Genoa: Italy's Forgotten City
tretar n. (Swedish) A second refill of coffee.
The next stop on our now dwindling destination checklist was Genoa, a city Petrarch called “La Superba” meaning “the Proud One”. Pride is a good way of describing Genoa and as one who recognizes pride as both her virtue and vice, I value the city for that quality. Though today it is rather obscure in the way of tourism, overshadowed by the big names of Rome, Venice, and the like, Genoa was once highly regarded by many literary and artistic greats. Charles Dickens himself claimed his days in agenda were among the happiest he had ever spent in Italy, and I can see exactly why.
Upon first arriving in Genoa, a little crabby from lack of caffeine that morning, our moods were immediately improved when we exited the train station to see a little sign that said “Manena Hostel” with an arrow pointing down the street. This may not seem significant to most, but to two people who had become quite used to circling train stations multiple times just trying to orient themselves toward their hostel, this was so incredibly helpful. Knowing our direction, we set off into Genoa, which we soon discovered to be rather quiet. Unlike the vibrant energy of Venice and the plain tourist bustle of the other cities we had visited, Genoa did not seem to pulse with the same kind of foreign traveller life. In fact, most people on the streets appeared to be locals. While that made us stand out a bit, it was also incredibly genuine and refreshing and we felt as though we had finally found the city to match our pace of aimless wandering.
Our satisfaction with the city only continued when we got to our hostel to find it smelling faintly of bleach (always a good sign), cozy, and offering free coffee. We had finally found the perfect hostel for us and by the end of our stay, we could easily say it by far our favorite hostel (excluding the private villa in El Chorro). We were also pleased to find we had been placed in a five bed bunk house that appeared empty when we first arrived. Taking the first opportunity to ditch our packs, we headed out to find some food and maybe get our caffeine fix. Right down the street, we found a little coffee shop called Dad and Son coffee, run indeed by a father and son duo. I couldn’t help but seeing my mother and I doing something like that one day. Mariel we did not order food at this cafe, mostly because we didn’t know what food they had (genuine Italian restaurants tend not to have menus because people just know what to order- cool in concept, difficult if you’re a tourist). Lucky for us, guess what was right next door to the coffee shop… A gelato bar. Like the responsible adults we are, we decided to use ice cream to tide us over and just eat an early dinner instead. The girl who ran the shop let us try all sorts of flavors, all of which she makes and experimentally creates herself, and we left happily licking away at our cones and promising we would return the next day.
To make ourselves feel a bit less guilty about eating only ice cream for lunch, we decided to climb up to a great vantage point of the city right away. Genoa is unique because it is built upon an extremely steep hill, sloping upwards from the sea, where it has the largest port in all of Italy. While walking its main streets, you would never the city rests on about a 45 degree angle if not more at times. It is not until one looks down the dark side alleys, veins branching from the main artery, that you notice the miraculous feat of construction the city represents. Only a few blocks from our hostel, there is a stairway that leads directly up one of these streets and after getting in a sufficient workout, you get a beautiful view of the city. For my mother and I, who have been walking nearly constantly for the past three weeks, often with heavy packs, the climb wasn’t too bad and for the views we got, I would have gladly done it with my pack on (…maybe).
Viewing Genoa from the Saltita alla Spinata Castelletto, as it is named, I was struck with the vast differences between this skyline view and those we had gotten of both Seville and Nice. Unlike the latter two, revealing layer upon layer of bright colored building, Genoa seemed dull and unpolished. It’s buildings were of similar color as those we have previously seen, but in muted shades; mustard yellow instead of golden amber, soft peach instead of vibrant salmon. The rooftops were greying as well, dis colored and decrepit, betraying the age of the city, though that didn’t stop them from boasting beautiful little secluded gardens and courtyards the lucky have inherited and the rich can afford. Surrounding the ripples of time worn buildings and recordings of the past was a smokey haze the cloaked the buildings and blocked out the sun, stretch out beyond the harbor in the distance. And yet, for all the color we had previously been exposed to, Genoa appeared no less beautiful to me. Like scars on our hands and wrinkles on our faces, Genoa was flawed with the features that gave it character and wisdom. It’s streets and buildings were maps and stories to its often tragic past. In World War II specifically, Genoa was heavily targeted by both Allied naval and aerial bombing. In the main cathedral of the city, the San Lorenzo, which we would visit later that evening, a shell from one such bombs dropped in 1941 is actually still lodged in the back layers of black and white marble. Rather than remove the shell, it was left there and all of Genoa seems to follow suit. It still bears these marks of war and hate, and acts as a living demonstration of the destruction it causes toward people and culture, but takes pride in its history in its refusal to wipe away the past for the sake of pretty facades. Like fine wine and grounded people. She chooses to age gracefully. Because of that, I can see why it is not a top tourist spot but that is the loss of everyone else. Genoa does not demand attention, but beautiful things never do.
