Touring Genoa

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Genoa, the Ancient City

Genoa, the ancient city

If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Liguria region of northern Italy, commonly known as the Italian Riviera. This thin strip of land lies on the Ligurian Sea, not far from Monaco and the French Riviera. While Liguria is by no means undiscovered, its crowds are much smaller than those next door. This beautiful region is home to many little towns or villages, and the international port city of Genoa almost smack dab in the center of the coast. This sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly city of about six hundred thousand calls itself La Superba (the Proud). Read this article and you’ll see why. Be sure to read the other articles in this series: eastern Liguria, western Liguria, and Cinque Terre, five little seaside villages that just might steal your heart.

Given its excellent location and great harbor, the city of Genoa has been around for thousands of years. Historians once believed that it was founded by the Celts more than four thousand years ago but now think it that it was founded considerably later, perhaps by the Etruscans. Over its long history Genoa was destroyed on several occasions. Early in the Eleventh Century the city Genoa became the Republic of Genoa, an independent city-state. At its high point this republic controlled Liguria, Piedmont, Sardinia, and Corsica. Genoa was a major player in the Crusades, and established colonies in the Middle East, in the Aegean, in Sicily, and Northern Africa. Genoese Crusaders brought home a green glass goblet from the Levant, which many Genoese consider to be the Holy Grail.

Times changed and by the Seventeenth Century Genoa was no longer a major power. In 1797 Napoleon conquered Genoa and it was annexed to France a few years later. Genoa is proud to have liberated itself from French rule, but before long it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Sardinia. Another proud moment in Genovese and Italian history occurred in 1860 when Giuseppe Garibaldi set out from Genoa with over a thousand volunteers to launch his successful campaign for a united Italy.

Genoa has so many attractions that we present a list, grouped by general area. Check off what you want to see and then with a map plan your own itinerary. We are regrouping the sites into three locations, south, north, and the port area plus our starting point. When we say south we mean south of Caruggi, Genoa’s medieval center, the largest such district in all Europe. Its tiny cobblestoned streets are a-maze-ing. Walk around for a few hours; you won’t be disappointed. One of the nearby sights is the Sixteenth Century Loggia dei Mercanti o di Banchi (Merchants and Bankers Row) that contains shops selling a variety of goods. It was the site of the first Italian Stock Exchange.

The Twelfth Century San Matteo Church just south of Caruggi contains the tomb of Andrea Doria, Genoa’s second most famous sailor whose family ruled the area for several centuries way back when. The Piazza San Matteo was their stomping ground. The main palace was given as a gift to Andrea Doria for being such a good sailor, defeating many enemies.

You should consider visiting several other churches south of Caruggi. The Twelfth Century Duomo (Cathedral) San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) is worth seeing both for the church itself and its Museo del Tesoro di San Lorenzo (San Lorenzo Treasury Museum) home to a medieval silver and gold collection. Sant’Agostino (St. Augustine) is a Thirteenth Century Gothic church with a museum that features medieval architecture and frescoes. Most of its monastery was destroyed during World War II. The Twelfth Century Church of San Donato was an excellent specimen of Genovese Romanesque architecture that has been poorly restored. Take a good look at its magnificent bell tower. The Seventh Century Santa Maria di Castello is one of Genoa's oldest churches and an exceptional example of Romanesque architecture. Be sure to visit the adjacent Convent of Santa Maria di Castello.

The Twelfth Century twin towers known as Porta Soprana mark the spot where an ancient Roman road entered the city. According to legend Christopher Columbus’s father was a gatekeeper there. His alleged boyhood home is nearby. Some claim that it’s a reconstruction and only worth a few minutes of your time, if at all. But you should see the towers.

The Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa’s opera house, was originally built in the Nineteenth Century. Even though the famous opera composer Verdi spent some forty winters in Genoa, he had little connection with this building. He declined to compose an opera for the 1892 commemoration of Columbus’s first voyage to America, saying that at age the of nearly 80 he was too old. This reason sounds good to me except that during the following year his very successful comic opera Falstaff first opened. Every year the Niccolo Paganini Violin Contest is held in this opera house.

The Accademia della Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) is right nearby. This school contains a collection of Sixteenth to Nineteenth Century paintings, focusing on Genoa artists. The Sixteenth Century Palazzo Ducale (Duke’s Palace) on a neighboring square has become a cultural center.

Now we move north of Caruggi, Genoa’s medieval center. We’ll start in the same way as our southern tour ended, by looking at palaces. Via Garibaldi is a street just loaded with palaces; I counted fourteen but I may have missed some little ones. Let’s look at three of them. The Sixteenth Century Palazzo Doria Tursi is the largest palace on the street. Constructed for a Genovese banker it later belonged to the Doria family before becoming the town hall. The Sixteenth Century Palazzo Bianco (White Palace) was given to the city of Genoa in 1894 on condition that it become an art gallery. It contains quite a collection of Twelfth to Eighteenth Century European painters including Rubens and Van Dyck. The building was completely restored only a few years ago. The neighboring Seventeenth Century Palazzo Rosso (Red Palace) has also become an art museum hosting works by Titian, Van Dyck, and many others.

