Susan Van Allen
Genoa, Italy: A City Full of Hidden Treasures
of clinking silverware and lunchtime conversations drifted into
the alley through dark green shutters of second story windows.
Up ahead a pair of sculpted cupids floated above a pastry shop.
I slowed down to inhale the sweet smell of baking.
church bell rang as a woman approached me, "Scusi, signora,
dove -" I stopped her before she could ask directions.
In my shoddy Italian I explained with a smile that I was lost
too. She smiled back and I went on my way, meandering through
the shadowy paths of the historic center of Genoa.
of the time getting lost in Italy brings on grimaces rather
than smiles - as in my many memories of "Whose fault is
it we took the wrong exit off the autostrada?". But getting
lost in the maze of narrow medieval streets in Genoa's Centro
Storico could not have been more idyllic.
area, squeezed between the port and the city's terraced hillside,
is said to be the largest historical center in Europe. Last
April, I tucked away my impossible-to-follow map and discovered
that surrendering to Genoa, letting her reveal herself on her
own terms, was the way to find the essence of this city of grand
and humble treasures.
arrival, my group's guide, Micaela (a flaming red-haired, 20-something,
part-time pop music singer), was enthusiastic about introducing
us to Genoa's high profile sights - the port and palaces, which
surround the historic area. Genoa has been named European Cultural
Capital of 2004, and everywhere banners announced special museum
exhibits and performance events. Locals like Micaela were pumped
to show off Genoa, La Superba (The Haughty) - the nickname it
took on during its 13th to 18th century maritime heyday.
found myself most attracted by Genoa the Humble. Micaela started
us off at the Porto Antico, redeveloped in 1992, when Genoa
celebrated the 500th anniversary of the voyage of its most famous
native, Christopher Columbus. I drifted from the modern Lorenzo
Piano designed structures to the folksy food stalls. There,
under a cluster of sunflower-colored tents, cooks sold regional
specialties and I spotted what was to become my favorite Genovese
snack: thin lightly salted focaccia bread served hot and stuffed
with melted cheese.
short drive away from the Porto Antico, we found a more tranquil
experience of Genoa's 19-mile coastline in Boccadasse, an ancient
fishing village near the city's border.
Euphoria set in as I
ate vanilla gelato studded with pralines, and lazed up and down
the winding stone waterfront path. The sparkling Mediterranean
perfectly complimented a circle of life scene; Mammas dipping
their babies in the sea, kids racing by holding farinata wrapped
in paper (a traditional chickpea crepe snack), teenagers sunning
themselves on the black pebbled beach, brides in flowing gowns
posing for photographs, and elderly men in dark suits proceeding
slowly with wooden canes.
home base (the Starhotel President) was in the modern area of
town, a short walk to the Via Settembre XX, a 19th century grand
boulevard flanked by a sculpted arcade which serves as entrances
to chain stores and designer shops. Once again, I was drawn
off the major thoroughfare to discover a treasure: the Mercato
Orientale. This old market was an Augustinian monastery and
now a daily stop for housewives to pick up the catch of the
day and the harvest of the season (including mounds of white
most unforgettable sight and smell in the market came from overflowing
piles of basil. The leaves were smaller and a more vibrant green
than I've ever seen before. The pesto in Genoa, made from this
basil, was the best I've ever tasted -- so much so I ordered
it at every meal.
into the historic center, we toured the palaces which encircle
it. I admired the creamy yellow and rose sculpted façade
of the Palazzo Ducale, which was formerly the Doges Palace.
When I got closer I realized I'd actually been admiring a masterpiece
of tromp l'oeil. "The Genovese have a reputation for being
cheap," explained Micaela. "They didn't want to spend
money on stone masons, so they perfected an art of painting
to make three-dimensional effects."
fell for this Genovese trick of perspective more than once.
Visiting the Renaissance palace lined Via Garibaldi, I kept
doing double takes at a ceiling fresco in the Palazzo Rosso.
"Is that angel's foot sculpture or paint?" I wondered.
