Genoa: Lost and found in old byways

By Susan Buckland

Memories come flooding back when Susan Buckland revisits a city of grace and grandeur.

Genoa's picturesque harbour is a gateway to the Mediterranean. Photo / Thinkstock
Genoa's picturesque harbour is a gateway to the Mediterranean. Photo / Thinkstock

In student days when skint budgets and mad attempts to explore great cities in half a day were the norm, my friend and I got lost in Genoa. It was in the warren of lanes in the old town. Caruggi, the Italians call them.

Cast in shadow for most of the day they occasionally open on to small squares and, in one of these my friend bought six packets of tights at seemingly bargain prices, only to discover later they had no feet.

On a recent trip back to Genoa, memories of intriguing alleys and footless tights fuelled a resolve to give this old and cultivated city more than an afternoon.

Genoa is also Italy's principal seaport and, after re-acquainting with the city, I would leave from here on a week's cruise around the Mediterranean on the Preziosa, the newest member of the Italian-infused Mediterranean Sea Cruises company.

From the top floor of the hotel I looked over pastel-coloured buildings rising from the port to hills which cradled the city like an amphitheatre.

The Mediterranean was centre stage.

Genoa made its money from the sea and the intimate relationship of city and harbour make exploring on foot a pleasure.

On the street you feel the vibrancy, notice the shops tucked into portals of former palaces and craftsmen beavering away between designer shops. Lifts and a funicular take you to the city's higher reaches.

When the city renovated its waterfront in the 1990s, who better to call on than Renzo Piano, the Genoan architect who had co-designed Paris' Pompidou Centre. Fortunately, his sweeping pedestrian promenade distracts attention from an overhead express-way, built in the 60s, which slices past frescoed palaces that once enjoyed views to the horizon.

Genoa's most famous son, Christopher Colombus, was born there in 1451 and left from the port 39 years later on the voyage that led to his discovery of the Americas.

Genoa's rich history and art is on view in grand Renaissance palaces, including the splendid 16th-century Palazzo Pallavicino embellished with paintings from the Genoa school and other great European masters. Today, these World Heritage palaces are art galleries and museums.

Palazzo Imperiale, with its frescoed walls and ceilings, houses the artisan market. Across the square is the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, its mix of Gothic and Renaissance style reflecting renovations through the centuries.

But prepare to be catapulted to another era. Not many streets away from these churches and noble old buildings you'll hit the hard-edged architecture of Mussolini's era. I sought refuge from Il Duce's "rationalist" style by footing it back to Via Roma. Italian flair leaps from every shop window on this elegant street.

And I wasn't leaving town without dining on a pesto infused dish, Genoa having invented the world-renowned basil sauce.

The family owned Ristorante Trieste along from the hotel produced a superb thin-crusted, pesto and mozzarella pizza with quaffable wine for a modest bill.

It piqued my appetite for more of Genoa.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies from Auckland to Milan's Malpensa Airport. Trains and buses depart from Malpensa and Milan Central Station to Genoa.

Details: Mediterranean Sea Cruises' Preziosa offers seven-day cruises of the western Mediterranean each year from March until the northern hemisphere autumn. Phone: 0508 4 278473 for further information.

Susan Buckland was assisted by MSC Cruises and Emirates.

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