As the train pulled away from Milan’s graffiti-encrusted suburbs, the concrete retreated with each clickety-clack and we were treated increasingly to majestic palazzi perched on hills. Destination Genoa. Once an independent republic and major Mediterranean mercantile power, Genoa is Italy’s largest commercial port and one of its liveliest cities. When you arrive in Genoa for the first time, you may (you should) wonder why you never thought to come here before.
A harmonious backdrop of natural and architectural beauty embraces the gritty dockyards. Buildings painted in alternating shades of earthen pastels resemble marzipan snacks, with muted terracotta pinks, ochres, dusty greens, and cornflower blues stacked in all directions. Starting from sea level, they climb to the hilltops and extend to each end of the horizon. Although Genoa itself has no beaches, its seaside promenade offers miles of walking. Lovers of industrial charm will be wooed by the Genoese aesthetic, while those who crave nature need only climb a few stairs.
Or, the tired and lazy may press a button. One of the city’s most charming features is that elevators are part of the public transportation infrastructure. Tourists can purchase a welcome card that offers unlimited rides on the transportation network, including the elevators, plus admission to several of Genoa’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.
At street level in Genoa, you meet honest smiles and helpful faces that have yet to become inured to throngs of foreign visitors. Small businesses rule the day here, as Genoa lacks the geographic space to house the sprawl that might give rise to shopping malls and big-box stores. As a result, a busy buzz permeates the city. The working class ambiance proudly belies the faded, old world bling of the historic mansions, of which there are hundreds.
Wide thoroughfares traverse one of Europe’s largest pedestrian-only zones—by some counts the largest. My feet hated me for all the walking we did in Genoa, but those feet were treated to sidewalks paved in terrazzo and enclosed in elegant medieval porticos. Although not as extensive as Bologna’s porticos, those in Genoa are no less rich. They comprise a collection of UNESCO-protected palazzi in sparkling condition. And at the end of the day, my weary feet rested at the wonderful Il Borgo di Genoa, a friendly guesthouse less than a minute’s walk from the train station.
A Center of Exploration, Globalization, and Immigration
Christopher Columbus’s father was one of Genoa’s outstanding citizens, making it possible for his son to enter into the competitive seafaring business. An unmemorable statue of Chrissy C himself, rendered in bright white, stands in a busy and heavily trafficked area outside Genoa Principale train station. The statue draws little attention. The city does not brag that the symbolic father of America was born and bred in Genoa. Could it be because the Spanish crown, and not Genovese patrons, sponsored the voyage that would change the world? Perhaps that, or perhaps there is more to Genoese history than Columbus.
For example, Genoa does boast the fact that most of the Italian emigrants to North and South America sailed from their city during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Genoa welcomed emigrants in droves from far and wide, from Calabria to Rome. Many emigrants from other parts of Europe sailed from Genoa too. I learned this and more in one of the best modern museums I have visited in Italy or anywhere, for that matter: the Galata Museo del Mare. Its state-of-the-art exhibitions include multimedia, interactivity, and the snazziest ship models you will ever see. If you are an American of Italian descent, you may be moved to tears by being in close proximity to your ancestral roots.
Long before “globalization” became a cliché, Genoa was a center point of world trade, and a gateway for goods from places still considered exotic hundreds of years later. This we learned while strolling through the strange collection of anthropological artifacts—what could easily be called curiosities–collected by one man and on display at Castello D’Albertis. The castello is accessible by one of the public transportation elevators, and offers spectacular views of the green hills that hug the city.
Medieval Genoese architecture is eye catching, and often jaw dropping. The feeling that someone was deliberately keeping the city a secret from you all along will haunt you. Forty-two private palazzi are under UNESCO province, and dozens more are independently managed. Many have been refinished and repurposed as modern office buildings. Marble, stucco, gilded friezes, frescoes, trompe l’oeil decorate all tastefully yet fancifully. You can visit several of the protected courtyards for free, but the Genoa Card Musei allowed us admission to their interior spaces too. Inside, you can peek at lifestyles of the rich but not-so-famous Genoese elite. Their houses were heavily endowed with art spanning several centuries.
Before long, you will notice something is missing in Genoa. You might not notice right away, but suddenly it will dawn on you: the absence of churches. Genoa’s wealth is capitalist, not ecclesiastical. The city’s main cathedral occupies a tiny geographic footprint. Its plain medieval exterior blends in with the surrounding buildings, and is no taller than they are. Take note, there is a political message encoded in Genoese urban planning. A local friend confessed to us that the people of Genoa have traditionally and continue to reject conventional sources of power. “Berlusconi never visited here,” he added. “He was very unpopular. We are anarchists in Genoa.”
Pesto and Beer
You’re hungry. And thirsty too. Not a problem. Genoa has a lot to offer your expectant palate. There is no “destination beer” in Genoa, but Pub del Duca is a destination beer-friendly trattoria in Nervi, a town in the scenic seaside outskirts of Genoa. It was there we met Lorenzo Dabove, poet, performance artist, beer aficionado, and friend. Lorenzo knows exactly which beers to order. And being Italian, Lorenzo knows what to eat. He treated us to some of the restaurant’s specialties including Genoa’s most famed export (after Columbus): pesto.
From Lorenzo we learned that to be called true Genoese pesto, the ingredients are absolutely immutable. Terroir is of the utmost importance. You must use a certain type of small-leaved basil only, a specific variety of garlic, two types of cheese (pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano), Ligurian olive oil, and pine nuts. All of it must be pounded in a mortar and pestle (the word pesto comes from the word pestle), not in a blender. The resulting sauce is minty green and creamy, not oily like American versions. Reliance on cheese and nuts, not oil, for the fat content, creates an unexpectedly velvet texture and opaque appearance. We have been making it wrong all along.
Unfortunately Pub del Duca was short of beer stock, but we did our best. We tried about a half-dozen Italian microbrews, none of which were particularly memorable. But that’s ok, not all beer has to be mind-blowing and it’s often more about the company anyway when you’re in Italy.
Genoa’s chief culinary export has been its pesto, but there are a few other odd dishes we encountered on our trip through the Ligurian coast. One restaurant we visited, simply called “Il Genovese” was packed, even on a Wednesday night, and we couldn’t get in. But I was determined to eat well, so I left our name and said we would return later. We did, and had an odd but memorable meal. Reading the menu was a challenge but our waiter knew sufficient English to translate. For the first course, I ordered pasta with pesto, and Josh, a Ligurian ravioli with a meaty ragu. This part was easy.
The mains, on the other hand, were challenging. We each ordered something from the sea. A dish the waiter described as being, “thinly sliced fish with a poached egg and toast” intrigued me. Unfortunately, it ended up being chopped whitefish and reminded me of Jewish breakfast. Josh ordered stockfish and expected a fish soup but later learned “stockfish” is unsalted dried cod. Lesson learned. Farther down the Ligurian Sea in the Cinque Terre region, we saw many more unfamiliar items on menus like cod baked with milk, prunes, fennel, and walnuts. We enjoyed the peculiarities and uniqueness of Ligurian cuisine, but cannot say that it will become a favorite. If you prefer something a little more familiar, Mario Batali’s chain Eataly has a location by the Genoese port.
Genoa has no Michelangelo and no DaVinci. You won’t come here for landmarks, or perhaps even for the food. Precisely because of what it lacks, Genoa avoids being tainted by tourism. When you wonder why no one has told you about Genoa before, you might then understand the conspiracy. You might want to keep it to yourself, too.