Thursday, October 20, 2011

An afternoon in Genova

We had been planning to take a day trip to Genova from the Cinque Terre, and with the weather seeming kind of iffy, and with everything drenched from the crazy storm that woke us up throughout the night, we decided to get Genova out of the way today. After a morning stroll to Vernazza’s harbor...

...we hopped on the train to the Genova Brignole station to get a taste of a city that neither of us had been to before. 

Ultimately, impressions of Genova were mixed. When leaving the station, I knew the general direction we needed to go in order to get to the Centro Storico, but I still wanted to find a tourist info place to get a map of the city. We headed down Via XX Settembre, which had an 18th-19th Century grandeur that reminded me of Vienna, but with attractively portico’d sidewalks. Once we got to Piazza Ferrari (which is lined with some wildly ornate Palazzi), we saw signs pointed towards a tourist info place, but wound up on a wild goose chase trying (and failing) to find it. Seriously, at the end of one block was a sign that said it was to the right. At the other end of that very same block was another sign that said it was to the left, but there was nothing in-between! Was this some kind of cruel joke? At any rate, we ended up buying an overpriced map from a newsstand and used that to navigate the city.

Genova is very claustrophobic. The old section, not counting the spacious harbor, has very few wide-open spaces, and is almost devoid of grand piazzas (save for Ferrari, but that’s outside the medieval section). The buildings are generally a story or three taller than those in Florence, and with the pedestrianized streets being so narrow, it feels as if they’re closing in on you. It was a difficult town to photograph as a result: I saw some really cool facades with interesting details and bas reliefs, and a lot of trompe l’oeil, but it was almost impossible to photograph much of it due to the narrowness and darkness of the streets. A lot of shops and restaurants had neon signs so as to stand out in the dimness. I noticed window ledges on some facades with ornate, scary faces staring down at the street, and that’s about all you could really see when gazing upwards.

The city’s main cathedral, Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, has an impressive fa├žade, covered in byzantine gothic stripes and beautifully ornate rows of columns. Sadly, the damn thing was closed, so we couldn’t go inside. In fact, every single old chiesa that we saw toady was closed. Are they ever open to the public, or is Thursday Genova’s “all churches are closed” day?

But that leads me to my next observation – Genova is extremely untouristy, and we saw very few tourists while we were there - which is nice. Nowhere did we see people lining up to get into any old buildings, palazzi, or museums, and there were no people peddling tacky tourist crap from carts on the street. I saw a couple of people walking around with cameras, but that’s it. Genova doesn’t really have any serious historical buildings or museums to suck in the tourists (although it does have an apparently nice aquarium). You really have to take the Centro Storico itself as a whole. The non-touristy aspect was nice after dealing with some of Florence’s tourist-clogged arteries.

Genova also has a gritty edge to it. I’ve read that it’s got some seedy enclaves, a robust narcotics market, and areas you wouldn’t want to walk through alone late at night. While it felt safe during the day, we did walk through one medieval block, which amusingly, had several prostitutes standing around. I also noticed a lot of rough looking young guys in sweats with severe crew cuts and gold chains, kinda hanging out at random places, eyeing people suspiciously. Terezia says she saw some cracked-out looking faces. Definitely a different vibe from Florence.

At any rate, we wandered around Genova’s old section, up and down the hopping, narrow thoroughfare Via San Luca, down to the harbor, and back up towards the cool, medieval Porta Soprana gate and the St. Andrea cloister. We also walked through Via Garibaldi, a wider street lined with lavishly ornate palaces. We searched all the pizzerias for a cheap lunch of pizza or focaccia with pesto Genovese, but couldn’t find any! We settled on crappy non-pesto pizza from some place on Via San Lorenzo (we were hungry and weary), but found better gelato at Grom, up the street.

I’m still trying to get my head around Genova. It’s definitely an interesting place filled with less obvious charms, but we’re not exactly clamoring to go back and spend more time there.  Based on what I saw, it didn’t appear to be worth more than a day trip. I’m glad we saw it, but unlike Siena, Florence, or even Bologna, there wasn’t enough there to really lure me back.

We ended up leaving a couple hours earlier than we originally planned. We got back to Vernazza in time to have some mediocre pesto pizza for dinner from the place just down the street. Now we can devote the next three days to the Cinque Terre!

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