It took my friend and I a good few minutes of scoping it from
all angles to conclude we'd been fooled.
quartet of Jazz musicians playing a soulful rendition of "More"
stopped me in front of the San Lorenzo cathedral. Their simplicity
contrasted with a dizzying Gothic backdrop: black and white
strips of marble, curlicue columns, stone lions and saints.
It was a classic gem of a Genoan scene - mixing the humble with
off from the cathedral square in all directions are the doglegged
alleys (called carrugi) that make up the treasure-filled labyrinth
of the old city. Curiosities piqued, my friends and I went our
separate ways to explore the mysterious narrow pathways that
cut between seven-story high buildings.
historic center was created by rich merchants of Genoa's 13th
to 14th centuries, when each family staked out its territory,
building their own churches, palaces, and squares, and cramming
in additions, as they grew more prosperous. This was once the
sight of chases and back stabbings between feuding families.
But centuries later, my walk through it could not have been
more peaceful. There were no cars, it was practically tourist
free and I blended in with its working class locals.
was like walking through an open-air museum, lit by slits of
sunlight filtered through the shadows. Votive stone altars (called
edicoli) jut from second story corners of pale gold and ochre
buildings. Biblical scenes were carved in friezes above doorways.
alley opened up to the Piazza Campetto, where I watched painters
on scaffolding restoring the pastel façade of the Imperial
Palace. A steep stairway attached to the palace led me under
starry frescoed ceilings to what were once the goldsmith's loggia,
and now the home of Fabrorum, a store, laboratory and museum
showcasing the traditional Genovese art of gold filigree. Elegant
rooms displayed everything from centuries old chalices to gorgeous
necklaces and earrings for sale. I was offered a tour of the
laboratory to watch the firing and painting process of jewelry
making, but begged off, wanting to get more of the street flavor.
found Klainguti, a cafe from 1826 where Giuseppe Verdi hung
out during the 40 winters he spent here. Past the counters of
confections, were small connecting Rococo salons featuring crystal
cut mirrors and chandeliers.
stores I stumbled upon could have been roped off with velvet
as displays of life in another century, each decked out with
baroque painted or sculpted signs. There were white tiled butcher
shops with marble-slab counters, pharmacies with colorful ceramic
jars displayed in dark wood cases, and dusty engraving workshops.
the shopkeepers didn't speak much English, I found browsing
with smiles and hand signals was welcome. Unlike other Italian
cities, the Genovese have not been burnt-out by an onslaught
of tourists. As a result, the authenticity of the city has not
been compromised, the natives are patient and accommodating,
and there were no long lines at museums or overcrowded restaurants.
and piazzas appeared at dead-ends of alleys. The Piazza San
Matteo, once owned by the Dorias, the wealthiest of the merchant
families, presented itself like an opera set: a small striped
marble church across from two palazzi, with loggia for taking
in the sea air. At another turn, I hit Genoa's oldest church,
San Siro. Its cool dark gray stone interior, faded frescoes,
and dusty chandeliers created an eerie ambience.
our farewell dinner that night, everyone had stories to tell
about their adventures in the labyrinth. Tom had visited Genoa's
Jazz Museum, which chronicled the stars who had played at the
city's festivals and nearby coastal resorts. Antonia showed
off a pair of pearly chic shoes she'd bought for a bargain.
I'd picked up a handmade cut glass lavender bracelet. It sparkled
on my wrist as I made a toast: To return for more days of getting
lost and finding Genoa's treasures.
Via XX Settembre 35
Corte Lambruschini 4
T: 011-39-010-5727, 1-800-816-6001
Vico delle Monachette 6
I Tre Merli
Porto Antico - Palazzina Millo
Wonderful pasta specials
Mura delle Grazie 3.r
A family run institution with excellent food and extraordinary
Sacrapatina (typical regional dessert - Genovese cake
filled with zabaglione cream)
Antica Osteria del Bai
Via Quarto 12
Great setting overlooking the bay, elegant regional specialties
Piazza Campetto 8A
Store, museum and laboratory showcasing the art of gold
Piazza Soziglia 102
Vico dietro il Coro delle Vigne, 13R
Engraving shop with reasonable prices
Via ai Quattro Canti di S. Francesco 43R
Reasonably priced handmade jewelry and ceramics