Italy has such a wealth of wonderful cities, that many which would be the jewel in the crown of most other countries, can tend to become overlooked. Such is Genoa. Little on the tourist itinerary, this Cinderella of Mediterranean cities is nevertheless a fascinating place to spend some time, with a wealth of historical and cultural attractions – and hardly a selfie-stick toting tourist in sight.
In the nineteenth century Genoa was one of the, if not the, leading Italian industrial cities with heavy industry and shipbuilding predominant. This tended to put it off the itinerary of travellers back then, especially as its great historical rival to the east, Venice, captured much of the tourist limelight at that period. Genoa’s prosperity declined with the decline of heavy industry from around 1970 onwards, and having grown by that date to a population of more than 800,000, it has lost 250,000 of those inhabitants over the last 40 years. The city is now turning in part to restoring and advertising its historical and cultural associations as an element of its economic recovery strategy. This policy earned it the accolade of European City of Culture in 2004.
Heavy industrial former boomtown fallen on hard times, now re-inventing itself as a city of culture? One that steadily lost population in recent years and has long suffered in comparison with the more glamorous image of its historical eastern rival? You are getting the picture…Genoa is Glasgow with sunshine, though the southern city actually gets as much rain ( over 40” per annum) as its northern counterpart - though most of it thankfully falls in autumn and winter, outside the best time to visit. The city even has an equivalent of Partick Thistle, Genoa FC which hasn’t won anything significant in almost a century. Whilst the still prosperous Turin may be one of the Dear Green Place’s twin cities, giving that status to Genoa would be far more appropriate in my opinion; the two cities share much from the past, and of the present too. Demotic is the word that most describes both places.
Emerging from the Stazione Principe onto the Piazza Acquaverde, you are immediately presented with a symbol of Genoa’s maritime past. The rather bombastic statue of Christopher Columbus reminds you that this was his home town (a very old house elsewhere in the city has been somewhat dubiously claimed as his birthplace) and that the city’s wealth was always built on its maritime connections. In the Middle Ages the independent city state of Genoa ultimately linked its fortunes to the Spanish and their empire in the Americas, whilst its arch-rival Venice focussed eastwards on the Byzantine Empire, having in a series of wars curbed Genoa’s influence in that quarter. Near the Stazione Principe is the Villa del Principe, the Palazzo built by Andrea Doria, Doge or dictator of Genoa in the sixteenth century who most exemplified this policy, and under whose leadership the city provided much of the mercenary sea-power that underlay the Spanish trade in slaves and silver from the Americas. La Lanterna, the incredible lighthouse built in 1543 (and till 1902, the tallest lighthouse in the world at 250ft.) still functions as such, and stands guard over the harbour nearby as a reminder of this period of the city’s maritime might. The Laterna museum is well worth a visit. Doria’s palace is palatial, but the pride of Genoa lies elsewhere in the former Strada Nuova - now Via Garibaldi - where the Palazzi dei Rolli, since 2006 a UNESCO World Heritage Site, line both sides of one of the most opulent streets to been seen anywhere. Most of these were built in the XVI century when Spain- and Genoa- were at their apogee. The artist Rubens was so impressed by these palaces that he copied them all into a book of architectural drawings, hoping to influence Flemish builders; later Charles Dickens also marvelled at them, even at a time when they were succumbing to decay. Having fallen into disrepair, several have been restored as museums and art galleries, and a combined ticket allows you access to those that are open to visitors. However, the largest, the Palazzo Nicolo Grimaldi, which now functions as Genoa’s town hall, and can be wandered around at will. Therein stands a statute of Guiseppe Mazzini, nineteenth-century arch-visionary of Italian
Genoa’s connection with Italian Unification, the Risorgimento, goes even further. It was from its port that Garibaldi sailed with his Thousand Redshirts in 1860, to invade Sicily and start the process of uniting the peninsula under the House of Savoy. Another palace, the Palazzo Balbi in the eponymous street, became the residence of the Savoy Kings of the United Italy when they were in Genoa, and is also open to visitors. But if you are sated with Palazzi, relief is at hand. From the very back windows of most of these vast dwellings, you look over into what must be the closest on the whole of the northern Mediterranean littoral to some of the crowded casbahs of North Africa. Plunge down from the Via Balbi towards the Via Antonio Gramsci ( Genoa is, like Glasgow, a traditionally left-wing town, and was the birthplace of another famous Italian communist, Palmiro Togliatti) and you find yourself in a maze of alleys (caruggi) so narrow you can reach out at times and touch both walls with your arms. Bisected by the Via de Pre down which it is just possible to scape a small car, the buildings tower up to ten stories high above your head. This was originally the heart of the medieval city, and in the nineteenth century it became the poor working class area of Genoa beside the docks, and it is now to a considerable extent inhabited by sub-Saharan Africans with their shops and sweatshops all around. One thing has not changed, though, this is still the area for the Ladies of the Night, as it has been for more than two centuries. During the German occupation of Genoa, although the caruggi were strictly out of bounds, soldiers looking for love would often just disappear after entering this beehive, killed by the Resistance which was very strong in the city, and which is commemorated in the Viale Brigata Partigiane. At night the area has several good restaurants and a broader clientele than during the day; it is not to be missed, though it is not for the faint-hearted. Being a traveller in Genoa is not painting by numbers.