After descending from the vantage point, we continued to explore the city, but shortly into our travels, we suddenly heard the most heartbreakingly terrified yelping I may have heard in my life. Soon following, a dog ran down the street in front of us, dragging a large metal chair it looked like he had been chained to. The chair bounced off buildings, cars, people, and occasionally even the dog himself. It was heard breaking as he disappeared down an alley. The animal lover in me wanted to tackle the dog and help him but A) I couldn’t have caught him, and B) That could have been extremely dangerous. On the dog’s fear driven rampage, the chair has flown out and hit an extremely old woman, knocking her down. Of all people on the street, it would of course have to hit the 80 year old hunched over a cane. While the entire event was terrible to witness, it bred a great display of humanity. Nearly immediately, everyone in the area stopped what they were doing and surrounded the poor woman, now cradling her arm. When the man who owned the dog (who I was so mad at- How dare you chain that poor animal to that chair. All blame is entirely upon m and not the poor dog) peered around the corner after retrieving the dog, he disappeared again as though he fully intended to run and remove himself from responsibility. Shortly after, he reappeared, urged on by another man which leads me to believe that someone went and tracked him down. An ambulance had arrived by this time. While I have no idea what will happened to either the man or the old woman, the entire event was something special to see because it really demonstrates the kindness of strangers, the willingness to help the needy. It’s something we don’t often see in our world today and perhaps the fact that I was so impressed by everyone’s devotion to the old woman shows just how cold our world has become. Such generosity, however, is famed in Italy, even from the days of WWII where citizens clothes, fed, and housed soldiers of all nations. English soldier Major P. Gibson said, “Simple Christianity impelled them to befriend those complete strangers, feed them, clothe them and help them on their way… All over Italy this miracle was to be seen, the simple dignity of humble people who saw in the escaped prisoners not representatives of a power to be withstood or placated, but individuals in need of their help.” Even today, that dignity still stands.
Our wandering eventually led us down to the harbor which is probably the closest place Genoa has to tourism, with a few odd attractions such as a giant pirate ship, a bouncy castle, a giant biosphere, and an aquarium. All of these are placed randomly throughout the hundreds of boats docked in the various inlets and channels. It is also host to daily market that seeks everything from jewelry and clothing to candy and cheese (my mother and I were especially drawn to the latter two). Over our travels, we have come to love these markets, as they are a bit more rare at home, restricted to only small Saturday flee markets and big festivals like the annual Festival of the Arts in Bigfork. Here, they are daily, constant displays of various foods and craftsmanship from around the world. While my looked at jewelry and much Econ the candy she had boughten, I made my rounds to all the cheese tents giving our free samples, savor info each different kind of cheese and giving myself a lovely ore dinner snack. In the end, i even finally ended up buying a wedge of fancy cheese, as I keep telling myself I am going to do. Out of curiously, I asked that vendor what an entire wheel would cost and he told me somewhere around. 180€. I’ll make note for my future goal.
When hunger finally demanded we leave, we made our back toward the hostel to the Palazzo Rosso, named for its deep red exterior. Opposite to the Palazzo Bianco, I couldn’t help but think these buildings were the architectural equivalent of the red and white roses in Alice in Wonderland. Inside these buildings, one can find the works of Raphael, Veronese, Titian, and Michelangelo. Yet, our intention was to eat at the all-you-can-eat buffet in the Palazzo Rosso, but our goal was temporarily thwarted when, as we wandered the building trying to find this restaurant, we were launched into an unexpected tour. Suddenly, old Italian mean we’re instructing us where to go, in which order to see the rooms, and having learned to go with the flow, my mother and simply followed, weaving our way in and out of rooms covered wall to ceiling with paintings and sculptures. Our spontaneous tour ended with an elevator ride to the roof where were greeted with a bird’s eye view of Genoa much as we saw earlier, but even better all around panoramas. Though by the time the tour ended we were hungry to the point of considering eating the fake fruit set out as decor in the rooms, but it was nonetheless incredibly worth it. I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for spontaneity.
After stuffing ourselves to the point of misery at the all-you-can-eat buffet, which tend to always embody Louis C.K.’s statement, “The meal doesn’t end when I’m full, the meal ends when I hate myself,” we set off to do a bit more wandering. Though both tired enough to retire for the night, I wanted to at least feel as though I had worked off a fraction of the calories I gained at dinner and thus wanted to walk to see the San Lorenzo at night. On the way, we passed late night street vendors, brilliantly lit fountains, and plazas glowing in warm street lights as if blazing on fire before finally retiring for the night.
