27 April 2014

LIFE: A City to Treasure - Genoa

GENOVA, Italy - In "The Innocents Abroad," Mark Twain describes the narrow streets of historic Genoa as "crooked as a corkscrew." "You go along these gloomy cracks, and look up and behold the sky like a mere ribbon of light, far above your head," he writes. Twain may have been looking up, but the first time I set foot in Genoa's old city, my eyes were riveted on the North African drug dealers and the "we've seen it all, honey" prostitutes that were leaning against dirty walls and grimy corners.

 Genoa City Gate
Genoa was my city of choice. I had chosen it from the maps and travel books piled high on my dining room table in Philadelphia as the place I wanted to live when I moved to Italy. It seem to offer everything on my wish list: a city on the sea, close to Tuscany and the South of France. But I had never been there. When I finally did get there, my first thought was that I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.

On that first day, when I set out to explore my new town, the streets of the historic center were deserted. In the distance a church bell rang. It was 1 o'clock. The cramped alleys were shrouded in shadows, the midday sun blocked by the tall stone buildings. With their morning grocery shopping done, neighborhood housewives were already home preparing lunch for their families. Retail shops and offices were closed, local merchants and clerks off somewhere eating. The only people left on the streets were the drug dealers, the prostitutes, and me.
 My New Neighborhood?
In spite of my first unsettling reaction, I ended up staying there for six years. Genoa, I would eventually discover, is a regal city filled with art and architectural treasures, as mysterious as a Byzantine bazaar.

The city sits like an open shell, facing the Mediterranean Sea. The vertical landscape runs from the harbor to the mountains above, and you can count the number of almost straight, flat streets on one hand. Genoa is old, at least 2,000 years old, and boasts the largest continuously occupied historic center in all of Europe. Strolling along the streets of the old city with me were crowds of sailors in strange foreign uniforms, the cacophony of languages yielding bits of rolled R's and guttural H's. The sights and sounds and smells that greeted us were the same ones that have greeted merchant galley crews and sailors since the days of Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.

In those long-ago days, sailors coming into port after months at sea would hang over the rails for a glimpse of the Lanterna, the 16th-century landmark lighthouse, and rejoice. Condemned prisoners would shudder at the same site, for the lighthouse is next to the Molo Vecchio, the old dock, where they would be given the Church’s blessings and promptly hanged.

 Our Troops Won the War but These Streets are too Rough for them?
I was warned to avoid the dark, narrow alleys near the Molo Vecchio, and I did, mostly because they smelled bad. Then one day I came across a tattered old sign tacked up on one of the alley entrances that said "Off Limits," and discovered that the area was once also banned to American sailors. In the first years after World War II, Genoa was an open city. There was rampant prostitution, severe drug problems and an uncontrolled influx of illegal immigrants. In fact, the only organized thing about Genoa was the crime.

Wandering around now, I felt disoriented, then realized why. Some of the buildings I once used as landmarks have been torn down in an attempt to gentrify the harbor area. The port is no longer focused on commercial shipping but on the largest aquarium in Europe. Genoa has also become a port of call on the cruise ship routes. But don't let that put you off -- the city is still very much a real experience.
 Streets of Old Historic Genoa
Just a few steps up from the port is Palazzo San Giorgio, former home of Banco San Giorgio, the powerful bank that held sway over the finances of the Maritime Republic of Genova for more than three hundred years. It was here that Marco Polo, sweating out his prison time in the building's dark and dank dungeon, recorded the story of his travels in Asia. He had been captured and imprisoned by the Genovese during a sea battle against the Venetians in 1298. A couple of centuries later, Christopher Columbus came knocking at the door looking for money to finance his exploratory voyage to the Far East. But we all know how that story ends.

For centuries, the Genovese made their living on unpredictable and often dangerous seas. While they may have pretended to be tough-as-nails sailors, their fragility and faith is demonstrated by the delicate marble Madonnas set in the mini niches found on just about every corner in the city. And before heading out to sea, many sailors would stop at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, the town's main cathedral, and pray for a safe return.

 Cathedral of San Lorenzo, Genoa, Italy
The city’s Cathedral, a massive Lombard Romanesque-Gothic structure, is wedged into a tiny piazza and seems too big for the space it's in. Its alternating black and white bands of marble are typically Genovese and were allowed only on major churches and palazzi of the rich and powerful. The bones of St. John the Baptist, Genoa's patron saint, are said to be here, as was a very large bomb that was dropped on the church – but didn’t explode -during World War II. Unnerving. The bomb has been removed, but the memory lingers on.

