Mark Twain described this city as ‘crooked as a corkscrew’. Winding streets, marble mansions, faded churches, gigantic 17th century walls (said to be the longest after the Great Wall of China) and a ring of forts surrounding the city- Genoa, Italy is truly an under-rated tourist destination. Genoa was an important trade-route by the 3rd century BC and a jumping off spot for the Crusaders. Genoa made most of its money at sea through trade and piracy and used to be a great maritime power in the 13th century. In 1992, the city underwent an ugly duckling-to-swan transformation coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. In 2004, it was designated the European capital of Culture and got an amazing face-lift! As we arrive at the Statione Principale, we see a statue outside, of Genoa’s most favourite son- Christopher Columbus. Ironically, Genoa’s banking syndicate cold-shouldered Columbus when he wanted funds for his voyages. It was with Spanish backing that he discovered new trade routes!
Walking through the main shopping boulevard Via XX Setembre, we indulge in some window-shopping. We detour into the Mercato Orientale, the giant local market (which was formerly an ancient monastery) selling everything from oriental spices to focacia bread. We arrive at the lively Piazza De Ferrari, which seems to be a favourite haunt, filled with ebullient locals around a bronze fountain. This stately square is surrounded by buildings like the stock exchange and the rose and cream Palazzo Ducale, the centre of Genoa’s cultural activities which hosts art exhibitions, shows and conventions. The façade of the Palazzo Ducale or the Doge’s palace is a marvel – its trompe l’oeil, an art of painting three dimensional effects and creating an optical illusion and saving on stone carving! We visit the liquorice-like black and white striped San Lorenzo church dedicated to St John, the Baptist the patron saint of Genoa. Its claim to fame- a bomb landed on the roof of the cathedral during World War, but fortunately failed to detonate (this shell is still preserved). There are majestic marble statues of lions guarding the entrance and a wealth of gilt, cherubs, sculptures and paintings inside. There is a chalice here which they claim was part of the last Supper dinner service. We walk past the Grecian Teatro Carlo Felice, the local Opera Theatre, which was ravaged during the Second World war and completely re-built. This is the venue of the internationally renowned Paganini Violin contest.
From here, we walk down the famed Via Garibaldi, where the rich merchants of Genoa built extravagant palazzos with lavish gardens looming over little piazzas. They amassed huge art collections attracting artists like Rubens and Van Dyke to Genoa with their patronage. Rubens was so impressed by local architecture when he arrived here in 1606, that he published a collection of plans and elevations entitled ‘Palaces of Genoa’. In a period of ten years, thirteen palaces sprung up here. The glory and prestige of the city in its heydays is still palpable here! This street, which used to be called the Via Aurea or the Golden Street, had the homes of the premier families of Genoa like the Brignole, the Doria and Sale. Many homes have been now converted into museums, government offices or banks. Because of the influence that this one street has had on urban development, it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visit the Palazzo Rosso, now one of the city’s finest art museums. It’s a 17th century baroque extravaganza, in red stone with intricate frescoes. Its tasteful rooms are packed with mirrors, sculptures, porcelain, Louis IV chairs, and a wealth of art by masters like Titian, Veronese and Van Dyke. The classic and elegant Palazzo Tursi is now the Town hall. It has a pillared open courtyard leading to a staircase and galleries – we see some letters written by Columbus and the Genoese genius Paganini’s violin.
The Centro storico or the medieval centre of Genoa is a labyrinth of gritty, narrow, serpentine streets which the Genoese call the ‘Carruggi’. Genoa has made impressive efforts to clean up this area and free it from its violent history, but we hear that it’s still not a safe place to walk after dark. The cramped old town of Genoa is packed with history and reflects the times when the principal families of the city marked out their territories, and indulged in feuds in this maze of alleyways. The streets are so tiny and narrow that we get lost several times. High buildings with about seven storeys are set close together and I wonder if the sun ever shines on the pavements. Churches, antique shops, goldsmiths jostle for space with bakeries and even internet centres! We hear the distinctive Genoese dialect everywhere amidst the smell of focacia bread, a speciality of Genoa. Life here seems frozen in time! All streets lead to the sea from here. The Genoese have an intimate relationship with the seas- after all, the seas have been their source of wealth and power. We visit the waterfront where the whimsical Bigo (inspired by the mast of a ship) has a confection of poles sprouting all over the harbour. A glass elevator rises in the air providing an eye-popping view of this great cityscape! We rue the fact that we don’t have the time to visit the Acquario di Genova, Europe’s biggest aquarium designed to look like the deck of a commercial ship with fifty tanks of marine species and a re-creation of a coral reef
Pesto is a Ligurian delicacy, made with fresh pine nuts, basil and cheese; we have delectable trofie pasta (handmade small squiggly bits of pasta) with pesto and are amazed by the fresh taste! We also gorge on Focacia bread drizzled with local olive oil and stuffed with a variety of fillings like olives, herbs and vegetables. Farinata, a chickpea pancake stuffed with spinach and ricotta is also on our list of faves! We have coffee and pandolce- a local cake stuffed with dried fruits, nuts and candied peels at Café Mangini, a local haunt adjoining the Piazza Corvetto. Genoa has a vertical cityscape with streets and residences built on others’ rooftops and has public elevators and funiculars. We take a public elevator (along with locals who take it as nonchalantly as a bus) to Castelleto, a district perched over the rooftops of the old city. We are reminded of Malabar Hills in Mumbai when we see tall buildings of ochre and pink, walkways on to roofs and laundry in ingenious clotheslines! We get a great view of the city, the grey slate rooftops, the iconic Lanterna or the old lighthouse, the port sprawling far away and the beckoning expanse of the azure sea.
We came to Genoa, expecting seediness, grit, grime and urban decay and came back surprised by an Italian city with stunning beauty and culture surprisingly untouched by mass tourism. In 1853, composer Richard Wagner in a letter to his first wife Minna aptly describes his impressions of Genoa. “I have never seen anything like Genoa before! The city is indescribably beautiful, splendid, full of character… I don't know where to start to convey to you the impression all of this has made on me and continues to do...”
Published by the New Indian Express, 2010