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Genoa: Gateway to the New World


© St. Petersburg Times

Trumtrumtrum! Trumtrumtrum!

The sound echoing off the tall, dingy apartment blocks of the medieval quarter is a surprise, and an intriguing one. What is this drumming about -- and how can I find its source in this spaghetti-blob of twisting alleys?

I follow the sound down a sloping, curving path through Genoa's centuries-old community to via della Maddalena and into an extraordinary scene:

Four men and a woman dressed in satin doublets, tapping away on drums as they lead a small but glorious parade. Behind them comes a similarly dressed teenager carrying a pole, from which flaps a crested flag. Next, soldiers with crossbows over their shoulders, followed by satin-gowned women, all of them escorted by dandies dressed in velvet tunics with puffed shoulders and ruffled collars.

Their path through the ancient neighborhood cleared by the drummers, those in the procession maintain a casual pace, chatting among themselves but acknowledging the stares of onlookers -- commoners, after all -- with a nod.

After their passage, the Saturday afternoon shoppers flow back from the sides of the tall apartments to crowd the tight street. When a compact police car comes by to check on a fistfight, the crowds press against the buildings once more, heads nearly touching flowers that dangle prettily from window boxes.

The costumed re-enactors look far more appropriate to this central quarter. Five hundred years after Cristoforo Columbo returned from the New World and changed life forever on several continents, parts of his hometown in many ways look unchanged. Bordering this warren of apartment buildings are Baroque mansions, many filling a city block, which stand as a Medieval Merchants Hall of Fame.

Genoa is Italy's busiest port, a vast city that throbs with industry and sprawls across the inland hillsides to quieter suburbs. Capital of the Ligurian province, Genoa is the commercial and historical center of the Italian Riviera. This playground, stretching for more than 120 miles along the Mediterranean, may be both too little known and in jeopardy of being overrun.

The region I visited, to the south of Genoa, is defined by the Mediterranean Sea and the Apennines, a forested mountain chain lacking in height but not in the number of hills: Minisummits elbow each other aside like rubberneckers at an accident scene. The eons-old view is of the sea.

A few minutes' drive south of Genoa's ancient quarter, picturesque villages decorate the coast and the hillsides for about 40 miles. The coast offers something for every budget and most interests.

If you want history or art, stop in Genoa. It was among the mightiest of the city-states -- rival to glorious Venice -- at a time when men such as Cristoforo Columbo sought riches by sailing for the horizon and the unknown. Merchants built Renaissance palaces to display their wealth. Several of these mansions in central Genoa now serve as museums.

A few minutes south of the port, the party begins: Attractions change from culture and commerce to natural beauty and the enticement of living life away from the city. Any city.

Where the Mediterranean splashes ashore in shades of turquoise and teal, cliffside villas, many of them summer homes for the Genoese gentry, are wedged between fishing and grape-growing villages. Upscale seaside towns welcome vacationers and jetsetters.

Then there is the Cinque Terre, the Five Lands, where none of Genoa's bustle or ostentatious antiquity is evident. These five hamlets -- four of them spilling down to the sea, one staggering up a mountainside -- are busy villages. Fishermen row out of their tiny harbors two to a boat, and hearty vintners work grape arbors on narrow terraces that climb sheer hills like steps on a ladder.

A very steep ladder. History, art, money -- that's Genoa

Maggie Columbo leans out a window of her Bolina Bar in the ancient quarter as the costume procession passes by. She tells me, "It is nothing special. It is just a party we make, to bring the customers" to the bakeries, retail shops and taverns on this alley, which dates to the 12th century.

With her husband Alex, Mrs. Columbo owns the bar (bolina refers to a sailboat leaning into the wind). In accented English, she adds that in a couple of hours, she will supply slices of warm focaccia bread and bottles of red wine for the re-enactors and shoppers. Will I return to enjoy the treat? she asks with a smile. I check my supply of film and tell her that I will.

In the meantime, I wander through what is considered the world's largest remaining medieval community. This twisted maze of alleys would confound a lab rat sniffing out mozzarella. But the alleys, carugi in Italian, lead to palaces festooned with sculpture and paintings: Paeans to the Roman gods, to the city fathers, to the Virgin Mary and Jesus, decorate the mansions and, occasionally, an alley wall.

Genoa presents several faces to passersby, depending on which slice of history you want to see. Looming over both sides of the broad Via XX Settembre are overbearing 19th century commercial buildings with two-story statues of heroic figures "holding up" the higher floors

Settembre runs between the spacious and green Piazza della Vittore, with its huge memorial arch, and the 19th century Piazza de Ferrari, where any greenery was long ago paved over but which does boast a large fountain. This central piazza, or square, is one of the city's largest. It is a gathering point for students, lovers and bankers and stockbrokers working in the surrounding buildings.

