Letter from Genoa: Savoring the atmospheric alleys of Italy’s great insider city

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1493 he sailed the deep blue sea. Half a millennium later Genoa’s ship has come in — again.

Columbus was a native of Genoa, or so it’s claimed. Though he sailed for Spain, he hailed from the capital of the Italian Riviera. The boomerang-shaped region’s official name is Liguria. Stretching from Tuscany to Provence, Liguria includes the well-known resort destinations Portofino, the Cinque Terre, and San Remo. Somehow Genoa is not on most Riviera Grand Tours any more. And maybe that’s for the best. It’s Italy’s great insider city, a real place that’s been spared mass tourism.

After decades of decline in the late 20th century this atmospheric Mediterranean port has rebounded from rust-belt wreck. Backed by steep, craggy mountains and moated by the Gulf of Genoa, it’s one of Italy’s most picturesque, appealing and vibrant places to live and visit. But it isn’t for everyone: visitors find none of the Italy-for-beginners qualities of Florence, for instance. Genoa still belongs to the Genoese.Contrasts and paradoxes abound. A walled fortress-city with crenellated towers and perched castles 900 years old, in today’s Genoa high-tech, culture and iconic Italian food vie for supremacy with the luxury cruise business and Mediterranean ferry boat trade. Gone are the steel mills and refineries, the shipbuilding yards and heavy industrial plants. Hundreds of colorful Cubist container ships dock at a state-of-the-art facility at Pegli, out of sight in the western suburbs.

The focaccia, ravioli and pesto – the holy trinity of Genoese cooking – are as irresistible as ever.

Surprisingly, the open-heart surgery has not killed Genoa’s character. On the contrary, it’s livelier, cleaner and safer than it has been for a long time. The focaccia, ravioli and pesto — the holy trinity of Genoese cooking — are as irresistible as ever.

Long Italy’s busiest port, Genoa was never as rough or corrupt as Naples. Its hillside and outlying seaside neighborhoods have always been chic, expensive and safe. Nowadays its ancient core feels more like a Riviera resort than the grim setting for the 1970s classic “The Day of the Jackal.” Back then this was where Edward Fox, playing the Jackal, had his assassin’s rifle welded inside the muffler of an Alfa Romeo. “Genoa” and “sinister” were synonymous.

It was during those days of economic deep-diving, depopulation and political upheaval that I got to know the city. In the mid-1970s I stepped off a train at Principe station and asked for directions to the harbor. I was 18 years old and on a quest: my parents had taken a freighter from here in 1950 to San Pedro, California. My mother, an Italian, remembered the city of Columbus as magical and mysterious, filled with palaces, tenements and crusader towers. My father, a Los Angelino, recalled the rocky shoreline and stony beaches, the perched fortresses and funiculars, and the strange foods-oily flatbread, salted anchovies, octopus salad, and a pungent green sauce of basil, pine nuts, garlic and pecorino cheese.

I still recall swallowing hard as I walked the 100 yards from the station’s once-grand 1850s halls into the medieval alleyways the Genoese call “caruggi” — what looked to me like muggers’ paradise. A ramp led into a narrow maze with slate roofs that almost touched on both sides. Contoured to steep pleats, the alleys teemed with sailors, prostitutes, and priests, with not a tourist in sight. Mystery met magic at every turn. I finally found the port. It was off limits behind walls topped with barbed wire. But I didn’t care: Genoa’s alleys had worked a spell on me. Thirty-five years later they still do.

Nowadays when I visit I thread my way down those same laundry-flagged alleys with my wife, photographer Alison Harris. She and her family have been tied to Genoa since the 1940s. We often joke that her father, an American consular official stationed here, may have issued my immigrant mother her visa to travel to the United States.

Familiar as Genoa is, each time we return we delight in discovering or uncovering something — the century-old chocolate factory Romeo Viganotti, for instance, hidden down a dog’s leg alley called Vico dei Castagna, near the 12th-century city gate, Porta Soprana. Or that no-name bookstall near Piazza dei Banchi full of unfindable illustrated books, or a trattoria like Sa Pestà, near the church of San Giorgio. Sa Pestà is so old our parents might have savored the exquisite farinata chickpea tart still baked there in a wood-burning oven.

