The thousand souls of Genoa

Palazzo Tursi, seat of the Municipality of Genoa

A few days ago, on occasion of a tourism conference, I was asked a very challenging question: “What is Genoa’s genius loci? Which is the true spirit of the place?”. Sorry to disappoint, I thought, but it seems there will not be a univocal answer here. Genoa, the capital of Liguria - a.k.a. the Italian side of the Riviera - features in fact a diversity of urban dimensions, both physical and emotional, that escape definitions. The identity of the city is multifaceted: a maritime republic that beat rival Pisa at the Battle of the Meloria and went to war against Venice; an international mercantile and financial marketplace; a Kasbah of smugglers and songwriters; the vertex of Italy’s North Western industrial triangle on its way to a new start. History reigns in a thousand carruggi (i.e. alleys) and on the façades of the noble palaces of the historical centre, a carousel of styles and a treasure trove of secluded and silent piazzette, slate roofs, votive niches, ancient specialty shops and sciammadde (i.e. frying shops), the providers of traditional street food to be nibbled as you explore the place. As I was thinking about how this variety grants travellers the pleasure of uttermost freedom in their explorations, the answer to the aforesaid question came up to my mind. Crossroads. Genoa is a historical crossroads of trades, routes, people, cultures, foods. A rather intricate junction, so to say… London’s Seven Dials on the Mediterranean, I beamed to my Anglo Saxon interviewer, who asked me for local advice on how to explore the place. This is my open answer to his kind query, a sort of tableau de bord inspired by my personal Saturday morning wanderings (and shopping lists)… I am glad to share these notes with you because these are the places in Genoa that make me feel good.

Dear Friend,
the most scenic way to discover Genoa is either from the sky or from the sea: a cinemascope concoction of Middle Ages and 1930’s déco skyscrapers frames the vastness of the port, where the Lanterna stands upright, as the eye gazes over a forest of bell towers and church domes to the elegance of the eastern districts. High in the background, the city walls and fortresses protect the centre in a tight, watchful embrace. Poet Giorgio Caproni once defined Genoa as the city of uphill love. “When I decide to go there, I will go to heaven taking the Castelletto lift”, was Caproni’s tribute to the verticality of Spianata Castelletto, the panoramic viewpoint of the Circonvallazione a Monte, connected to the city centre by challenging brick crêuze (ascents) as well as by a stunning art nouveau elevator.
It is no coincidence that my favourite starting point for the tour de la ville of this Mediterranean city is – almost - vertical: Salita San Matteo, the very heart of the Doria quarter, leads to the homonymous piazza, a fragment of history which embodies the dominion of this potent household over the city, especially after the feud over the rival Fieschi was won (1547).
Let us tread a few steps away: the Archbishop’s palace, the State Archive (the former Palazzetto Criminale) and the cloister of the cathedral are offer us a representation of religious power. Here Genoa unveils daring overhead shortcut passages (fit for rapid escapes…) which still connect the cathedral to Palazzo Ducale via a series of buildings. The cathedral of San Lorenzo boasts stunning two-coloured exteriors and an alternation of Romanic and Renaissance Gothic which we will also find inside. The “Museo del Tesoro” is an underground treasure chest that houses the Sacro Catino (i.e. the Sacred Bowl), the green hexagonal vessel that late-13th century historian Jacopo da Varagine identified with the Holy Grail.
From Piazza Matteotti we enter the primordial nucleus of the city, the Castello hill, where cautious and belligerent Etruscan-Ligurian tribes settled in the proto history age – the name Genova probaby derives from Kainua, i.e. new town. However, vocation for business soon overcame cautiousness (“Genuensis, ergo mercator”…) and the settlement soon spread towards the sea and the inlet of the Mandraccio. Miss-nots abound in the immediate surroundings: the complex of Santa Maria di Castello, a gem of frescoed cloisters; the area of Sarzano, which hosts the Museum of Ligurian Sculpture and Architecture and the Faculty of Architecture; Porta Soprana, an imposing door belonging to the early medieval walls and – last but not least – a maze-like network of carruggi with evocative names: Canneto, Ravecca, San Bernardo, Pollaioli… If, in Oscar Wilde’s words, you can resist everything except temptation, these tiny alleys will seduce you with a kaleidoscope of chocolate manufacturers, “faïnotti” and törtâe (traditional street food eateries) and grocers, a food map I am acquainted with… well – by now I am sure you know my husband is a renowned food&wine expert who even designed the “tasting sheet of focaccia Genovese”.
On reaching the sea in Sottoripa (the porticoed Medieval ripa maris), we are steps away from Piazza Caricamento (i.e. loading), the icon of the import and export of the world’s best goods, traded by the Superba… everywhere. Nobel poet Eugenio Montale defined Sottoripa as a “village of ironwork and masts”, saltiness overflowing from the docks: yet, the poem features a melancholic vein that Sottoripa - polychromous, animated and ethnic - does not often display.
In front of us, the Porto Antico, a (literally) re-born waterfront, stemmed out of the architectonical vision conceived by Renzo Piano on occasion of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of New World (1992). Extensive restoration also included the astounding Commenda di Prè (a Medieval pilgrim hospital) and Palazzo San Giorgio. Nowadays, visitors crowd the Acquario, the Galata Sea Museum, the “Neptune” Galleon (the ship-replica which featured in Polanski’s “Pirates”) moored at Ponte Calvi... Obviously, the whole area is rich in bars, restaurants and shops.
Close by, Piazza Banchi is sided by the late 16th century Loggia della Mercanzia – the seat of the first city stock exchange – and by the pleasant, small church of San Pietro, literally standing above shopping spaces whose sale financed the building of the devotion facility, a successful ante litteram example of project financing. From Piazza Banchi we stride westwards along via San Luca on through via del Campo and via Prè – an area loved (and sung) by songwriter Fabrizio de Andrè. This was the district of the Spinola household, an unexpected détour is to take us to Palazzo Spinola di Pellicceria, the seat of the National Gallery, enriched with a mirror gallery that will leave you speechless (it does stand up to Versailles standards). A few meters away, via della Maddalena is an ancient road track and a must for the Genoese, who love its old deli shops and atmospheres.

