As any Genovese will proclaim, “Si deve conoscerla per amarla”—you have to know Genoa to love her. A city of grit and grandeur, Genoa (“JEH-no-va” in Italian) has little in common with neighboring beach towns, except of course impeccable focaccia and pesto. The ugly port and large monuments are the most apparent features of the city, but much of central Genoa is a hidden maze—the narrow, tangled vicoli by the port are full of stores, churches, and charm. The world-famous aquarium and the nearby miniscule fishing village of Boccadasse (where people still speak zenese, an Italian dialect) attract travelers in the know, but truth be told, most Italians will look at you funny if you say you spent time in Genoa on purpose. Like, for fun. So most travelers just pass through, using the city as a base for exploring the specatcular Ligurian coast. Those who do stick around come to appreciate Genoa as the historic port whose rich intellectual history, financial success, and distinctive culture may just have the rest of Italy a little bit jealous. And we’re not just saying that. This place has class.
Genoa has two train stations: Stazione Principe, in P. Acquaverde, and Stazione Brignole, in P. Verdi. From Stazione Principe take bus #18, 19, or 30, and from Stazione Brignole take bus #19 or 40 to Piazza de Ferrari in the center of town. To walk to P. de Ferrari from Stazione Principe, take Via Balbi to Via Cairoli, which becomes Via Garibaldi, and at Piazza delle Fontane Marose turn right on Via XXV Aprile. From Stazione Brignole, turn right out of the station, left on Via Fiume, and right onto Via XX Settembre, ending in P. de Ferrari. To get to the Porto Antico from P. de Ferrari, take V. Boetto to Piazza Giacomo Matteoti, and follow Via di San Lorenzo to the water. Genoa’s streets stump even natives, so pick up a map.
Centro storico, the eerie and beautiful historical center bordered by Porto Antico, V. Garibaldi, and P. Ferrari, is a mass of winding streets. The area contains some of Genoa’s most memorable sights, including the asymmetrical San Lorenzo Duomo, down V. San Lorenzo from P. Matteotti, and the medieval Torre Embraci. Go down V. S. Lorenzo toward the water, turn left on V. Chiabrera, and left on V. di Mascherona to reach the Chiesa Santa Maria di Castello, in P. Caricamento, a labyrinth of chapels, courtyards, and crucifixes. Don’t miss the enigmatic Palazzo Spinola di Pellicceria, P. di Pellicceria 1, between V. Maddalena and P. San Luca, a late 16th-century palace which represents centuries of varying architectural styles. From P. de Ferrari, take V. Boetto to P. Matteotti for a glimpse of the ornate interior and paintings by Rubens in Chiesa di Gesù. Head past the church down V. di Porta Soprana to V. Ravecca to reach the Porta Soprana, one of the four gates into the city, near the boyhood home of Christopher Columbus. Genoa’s multitude of palazzi were built by its merchant families. Follow V. Balbi through P. della Nunziata and continue to L. Zecca, where V. Cairoli leads to Via Garibaldi, called “Via Aurea” (Golden Street) after the wealthy families who inhabited it. The interior of the 17th-century Palazzo Reale, V. Balbi 10, west of V. Garibaldi, is bathed in gold.
A dish prepared alla Genovese is served with Genoa’s pride and joy—pesto. The genovesi put it on just about everything and claim that Ligurian water is why true pesto can only be made from basil in this region of Italy. Other delectables include farinata (a fried, chickpea flour pancake), focaccia filled with cheese or topped with olives or onions, and pansotti (ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta in a creamy walnut sauce).
The Slow Food movement sprung up in 1986 when Carlo Petrini of Bra, Italy decided enough was enough with grab-n-go fast-food chains. In a mere 22 years, his movement has grown to 80,000 members from all points of the globe who are attempting to counteract consumers’ dwindling interest in the food they eat. Where is it from? What does it taste like? Sometimes we eat so quickly that we can’t even remember.
Slow Food’s requirements are three-fold; the food must be good, clean, and fair. In other words, it must taste good, not harm the environment, and food producers must receive fair compensation for their work. Ultimately, their view is that when you lift your fork to swirl that first bite of linguine, you are not just a consumer, but also an informed co-producer.
Keep an eye out for Slow Food’s snail symbol on the doors of many restaurants in Italy for assured quality. They even opened a University of Gastronomic Sciences in 2004, offering Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, along with many cultural seminars.
So before you grab that panini “da portare via” (“to go”), take a moment to step back and remember where your food is coming from. Even a little acknowledgement is a start.
The first meal of the day in Italy generally isn’t anything too elaborate: la colazione may consist simply of coffee and a cornetto (croissant). Lunch (il pranzo) can go either way: in rural regions you may find it to be a hugely elaborate affair that precedes a nap and separates the two halves of the workday. However, most Italians will just grab a simple panino (sandwich) or salad. The last meal of the day, la cena, is generally the most important, and starts at approximately 8pm. It can continue through most of evening, as it may contain any or all of the following courses: an antipasto (appetizer), a primo (starchy first course like pasta or risotto), a secondo (meat or fish), a contorno (vegetable side dish), a dolce (dessert), a caffè (coffee), and often an after-dinner liqueur.
