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The romantic twilight view from Spianata Castelletto in Genoa.

Appreciating the Beauty of the Historic Port of Genoa

The birthplace of Columbus was Genoa, the famous port city in the northwest of Italy. It is the regional capital of Liguria and lies at the center of this long coastal region at the most northernmost point of the Ligurian Sea. The town’s maritime importance goes back centuries and at one time Genoa was a powerful Republic. It is still a major commercial port, but it has also become a rejuvenated cultural center. It was the European Capital of Culture in 2004, building on its rich history, as well as looking to the future with contemporary architecture and a redeveloped harbor area. Visitors can admire modern, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, opulent palaces and a host of museums and galleries. There are art cafes, boat trips, a large aquarium and a wide range of other activities.

Genoa is in a dramatic location, its curving waterfront is situated in the shelter of steep protective hills. Its striking cityscape, with pastel buildings piled up steep hillsides above the waterfront, is a sight in itself and can be admired from a variety of viewpoints.

The Cattedrale di San Lorenzo is Genoa’s cathedral, set in a surprisingly small, sloping square. It’s a building in a patchwork of styles from Gothic to Renaissance, reflecting renovations over the centuries. The exterior is striped and decorated with colored marbles and inside the main portal is a 14th century Byzantine-style fresco. A visit to the church’s underground treasury will reveal a bowl claimed to be the Holy Grail and a platter said to have been the one used to present John the Baptist’s head. Just up the street from the cathedral is the huge Palazzo Ducale, which now hosts a range of changing exhibitions and events. The area is of one of Italy’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites. This status was awarded for the early town-planning of the Strade Nuove ‘new streets’ district, where grand palaces were erected in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for noble families to host visiting dignitaries. Via Garibaldi, an elegant narrow street lined with grandeur, is the cultural center of Genoa. The town’s best art collections can be visited here, in three palaces grouped together as the Musei di Strada Nuova: Palazzo Bianco, Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Tursi, Garibaldi, where highlights include works by Filippino Lippi, Veronese and Rubens as well as many local artists. Palazzo Rosso contains one of the most important picture galleries of the city, while Palazzo Reale is a 17th century, opulent royal palace with fine stuccowork and frescos in the hall of mirrors, ballroom and throne room.

One of the outstanding vistas to appreciate Genoa is at the top of the Spianata Castelletto. Visitors ride an Art Nouveau elevator to the top of the building and then walk upstairs to a balcony that provides a fantastic a 360° view over the city and the port. From here visitors can admire the medieval towers and Baroque domes, while in the distance, the sea comes alive with both ships of today and memories of centuries ago. After gaining an appreciation for the city from the high ground. Head east to the neighborhood of Caruggi. It is the largest continuously occupied historic center in Europe, with a maze of narrow, snaking alleyways (vicoli). Mark Twain described the streets as being as “crooked as a corkscrew.” There are areas in the streets where two people can barely fit walking side-by-side. It is an interesting place for shopping where unusual gifts and mementos can be purchased at bargain prices.

Heading west, just beyond Porta Soprana are gardens that contain the home where Columbus grew up. It is located a short distance from the original city gates, just outside the medieval city walls. The original house was almost certainly struck and destroyed, like much of the area, from the bombardment of the naval fleet of King Louis XIV of France in 1684. The present reconstruction dates from the 1700s. You can find the house on Piazza Dante, Molo. Domenico Colombo, father of the great navigator, moved here with his family in 1455. Christopher would have been four years old at the time. Domenico worked as the gate keeper at the time, but when he lost his job, he took up work as a weaver and wine merchant. The family’s financial situation deteriorated over time and ultimately the property was sold. By this time, Christopher had already embarked on a career as a sailor and in years to come would become the most famous mariner in the world.

Genoa’s Pavilion of the Sea and Navigation, part of the city’s Aquarium complex, explores the seafaring history of the city and its inhabitants. It is a fascinating experience where you will learn about life on the sea from the time of the Columbus to today. The expansive maritime museum contains reconstructed ships, a moored submarine and original artifacts of historical interest.

Another area to visit is Boccadasse, the old mariners’ neighborhood. It lies at the eastern side of the Corso Italia, the main sea front area to stroll in the city. The neighborhood is enclosed by a narrow bay. At the eastern side is the cape of Santa Chiara, while close by is the cobblestone beach where the seamen bring their small fishing boats ashore. If you have a sunny afternoon, walk the Corso Italia with its countless bars, restaurants and gelaterias while enjoying the beautiful sea views. The sea spray alone is said to have healing properties!

Wherever you choose to dine, there will be pesto dishes on the menu. The Genoese are justifiably proud of this culinary delight. Outside the city, groves of small leaf basil are grown. If by chance you are driving by shortly after a rain shower, the air glistens with the unmistakable fragrance of the plants. You will be a stronger willed person than most if your stop after that is not for some Pasta all Genovese!