The seaside city of Genoa (capital of Liguria) is a warren of wonders both cultural and culinary, Katherine Hassell shares her travel story
Genoa has as its motto the words ‘more than this’. And there’s certainly more to this seaside gem on the north-western coast of Italy than meets the eye. Yes, it can look a little rough around the edges, but that only adds to the charm of this captivating city of contrasts. Gritty, yet full of grandeur. Shabby, yet chic. Ancient and modern. It makes your jaw drop in wonder time and time again.
Writer Henry James called Genoa ‘the most winding and incoherent of cities’ and the old town is a labyrinth of streets, squares and alleyways (called caruggi) you can happily get lost in for hours.
After our early flight, we drop our bags at our home from home: Le Nuvole Antique Residence, a boutique hotel in a 16th-century palazzo with a refreshing mix of modern decor and baroque frescoes.
We start our exploration with espresso and cake at Fratelli Klainguti Café. Composer Giuseppe Verdi was a patron and its famous Falstaff brioche bun was named in his honour, after his opera of the same name. Verdi’s thank-you note called the Falstaff: ‘Superb. Much better than mine!’ A local hangout since 1828, Klainguti is one of 32 historic shops in Genoa that date back over 70 years; in some cases over two centuries.
Helping preserve traditional crafts, the stores selling silver, fabrics, patisserie, chocolate, jewellery, shoes, coffee and glass are virtually unchanged. Take the city’s oldest confectioner, Pietro Romanengo. Opened in 1780, its specialities include candied fruits, confetti (sugared almonds) and pastiglie profumate: tiny sugar pebbles with syrup centres.
The store also provides our first lesson in what should be another motto for Genoa: Just. Look. Up. Its ceiling has an exquisite fresco of frolicking cherubs – probably enjoying a sugar rush. It’s not what you’d see in a sweet shop back home, but this is a city of surprises.
Art and palaces
Genoa is an art lover’s paradise, not just for its galleries, but for its streets. You barely walk a step without something taking your breath away. Buildings are decorated in signature Ligurian style with trompe-l’oeil (optical illusions): columns, masonry and statues are painted on walls, but seem to be in 3D.
The Palazzo San Giorgio, with its fresco of the city’s patron saint, George, slaying the dragon, is a dizzying example.
The city is full of such palazzi – sumptuous private residences built in the 16th/17th centuries by ruling families trying to outdo each other. Now used as municipal offices, banks and shops, they have frescoed ceilings, lavish mirrored rooms, chandeliers, stupendous stucco and even indoor courtyard waterfalls. They became UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2006. No wonder the city’s nickname is La Superba.
Next, it’s lunch at I Tre Merli Restaurant overlooking the waterfront – which offers shops, eating places, attractions such as the Great Nautical Museum and astounding views from the Bigo panoramic lift. Genoa is the country’s major port and its most famous son is, of course, Christopher Columbus, who – in 1492 – discovered America.
We feast on local specialities: farinata (crispy fluffy chickpea-flour pancakes), trofie al pesto (pasta with basil dressing, green beans and potato) and panera Genovese (coffee ice cream). Then it’s back to explore the Museums of Strada Nuova.
A trio of palazzi – Bianco, Rosso and Tursi – they house works by Caravaggio, Rubens and Van Dyck, alongside Genoese artists. Violinist Niccolò Paganini was also local and you can view his violin in Palazzo Tursi.
As the sun sets, we head for an aperitivo at beautiful Boccadasse, a nearby village with a popular beach. We enjoy a spritzer with plates of calamari and anchovies, then head back for dinner at Le Rune – seared tuna with pistachio crust, avocado cream and pickled onion followed by chinotto sorbet, made from a local citrus fruit. Delicious.
After a good night’s sleep – it’s not every day you wake up in a palace – we take a walk through the theatrical spectacle of the park at Villa Durazzo Pallavicini in Pegli. The hillside garden – divided, like a play, into acts and scenes – tells a story of life and death with fabulous planting, temples, caves, lakes and more. It’s quite steep in places and sensible shoes are a must, but, boy, is it worth a wander.
Lunch is ravioli with walnut sauce and divine chocolate and hazelnut cake at restaurant Cavo. Food-wise, you really can live la dolce vita in Genoa. Local treats include pandolce – a sweet bread with candied peel, raisins and nuts; canestrelli – flower-shaped cookies; and cappon magro – fish and vegetable terrine.
It’s also the birthplace of pesto, and Mario teaches us how to make it at Mercato del Carmine, a market/restaurant offering cookery workshops. The secret? Using tiny young basil leaves. He even sent us home with seeds to grow.
By that stage, our fondness for Genoa had truly blossomed. In the past, it has been rather overshadowed as a tourist destination by Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan. Undeservedly so. You’ll soon find yourself falling in love with all Genoa has to offer. It’s a true work of art.
A classic double room at Le Nuvole Antique Residence starts from €90 a night, including breakfast. British Airways flies from London Gatwick (from £82 return) and Ryanair from London Stansted (from £31.98 return).
Great for independent explorers
Genoa is ideal as a base for train trips further along the Riviera to the enchanting ancient fishing villages of Cinque Terre or Portofino. Or take a whale-watching boat trip to see these beauties of the deep
in their natural environment… and, perhaps, a dolphin or two.
Great for fun-loving families
Youngsters will love trying to find Nemo and his clownfish friends at the Aquarium of Genoa. With the biggest range of aquatic biodiversity in Europe, this popular attraction features 600 species of fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds – from tiny seahorses to endangered manatees.
Great for culture vultures
Hotspot Palazzo Ducale hosts exhibitions such as Warhol: Pop Society, featuring 170 paintings, sketches and Polaroids of everyone from Liza Minnelli to Mick Jagger. Runs until February 26.
Woman’s Weekly travel offer
Seven Cities Of Italy Tour
Eight days from £779pp, departing May to Oct 2017. Discover seven of the best Italian cities. Return flights, transfers, seven nights’ half board in four-star hotels and fully escorted tours with a friendly, experienced tour manager.
Book at newmarketholidays. co.uk/IWW or call 0330 160 7857 quoting code IWW.