The piazza also looks back in time, from the turn of this century to another architectural period. Adjacent is the sprawling and grandiose Palazzo Ducale, parts of which date to medieval times. The former Palace of the Doges (a sort of city hall) is heavy with marble columns and imposing arches.

Around the corner and across the street, hundreds of years older, is one of Genoa's jewels, the San Lorenzo cathedral. With parts of it dating to the 12th century, the cathedral's facade has the black-and-white horizontal stripes common to this region. Marble and slate, the stripes carry through the three arched doorways and the numerous arched windows. As elsewhere in busy Genoa, modern streets hem in the history: This imposing cathedral is best viewed from across its small piazza.

To see the palatial homes of the merchant princes who might have worshiped at this cathedral, you need only to stroll along Via San Lorenzo, turn left at the Ducal Palace and walk about 10 blocks to a piazza, turn left again for two blocks and enter Via Garibaldi.

But to take this direct route to view the splendor that was Genoa is to race from appetizer to dessert; in Italy, you don't want to miss the pasta.

The delicious path to Garibaldi from anywhere in the city is through the historic medieval quarter. Bring a map because the carugi double back on themselves, 90-degree angles are uncommon and the paths between the blocks of five-story buildings are often no wider than a suburban sidewalk.

These apartments were here when Columbo set sail. Their grimy stucco exteriors look as if they have not been painted often since then, but so narrow are the streets that the sun seldom hits the walls long enough to fade the paint.

Above the walkways and carugis, women lean across their windowsills to hang laundry and chat with neighbors across the street. At ground level, especially in the early evenings, residents are shopping, chatting, strolling, talking on countless cellular phones, wheeling baby carriages. In the small shops, Genoese are having their hair cut, their clothes tailored. Or they are buying new clothes, or used clothes. They are eyeing freshly cut meat, breads and pasta, wristwatches, antiques, a tattoo parlor's photos.

On Via Soziglia, a virtual boulevard, for every cell phone evident there are two butcher shops; for every butcher shop, two bakeries; for every bakery, two gellaterias. Eating the rich gelato (ice cream) while shopping and strolling the lanes is the essence of this community.

The liveliness throws the merchants' mansions on Garibaldi into sharper contrast. That street, wide enough for three compact cars, is farther up the hill from the harbor than the ancient district it borders. But the three- and four-story Renaissance villas face each other, not the sea or the wooded hillsides several blocks behind Garibaldi.

Through heavily barred windows and ornately decorated doorways, these mansions stare each other down. Some display coats of arms. One has sculptured faces with the noses cut off -- a reference to an ancient family feud.

Just eight blocks long, Garibaldi was built on purpose to be different from the crooked lanes of the medieval community: It is wide and straight. The exteriors of the mansions that face the street are five-story statements of wealth by the original owners.

The Garibaldi mansions were built between 1550 and 1670 as private homes. Today they house banks, commercial offices and foreign consulates. One serves as City Hall.

Two of the more stylish palaces have vast collections of Renaissance art -- the Palazzo Bianco and the Palazzo Rosso (White Palace and Red Palace, respectively). They face each other across the street. They are dazzling with gilded walls, lavishly sculpted mouldings, tile mosaics, statuary on columns, ceilings and walls covered in frescoes of religious figures or fat cherubs and toga-clad nymphs.

On display are works by Rubens and Van Dyck, both of whom lived in Genoa in the early 17th century, as well as works by Titian, Caravaggio, Veronese, Ferrari and others.

The multistory buildings once had interior gardens and enclosed courtyards. Alas, some of them now are small parking lots. Much of the artwork was original decoration in the mansions. From such collections Genoa takes its ancient nickname, La Superba. On the Riviera

Mighty Genoa -- a port and manufacturing center, with more than 700,000 residents -- represents centuries of looking beyond the horizon. Yet a few miles outside its southern suburbs, the coastal region maintains a heritage of small-town life and eyes focused on what's close at hand.

The pines and beech of the Apennines have been pushed back to grow olives and wine grapes. Dozens of hamlets climb the slopes, usually toward a large but unremarkable church. From the hillside groves, two-, three- and four-story buildings rise in a cluster, their stuccoed faces decorated in shades of ochre and beige and dark green shutters.

