There was, once, the Industrial Triangle. It was composed by Milan, Turin and Genoa and it was, basically, what propped Italy into the G7 club. Turin had the cars, Genoa the shipyards and Milan basically everything else.
Then the 1990s came and it all ended. Competition, environment awareness and many other things conjured to destroy the Triangle. Turin lost most of its car industry and moved into other businesses, Milan became Italy’s largest economic powerhouse while Genoa stumbled in their wake. Shipyards closed or downsized, the port became less and less important, its youth moving away. Genoa La Superba, the tiny seafaring republic that gave the world the Lotto, Galata Tower and who used to punch way above its weight seemed to be forced to, basically, become Italy’s Detroit.
I returned to Genoa a few weeks ago and my heart rejoiced at what I saw. True, the city is scruffy and worn at the edges; yes, prostitutes and pickpocketers still roam free in the tiny alleys downtown and, yes, there’s still a tired looking flyover bang in the middle of the waterfront… But the fact is that this city is lively, refined, elegant and buzzing with activity. On its knees it migh be, but it’s not willingful to go down without a fight.
I arrived via airplane into Italy’s own version of Kai Tak airport, but I have to say that my favourite approach is from the land, via train or car: the hills gradually give way to a tiny stretch of flatlands and there she is, skyscrapers and cranes and roof gardens and, down there, the beautiful Port’s Lantern, built in 1538.
From an architectonic point of view, Genoa is unlikely anywhere else in Italy. Here space has always been at a premium, something that led the city to expand on step hills, unhospitable ridges and deep valleys. The result is Hong Kong-esque, with viaducts and motorways intersecting the urban texture as mis-matching stitching, while Italy’s very first high rises loom high above, elegant in their 1940s looks.
Modernity lives shoulder to shoulder with a rich historic heritage in a city centre district that, some say, is one of the largest in Europe. In this sense Genoa is as diverse as its population: medieval buildings, relics of its Republican past, abound in the tiny alleways between the Old Port and via Garibaldi; sturdy walls, impenetrable windows, wooden roofs and frescoes here and there are their main traits. Merchantmen, sailors, prostitutes or shop owners their inhabitants, now and then. On the ground level a maze of passageways and arcades, the caruggi, offer refuge from the weather and occasions for the pickpockets to practice their art.
But march uphill and soon you’ll find yourself in a feast of neoclassical flamboyancy, mixed with some truly elegant liberty buildings. I’m talking about via Garibaldi and via Balbi, where most of the Rolli are. These are UNESCO-protected manors, built by Genoa’s most prominent families in the XVI and XVII centuries, at the peak of the Republic’s power.
Doria, Spinola, Grimaldi, Brignole: all these families had their own grand residences, and all of them were competing with each other to build up the ultimate one, much like Hollywood actors or Arab emirs are doing nowadays, just with a lot less class. Such was the appeal of these buildings, such was the charme exterted by the Strade Nuove, the neighbourhood in which they were built, that Genoa became an irresistible stopover on the Grand Tour that Britain’s most spoiled brats used to do back in those years. Even Herman Melville visited Via Garibaldi before going out hunting white whales, and remained duly impressed.
But this is not what I like the most about Genoa; albeit impressive, these noble manors or the spectacular Piazza De Ferrari aren’t the true soul of the city, in my opinion. The real heart lies in the alleys packing up behind the old port, and in the old port itself. This is where you can find the Genoese, a truly remarkable people: welcoming, open to diversity, cosmopolitan and no-nonsense as those who live in a big port city can be. They are also incredibly progressists in an otherwise conservative society as the Italian one. Fabrizio De André, a songwriter who was as close as Italy ever got to producing a Neil Young, dedicated many ballads to his fellow Genoese, ballads that sparked scandal and fury in the rest of the country but that sung about individuals well known and part of the city’s social fabric: prostitutes, sailors, transvestites.
All these people gravitates around the port. And if the new one is a behemoth of industrial might and ugliness, the old one has been renovated by Renzo Piano, also a Genoese, and it’s still very much the heart of the city. If I’m in town and I have a moment of spare time I already know what I’d do: grab a slice of focaccia, or of torta pasqualina (a salty cake made with eggs, cheese and various salads) from one of the many sellers in the caruggi and head over there.
There’s a brilliant museum about the history of human exploitation of the sea, Galata, and an equally great Aquarium, Europe’s second largest and entirely devoted to explaining sealife all around the world, without shows or other forms of entertainment, Seaworld-style.
So, Genoa: is it flawless? Most definitely no. Is it sometimes scruffy? Yes. Is it riddled with issues? Sure. But is it charmy and is it worth a visit? Definitely.