This time around, flanking medieval San Matteo in the dark heart of the caruggi, we got into the church’s hidden cloister, never before open. Way up in the sunwashed hills near the posh, panoramic esplanade at Castelletto we found a perfect keyhole view down to the harbor.

We also tried a handful of neo-trattorias, places like Il Fabbro, with tables fronting gorgeous Santa Maria della Vigna, and Ombre Rosse, another trendy spot in a handsome, pocket-sized square. On the menus of these trendy hangouts are dishes the Genoese would never have contemplated eating a few years ago. The style of cooking features innovative mixtures, globalized ingredients and exotic spices. Some dishes like pesto made with marjoram (at Ombre Rosse) work, others don’t, but as long as the traditional food of the city isn’t replaced by experimental, hit-and-miss World Cooking, no one seems to mind the newcomers.

While the rest of the world’s mom-and-pop stores have been bankrupted by big box operators and malls, surprisingly many of Genoa’s hole-in-the-wall shops we have known and loved for years are still in business. They sell hardware, candied fruit, air-dried cod fish, shoelaces and buttons, or, like Serafina, on Via Canneto il Curto near the harbor, delicious pesto and vegetables preserved in olive oil. Some have changed hands and now offer ethnic foods, reflecting globalization. Genoa has always been open to the world. More than ever, its alleys are a souk with countless complexions and tongues.

This isn’t the first time Genoa has bounced back. Founded by a Ligurian tribe before the ancient Romans showed up and conquered, it lived its heyday in the Middle Ages, when it dubbed itself “La Superba” — the proud or haughty. By the mid-1600s it had slumped, rising again three centuries later as part of the Industrial Triangle: Milan-Turin-Genoa. In the 1890s its moniker became “the phoenix city,” because it was beautified to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas.

Similarly, preparations for the Columbus 500th anniversary celebrations of 1992 are what got the most recent multi-billion-dollar bottom-up restoration underway around 1990. The Genoa G8 summit of 2001, and the race to ready the city for its turn as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2004, kept the restorers’ balls rolling. It’s taken this long not just for the scaffolding to come down from dozens of historic monuments, including the hovel where Columbus was supposedly born, but also for the Genoese themselves to descend from their hillsides to reclaim, rediscover and reanimate Genoa’s harbor and tangle of helter-skelter caruggi. This is Europe’s biggest medieval neighborhood, a landlocked Venice whose stony arteries are too narrow for cars. By local standards the 20-year refit is nothing: the old Genoese dialect expression “cian-cianin” — meaning “slow-slowly” — is forever on native lips. It applies to much in life. Everything except the driving is slow and cautious here: restaurant service, courtship, construction and destruction. Cian-cianin.

The old Genoes expression “cian-cianin” (“slow-slowly”) is forever on native lips. Everything except the driving is slow and cautious here: restaurant service, courtship, construction and destruction.

Star architect Renzo Piano, like Columbus another native son, began the remake by transforming the old port à la Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, his model. The centerpiece of Porto Antico is a floating aquarium that mimics a freighter. Anchored nearby is the kitsch faux-galleon from Roman Polanski’s movie “Pirates.” Piano also redirected car traffic through an underpass topped by a piazza edged by palms. He created a subway system linking commuter train stations to the harbor. Luxury hotels, restaurants and could-be-anywhere souvenir boutiques followed.

A success? The aquarium is Europe’s most popular. The crowds rarely stray beyond the piazza into the caruggi 150 yards north. “Daunting” is a term often used to describe the alley-maze. That’s why when you step into zebra-striped San Lorenzo cathedral even at the height of tourist season you’ll probably have the breathtaking Romanesque-Gothic interior to yourself. Ditto the blindingly gilded Chiesa del Gesù a few hundred yards northeast, where parishioners quietly enjoy the overwrought canvases by Rubens and Reni painted and hung here in the early 1600s.

