Destinations

Genoa, Italy

Genoa, the coastal town that gave the world pesto, Christopher Columbus and Renzo Piano, holds surprises around every corner. John Irving explores its labyrinthine lanes.

By John Irving
Piazza de Ferrari, the hub of city life in Genoa, Italy.
Piazza de Ferrari, the hub of city life

Viewed from the sea, Genoa tumbles down from the mountains and plunges into the water. It's an inspiring sight. On the high ridges above the city you can just make out the 18th-century Napoleonic walls, interspersed with forts and watchtowers. In the spring and summer, the creuse, the old mule tracks that join the Mediterranean scrub to the straggling suburbs up there, are a favourite haunt for hikers. Down in the city, Italy's sixth-largest and capital of the Liguria region, the atmosphere is less tranquil but also no less alluring.

Few places can have triggered such mixed reactions as Genoa. On his year-long sojourn in 1844, Charles Dickens saw contrasts that are still evident today. "Things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful and offensive break upon the view at every turn," he wrote. He was particularly repelled by the "unaccountable filth" and "the disorderly jumbling of dirty houses, one upon the roof of another". A year later, Gustave Flaubert begged to differ: "Now I am in a beautiful city, a truly beautiful city: Genoa... A city of marble, with gardens full of roses." Dickens also recalled "many hours of happiness and quiet".

A century later, researching her book Italian Food, Elizabeth David wrote the place off as "the noisiest city in the world". But she had to contend with "the crashing of trams and trains, the screeching of brakes". The only noise Dickens heard was the clamour of a band on a "festa-day".

I don't believe the din in Genoa is any more ear-splitting than that in other Italian metropolises: Rome, say, or Milan or Turin. But the city is a place of great buzz and bustle, most of it concentrated round its immense port, the biggest in the country. It was arriving here by train that I saw the Mediterranean for the first time. Then I was a student passing through, now I live an hour's car journey away and it's always a pleasure to drive down to Genoa. Or rather Genoas: the city has many different faces.

The city centre
The city centre

An elevated autostrada cuts clean across the city. It runs parallel to the coast but, coming in from the west through the working-class neighbourhoods of Voltri and Sampierdarena, the sea is blotted out by cranes, funnels, flags, masts, piers, containers, huge ferries to and from Sardinia, Corsica, North Africa and Spain, and all the other paraphernalia of the waterfront. Then the Lanterna comes into view, a tall medieval lighthouse and the symbol of the city for other Italians.

Further on still are the silhouettes of contemporary symbols, the buildings erected for the Expo 1992 exhibition, held to celebrate the fifth centenary of the discovery of America by Genoa's favourite son, Christopher Columbus (though chances are he was actually born in Savona, just down the coast). The exhibition complex was designed in the Porto Antico, or old port, by another local boy, architect Renzo Piano. Piano is famous for projects all over the world, from the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris to the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Nouméa in New Caledonia, from the New York Times Tower to The Shard London Bridge. In his home town he has regenerated a whole section of the dock area, adding new attractions and restoring old ones, including a row of former cotton warehouses, in an imaginative marriage of ancient and modern. It's ongoing: as I write the papers are full of a new Piano idea for a walkway from the docks down to the city's waterside international fair complex, a kilometre or so south.

Piano's Aquarium is the second largest in Europe and welcomes 100,000 visitors a month. It recreates 70 marine ecosystems and hosts dugongs and dolphins, seals and sharks, plus penguins, the biggest crowd-pullers of all. The Bigo is a mega installation designed to evoke the dockland skyline. It consists of a splaying cluster of tall white poles and incorporates a rotating panoramic lift that climbs 40 metres into the sky to offer stunning views over sea and city. The centrepiece of the huge Galata Museum of the Sea is the reconstruction of a 40-metre 17th-century galley. The place also houses 6000 exhibits that recount the history of Genoese naval exploits and a moving section dedicated to emigration to the Americas in the late 19th century. "La Bolla", or Bubble, finally, is a steel and glass sphere suspended in mid-air in which a small botanical garden recreates a tropical forest environment complete with endangered plant and animal species. A family with kids could easily spend a week in the Expo area - and a great many of them choose to do exactly that.