Italian-style coffee, or espresso, is famous, though the blend of coffee beans used is often from Brazil. The beans are roasted medium to medium-dark in the north, getting progressively darker as you move toward the south. Caffè macchiato is topped with a bit of steamed milk or foam; cappuccino is mixed with steamed, frothy milk; and caffè latte is equal parts espresso and steamed milk. Other varieties include the frowned-upon caffè americano, watered down and served in a large cup, and caffè coretto, a kicked-up version that includes a bit of strong liqueur.
Leading the world in both wine exports and national wine consumption, Italy is a country that values a good vino. Every year, over one million vineyards cultivate grapes for rosso (red wine) and bianco (white wine). The difference? Red wine includes the skins of the grapes in the fermenting process, while white wine does not. Try such regional beauties as Barolo, a classy (read: expensive) staple of Piedmont made from red grapes that are fermented for over 20 years, or Frascati, a cold, clean Roman white.
One of the many things the Romans did for us was leave behind an enormous artistic legacy. They did a good job of borrowing from the Ancient Greeks, with architectural motifs like columns, domes, and precise geometry being all the rage. The Roman taste for flair made its way into household art: sumptuous frescoes of mythical stories covered wealthy Romans’ walls, while mosaics decorated the floor.
The Middle Ages started out pretty unoriginally, as far as architecture goes: the “in” style, Romanesque, mimicked the Romans’ rounded arches, heavy columns, and windowless churches. Of course, when the hot new Gothic movement brought airy vaulted ceilings and giant stained-glass windows from France, the dark and heavy Romanesque style moved to the not list. Despite architecture’s new, less gloomy beauty, sculptors and painters continued to specialize in dead or dying Christians.
All that began to change during the Renaissance. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, depicting the goddess rising from a seashell, marked the beginning of a new age for art. David, one of the most gawked-at nude statues of all time, did the same for sculpture, thanks to artist Michelangelo. Michelangelo also painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, arguably one of the greatest works of all time, then declared to Pope Julius II, “I am not a painter!” Painter, sculptor, or Queen of England, the guy was an artistic genius. The other three ninja turtles’ namesakes,Raphael, Donatello, and Leonardo (da Vinci) also left their marks on the Italian art scene. Raphael was a prolific painter, Donatello specialized in relief sculpture, and Leonardo… well, the man merits a whole paragraph to himself.
Genius, artist, inventor, sculptor, and author—Leonardo was, in short, the ultimate Renaissance Man. Some of his ingenious sketches have proven themselves to be perfectly viable plans for flying machines, testifying to their creator’s visionary imagination. The Italians weren’t always great at hanging onto his work, though, which is why you’ll find his most famous painting in the France chapter.
By the end of the Renaissance, artists had nearly perfected the representation of a scene: the perspective, shadow, and human figures they painted were all completely realistic. Once this got boring, the natural next step forward was to depict how the artist really felt. This new approach to painting characterized a style now referred to as Mannerism. The most famous painter of this style, Tintoretto, gained a reputation for his temper, earning himself the nickname Il Furioso.
From this time forward, art began to move and develop in a less uniform fashion. The Baroque style combined Renaissance grandeur with the emotional affect of Mannerism to create powerful but naturalistic works, best exemplified by Naples’s Caravaggio. Rococo came a little later and focused on light motifs like seashells and clouds, leading to some ridiculously elaborate decorative art, particularly in Venice. The 19th century saw two of everyone’s favorite -isms: Impressionism and Neoclassicism. The latter was particularly inspired by the interest in Ancient Rome that followed the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The most notable 20th-century Italian movement was Futurism, which admired speed, violence, and the industrial city. Not surprisingly, many Futurists were supporters of Fascism. Recent Italian art has veered away from particular -isms, but, despite the country’s reputation for masterworks of the past, many galleries like Venice’s Punta della Dogana and Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna focus on works that continue this thriving artistic legacy into the present day.
A friendly (sometimes too friendly) bunch, Italians have their own ways of doing things. If you want to fit in, you might need a small course in Italian etiquette. Chances are, with four million visitors each year, they’ll still know you’re a tourist, but at least they’ll think you’re a polite one.
Italians place a lot of emphasis on first impressions, so don’t get yourself into a “mi scusi” situation. When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake is the way to go—air kissing (left side first!) generally comes with more familiarity. The Italian people are known to stand pretty close, so get ready to readjust your personal space boundaries. When it comes to clothing, Italians find having bella figura (good image) very important and tend to value quality over quantity. Short skirts and shorts are slightly more risqué in Italy than America—revealing tops are a little less so.