Genoa, Italy, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site overflowing with treasures worth visiting

Genoa, a Secret UNESCO World Heritage Site

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Sometimes it's just not fair in Italy. This country has so many treasures and masterpieces and breathtaking jewels that the "Must See" list goes on and on and on. No one knows how many places that would be considered a pinnacle in any other country are missed because we simply haven't the time to get there. One of the most glaring examples of this injustice is Genoa, which is on practically no one's "Must See" list, alas! But now that cruising has become so popular in the Mediterranean, a growing number of travelers are breezing in with just enough time to board their ship, take a quick glance around and say, "Darn! Why didn't we schedule a couple of days here before the cruise?" That's right, all it takes is one glimpse and you know this oft belittled seaport is packed with wondrous things to see and do.

ith its strategic position at the northern crook of the Mediterranean, it's no surprise that Genoa has been inhabited since forever. It was an important harbor back when the Etruscans were trading with the Phoenicians. After that it was ruled by the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Lombards, the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, and others until it finally became a city-state in the 12th century. There are countless beautiful reminders of this period all over the city, notably the churches whose simple black-and-white marble façades and delicate stonework create a unique artistic flair. Santo Stefano is the purest example of this classically Ligurian style (Giulio Romano's masterpiece The Martyrdom of St. Stephen can be seen inside). Another is San Donato, hidden amongst the ancient alleyways and always fun to suddenly stumble upon.

ut Genoa is a schizophrenic place: over the years, as the quiet, understated and monochromatic medieval city-state became more and more important, its leading citizens were able to amass huge fortunes and great international influence. Finding themselves with unlimited amounts of expendable income on their hands, they became Europe's most generous art patrons and created a concentration of baroque and rococo extravagance the likes of which have rarely been seen elsewhere on the planet. As a result of these two equally important and utterly different golden eras, many streets in Genoa resemble a row of nuns in their simple habits interspersed with noblewomen dressed in the most flamboyant attire of their day.

That "day" encompassed most of the 16th century, and the Man of the Day was Andrea Doria. In 1466, when he was born into one of the region's most illustrious families, Genoa was still under French rule. He chose a military life which, if you were Genoese, meant you became a sailor. Doria was of course a captain, and in 1503, he and his troops banished the French from the city. Those were troubled times and Doria changed allegiance more than once. He soon went right over to the other side and began serving as an admiral for France's King Francis I. But by the end of the decade he had again changed his mind and rid the city, once and for all, of French domination. Although he refused his fellow citizens' offer of the all-supreme title "Doge," he effectively ruled the city from that moment until his death. (He may have been modest, but not enough to stop the painter Bronzino from depicting him quasi-nude as Neptune, God of the Seas, a masterpiece that is now at Milan's Brera Gallery.)

During his golden years, Doria turned the city-state into the Republic of Genoa, a formidable maritime power whose vast wealth lay in the hands of a very few merchant and shipping families. At this time, the city's nouveau riche were still living in their ancestral homes down by the waterfront. So that they could display their magnificence, Doria's city council decided to create Europe's first urban development project planned by a public authority. They chose a neighborhood just up the hill from the port, surrounded by vineyards and considered healthier, yet still close enough so the "normal people" could feel the presence of the powerful among them. What emerged was a broad, pristine cobblestone street called Strada Nuova ("New Street"). It took shape between 1558 and 1583, and the elite quickly lined it with their magnificent palaces, gaily painted in pastel colors in the local tradition. Because the Genoese are known for their thriftiness, they often rented out the entire ground floor of their palace to shops: as a result, the only place they could put their own insignia was up on the second or even third floor. Today, if you look up, you can see these charming sculpted stone reliefs amongst the painted faux stucco work which is also unique to Genoa and its penny-pinching gentry.

he residents of Strada Nuova may have been tightwads, but they were powerful ones, and they often hosted the crème-de-la-crème of European aristocracy and culture. These visitors marveled at Genoa's unique urban planning, and when they went home they often implemented forms of it themselves. Because of the profound influence this one street had on urban development over the entire continent, it has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Today its name has changed to Via Garibaldi, and as you walk up the hill to reach it, you can still see the charming 11th-century belltower of the romanesque church of Santa Maria delle Vigne, named after the vineyards that once thrived here.