In the nineteenth century, after falling into centuries of decay with the decline of the Spanish empire, Genoa underwent its second economic boom period; much of this was based again on the Americas, but this time alas, on Italian emigration to North America. Through Genoa’s port left three million or more of the poverty stricken sons and daughters of Italy, and many of the ships built here were emigrant ships, and much of the port and other facilities around mushroomed for this sorry trade. But wealth it brought to the city and this can be seen in the area round the Piazza de Ferrari to the east of the dock region, where magnificent banks, municipal buildings and hotels reflect this second of Genoa’s glory periods.
This epoch can be found excellently illustrated and explained in the Galata Museo del Mare in a fine new building in the heart of the still part-derelict dockland area of former warehouses and berthings. “Maritime Museum” is a misnomer as the place is much more than that, it is a whole history of the various rises and falls of a city that is fighting to regain not just its prosperity but also the recognition of its greatness as an Italian city and its profound contribution to the country’s history, sadly neglected and dismissed for too long. Other buildings around here, such as the Magazzini del Cotone, a massive former cotton warehouse, have been converted to new use as shops, restaurants and galleries and the Porto Antico is buzzing with life again.
If you tire of palaces and ghettoes, Genoa is easy to get out of. Crammed into a narrow littoral by the sea in front and mountains behind, the city developed a system of funiculars and lifts to avoid the steep ascents from the centre to the periphery. With one of these, at Largo Zecca, you can travel as far as Righi on the city’s outskirts, and visit the ancient system of forts and walls which defended the city from northern invaders. Along these walls a series of extra-urban walks, with magnificent views over the harbour and the mountains can be enjoyed. One of the shorter lifts goes from Via Balbi to the Parco Castello D’Albertis, in which building - a nineteenth century folly/toy castle, lies the Museo delle Culture del Mondo, an interesting if eclectic collection of archeological and ethnological artefacts amassed on his travels by the self-same Albertis, an independently wealthy nineteenth century traveller and explorer.
Genoa’s compressed area influenced its gastonomy; there was little space to grow wheat, so potatoes figured prominently in the diet; the traditional meal of the dockworkers and shipyard workers was potatoes and polpo (octopus) fired up together, and this can still be found in the more downmarket cafes, and gnocchi is as common as pasta. And on the limited spaces the Genoese grew pine nuts and basil which contributed to their main gift to the culinary arts- the manufacture of pesto, of which the Genovese claim theirs is the only true variety. Focaccia is another local speciality and again, it is difficult to dispute the fact that Genovese focaccia is the best in Italy, and it is found served almost everywhere in take away portions, with every available topping; but best of all, it is eaten smeared with a thick layer of…pesto.
Once known as La Superba by its inhabitants, Genoa is making great strides, after decades of difficulty, towards wearing that label proudly again.
Ian R. Mitchell.
No direct flights from Scotland; either fly to Stansted, then on to Genoa, or with Easyjet from Glasgow or Edinburgh direct to Milan (much cheaper) and take the train to Genoa, less than 100 miles away.
The Hotel Bristol Palace (Via XX Settembre) is just off the Piazza de Ferrari, and is one of the royal House of Savoy’s former residences; it boast an incredible five storey marble oval staircase and an excellent roof terrace restaurant, and is very moderately priced.
The Genoese are immensely proud of their modest underground system which has half a dozen stations connecting the Stazione Principe to the Stazione Brignole at each end of the compact city centre; a day ticket on this gives you ready access to everything you will want to visit. They seem less proud of the Sopraelevata, a motorway which runs through the city, between the docks and the ghetto; clue Glasgow again in both respects?