Genoa for some may seem a little more than a run-down harbour town between the two strips of the Italian Riviera. For us, who go there regularly, it is an endless source of delight. But no matter how many times we return, we always find something new to see and enjoy. These are our five favourite places in Genoa.
1. Via Garibaldi
In the early modern agae, what Venice was to the eastern Mediterranean, Genoa was to the west: a predominantly maritime and mercantile empire, a military bully and a powerful force for civilization.
Venice and Genoa also have another thing in common: they invented the modern city by establishing the rules of how to share a public space between different social groups – merchants and landowners, peddlars and craftsmen, Christians and Jews.
Much like Rome, these early modern cities were not built in a single day. In Genoa, they started by making good neighbours out of different, sometimes mutually hostile, aristocratic families.
Where with the urban architecture of Florence and Siena, one feels the various clans eyeing each other suspiciously from their palazzi. In Genoa’s Strada Nuova (today’s Via Garibaldi) there are different vibes. Here, all prospective owners had to follow the will of a public authority and their ground rules for the development, guaranteeing a harmonious whole. And that’s what it still is, almost 500 years later.
2. Villetta di Negro
Much of Genoa was built on a hillside, with blocks not laid out in a neat, horizontal pattern but rather piled on top of one another. Standing in front of one of these piles, you are looking up at 100 or 200 metres of vertically stacked concrete.
This vertical dimension also guarantees that the small public gardens in between the housing blocks often offer breathtaking views …
… from the Villetta di Negro gardens near Piazza del Portello.
3. Old Town
Why is Genoa not as popular as Venice or Florence? Maybe it’s because it is a bit grubby in parts, more so than most tourist towns in Italy? Its historic core (Europe’s largest after Rome) , however, looks interesting everywhere, and no matter which way you turn, you are sure to discover something intriguing: a hidden statue in a shadowy lane, a semi-abandoned palazzo or chapel, a dark alley that suddenly opens up into a scenic view of the sea, a street where everybody appears to have jumped straight off the boat from Africa. And this is, for me, the very definition of a fascinating city.
4. Mackenzie Castle
If Barcelona has Gaudì, Genoa has Gino Coppede, yet only one of them is world famous though two were near-contemporaries. Although there are certain differences between their styles, they also have a great deal in common: a love for stage effects, a willingness to borrow from almost any historical source and a heroic determination to ignore the demands of good taste and restraint.
Coppede’s works are concentrated on Via XX Settembre (Genoa’s main shopping street) and the Staglieno cemetery. His magnum opus, however, the faux-medieval Mackenzie Castle, rises incongruously over the roofs of a suburban district near Righi. The experience of suddenly coming across it is like slipping out to buy a pint of milk at your nearest supermarket and running into Sir Lancelot du Lac on his way to Camelot.
5. Piazza De Ferrari
We Genoa lovers may sometimes feel that the world insufficiently resonates our passion, but then, we shall always have Anton Czekhov.
In the 1896 play The Seagull, Doctor Dorn praises Genoa as the highlight of his entire journey along the Mediterranean coast, summarizing (we may assume) the writer’s own experiences from a trip in 1894. “When you leave the hotel in the evening,” Dorn enthuses, “and throw yourself into the heart of that throng, … their life seems to be yours, their soul flows into you, and you begin to believe at last in a great world spirit.”
Where better to experience that throng than at Piazza De Ferrari, Genoa’s busy hub between old town and new. Sit down in one of the cafes under the arcades, order yourself an espresso or a hot chocolate and watch the tides of humanity roll across the vast public square. Perhaps then, like Doctor Dorn, you will begin to understand.