My two earliest memories of Genoa’s port area – the Porto Antico – involve sailors, and an amazing green sauce poured over pasta.
Decades later this maritime city still bursts with sailors, and the aroma of pesto pulls you into the many tiny eateries dotting the docks.
In the Genoa seaside of my childhood, come nighttime, the tiny, dark alleys or carrugi become imaginary passages along which uniformed men walk jauntily, by twos or threes or more – rarely alone. They emerge from the anchored ships in port, the passenger vessels, the cargoes, yachts and military floating machines that pour out sailors at twilight by the hundreds, even the thousands. That Genoa is a bit gritty, dirty, decrepit even. Its narrow alleys are so thin you can touch both sides if you stretch.
I clearly remember my mother squeezing my hand, my father walking slightly ahead like a man, warding off eventual danger. Genoa wasn’t a family place, or a place for women – although there were plenty of women around the old port.
I also remember the eating – pasta, always pasta first. I fought against the green sauce, wanting red instead, a kid addicted to ketchup. Once I gave in my taste buds would forever cling to that rich and creamy mixture of basil and pine nuts, the crunchy and the sweet, the rich and the deep, the garlicky and the smooth.
Fast forward some decades and I’m back in Genoa, trying to recapture some of those evaporated memories. I walk along the dark alleys, a bit more lit perhaps but still tiny, slightly less grimy, but still in need of alertness once the shops close and the streets begin to empty.
By the water, hawkers have replaced the sailors who once leaned against lamposts, smoking. These days business consists of small-scale counterfeit bags, cheap belts and tatty souvenirs.
But the beauty of Genoa la Superba hasn’t changed.
And now for the food
Across the busy road and noisy overpass and down a few twisted streets, Da Gaia is a restaurant slightly below ground level which is good enough to turn people away. My eyes flew to the pesto on the menu but my curiosity opted for testaroli, a spongy whole wheat pasta whose creamy walnut sauce, salsa di noci, is like nothing I’d ever tasted.
For the next dish I pushed myself as I don’t like fish much (I’m always scared I’ll get a bone stuck in my esophagus) but when a waiter tells you it is smothered in olives and olive oil and anchovies and pine nuts and tomatoes and potatoes, it’s worth the risk.
The only thing to do after this kind of dinner is walk it off along the Porto Antico marina, just outside my hotel window.
At night a slight breeze lightens the air and brings out the smells of cooking, mixing them with salt and fish and diesel. The busy horns echo across the bay, competing with the soft sounds of wavelets against moorings and cables clinking along ships’ masts.
Porto Antico Means Old Port – despite the facelift
Genoa is hemmed in by the sea on one side and mountains on the other, with the city proper crawling up the hillside. It can be hellish to get around up there as avenues run into streets and streets tumble over one another into dead ends or tunnels or steps or inclines. When lost, head downhill. You might end up at Porto Antico again.
From above, Genoa’s history as a port city is obvious, a history old enough to date back to the Etruscans more than 2500 years ago. At war during most of its history, the city found some semblance of stability around the 16th century, when it began attracting wealth and artists – but then half its inhabitants were killed by the plague. The city continued its erratic trajectory but today it is one of Italy’s economic engines, its shipbuilding and high-tech industries performing well, and helping support a country in crisis.
I still don’t know what to make of the Old Port of Genoa. It was thoroughly restored, both for the 500th anniversary of the ‘discovery of America by Christopher Columbus’ (Columbus was born in what was then the Republic of Genoa) and because it was named European City of Culture for 2004. By the water there’s a modern aquarium, a fabulous Eataly, restored buildings… but inside the old quarter the brush-up is far less visible.
Part of me dislikes the seediness and the dark alleys, the underlying sense of unease they create. Another part of me likes the city for precisely the same reasons.
If Genoa’s old port was clean, bright and safe, I could think of a dozen Italian maritime towns or cities I’d rather visit. But the slight disrepute and edginess of the Porto Antico gives Genoa considerable charm and energy, raising it higher on my list of ‘must visits’ when in Italy.
In reality, it hasn’t changed that much since I was little.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- If you had the temerity to drive your car to Genoa I hope you’ll stay somewhere with a garage and park it for the duration. If not, you’ll be needing blood pressure medication after negotiating the mountain motorway. Once in the city, walk or take the bus.
- I was only in Porto Antico for a few meals but I didn’t have a bad one. I would stay away from the more touristy restaurants with translated menus.
- I would also stay away from Porto Antico’s streets at night unless there are several of you. Watch your bag, remove the bling and keep your wits about you. Much has been done to clean up the area, but still.
- Don’t miss Eataly, right next to the Aquarium. Even if you’re familiar with the one in New York, this one is better.
- I stayed at the NH Marina, a large modern hotel whose key advantages were location right on the old port, and a perfect parking spot for my car!
- Also of interest: What every woman should know about travel to Italy
Photos by Anne Sterck.