It’s a sultry early August evening deep in the heart of Europe’s largest old town – the centro storico in Genoa, Northern Italy.
After a long afternoon siesta, noise levels are rising and the tiny medieval streets – or caruggi – ring with chatter and shouting. Wily old men throw back the shutters of their shops; children with jet black hair and long legs scamper among tall tenement buildings draped with drying linen; prostitutes pose openly on street corners. All around, the labyrinthine medieval centre hums with noise and activity.
A wander through Genoa’s medieval centre is a visceral but essential experience for a visitor to this most enigmatic of Italian cities – and one that conjures up parallels with another continent altogether: a souk in the heart of Marrakesh, perhaps, or Cairo. For, with the exception of Naples, Genoa lays claim to being Western Europe’s most exotic city. It is also Italy’s fifth largest city, and the country’s biggest port.
Henry James referred to Genoa as “the most winding, incoherent of cities, the most entangled topographical ravel in the world” – and his words ring equally true a century later. Home to 631,000 inhabitants, the city’s suburbs sprawl along the Ligurian coastline for 18 miles before the urban jungle gives way to the spectacular azure hinterland of the Italian Riviera.
After a long period of economic decline – prompted by heavy bombing of its steelworks and shipyards in World War II – Genoa has climbed out of the shadows in recent years and Genoese families are again moving back into the old town, drawn by its renewed cultural vigour and cleaned-up streets.
In 1992, the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus – the city’s most famous occupant – saw the start of a massive 46 million euro city centre regeneration scheme. The government-funded programme breathed life and money into Genoa’s startling Renaissance palaces and tucked-away piazzas and the fruits of those years of labour are now evident all over the city.
But sitting alongside the Arabian Nights atmosphere of the old town, there is more contemporary side to Genoa: it is also a thriving business centre and a city with a rich cultural heritage. Over a decade of tender loving care has paid off and Genoa has never been in a better position to compete against Italy’s better-known business and tourist centres, Milan, Turin and Rome.
A wealth of cultural and tourist sites include spruced-up early Renaissance palazzi; churches boasting dazzling frescoes; Europe’s largest aquarium; and a revitalised old port area.
For the business visitor the attractions are no less. The city now boasts 17 four star, and 27 three star hotels, and conference rooms capable of holding between 50 and 7500 delegates. In the last five years the major Spanish hotel chain AC Hotels has opened a 139-room hotel in the city. The Hotel Jolly Marina, boasting a stunning port-side location, is another new arrival on Genoa’s hotel scene – and next year will see a brand new Best Western Porto Antico vying for the business and tourist pound, located immediately in front of the Jolly Marina.
Paola Guccione, Genoa’s organising secretariat at the city’s Convention Bureau, says the city’s position between the sea and the mountains, and its location on the cusp of northern Europe and the Mediterranean, all add to the city’s commercial and leisure strengths.
Guccione explains: “Genoa’s excellent hotel accommodation and conference areas are situated in strategic and easily reachable locations. The city is one of the most important ports in Europe both commercially and also for the cruise ship and ferry traffic, and the international airport is only 15 minutes outside the city centre. It also has a very efficient railway connections and motorway links connecting it with the most important Italian and European cities.”
So where should a first-time visitor, with some time to spare, begin his or her discovery of Genoa? The first thing to remember is that, for all its rewards, this is a sprawling, complex, noisy city – as with its southern cousin, Naples, visitors tend to either love it, or hate it. The secret to exploring Genoa is, if time allows, to ease into it slowly, and with an open mind.
The old town is as good a place as any to start. The maze of narrow streets can be confusing, overwhelming and fascinating in equal measure – a rewarding approach is to forget about the map and just get lost, although solo female travellers should be wary about exploring parts of the old town at night and during the quiet siesta hours.
Via Garibaldi, lined with elegant, stuccoed mansions of the seventeenth century Genoese aristocracy, is as good a place as any to start an exploration of the old town. Here you’ll find Galleria di Pallazzo Bianco, Genoa’s finest art gallery – home to van Dyck’s Christ and Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo – and Palazzo Rosso, now restored to its former baroque splendour.
From Via Garibaldi it’s a stone’s throw from the huge seventeenth century Palazzo Reale in Via Balbi. The Cathedral of San Lorenzo, built by workers from Pisa, Lombardy and France and distinguished by its black and white striped façade and doorways crafted from multicoloured marble, is the old town’s other must-see monument.
At some point, however, you will emerge, blinking, into the very different, thoroughly modern world of the Porto Antico. Genoa’s waterfront promenade was revitalised during the 1990s and now boasts cafes, bistros, a cinema, exhibition spaces and – symbol of modern Genoa – the vast and impressive aquarium, Europe’s largest.
The quayside is a pleasant place to pass the time and its sea vistas and sharp modernity makes for a stark contrast to the dark, Dickensian jumble of the old town. The centrepiece is the curious-looking Bigo, a crane-like structure that hauls visitors 60m above the harbour, giving them panoramic views of the city.
As in anywhere in Italy, eating out in Genoa is a joy, and Genoa’s province, Liguria, is home to the famous sauce pesto, and the now international Slow Food movement. Good quality, simple food is the order of the day, and recipes, often based on peasant cooking, are based on olive oil, pasta, and fresh vegetables. Genoese cuisine is also influenced by the arab world – look out for torte & farniata, a hearty chick peak tart.
For those with a little more time to spare, Genoa’s final trump card is its location in the centre of the spectacular, palm-studied coastline of the Italian Riviera.
Regular, trains and boats from Genoa run to Noli, Nervi, Camogli, Santa Margherita and Portofino – all of which make for a hugely enjoyable daytrip from the city. With more time still, the stunning Cinque Terre towns of Monterosso, Vernazza and Riomaggiore, around two hours away by train, are the scenic highlights of the whole Riviera.
Looking to the future, Genoa’s immediate challenge is to build on the commercial and tourism opportunities opened by its status as 2004 European City of Culture. The city is more outward-looking now than in recent history and its jazzed-up quayside and renovated old town make for a compelling proposition. Whether for business or pleasure, there has never been a better time to visit.
Genoa: general facts
Hotel rooms: 1800 four star and a thousand three-star.
Major exhibition/conference areas:
Fiera Internazionale di Genova, seating up to 900
Teatro Carlo Felice, seating up to 2000.
Mazda Palace stadium, 5000 seats
Cotone Congressi Genova, 1500 seats
Aquarium, 1200 seats
Genoa was European City of Culture in 2004, and hosted the G8 summit in 2001.
By train: Genoa has two main train stations: Principe, on Piazzaa Acquaverde, for services North Italy and Europe – and Brignole on Piazza Verdi, for services to South Italy and the eastern Riviera.
By plane: Genoa’s international airport, Christoper Columus, is 6km from the centre, and has daily flight connections with most major European airports, including London, Munich, Paris and Zurich. A taxi should cost under £15.