Discover vibrant history and excellent tripe in Italy’s hidden gem Genoa.
Genoa is rich in history, off the tourist map and the best place in Italy for tripe, finds Gabrielle Fagan
I’m lost in Genoa, wandering through an intriguing labyrinth of ancient cobblestone alleyways so narrow no sunlight can penetrate. Adding to my happy confusion is the feeling that I’ve stepped back in time and, in a way, I have. These lanes, known as the Caruggi, claim to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus – the city’s most famous son – and are part of Europe’s largest medieval town.
This Unesco World Heritage Site, tucked behind a bustling modern port, is redolent with history and atmosphere, and just one of the gems in a fascinating destination all too often overlooked in favour of Italy’s big hitters, Rome, Florence and Venice.
Autumn’s an ideal time to visit because cruise crowds have, in the main, evaporated and it’s possible to relax and really appreciate a place Charles Dickens, who spent a year living here, aptly described as a beautiful confusion, considering so much is crammed into a snaking 30km strip of land squashed between hills and the Mediterranean Sea.
One of the shopkeepers in the old town, who comes to my rescue with directions, sums up the essence of the capital of the beautiful Liguria region (around 100 miles north-east of the French border). ‘Getting lost in Genoa is easy and surely one of the city’s pleasures, because you never know
what you’ll find. There are surprises around every corner,’ says Alessandro Boccardo, the smiling owner of a chocolate shop founded in 1866, which still has the original 19th-century machines used to toast cocoa beans.
His store, Romeo Viganotti on Vico dei Castagna, is just one of 36 artisan shops housed in centuries-old buildings, some still boasting pillars, statues and frescoes from grander days. Here, traditional practices, including tripe-making, have been carried on for generations.
Tripe? Yes, surprisingly this is a favourite snack for school children who scurry past holding cardboard cones filled with the stuff, an alternative to their other treat, focaccia, the delicious local flatbread.
While the Centro Storico district is charming, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the spectacular Rolli Palaces on Via Garibaldi, dubbed the street of kings – each more lavish than the last. Three virtually combine to become one huge museum and have stunning frescoes and artworks by artists such as Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, van Dyck, Gauguin and Veronese. An exhibition, From The Impressionists
To Picasso, is the main draw at Palazzo Ducale. On until April 10, 2016, it features works by Monet, Degas and van Gogh (entry is €15 or Dh63; for information, visit www.palazzoducale.genova.it/english).
Another treasure is the magnificent Cathedral of San Lorenzo, which contains the ashes of St John the Baptist. Its striking exterior of black-and-white marble is characteristic of so many buildings throughout the city. I touch a tiny dog carved into its marble pillars, which is supposed to bring luck.
The lack of space made the Genoese resourceful. To give an impression of majesty and status, they skilfully employed trompe l’oeil painting techniques, and the fascias of many buildings are embellished with faux marble pillars, porticos and arches, giving them an elegant theatrical character.
Despite a reverence for the past, this is still very much an authentic working city, where port workers mingle with bankers and tourists.
To get my bearings, I take a bird’s-eye view. The city was built in steep tiers like a wedding cake, but I avoid an exhausting climb by using the art nouveau lift at Piazza del Portello, up to Spianata Castelletto (€0.90). I enjoy a vista stretching from the mountains to the Mediterranean.
Enjoying the range of culinary delights that the region has to offer is a serious pastime.
Lack of space made the GENOESE resourceful. To give an impression of MAJESTY, they skilfully used trompe l’oeil PAINTING techniques, and many buildings have FAUX marble pillars, porticos and ARCHES
One ingredient is ubiquitous on the restaurant menus – pesto, which originated in the area.
Roberto Panizza, who helps organise the annual Genoa Pesto World Championship, gives me a lesson in making it and sums up his birthplace. ‘While the port’s still the soul of Genoa, this is a multifaceted city, which has so many layers,’ he says. ‘It takes time to understand it but it’s worth it.’ And I couldn’t agree more.
WHERE TO STAY
Meliá Genova, www.melia.com
For a tranquil retreat in a central location, the Meliá Genova on the quiet, tree-lined Via Corsica is close to landmarks such as the medieval gates and Cathedral of San Lorenzo. The hotel’s imposing art deco exterior was designed in 1929, but the interiors and facilities are impressively modern. The spa, with a pool, gym, Turkish bath and hydro-massage tub, is a soothing haven after a long day of sightseeing, while the Blue Lounge restaurant has a great choice of international and Ligurian dishes.
Art, one of the biggest attractions for Genoa’s visitors, is reflected in its decor, with displays of installations and photographs by internationally acclaimed Italian artists.
Service falls into the can’t-do-enough-foryou category and staff members are ready and willing to share useful local doubles from £85 (about Dh480) per night with breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT
I Tre Merli, www.itremerli.it
The old port, or Porto Antico, has been revitalised with a marina, palm trees and plenty of good restaurants. One of the best places for lunch is I Tre Merli – it translates as The Three Blackbirds – where food is prepared on a traditional wooden stove and served on a terrace looking out across the water. Ciupin, a filling traditional thick fish soup, costs €12 (Dh50).
WHERE TO VISIT
Head to Nervi – only three miles from the city centre – and walk down one of Italy’s most beautiful promenades. The Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi winds its way for 2km along cliffs and offers stunning coastal views. This easterly suburb also has the city’s finest park, where three museums are sited. Visit www.passeggiatanervi.it.
Experience oceanic life by visiting Genoa Aquarium, one of the largest indoor aquariums in Europe designed by Renzo Piano, one of the architects who created Paris’s Centre Pompidou. There are 70 tanks and 15,000 animals, including seals, dolphins, piranha, penguins and sharks. A family ticket (two adults and two children) costs €65. Visit www.acquariodigenova.it/en.
The medieval coastal town of Genoa in beautiful Liguria lies sandwiched between the Mediterranean and rustic mountains
The seascapes viewed from the winding Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi are stunning
I Tre Merli, a charming dining venue in Porto Antico, woos newcomers as well as patrons with traditional Italian fare and vistas to die for