheatre that finds itself concentrated on the enclosed and impossibly tiny bay of the harbour, encircled by wharves from whence massive cruise ships and the ferries of the Moby, Tirrenia, and Grimaldi lines delicately manoeuvre their way through the narrow entrance. But like many such ports, its old warehouses and cranes had fallen into disuse when the main main commercial port, from which container ships and tankers come and go, was sensibly relocated further west. In 1992, the 500th anniversary of the voyage to America of Genoa’s most famous son, Christopher Columbus, was the spur to redevelop the waterfront under the direction of one of it’s most famous current residents, the architect Renzo Piano. The result is striking, in some ways controversial, but there is no doubt that the Genovese have taken it to their heart, making it their preferred setting for the evening passeggiata, followed by aperitivo and dinner at one of the restaurants fronting the redeveloped warehouses, where diners can gaze in awe at the enormous yachts that are moored there.

Renzo Piano’s Biga gracefully evokes the old harbour’s commercial maritime past
A colourfully painted Tirrenia lines ferry eases its way into the harbour

Fascinating as the city itself is, Genoa is also the gateway to the Italian Riviera. The bit to the west, the Riviera Ponente, is where ordinary Italians go for holidays, a string of pleasant beach towns, of which Sanremo is probably the queen. But to the east and south lies the Riviera Levante, the part of the Ligurian coast that so fascinated the Englishmen on their Grand Tour – particularly their effete poets, Byron and Shelley, for whom an entire gulf ended up being named. The pearls of the Riviera Levante are Portofino, Santa Margherita Ligure, and Ravello. We visited all three last year, but we thought it would be fun to go there again, this time by boat from Genoa. The trip involved calling at two other little ports, Camogli and San Fruttuoso, before sailing into Portofino. It was a hop-on hop-off affair, so we decided to stop for coffee in Camogli, have lunch at San Fruttuoso, an unbelievably cute little bay overlooked by a Benedictine abbey that dates back to the tenth century, have a drink in swanky Portofino before hiking for about an hour to get to Santa Margherita, from where we could get a train home. On yet another hot and sunny day, getting out on the water was a tonic, and our programme worked a treat – although the final leg on foot was pretty hard work in the late afternoon sun with a very expensive (€15 each!) Aperol Spritz sloshing around inside us. Still it was worth it, for this is one of the prettiest stretches of coast that you could hope to find anywhere.

The tiny bay of San Fruttuoso, accessible only from the sea, and its 10th C Benedictine Monastery
A couple of daredevil lads diving off a rock near Santa Margherita Ligure

Our other expedition out of town was a trip on the very cute narrow gauge Genova-Casella railway. This little train – ours had only one carriage – winds its way up through the hills from a station in the north-east of the city, providing stunning views of the coast and the city as it clings precariously to the hillside. When we boarded, Rob got a little excited, and, ignoring the clear “Do Not Enter” sign on the door (even Robert’s Italian should have grasped that) he jumped into the driver’s cabin and started talking to the driver and the conductor. Everyone who knows Rob will not be surprised to hear that, far from being summarily kicked out, they let him stay there for the whole trip up, giving him a unique perspective on the whole exercise – particularly when the train had to stop so the conductor could get out and shoo a wandering goat off the track, an event which we more conventionally seated passengers were entirely oblivious. The driver didn’t speak much English, and I reckon his ear was bleeding by the time we got to Casella, judging from the amount of Rob-talk that I could hear through the door, but they seemed to be firm friends by the time the trip ended.

The dinky little carriages of the Genoa-Casella railway

Speaking of my beloved partner, there is one other anecdote I have to share. Back in Genoa’s old town, we were making our way back down the hill from a visit to the palaces via the street of the prostitutes (there are actually several of them, and it took us a while to work out a route to and from the tourist sights that avoided them), when Rob, in his irrepressible way, decided he just had to ask a question of one of the girls that had obviously been burning away in his mind.

“Where”, he asked in his special loud English, “are the boy prostitutes?”

This elicited a puzzled look from the girl, who eventually told him that she didn’t think there were any working the streets of Genoa. Then she paused for a moment before smiling lasciviously.

“But you come up to my room, I have many big didoes …”

Needless to say Rob declined her kind offer as politely as he could, and high-tailed it down the hill to where I had been waiting while this exchange took place. Just goes to show, though, that working girls are pretty good at spotting an opportunity.

So, how to sum up Genoa? A city of paradox and surprise, certainly. Gritty in parts, stunningly elegant in others, a kind of cross between unruly Naples and charming Bologna. But really, Genoa is unique. It’s a pity that so many foreign tourists see it as no more than a transit stop, passing through to board their mega cruise ship, or hurrying south to the glamour of the Riviera Levante – but then, maybe that’s just how the Genoese like it! Like Bologna and Turin, though, you get the feeling that this is a city much loved by Italians. And now by us.


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