Cities string out along the coast, such as Camogli, where half its shoreline is a harbor for the commercial fishing fleet and half is beach covered with smooth, fist-size rocks -- and sunbathers.

Camogli (kuh-MOY-yee) rests on the northern edge of a promontory, a prosperous town although blue-collar compared with its neighbors around the point: Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure. This is the cream of the Italian Riviera.

Portofino's vest-pocket harbor is filled with sailboats of every description, their masts a skeletal imitation of the surrounding wooded hills. In the summer, the harbor also shelters some of the world's most expensive yachts. Small waterfront shops offer a smattering of souvenirs but a wide selection of Giorgio Armani, Hermes and Louis Vuitton goods. Stores often just a dozen feet wide are art galleries, jewellers' shops and real estate offices.

Up the cobblestone street from the boat ramp, Portofino's single newsstand displays the latest editions of the International Herald Tribune, Manchester Guardian, the Financial Times, USA Today and an Arabic paper.

The five-story buildings along the harbor are painted beige, raspberry, apricot and mustard, with facades painted with artful trompe l'oeil arches, mouldings and statues gracing windows and corners.

In its sprinkling of cafes, tourists eat good pizza with paper-thin crust and watch other tourists swarm ashore from the frequent ferries. Some of these boats head for the 12th century abbey just around the point at San Fruttuoso. Others cruise in the opposite direction a few minutes to Santa Margherita Ligure, a charming seaside city that houses travelers too cost-conscious to stay in Portofino.

Santa Margherita is several times the size of its upper-crust neighbor and several times more welcoming to the casual visitor. Its waterfront promenade continues for many blocks, lined by restaurants specializing in fresh seafood -- you can watch the boats unload just across the street -- gellaterias, and "American Bars, serving long cocktails," the signs promise.

Huge palm trees fringe the harbor and tiny candy-striped cabanas add a festive touch to the beaches of coarse sand. The ruin of an old seafront castle adds a taste of historic romance to the scene. Clinging to the coast

More removed from even Santa Margherita's ambience are the Cinque Terre, the Five Lands. Rather than a holiday destination, Cinque Terre (CHINK-way TAY-ray) is a visit to the past. Four of the five villages have harbors so small that only a few of the rowboat-size fishing vessels can be moored inside the breakwater at one time. Most boats are drawn up onto the paved or cobbled ramps beyond the water.

The other town, in the middle of these villages that cling to the cliffs, has no harbor or beach. Instead, it has an aerobically challenging hillside crisscrossed by grape arbors.

The five villages stretch barely six miles along the coast. From north to south, they are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Other than Corniglia -- the vineyard village -- the towns offer similar views:

Sherbet-colored, multistory houses are built on the very edge of the coastal cliffs. These blocks of apartments stretch inland a few hundred yards, and that is the end of the town. Unlike Genoa's medieval district, here the sun has room to warm the cobbled streets, the tight-fit buildings and the village cats who patrol every narrow street.

The smallest of shopping districts -- a combination grocery/butcher shop here, a bar/gellateria there, hardware/clothing store around the corner -- suffices in each village. Tiny cars and three-wheeled mini-trucks navigate the alleys, but driving by non-residents is banned.

Fishermen wait for the Mediterranean to calm down before they set out, as they have for centuries, two to a boat. When the sea is too rough, they mend nets, study the lottery results posted on the bar walls, or consider the increasing number of tourists.

The past decade has brought the ultimate challenge to the Five Lands: outsiders.

Over the summer, thousands of German, British and French hikers -- a few hundred Americans, too -- arrive on trains each day from Milan and Genoa to the north, Pisa and Rome to the south. Singles, couples, entire trekking clubs scramble along the often-precarious paths threaded among the Five Lands.

Some hikers are courteous and flatten out against any indentation to let faster folk go by. Rude hikers toss their empty plastic water bottles into the olive-grove brush or down the hillsides toward the Mediterranean.

From Monterosso to Riomaggiore, the hike between towns varies from 20 minutes to two hours, from a slightly hilly stroll to a heart-pumping trek. The entire hike takes five to seven hours. But to speed-hike the paths eliminates the joy of being in these isolated, colorful villages.

No doubt many of the hikers believe the guidebooks that say the Cinque Terre is so isolated the towns cannot be reached by car. In truth, each can be -- Riomaggiore at the south end has a new six-story garage -- but outsiders may not drive inside the villages. Just as well: Two delivery trucks side-by-side represent a traffic jam.

Nonetheless, the idea of finding a tourist-free zone brings visitors by the thousands. Not to the point that you can find plastic souvenirs or "I Survived the Cinque Terre Trek" T-shirts, but there are more pottery shops, cafes and places selling film and bottled water than Cinque Terre's residents need.