The hostel got better and better the more time we spent there, it seemed. After an amazing night’s sleep in the supremely comfortable beds (which we really appreciated after Venice where you could feel each individual bar and spring in the mattresses), we woke up to make ourselves an entire pot of coffee. That may very well be my favorite thing in the world and it’s something I haven’t experienced since I left America (thanks all you tea-loving Brits). Yet as much as I love coffee, I cannot exist entirely on a diet of it and so were eventually driven out in search of food. I’m not quite sure what it is about Italian culture but it seem as though they are entirely opposed to breakfast. Come on, didn’t their health classes ever tell them how breakfast is the most important meal of the day and all that jazz? Finding food was honestly the most difficult. We had ever seen and it was incredibly frustrating. We eventually settled on eating paninis swindle by the time we found food, it was basically lunch time anyway. This whole issue is perhaps the only con to the city.
Finally having satisfied our hunger, we did what we do best: wander, taking in the sights as they come, and making the best of everything. Like Genoa from above, Genoa from bellows also radiates sad history. Walking through its streets feels like you stepped back in time, with public driveways leading to private houses that display fancy moss covered fountains and fresco covered archways. Some buildings are only fake facades, or those that look like ornate architecture but are really just intricately painted to appear as such. Of course, there are still many buildings, like churches, that are really as beautiful as they look. In Genoa, you can enter churches for free, as they were meant to be entered, whether to witness the stunning beauty of them, or just to light a candle and say a prayer. And every church is just stunning. The Bascilica dell Annunziata stands with support of massive pillars of ivory, rose, and lavender colored marble reaching from the marble floor to the ceiling comprised entirely of a combinations of fresco and gold. Its various alters alternate between shrines of paintings and sculptures placed a a shadow box frame intended to look like some three dimensional painting. The Chilesa di Santa Maria Maddalena is a smaller church, dark and archaic on the interior, bathed Only in golden light spilling from the amber tinted glass of the rose windows set high in the vaulted ceiling. Only three windows to light an entire church and the rest is left to the beams reflecting off the gold trim of the ceiling and the candles flickering around the alters. The San Lorenzo, the 13th century church with the shell still lodged in its back wall, is made almost entirely of black and white marble, each piece cut intricately into thin slabs and striped up its massive exterior. At first glance when we came across this cathedral at night, my mother did not first notice that each intricate design on its face is not the work of paint, but rather individual pieces of inset marble. Even with the technology we possess to today, we are not capable of crafting anything close to this beautiful marvel of architecture.
Sometimes I wish churches had more meaning for me, that they could evoke some spirituality in me. I am not a very religious person and I attribute much of that to the things I have been through in life, which resulted in bitterness and scorn. It is not necessarily by choice, but rather an unavoidable produce of witnessing tragedy. I envy those who can find such solace and movement in religion but the events in my life have simply moved me away from ability. Yet it is still amazing how I find movement in the pure aesthetic of these buildings, or perhaps the poetic ideal of them. Standing inside these cathedrals, I felt the weighted hollowness resulting from their size, yet all the air space still felt so full of some unknown entity, call it God, call it the millions of prayers whispered over hundreds of years hanging in the air, call it expectation. Whatever you call it, it is powerful, regardless of its source and that is the beauty of art, that it has the power to evoke such strong feelings through sympathy as well as empathy.
The saddest of all history in Genoa is perhaps the crumbling house of Christopher Columbus, as it reminds me of all the oppression of the native population he brought to America. He didn’t discover America, he enslaved it. Brief rant aside, my mother and I eventually ended up back at the coast, after taking a rather long detour down some of the most deserted city streets I have ever seen. I loved that quiet lull of Genoa, the hush of its streets that were so uncharacteristically void of angry traffic and yelling voices. Though it was a city, it did not feel like a city, which are the best kinds of cities to me.
When we finally returned to our room for an early evening as we had a train bright and early the next day, we found ourselves no longer alone in the room, as two American girls, rather unfriendly in their interactions toward us, sat watching Cupcake Wars. Yes, you heard me. There, in a city filled with so much culture and history, watchingCupcake Wars. if that is not a warning against reality television, I don’t know what is. I bit my tongue and buried myself in my book. A short while later, we were roused by the sudden heavenly singing drifting in the air outside our window, from which we saw a precession of people marching in a candlelight vigil into the nearby church. It was then we remembered the next day was Easter Sunday. It is nice to be in a country and culture that celebrates the day as it was originally intended rather than the commercialized sugar high it has become in America (though I admittedly do miss my annual chocolate bunny). It is odd to be traveling because you lose track of all days and dates. You enter a timeless void and then when things like that spring up and remind you that the real world is in fact carrying on, it can be a bit startling. It also meant, I had only two more full days with my mom, and we planned on making the most of them.