Two of Genova’s sons are famed explorer Christopher Columbus and violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini.
A Brief History
First inhabitants of the region date back to the 5th century BCE. They were the Ligures from which the modern day region Liguria, took its name and Genova (Genoa in English), is the capital of Liguria. With a population of slightly less than 700,000 Genova remains the busiest seaport both in Italy and the Mediterranean. It is an important steel, shipbuilding and financial center. One of the oldest deposit banks in the world, the Banco di San Giorgio, was founded in 1407 in Genova.
From the 11th to the 18th century, Genova was one of the strongest naval powers of the continent and during the 12th to 15th centuries was considered to be among the wealthiest cities in the world. The early Renaissance Italian poet, Petrarch (1304-1374) nicknamed the city “La Superba” referring to the city’s impressive landmarks. More than 500 years later, in 1846, after Charles Dickens walked the city, he wrote in his journal about the sumptuous streets of palaces in Genoa. Many aristocratic families, including the Grimaldi’s who would eventually settle in Monaco, amassed tremendous fortunes in Genova.
We seemed to step back in time as we strolled past the dozens of palaces that line both sides of the historical “strade nuove” (new street), today renamed Via Garibaldi. There are reportedly more that 100 palaces in Genova and the majority of these UNESCO palaces were built during the Renaissance, at the height of Genova’s power.
The flag of Genova is a St. George’s Cross, a red cross on a white field and Genova began using the symbol as early as 1113. Below are two city flags flying high above Porta Soprana – a grand entrance and portion of the remaining 12th century walls.
Lanterna di Genova
Genova’s landmark lighthouse was originally built in 1128 but acquired its current shape when it was rebuilt in 1543. The lighthouse structure is 250 feet (76m) tall and it was built on a tall rocky outcrop. The rock and the lighthouse together measure close to 385 feet (117m) in height making this lighthouse one the world’s tallest and oldest lighthouses. (The oldest lighthouse being the Tower of Hercules in A Coruña and we have photos from our wonderful visit to A Coruña’ Spain in a blog by the same name.)
On our final morning we climbed on board an old funicular that took us 2200 feet (672m) up a mountain. The city and port views that greeted were exceptional.
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo
The Cathedral was dedicated to Saint Lawrence, one of 7 early Christian Roman deacons who was martyred by the Roman Emperor Valerian in 258 CE.
Standing at the midpoint of Genoa, this striking cathedral was built in 1098 replacing an earlier 6th century basilica. The ashes of St John the Baptist were brought here at the end of the First Crusade. Following a fire in 1296, in the early 1300’s the majestic black and white striped facade was completed.
Chiesa del Gesù e dei Santi Ambrogio e Andrea
Next to Genova’s main square, Piazza De Ferrari, is Piazza Matteotti, where we found the superb baroque “Church of the Jesuits and of Saint Ambrose and Saint Andrews”.
The original building was built in the 6th century for the Bishop of Milan, who was fleeing from persecution. In 1589 the Jesuits rebuilt the church and in the 17th century added the beautiful baroque touches. The lavish appearance of this church’s interior, along with the paintings by Pieter Paul Rubens makes this, imho, the most beautiful church in Genoa.
Iglesia de Santa María del Castillo
After exploring the Romanesque style church, built in 900 CE, a volunteer approached us and asked if we wanted to visit the cloister in the back. Needless to say we jumped at the opportunity to have a private tour of this age-old church.
We asked about some gravestones marked Grimaldi and learned from our guide that one of Genova’s prominent citizens, Grimaldo Canella, was a Genovese statesman at the time of the early Crusades around 1160. He was also the founder of the Grimaldi dynasty who became one of the most powerful and political families of Genova. In the 1200’s there were ongoing periods of civil war and various family feuds. The Grimaldi’s at times were banned from the city and at other times they returned and ruled Genova.
The castle of Monaco was used by whichever family was banned from the city and the castle in Monaco was ideally located to launch political and military operations against Genoa. In 1395, the Grimaldis took possession of Monaco – the origin of today’s principality. The current Head of the Grimaldi House is Prince Albert II of Monaco.
Typical Genovese Dishes
With only two days in the city, we were limited to the variety of Genovese dishes we could try but when we discovered that pesto, the flavorful green sauce made from basil, olive oil, parmigiano and pecorino cheese, pine nuts, garlic and salt originated in Genova, we definitely had to search for that. We quickly discovered that each restaurant in the city seems to offer at least one pasta and pesto dish. The first dish we tried was a delicious pesto lasagna and on our final night we split a lovely ravioli dish that was dressed with a sublime basil cream sauce.
Pansoti, another delicious local specialy, is a triangle shaped pasta stuffed with vegetables and served with a nut and cream sauce. The stuffing most often used is a mix of swiss chard, spinach or other greens mixed with eggs, ricotta cheese and seasonings. Needless to say, the food was fantastic.
As anyone that has visited Italy knows there are as many motorcycles, scooters and vespas as there are 4-wheeled vehicles. In Genova however it seems that cars are easily outnumbered 4 to 1. The sample picture below of the line of bikes, was repeated throughout the city.
Nervi is a quick 15 minute train ride from Genoa and we were encouraged to visit and stroll the Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi also known as the Nervi promenade.
The walkway was built in two sections. The first part, from the port to the Tower of Gropello, was built in 1862 and the second section, built in 1872, follows an old fisherman’s trail which now links the tower to the community at the far end.
We planned our visit for late afternoon so we could catch the sunset. The walk along the rocky coast was fantastic. The coastline does not have practical beaches but the photographic opportunities are endless.
A key attraction on the Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi in the mid-16th century Tower of Gropello. The tower was part of the defensive system built because of pirate attacks. Wet hay was lit at the top of the tower and the smoke would warn local residents to either hide or prepare for action.
Porto Antico is the name of Genova’s old port. In recent years energy has been spent on rejuvenating the old buildings and by adding an aquarium, a biosphere with a botanical garden and the Bigo Crane. Pictured at the top of this blog is the white sculptural 8 armed octopus-like Bigo Crane. The design was inspired by old-time cargo ships loading cranes. The panoramic lift, in the top right corner of the picture, takes guests 131 feet (40 m) above the port to enjoy 360° views of the harbor and city. Cables from the arms support the roof of a marquee, on the left, that, depending on the season, doubles as an auditorium and ice rink.
Genoa is on the Italian Riviera, yet despite its rich architecture, art, culture, food and history, few tourists experience this wonderful gem. We loved our long weekend getting to know this historical city.
Saluti from these Genoese,
Edoardo + Guilia (Ted + Julia)