At the beginning of Via Garibaldi, you'll notice that the houses on either side are all lined up symmetrically, a sure sign that the street was created all at once. Be sure to peek into the Deutsche Bank building (#5) to see the frescoes in the atrium. The modern bank as we know it was invented in Genoa: since many of the most impressive palazzi were the homes of the world's first venture capitalists, it is only fitting that they are now owned by various European banks. Farther along, when you get to the massive Palazzo Doria Tursi, ego won out over architecture as the families began expanding and trying to outdo their neighbors. You can walk into many of the palaces and even visit a few. Paganini's violin lives inside Palazzo Doria Tursi, along with a vast collection of decorative and applied arts, official coins, weights and measures from the Republic. Nearby Palazzo Bianco was Liguria's first picture gallery, and hosts countless 13th- to 18th-century masterpieces by Rubens, Van Dyck, Caravaggio, Veronese, Lippi and others. But a far more impressive collection is housed across the street in the exquisite Palazzo Rosso, whose bright red façade can be seen from anywhere on the street. A visit to the collection offers a wonderful opportunity to see the home of a fabulously wealthy 16th-century merchant.

fter Palazzo Rosso, the street changes name again and becomes Via Cairoli. On the left is Via San Siro, where you should pop into the church that was the city's first cathedral. It didn't look anything like this when it was built in the 4th century: that church burnt down and was rebuilt at the same time and with the same extravagance as Strada Nuova. In the incredibly ornate interior, you will have your first encounter with a local family of artists who were as talented as they were prolific: the Carlones. Everywhere you go in Genoa, if your eyes are attracted to a fresco or stucco, it is likely to bear the signature of Tommaso, Taddeo, Andrea, Diego Francesco, Carlo Innocenzo, Giovanni Battista, or Giovanni Carlone.

ndeed, it was the latter two who decorated the next church you'll come to, the massive SS Annunziata that dominates Piazza della Nunziata. Quite simply put, this is rococo gone mad. If you asked Versace to design a church, this might be what you got: hundreds of frescoes, miles of marble and tons of gold, a miniature Pantheon style dome, all swirling around you in a maelstrom intended to bring you crashing to your knees.

At the end of Via Cairoli turn left, walk down the hill and cross the street to Via Balbi, where you'll find no less than seven palaces that belonged to the powerful family of the same name. One of them, built in Roman style by Carlo Fontana and revamped to the baroque by Eugenio Durazzo when Fontana died before completing it, passed into the hands of the Savoys in 1825 and is now called Palazzo Reale. The Savoys are a dynasty of nobles who traditionally had their domain in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. When this became the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the Savoys became the first Kings of Italy, and thus this palazzo immediately became a Royal Palace. The Savoys possessed unimaginable wealth accumulated over centuries of rule based on strategic alliances, and they used their riches to amass one of Europe's largest collections of, well, everything ever known to man or woman (they had a real penchant for decorative arts, costumes, and jewelry, as well as traditional art forms). No one has ever claimed the Savoys were paragons of artistic taste, but theirs is an excellent example of a Royal Family's home, and they certainly knew rococo like no one knew rococo. The Sala degli Specchi is only slightly smaller than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (which was inspired by the Genoese one). A most touching room, we thought, is the Duke of Genoa's huge bed chamber, which has spectacular frescoes surrounding a teensy weensy bed. More of the Carlone family's frescoes are here and there, while two striking Luca Giordano's embellish the Throne Room.

After you're done at Palazzo Reale, retrace your steps back to Via Garibaldi. Off to your right are a dozen winding alleys which plunge down the hill into the oldest part of town. You should probably not wander here on your own after dark, but during the daytime it is as safe as any other urban neighborhood, filled with tiny food specialty shops, colorful boutiques, friendly pizzerias, and day-to-day service shops frequented by the locals. What a difference between these steep, narrow and sometimes dark lanes and the glorious avenue that reigns above them! You might even catch a glimpse of something that is rare in Italy but common in all the major seaports of the world: an alluring woman sitting by her doorway, patiently awaiting her next customer. These streets, which the Genoese call carrugi, were infamous havens for all sorts of unpleasant odors, sights, sounds and the characters who produced them, but in recent years the city has made a heroic effort to clean them up. The result is a warren of alleys where you can still sense the dangers of yore, while shopping for a designer handbag or a jar of the best pesto in the world. At the bottom of the neighborhood is Piazza Banchi, which has been an outdoor marketplace since medieval times. Fruit and vegetable vendors still hawk their goods under the frescoed porticoes. Around the corner is Sottoripa, a shopping arcade which was fashioned out of huge quarried boulders in the 13th century. Lined with shops and junk food stands, it still preserves much the same atmosphere today.