If you want to sample these workaday coastal villages, you'd best go soon. Put down the paper and make reservations for the fall. If you go now, you'll just get lost in the mobs trying to go where the tourists haven't shown up -- ancient Genoa, the holiday towns of Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure, the Cinque Terre. If you go

Getting there: Alitalia flies direct from Miami to Milan and Rome. Delta and American airlines fly to Italy from other U.S. gateways. Genoa is about a two-hour drive south of Milan's Malpensa International Airport; take the A-26 autostrada (toll road), which has substituted numerous tunnels for the A-7's harrowing curves around the mountains.

If you don't want to drive, you can catch an express bus from Malpensa to Genoa for about $17.50, one way. Then use Italy's good train system to move about. Various railpasses are available -- a Flexipass allowing four days' travel in a 30-day period is $150 (second-class railcars) or $214 (first class); not much difference between the classes other than the padding in the seats. There are six other railpasses available for varying amounts of travel days; check with a travel agent.

Within Genoa, a ticket costing about $1 buys you unlimited travel for a day on the city's buses and funiculars, which climb the steep hills beyond the busiest part of the city. From on high, amid the forested parks, the views of the sea and the city are impressive, but I was disturbed by the amount of litter in some parks.

Staying there: I used the Hotel Jolanda in Santa Margherita Ligure, which proved to be centrally located: regular ferries to Portofino, either train or autostrada north to Genoa or south to Camogli and Cinque Terre. Rates at the three-star Jolanda in May were about $54 for a small single room, about $80 for a double, including taxes, breakfast and garage space.

The hotel is three blocks from the waterfront, the helpful staff speaks English and earplugs shut out the angry drone of motorscooters through the residential neighborhood. The hotel features a courtyard just right for relaxing with an afternoon glass of wine.

Hotel Jolanda, Via L. Costa 6, 16038 Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy; call 0185/287-512; fax 0185/284763; e-mail jolanda@promix.shiny.it

In Genoa, I stayed at the more upscale City Hotel. This four-star hotel was perfectly located: two blocks from the Piazza de Ferrari, about four blocks from Via Garibaldi and the old quarter. The front-desk staff speaks English and was most helpful in supplying maps, brochures and recommendations for enjoying the city.

The City Hotel charged about $145 a night for a single in a spacious two-bed room, including taxes and breakfast. Rates for doubles run from $114 to $240. Amenities include an in-room safe, pants-press, small sitting area, radio and multichannel cable TV and garage parking.

City Hotel Genova is part of the Best Western chain; reservations may be made by calling (800) 528-1234. Or contact the hotel directly at via San Sebastiano 6, 16123 Genova, Italy; call 010/5545, fax 010/586301.

Eating there: In a city or town of any size, figure on the restaurant food being special. Genoa is noted as being the home of pesto, the sauce made from ground pine nuts, garlic and basil; you can order it on a variety of pastas.

Fresh seafood, of course, is a staple. And if you know pizza only from the big American franchises, you're in for a wonderful surprise. Here the crust is paper-thin, the tomato sauce fresh, the cheese or other toppings just right. I counted 16 varieties of pizza on the menu of one full-service restaurant.

Foccaccia, the thick bread made with cheese, herbs, onions or other flavorings, is often served as an appetizer, but you can buy large slices for a walk-about meal, topped with flavorful ham or sausage. A note: If you eat the bread or rolls placed on the table, expect to pay the coperto, about $1.25. This is wine country, too, with each small region serving something local that is tasty and affordable.

For information: A prime source for maps and colorful brochures is the Italian Government Travel Office, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 1565, New York, NY 10111; call (212) 245-4822.

For free up-to-date food and travel tips, plus history, contact "In Italy Online": e-mail initaly@initaly.com; on the Internet, http://www.initaly.com.

Guidebooks include: Rick Steves' Italy 1997, John Muir Publications, $13.95; Italian Riviera, Insight Compact Guides, $7.95; Discover Italy, Berlitz, $18.95, and Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, by Fred Plotkin, published by Little, $19.95.

A detailed look at the big city is Genoa and the Two Rivieras, by Piero Torriti, former superintendent of art and history for the Ligurian region. This well-illustrated book is available in English at some Genoa museums and newsstands for about $7.

Genoa has five tourist-information offices in the city; or contact Genova Azienda di Promozione Turistica, via Roma 11/4, 16121 Genova, Italy; call 010 541541; fax 010 581408.

Originally published June 15, 1997

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