If you go northwest not far from the port you’ll see two more palaces. The Seventeenth Century Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) was once home to the House of Savoy. It too has become an art museum with lots of paintings by Van Dyck. Why is he all over the place? It seems that Anthony Van Dyck lived and worked in Genoa for six years starting in 1621. Enjoy the Palace’s formal gardens with its view of the port. Our final palace, Palazzo dell’Università is home to one of Italy’s oldest universities. Pity the poor engineering students. They are housed in former barracks in Savona about 30 miles (45 kilometers) west of Genoa.

Since we are in a museum mood, albeit broken by a quick stop at the University, let’s consider a few others. The Galleria Nazionale (National Gallery) is located about halfway between Caruggi and those three palaces on Via Garibaldi. Can you guess what it used to be? Its name was Palazzo Spinola. This gallery’s most famous work is Ecce Homo by the Sicilian Early Renaissance Painter Antonello da Messina. Yes, it also has paintings by Van Dyck. For a change of pace go to the Museo d’Arte Orientale Chiossone (Chiossone Oriental Art Museum) that displays one of Europe’s best collections of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai art. It is located northeast of Caruggi. We’ll return to this part of town just before visiting the port area. But first, it’s been a little while since we’ve seen a church. Here are some of north end of town offerings.

San Siro, Genoa’s oldest church, was its cathedral from the Fourth to the Ninth Centuries. As befits its age it’s dark inside. The Sixteenth Century Baroque Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato (The Bascilica of the Most Holy Saint Annunziata) was built outside the city walls hence the name del Vastato that comes from the Latin term for safety belt. It has a beautiful dome and lots and lots of great frescoes.

Genoa is proud of several distinctive transportation methods that you might take just for the views, each unique in its own way. The Ferrovia Genova-Casella (Genova-Casella Railway) goes from the northeastern Piazza Manin city center through the hilly, rugged and scenic countryside surrounding the city to the little town of Casella, population about three thousand, some nine miles (fourteen kilometers) to the northeast. Genoa’s three different funicular (cable car) systems each offer great views of the hills that surround the city.

To the northeast is the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno (Staglieno Monumental Cemetery) that describes itself as an exploration of man's struggle with death, transcendence, salvation and mortality. It’s so big and there’s so much to see that some suggest allocating half a day. Among its many memorial buildings is the Pantheon. You might look for the tomb of Caterina Campodonico, who earned her living selling nuts and canestrelli (a local pastry) and saved money all her life to pay for a grandiose funeral monument.

And now for the port. Even if you are not into visiting ports, you really should see Genoa’s harbor. It’s the largest in Italy, handling a full 10% of all port traffic within the country. It’s fairly safe, especially if you don’t wander around deserted areas at night. Since the 1992 celebration of Christopher Columbus’s initial trip to America (he certainly didn’t discover this hardly uninhabited part of the world) it has become a major cultural center. In October the Salone Nautico Internationale (International Boat Show) Europe’s biggest takes place. We’ll make a few stops to see some of the highlights starting with Il Bigo west of Caruggi and work our way north.

Il Bigo is a distinctive monument built for the 1992 Columbus commemoration. Take the Ascensore Panoramico Bigo (Bigo Panoramic Elevator) for an exceptional view of Genoa and its surroundings. If you so desire, you can ice skate in winter at the rink next door.

The Acquario de Genova (Genoa Aquarium) is the biggest in Europe and second in the world, after Osaka, Japan. This is one of the most visited museums in all Italy. Its huge tanks reproduce the environment of the Mediterranean Sea and the oceans and contain over six hundred species. There’s even a hummingbird room; I don’t understand the relationship between hummingbirds and the sea or ocean but why not?

The Galata Museo del Mare (Galata Sea Museum) shows the evolution of the port and the city starting from the late Medieval period to the present. In its Sala della Tempesta (Tempest Room) a ship simulator lets visitors experience the thrill of navigating a small boat through a heavy storm.

What about food? Liguria is most famous for its pesto, claimed to be the best in the world. It’s simple to make, take a mortar and pestle and combine basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan cheese. Don’t break a Ligurian’s heart, don’t make it in a blender. Serve with fresh pasta. And don’t forget the wine.

Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Zuppa di Acciughe (Anchovy Soup). Then try Cima alla genovese (Cold Stuffed Breast of Veal.) For dessert indulge yourself with Amaretti (Almond Cookies.) Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.

We’ll conclude with a quick look at Liguria wine. Liguria doesn’t have a lot of room for wine grapes. It ranks 19th among the 20 Italian regions for the acreage devoted to wine grapes and for total annual wine production. About 34% of its wine is red or rosé, leaving 66% white. The region produces eight DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. About 14% of Ligurian wine carries the DOC designation.

Val Polcevera DOC is the only DOC wine in the Genoa area. It seems to be a grab bag classification; there are eight different styles many of which have subdivisions. Red, white, rosé; dry, sweet; still, fizzy, sparkling, you name it they have it. But you have to go to Liguria or perhaps neighboring regions of Italy to taste any of them. To tell the truth, there are many better reasons for visiting this lovely area.

About the Author

Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.

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