A small bay encloses fishing village Boccadasse
A small bay encloses fishing village Boccadasse

The sea was and is Genoa's backyard. In the Middle Ages the city fought Venice in a battle of giants for control of the Mediterranean. If Venice was "La Serenissima", the Most Serene One, then Genoa was "La Superba", the Proud One. Both cities were run by doges, both were centres of banking and trade - the Genoese claim their San Giorgio bank was the world's first - and both boasted powerful navies. The Genoese controlled the Tyrrhenian Sea and established colonies on the Black Sea, in the Middle East and in North Africa. The inhabitants of Carloforte, on the island of San Pietro off the south-west coast of Sardinia, still speak the dialect of the city. Ironically, it was precisely the discovery of America and the increased importance of Atlantic ports that began to erode Genoa's influence - that and the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the east. In the 16th century the city had been one of the most powerful, most populated in Europe, "la ville capitaliste par excellence", according to French historian Fernand Braudel. Then decline set in and its prestige waned.

The sea still utterly dominates the life of the city nonetheless. Every day on the local TV news one sees port officials and navy officers in smart white uniforms meeting round long tables; camalli (dockworkers and stevedores), out on strike and walking through the streets on protest marches; regattas and boat shows (since 1962 the Genoa International Boat Show has been a big draw for the world's yachting fraternity). The elegant boulevards of the modern part of town around Brignole station are lined with the offices of shipping and maritime insurance companies. And last year the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise ship was dragged up from the island of Giglio off Tuscany to be dismantled in the port of Genoa. Water, water everywhere - physically and notionally.

A grocer's store on Via San Bernardo
A grocer's store on Via San Bernardo

The city's maritime tradition is still evident in the character of its people: hardworking, with a strong sense of identity and belonging. They are famous in Italy for their tight-fistedness, like the Scots in the English-speaking world. They resemble the Scots in other ways, too: inquisitive and adventurous, single-minded and pioneering, they are always inventing, always leaving their mark. If the Scots gave us, among many other things, the telephone and the television and penicillin, we have the Genoese to thank for jeans (from de Gênes, the name the French called the stiff blue cloth they imported from the city), Genoa cake and the Genoa jib. If Scots explorers like Mungo Park and David Livingstone blundered through jungles and across savannahs to chart Africa, Christopher Columbus faced the unknown to give us America, after which another likely Genoese, John Cabot, mapped some of its northern Atlantic shores. There's a statue of Columbus in front of the main station, the Stazione Principe, and his father is said to have worked as a gatekeeper at the medieval Porta Soprana. An ivy-clad house that stands nearby purports to be where the great man himself spent his boyhood.

High up above the old harbour, the hub of city life is Piazza de Ferrari with its fine monumental fountain. It marks the boundary between arcaded 19th-century Genoa and the older quarters. Indeed, Henry James wasn't wrong when he described this as "The most winding and incoherent of cities, the most entangled topographical ravel in the world". But it's also true that the city centre concentrates most of its landmarks into a relatively small area and can be visited on foot with cog railway and lifts to come to your rescue should you need them. It's best to visit in spring or autumn when it's not too hot, although I'd avoid late October and early November, when violent storms are becoming an increasingly common phenomenon. Last year terrible flooding caused huge damage across the city.Piazza de Ferrari itself is a good starting point for a walking tour. Worth a visit on the adjoining Piazza Matteotti is the elegant Palazzo Ducale, now a veritable cultural centre and venue for many a prestigious international exhibition. Nearby, on Via Garibaldi, Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Bianco are home to two of the city's finest art collections. Genoa has few homegrown painters to talk of, but in the 16th century nobles who'd grown rich from trade and finance attracted artists from abroad to paint their portraits. First Rubens, then Van Dyck came to work in Genoa, and the works of the latter in particular are scattered in palaces and galleries all over the city and the region.

The village of Ne
The village of Ne

Descending seawards from Via Garibaldi you move from the 16th century to the Middle Ages, which is when the old centro storico began to spring up. The old quarters of the great Mediterranean port cities - Naples, Marseilles, Barcelona, Casablanca - all cast a magical, albeit slightly disreputable, spell of their own and Genoa's is no exception. Recent immigration has changed the face of most Italian cities, but old Genoa has always been a casbah-like place of coming and going. Today, as in the past, old salts and Long John Silver types rub shoulders with newcomers from every continent. This labyrinthine maze of lanes - caruggi in dialect - courtyards, loggias and porticoes was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. Here the noble palazzi, or rolli, are as tall and straight as the caruggi - not all of which you'd wish to venture down - are narrow and crooked. Spurred on by the wealthy merchant families, architects were forced by the lack of space to build skywards. The lofty buildings bear the old family names: Palazzo Doria, Palazzo Spinola, Palazzo Adorno, Palazzo Serra, Palazzo Parodi... It's like an olde-worlde Manhattan. I remember when the façades of the rolli were black with grime. They were scrubbed clean for Genoa's year as Capital of European Culture in 2004 and now stand out above the scruffy charm of their surrounds. The sun only shines in the piazzettas, where old men and women sit outside houses on stools, cats roam and waiters scuttle about in front of bars. Dozens of small bakeries and friggitorie, or fried food shops, line the lanes and the air is dense with the odour of focaccia, baked chickpea flour crêpes (farinata), potato fritters (cuculli), and spring onion and zucchini fritters (frisceu).

