Pastries, Pasta, Palazzos: A Weekend in Genoa
by William Morris - Tuesday November 22, 2016 11:11 am
Seasoned travellers and free-spirited gap yah alumni will have fond memories of all or some of Rome, Florence and Venice, but Genoa is more likely to draw a blank. William Morris eats and drinks his way around the old town and beyond.
Genoa is shrouded in darkness as we descend towards its airport. This is because I have fashioned a mask from my jacket by wearing the hood backwards to block out the cabin lights.
The flight left Gatwick at 6:20am and I sleep until we arrive; tin-foiled orange juice undrunk, dreams filled with the looks of admiration I’m undoubtedly receiving from the cabin crew.
I wake as our plane strafes tankers harboured along the coastline, its wings almost glancing dockyard cranes in the final few hundred feet of landing. Through the window I can see Genoa is in fact carpeted in an early morning mist, one that warm autumn sunshine will burn off by the time we go for coffee at 11.
Stretching along the country’s northwest coast for roughly 20 miles, Genoa is home to around 700,000 people and its roots lie in trade and banking. It’s a port city, meaning there are few beaches near the centre despite its location, and heading inland quickly sees housing thin out as Liguria’s unforgiving mountains rear up to overlook the strip of civilisation hugging the flatter terrain near the shore. It’s not an obvious choice for tourists.
A cappuccino at Fratelli Kleinguti, a café opened by two Swiss brothers in 1828, is a glorious and soothing welcome to Genoa’s old town, particularly given the 4am start.
All the pastries and biscuits on display are made in-house. I order a 'Falstaff', an iced brioche bun with hazelnut paste inside. Apparently it was created by the cafe in the late 19th century to console Verdi, a regular customer, when his opera of the same name fell out of favour.
It’s hard to imagine, but back then the masses couldn’t fire off tweets like ‘@beppeverdi1813 ur opra’s cr@p mate & never r8ed ur beard’, but vehement criticism after a performance was sufficient to upset Verdi nonetheless. He got a pastry out of it though, and, eventually, so did I.
The cafe is the first stop in a walk round the medieval alleyways (known as caruggi) that form the old town. The city has an official register of historic shops, some of which have been trading for 200 years, including confectioners, bakeries and butchers. They occupy the ground floors of ancient buildings that rise up in not entirely straight lines, so that structures built on either side of the narrowest streets threaten to meet at the top.
Many of the products in these shops were first made for the sailors that worked on ships docked at the port. Stoccafisso, cod that’s dried as a method of preservation, hang from the rafters of one shop like petrified bats; densely packed salted anchovies sit in tubs on the shelves beneath. Lots of the town’s bakers still make galleta all’acqua, a type of long-life bread originally made to endure on long voyages.
Tripperia La Casana, a shop dedicated to tripe, is the provider of the day’s most visceral experience. The interior is a mix of ceramic, stone and copper surfaces that gives the place a rustic abattoir charm; the white tiles on the wall almost seem unfinished without blood spatter. One of the staff is passing an array of organs and tissue through a cast iron mincer for a waiting customer, while her colleague slops another bucket of what looks like intestines into a tray that forms a rather challenging window display.
The smell inside is uniquely disconcerting. With our guide’s back turned, I look at someone else in our group with an expression of mildly anxious nausea in the hope of conveying the question “are you coping with this?”. I interpret the look in her returning glance to say “barely”. More intrepid food-lovers will relish the opportunity to try the traditional tripe stew made here, but I feel a pressing urge to sample the fresh air outside.
Walking uphill, further away from the port and the tripe, soon brings you to Via Garibaldi, home to the grandest of the city’s Rolli palaces. The street and palaces were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006 and the latter are host to vast art collections that include paintings by Rubens, Van Dyke and Caravaggio.
A lift to the roof of the Palazzo Rosso yields an impressive panoramic view of the city. Clinging to a shaky wrought-iron handrail, you can look over sun-bleached rooftops down to the Porto Antico and out across the Mediterranean.
The old port was redeveloped by one of Genoa’s most famous sons, Renzo Piano, in 1992 and is now a tourist destination rather than part of the working harbour. I Tre Merli is on the quayside, near the city’s aquarium, and is where we’re taken for lunch.
The Genoese are widely credited with the invention of pesto and, as we learn in a pesto-making class during the trip, they take it fairly seriously. Each Genoese family has their own recipe and we’re assured there’s no pesto like one made with the small leaves of Ligurian basil.
Lunch is Trofie al Pesto, a speciality of the region. One imagines it would have the Helmsley sisters and Deliciously Ella chugging back fistfuls of Xanax owing to the union of pasta, potato and green beans coated in a pesto that contains both parmesan and pecorino. My clean-eating days belong to a parallel universe, so I’m only delighted that a basket of oily, salty focaccia completes a sacrilegious carb hat-trick.
Vermentino is one of Liguria’s most prominent white wines, and ours has just enough acidity to cut through the excellent sauce. Later that day, dinner at Le Rune includes a bottle of Rossese di Dolceacqua, one of the region’s popular reds. It’s as light as a burgundy (the grape is used to make rosé in the south of France) and although it struggles to compete with the richness of a beef shin raviolini, it’ll please fans of lighter red wine.
After dinner, back near the stylish Le Nuvole hotel, which occupies the fourth floor of another Rolli palace in the old town, three of us sit outside with drinks in a square called Piazza Lavagna. Genoa feels like a normal working city, so it can still take you by surprise to look up and see frescoes on the sides of so many buildings, particularly after a few negronis.
The second day’s lunch is at the elegant Cavo, where we sit surrounded by Italian families who all seem passionate about the steak tartare. I notice too late to order it and discover why, but vegetable ravioli in a walnut sauce, followed by an almond tart called Torta Mazzini more than makes up for it. We eat under a 17th century Baroque fresco painted by Bernado Strozzi, by now getting quite used to spectacular art in whichever direction we look.
Two days in Genoa is, of course, merely a scratch on its surface, as we see during a short trip south to Boccadasse.
The neighbourhood makes a good first stop on a drive from the centre of Genoa along the coast, through several fishing villages, until you reach the more famous resort of Portofino, famed for its seafood restaurants.
We sit outside with glasses of white wine and some fried squid and anchovies, overlooking a small pebblestone beach that accommodates fishermen’s boats.
Boccadasse shows that Genoa has even more to offer than the baroque and renaissance splendour of the palaces in the old town, and is a taster of the areas and restaurants of the city we haven’t had time to discover.
Part of Genoa’s appeal is that it does without the pomp and gloss of more traditional Italian destinations. If you’re looking for somewhere in Italy that feels like a normal working city as well as a place for an enjoyable break, it should be near the top of your list.
Back underneath my makeshift blackout veil on the return flight to London, 48 hours in Genoa has left me with memories of excellent food and wine, impressive history and a great time. Genoa may not be the obvious choice for tourists, but what more can you ask from a weekend in Italy?
With thanks to the Genoa Tourist Offices – www.visitgenoa.it
We stayed at Le Nuvole Hotel (doubles from €90 per night) http://www.hotellenuvole.it/
Flights from London Gatwick to Genoa with British Airways start from £82.
Flights from London Stansted to Genoa with Ryanair start from £32.