Genoa was, and still is, an incredibly rich city. The city's merchant fleets once reigned supreme from Spain to the southern Russian ports on the Black Sea, and huge fortunes were amassed here. Families with names like Doria and Grimaldi built large, impressive palazzi next to each other on Via Garibaldi, a few short blocks north of the cathedral. The Genovese claim it is the most beautiful street in the world. And it just might be.

Palazzo Reale, Genoa
 Many palazzi in town are now museums, government offices or banks, although some, like the Palazzo Pallavicini, are still very much lived-in private residences and their owners make up the upper crust of Genovese society. When the Queen and Prince Philip are in town, they usually sleep over at the Pallavicinis.

I had been in Genoa only a few months when they started cleaning up for the big-bang Columbus 500th-anniversary celebration in 1992. It was the summer of 1990 and things were starting to move -- after all, Columbus was a homeboy. The Americans were in town working on the aquarium, and trucks were finally starting to haul away the 50-year-old pile of rubble that was once the city's opera house, hit by a bomb during the World War II. 

 Palazzo Cicala, Genoa
One by one buildings were wrapped in scaffolding and plastic, and the sound of old stone and glass rattling down chutes into huge bins became commonplace. The Genovese, known for their frugal habits, would just walk around the work sites and shake their heads at the money being wasted on such nonsense as cleaning old buildings. Even after that dirty ugly duckling of a Doge’s Palace was transformed into a gleaming pale yellow jewel by a magic wand full of detergent, skepticism remained.

In spite of the fact that Genoa was once named Europe’s City of Culture by the European Union it doesn't do much to promote itself. At the tourist bureau, questions regarding the Filippo Lippis, Van Dycks, Pisanellos, Caravaggios and Genoa's own Bernardo Strozzi on display at the city's most important art museums, draw blank stares. And even though hotels have sprung up around the port and the large warehouse once used to store cotton is now a convention center, Genoa can't seem to decide if it wants tourists, packaged or otherwise, to visit.  

It is a very private place, where things may not always be what they seem. Even the Christopher Columbus house near the 12th-century Porta Soprana is a fake, but it doesn't matter. No one goes to Genoa to see Columbus's house anyway. What is worth seeing here is an unedited version of Italy, a raw and in-your-face quality that so many Italian cities have lost in this day of global merchandising and fast-food outlets. Yes, there are Benetton stores and McDonald's, but they seem to fade into the background, paled by the Genovese doing what they do best: buying, selling and trading.

 Banco di San Giorgio
As for me, I really was an innocent abroad. When I set out, I had fixed my position from a map and unknowingly headed right into a storm. Nothing I had learned in a lifetime of living in America prepared me for life in Italy. Every day was a challenge. Slowly, but ever so slowly, I developed the skills that made navigating in this traditional society a little easier.

My Italian life took on a rhythm all its own. I learned to drink coffee standing up, a quick stop at the bar for a frothy cappuccino on my way to somewhere else. I learned to grocery-shop in grams and liters, measure in meters. I learned not to take the indifference of my neighbors personally. Their aloof behavior was in direct contrast to that of other Genovese I met who took me under their wings, introduced me to their doctors and dentists, electricians and plumbers, important contacts in a society where you don't trust anyone you don't know. They taught me to live in the moment. The future, they said, would arrive all too soon. And so it did. The day I moved to Milan to  write and edit an English-language magazine was bittersweet indeed. I was still exploring Genoa.
 Palazzo Doria, Genoa
For you see, Genoa, is not a city you can rent for an hour, or even a day like the ladies who hang around the port. It is not a city that opens itself willingly to those passing through in a hurry, heading for other faraway places. It is a city that first seduces you, puts you under its spell, and then only little by little allows you to see its magic. While it is a city of gray stone and dark medieval alleys, it is also a city of magnificent palaces and palm-treed boulevards that run along the Mediterranean Sea. It is a city of contrasts and contradictions, the gateway to the mimosa yellow, oleander red Riviera. A city to treasure.


  1. Wow, this was a wonderful description of Genova!! We have had no interest in visiting as most of the guide books put you off with "a grimy, dark city with nothing to merit a visit". We may have to rethink this. We would like to take the nipote to the aquarium of course. Thank you for this lovely introduction!

  2. Super, Phyllis. Did you ever read any of the 'Silent Traveler' book series. This reminded me - why is it rare that someone travels and thinks? Looking forward to more.

  3. Thank you for your kind words Michael M,

  4. Concetta Lamannis SchwankeApril 30, 2014 at 5:52 AM

    I always thought Genoa was beautiful, even when the port was full of commercial shipping. The mountains, the Mediterranean, esp. the Riviera, the palaces, the history of Genoa are all amazing. I would love to see what it looks like today. And of course, the surrounding towns and beaches are some of the prettiest around.

  5. Concetta Lamannis SchwankeApril 30, 2014 at 5:56 AM

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