Best known for providing Christopher Columbus with a birth certificate, Genoa is strangely overlooked by modern travellers. Most people with a grasp of European history will be aware of the city, but are unlikely to express any desire to attend. Like many post-industrial cities with a ‘Capital of Culture’ badge, the port has been scrubbed clean with a gigantic toothbrush. Usually this involves scraping century’s worth of tartar away and constructing shiny glass buildings in previously deadbeat areas.
Forming part of a maritime corridor connecting Europe with Asia, the Italian city is a medieval warren full of communist students, immigrant hookers and mercantile banks. It should attract a lot more visitors than it actually does. Genoa has long since become a pit stop for travellers heading south towards Cinque Terre. Perhaps it is lucky in that respect as Genoa is authentically Italian unlike the five sea shells along the Via dell’Amore, which were bought and sold for Australian gold a long time ago. Cinque Terre would have been a gorgeous place to write home about in the 1980s but post-internet and cheap flights, the Ligurian coastline has become a Disneyland resort that could be anywhere in the Mediterranean.
OK, OK, Va bene, Va bene – Cinque Terre is a tourist trap! What about Genoa?
Like all cities that have a relationship with the sea, it certainly has its rough edges, and the grim underbelly has virtually no natural light. Genoa’s centro storico is a dark and introspective labyrinth home to crumbling Cath-olic churches and wrinkled olive ladies sweeping steps in the darkness. For every local jeweller making their trade in the dark, one wrong turn will lead you to a valley of hookers lining the streets like Christmas decorations. Sad, vulnerable and uncomfortably menacing, the gigantic toothbrush of regeneration clearly didn’t scrub hard enough.
As a seafaring port that goes back centuries, Genoa’s streets spill out like hot spaghetti or carruggi if you prefer. Many of the old medieval streets are dusty and cloaked in the hammer, pang and chisel of the past. They are still working too. For Genoa is not an open air museum and continues to trade with the sea. With the grime of the centre attracting bohemian photographers and artists, the opulent glamour of the Le Strade Nuove is a peacock of gold plated wealth. A superb demonstration of the city’s former economic power, UNESCO love this street and it will always be a privilege to walk down the Republic of Genoa at night.
With such a great history and richness of culture, the city feels surprisingly provincial and forgotten. Despite its beautiful architecture and seedy underbelly of authentic lore, Genoa is probably destined to remain a city of the past. Like many of her Capital of Culture peers, Genoa is living in the wrong century now. Trading patterns have long since migrated to different seas. Meanwhile the Republic has become a throughfare of a different kind, still trying to finding its way in a new era of leisure, tourism and underwater cables.
- The Cuisine of Italy – Genova (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Cinque Terre (pomegranatehues.wordpress.com)
- Milan & Genoa: A Colorfully Sophisticated Hodgepodge (isabellaakker.wordpress.com)
- Travel Guide: Cinque Terre, Italy (misscocomarie.com)