The tomaxelle at La Brinca in Ne
The tomaxelle at La Brinca in Ne

Liguria has the most vegetarian of Italy's regional cuisines - although not entirely so, given its enduring love affair with tripe. Flat-leafed greens and other vegetables, not to mention pine kernels, walnuts and mushrooms, are used to make soups and sauces, to stuff ravioli and to fill pies. Torta verde, for example, is a Swiss chard pie; its name changes to torta pasqualina in the Easter period when eggs are stuck in the middle.

Aromatic herbs such as oregano, rosemary, parsley, sage and marjoram are also widely used. The most popular of all is basil, which you'll see growing in old tomato tins on the balconies of old Genoa in summer. The best variety, basilico Genovese, with small, highly scented leaves, the one preferred to make arguably the most famous local recipe, pesto, is grown in Pra in the western suburbs.

Historically, the cooking of Liguria is seen as a classic example of cucina povera, the result of people using the few poor ingredients at their disposal inventively. But as a late acquaintance of mine, food historian Giovanni Rebora, used to point out, pesto is an exception. To make it, pine kernels were imported from Tuscany, pecorino cheese from Sardinia and salt from the Sicilian islands. None of these ingredients came cheap and blending them with basil was more a symbol of Genoese expansion than of popular ingeniousness.

Good places to eat traditional fare in the city are Ostaia da U Santu, on a hilltop above Voltri with its own vegetable garden, and Osteria di Vico Palla, down in the old port, renowned locally for its baccalà. But if you have time and a car, do as I do and head out east to the small country village of Ne, where there's a restaurant serving truly authentic dishes, some of them veritable rarities. By autostrada, the journey takes no more than 30 minutes, but I suggest you go part of the way along the old coast road to take in the delightful Boccadasse, a timeless fishing village straight out of a '50s movie; Quarto, whence Garibaldi and his Thousand embarked for Sicily; and Nervi, an elegant suburb-cum-resort where footballers have their villas. All are within the city limits.

Stop off in the historic seaside town of Chiavari. Here, Catia Saletti's Gastronomia Mosto is a deli where you can eat in or take away local specialties of land and sea, or buy a vast range of wines, spirits and coffees. Catia is the daughter of a star chef from Ferrara, where the food is rich and sumptuous. She came to live in Liguria with her late husband, Franco, Chiavari born and bred, and under his wing learned to simplify her style. She now wows the locals with her torta verde and classic cima alla Genovese, a breast of veal cut open to form a pouch, stuffed with a mixture of minced veal, sweetbreads, brains, bone marrow, eggs, peas and Parmigiano, boiled and served cold in slices.

The old town of Genoa
The old town of Genoa

Ne itself, inland from Lavagna, isn't so much a village as a muddle of outlying hamlets. The place to eat here is La Brinca, a hilltop osteria where local-born Sergio Circella and his family serve a menu that reads like a dialect dictionary: prebugiun, a mush of potatoes and cavolo nero; tomaxelle, veal roulades stuffed with aromatic herbs, pine kernels and mushrooms; sancrau, the local take on sauerkraut; baciocca, a pie filled with local quarantina potatoes and red onions; piccagge, a sort of tagliatelle; mandilli de sea, or "silk handkerchiefs", ultra-fine fresh pasta squares served with either pesto or creamed mushrooms.

Believe me, it's all worth the journey. And if you wanted to stay on for a few relaxing - and detoxifying - days on the beach, swanky resorts such as Rapallo, Portofino and Santa Margherita are all in easy reach.

Once back in Genoa, macabre as it may sound, a good place to end a tour is the Cimitero Staglieno, the municipal monumental cemetery up in the hills. "It's hard to imagine a better resting place," wrote Evelyn Waugh. But somewhere Ernest Hemingway called "one of the wonders of the world" must have a lot going for it and Staglieno does. All manner of statuary and tracery, drapery and masonry evoke and exalt stories of anonymous lives. It was visited and admired by the likes of Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Lloyd George and D'Annunzio and there are plaques to prove it. Among the "residents" are Giuseppe Mazzini, Garibaldi's second-in-command Nino Bixio, Oscar Wilde's wife, Constance Lloyd, and Fabrizio De André, the local singer-songwriter-turned-national treasure. This huge, phantasmagoric Disneyland of the dead holds surprises at every corner, much like the sprawling city below.

As I said, there are many Genoas.

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  • Author: John Irving