West of the aquarium, where grain elevators and warehouses long stood, the new Museum of the Sea (Galata, Museo del Mare) sheds light on Genoa’s surprising past: it was the richest, most powerful maritime city-state of the Middle Ages. La Superba had colonies and trading posts scattered across the Mediterranean. The crusaders embarked here on swift galleys for their multi-purpose missions: to battle miscreants, preach, loot and create fortified outposts. A life-size rebuilt galley is the museum’s centerpiece. Scant mention is made of the galley slaves-prisoners of war and the poor-who rowed the Genoese into battle, and often dropped dead of exhaustion.

In the Renaissance, making war morphed into making millions with finance and banking. Hated, admired and feared in equal measure, over a period of 500 years Genoa became Europe’s richest city and gave birth to the world’s great navigators, including Columbus. Other heroes include Admiral Andrea Doria, who kept Genoa afloat in the 1500s, and the patriotic pair of “Giuseppes” — Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, memorialized in a dusty but endearing house-museum. The two Giuseppes paved the way for the creation of modern Italy, setting off from Genoa to unite the country in the 1860s. By doing so they spelled the end of Genoa as an independent political entity.

Most of the city’s long-established museums, including Palazzo Spinola and Palazzo Rosso — hung with startling paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and Antonella da Messina — were also restored in the decades-long remake, as were Romanesque and Baroque churches, and the sprawling Ducal Palace, one of the country’s biggest and most over-decorated. Its plasterwork and trompe-l’oeil-a Genoese specialty-make every inch of the hulking, block-long palace dizzyingly gaudy and grand. Marble staircases much wider than those of Venice, Florence or Rome mount 100 feet vertically from the ground floor to the piano nobile, where the doge met ambassadors. Faux columns fly into the vaulted vastness of salons that could swallow sports stadiums, and now host temporary art exhibitions. Gods battle each other amid clouds and aerial ruins. In case you swoon, the palace also hosts a café and restaurant (and two bookstores).

Better still, the city’s main Renaissance thoroughfares edging the caruggi have been pedestrianized. The luxurious palaces lining them have been scrubbed and many opened to the public for the first time ever. The streets — Via Garibaldi, Via Cairoli, Via Balbi and Via Lomellini — and palaces are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As the setting for a cappuccino served “slow-slowly” on a shaded terrace, or an unexpectedly satisfying museum visit to the Van Dyck salon of Palazzo Rosso, for instance, these streets are mesmerizing, the perfect sunny yin to the dark, cool yang of the caruggi.

The Cinque Terre, Portofino and San Remo are swell. But beyond the recipe for perfect pesto, wily old La Superba, the phoenix city of gradual transformations, may yet have something essential to teach the rest of the world about slowing down and enjoying life.

[Photos: Flickr | Perrimoon; Tim Brown architect; Umberto Fistarol; apes_abroad; Serge Melki]

Weekend travel media’s top five

Here are some keepers from this past weekend’s English-language newspaper travel sections.

1. In the Financial Times, Philip Horne writes a fascinating North Dakota pilgrimage story that traces Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure in the Peace Garden State.

2. In the Guardian, Haroon Siddique writes about the Bed&Fed phenomenon (a couchsurfing/hostelling hybrid) across the UK and Ireland.

3. Also in the Guardian, Gemma Bowes weighs in on remarkable deals in Greece this summer, including an overview of luxury villas, some of which turn out to be surprisingly inexpensive.

4. In the New York Times, Jeremy Peters ponders 36 Hours in Genoa. In between his hunger-inducing restaurant and wine bar recommendations, Peters helps readers envision a day and a half of well-met culinary urges.

5. In the Times of London, Tom Chesshyre, Daniel Start, Alex Wade, Derwent May and Rufus Purdy list the UK’s 40 best beaches, from Land’s End to the Isle of Skye.

(Image Credit: Flickr/cm195902)