A Weekend in Genoa, The City of Hopes and Jeans
Written by Jaillan Yehia
‘There are over 100 Ferraris parked in the underground garages of the city’ reveals Stefania, my host at the Melia Hotel in the heart of the Northern Italian city of Genoa. ‘But,’ she leans in conspiratorially to explain ‘you never see them driving through the streets. That’s because the Genoese people aren’t ostentatious, they are – how do you say it – reserved? Actually our city has a reputation as the most English city in Italy.’
It’s lucky this Englishness doesn’t extend to the weather. In fact the mild climate has long been a major factor in drawing people to this part of Italy and despite being just a couple of hours’ drive from both the Cinque Terre and the French Riviera and offering a dock to countless cruise ships, Genoa somehow manages to evade mass tourism and is all the better for it.
Without the international profile of Florence, Rome or Milan, Genoa is often overlooked, thought too gritty and too noisy for tourists to embrace it; a weekend in Genoa isn’t high on most people’s agendas.
But scratch the surface of this working port town and you’ll be charmed by a vibrant, elegant and eternally fascinating metropolis dishing up a slice of real Italian urban life to visitors, along with the omnipresent slice of Liguria’s signature mouth-watering focaccia.
This town’s fortunes have always been inexorably linked to its port status and maritime history, and as times and trades have changed the city’s reputation and grandesse has risen and fallen as violently and majestically as waves on the sea. Once named La Superba, and flexing as much trading muscle as it’s ancient rival and equal, Venice , Genoa has also been through tough times politically and economically, but has always bounced back.
A citywide sprucing-up tied to the Colombus anniversary in 1992 marked 500 years since the discovery of America by Genoa’s most famous son. It was Genoa’s other celebrated son, the architect Renzo Piano who oversaw the revamping of the Porto Antico docks. Most famous for his work on Paris’ Pompidou centre and London’s Shard, in his hometown Piano created a new aquarium, congress and shopping centre and used his trademark daring glass work to produce a ‘Biosphere’ or floating glass sphere which sits on the water and houses a tropical garden. More recently the city held European City of Culture status in 2004.
Seafaring Columbus may have been a shady character whose connection with Spain was as strong as any loyalty to his hometown but nevertheless his residence on Piazza Dante is now a small museum, right on the edges of the Centro Storico, Europe’s largest Old Town.
From here a maze of tiny lanes or caruggi hold a myriad of delights – a mix of olde world and designer shops, atmospheric restaurants and bars, statues and fountains, all of which you’ll never tire of exploring and are as authentic an Italian experience as you could wish for.
These ancient alleys open up to reveal a grander side to the city; the aristocratic Baroque palaces of Strada Nuova, the endless grand palazzos, palatial gallerias and Genoa’s spectacular Cattedrale Di San Lorenzo.
Back in Genoa’s heyday it was the Genoese Navy who pioneered a local variation of corduroy to create a hard-wearing, multi-purpose uniform for their sailors. The trousers were designed to be rolled up at the ankles when mopping the decks and were so durable that they survived being dragged along behind the ship in a net as means of mass laundering. This garment was transported around the world, the fabric made in Nimes (de Nimes, becoming denim) and the product called Bleu de Gênes – giving us the worldwide phenomena that is blue jeans.
There are plans in development to extend Genoa’s small Cristoforo Colombo Airport, a mere 6km away from the city centre, to create a unique island runway off the coast, with passengers being transported via underground and indeed underwater tunnels to a larger building welcoming six times the number of visitors by air compared with today.
While Genoa strikes you very much as a place which is happy and secure in it’s identity, content without the spotlight large scale tourism brings and not about to pander to anyone, perhaps now is still a good time to discover Italy’s most English and most underrated city for yourself before the secret gets out.
The Best of Genoa
Eat: The Cook (formerly Cambi Cafe)
Stumble down tiny Vico Falamonica and be rewarded with a delightful laid-back restaurant and café where you can sample traditional Genovese cooking such as stoccafisso accomodato a cured fish stew or authentic Ligurian trofie pasta with Genoa’s most famous culinary invention, pesto, all enjoyed in genteel surroundings enhanced by delicate original Frescos dating back to 1618.
You’ll have to work hard to find a bad mouthful of food in this town, and there are hole-in-the-wall bakeries selling variations of buttery, melt-in-the-mouth authentic focaccia by the slice at every turn, which make for the perfect portable snack while sightseeing. If you’re down by the port you should also pop into Eataly to sample some of their great food, or buy an edible souvenir to take home with you
With 600 species of marine life, plus hummingbirds and butterflies, the Port Antico’s Acquario is Europe’s 2nd largest aquarium and the undoubted highlight of the city’s museums. Its sister attractions are equally enthralling: the Bigo hoists you high up into the sky to get a bird’s eye view of the busy port, while you can learn the importance of the sea to those living on this stretch of land at the Galata Museo Del Mare, four captivating floors of exhibits taking you on a chronological maritime journey through the ages, culminating in a secret panoramic rooftop viewpoint; the exhibition continues on the water with a real Italian submarine to explore – hard hat included.
Stay: The Meliá Genoa
The best address in the city situated in the tree-lined Carignano district, a refined residential neighbourhood a short walk from the centre of town. This grand historic building was formerly the headquarters of Ilva, Italy’s biggest iron and steel manufacturer, and has been recently refurbished to create a typically Genoese example of understated 5-Star luxury.
Rooms are comfortable and plush with neutral decor and all mod cons, while the lobby and restaurant are marble-filled, swish and palatial spaces where fashionable Genoese folk mix with tourists from all over the world.
Savoir There was a guest of the Melia Genoa
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