Sottoripa fronts onto the harbor, which is still called Porto Antico to distinguish it from the gargantuan modern freight and cruise harbor that dominates the other side of the bay. For centuries, the port was separated from the city proper by the steep hillside you have just walked down. Today, there is nothing "antique" about it, after world-renowned architect Renzo Piano totally redesigned it for the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World. By adding broad avenues and user-friendly squares, he turned it into an integral part of the city, where moms take their kids to play on jungle gyms, lovers go to smooch on benches, and tourists flock to visit Europe's largest aquarium or ride the 120-foot elevator to the top of Il Bigo for the view.

t the far end of the harbor is Palazzo San Giorgio. Tradition has it this was the jail where Marco Polo began dictating his Travels, in 1298, after being captured in a battle between Genoa and his own Republic of Venice. Today the building is split down the middle, with the medieval stone part facing the city, whereas the 17th-century portside façade is covered by a delicate, gay, cheerful pastel fresco of St. George mercilessly slaying the dragon. (George was the Patron Saint of the Republic of Genoa until the Council of Trent, when he was replaced by the Madonna.)

Off to one side of the palazzo is a tiny fruit market, beyond which is the corner of Via San Lorenzo, which leads back up into the newer part of the city. As you climb, you'll see the buildings gradually regain the splendor of the Republic, but not before you have passed the wonderful black-and-white façade of the cathedral. San Lorenzo has been the city's cathedral since the 9th century; although it bears important signs of every century from 1200 to 1800, the overall effect is still of a modest Ligurian gothic house of worship. Still, when you look up at the belltower against the backdrop of a deep blue sky, it is as glamorous as all the gold and marble of the rococo churches. Down below, the intricately carved gothic portals were meant to introduce the faithful flock to important church doctrines: this one has stories of Mary and the Jesse Tree (which illustrated the lineage of Christ according to Isaiah's prophecy), Jesus and the Evangelists, and the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence. The interior is mostly baroque, with frescoes dating from the 15th and 16th century.

f San Lorenzo's exterior is a fine example of Gothic understatement, the Jesuits' Chiesa del Gesù, about 100 yards away, is a mid-17th-century extravaganza both inside and out. Commemorating Genoa's "Golden Century," it harbors countless treasures, most notably two baroque precursors by Rubens (The Circumcision and St. Ignatius Heals a Possessed Woman).

ia San Lorenzo soon does that quintessentially Italian trick of changing name, becoming Via di Porta Soprana and taking us to the two Disney-like towers that mark the spot where an opening was formed in the city walls during the 9th century. The towers are much younger, having been erected in 1155 to protect the city from an attack by Frederick Barbarossa. Beneath them is the home of Christopher Columbus, where the great navigator was supposedly born and raised. The original house was destroyed in 1684 by French bombardments, later rebuilt, and has recently undergone extensive archeological exploration.

Text and Photos by Kristin Jarratt

This ends our circular introductory stroll through Genoa, but there are countless other sites to pique your interest, including:

Here are some more useful web sites:


Dear In Italy,

Genoa was a huge surprise for us. In speaking with Italians and Americans prior to our trip, not much good was said about Genoa. That intrigued us. So, we took a chance and we were richly rewarded by the people and sites in Genoa. The harbor, the magnificent Palazzo's on Via Garibaldi, Palazzo Ducale, Cathedral of San Lorenzo, etc. all within an easy walking distance and astounding. The sea food and anything with pesto satisfied our taste buds the entire time we were there. We'd go back to Genoa. Thanks In Italy Online.

Best regards,
Tim and Cindy O.

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