The Maddalena stands just around the corner from both elegant Via Luccoli and via dei Macelli di Soziglia: the iconic Mediterranean alley rich in colours, scents and food shops of all kind (from stockfish to rare coffee brews), not to forget a tiny bottega specializing in presepi (i.e. nativity scenes), an all year round blockbuster.

A rapid climb and there we are in the grand enchantment of via Garibaldi, the 16th century Strada Aurea (i.e. golden street) which cast its spell on the likes of Pieter Paul Rubens (and many others). The outcome of yet another successful project financing initiative (the dome of the cathedral having been ravaged by fire), it presented the city’s high society with the opportunity to show off and relish the comfort of sumptuous dwellings outside the suffocating, claustrophobic spaces of the old city (later in time, a similar exodus “generated” the repute of the district of Castelletto). Nowadays these palaces (Palazzo Bianco, Rosso, Tursi, Tobia Pallavicino…) mainly host museums, institutions and banks. The attentive passerby can catch glimpses of their opulent halls, nymphaeums and stairways – the evidence of Genoa’s bygone financial power, when local bankers granted loans to European monarchs). To the west, via Garibaldi forms a continuum with 18th century via Cairoli and 17th century via Balbi. To the east, via Garibaldi reaches the oblong piazza Fontane Marose, connected through neoclassical via XXV aprile to our next stop, piazza De Ferrari, the very city centre. Further on, ancient meets modern also in the monumentality of Via XX Settembre, Piazza Dante and Piazza della Vittoria, designed by architect Marcello Piacentini like the aisle of a cathedral, closed to the north by the gardens of the Brignole railway station, to the south by a setting of garden beds with flower caravels.
Piazza De Ferrari is dominated by Palazzo Ducale, a (mostly) 16th century building that in the last decades has been brought back to its original splendour by careful restoration work. The seat of exhibitions, cultural events and brocantes markets, it features a double portico and a magnificent stairway which leads up to the Saloni del Maggior and Minor Consiglio, the Doge’s apartments and chapel. These are the rooms where the senate gathered and presided over the destiny of the Republic. The most ancient section of the complex includes the medieval Loggia degli Abati, the palazzo del Capitano del Popolo and the Torre Grimaldina, which for centuries served as jail: there, according to local traditions, death row convicts had a last meal of tripes stew, served by sbirri (i.e. guards, cops), hence the name of the dish – “trippe alla sbira”.
It is high time to jump on a bus, line 42 will take us on a 15-minute ride to Boccadasse, a fishing village facing a tiny bay complete with pastel houses, fishing boats, sleepy cats as well as restaurants and ice cream parlours. There, we are to enjoy semifreddi (i.e. soft gelato), for sure coffee-flavoured pànera. And if we have enough time, we will head eastwards, past Quarto and Quinto al Mare, until we get to Nervi, a Belle Epoque tourist destination where the affluent society spent winter months amidst palm trees and Art Nouveau villas. A stunning seaside promenade starts from the marina and sides the parks of magnificent ancient dwellings (Villa Serra and Villa Grimaldi both houses interesting modern art collections). By the way have you heard about Euroflora 2018? I will tell you on the way…

Luisa Puppo
Ambassador of the city of Genoa

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