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Genoa Genuinely Doesn't Care What You Think
June 22, 2017 -- The fourth or fifth time you get lost trying to find a new hotel just 500 feet from where you stand you'll have to decide whether you love or hate Genoa.
I decided to love it--although I must warn you that Genoa really doesn't give a damn what you think about it. It toddles along in its hermetically sealed way, mostly unvisited by the tourist hordes that have picked apart every other square inch of Italy and largely unmentioned in the endless torrent of words showered on each quirky little section of the country.
Almost no one comes to Genoa except the Zena--what the Genovese call themselves--and the city seems just fine with that. Strategically nestled between the Italian Riviera and the Cinque Terre to the south and Milan to the north, Genoa remains a redoubt of Italians being Italians without the slightest care what straneri (foreigners) think.
Example: Porto Antico and the surrounding Caruggi District are navigable only via impossibly narrow, often seedy alleyways and passages that confound both printed maps and Google Maps. There are few signs, fewer cars and no concessions to visitors. You either figure out where you're going or you don't. You either ignore the haggard streetwalkers trolling for (I assume) visiting sailors or you recoil in disgust. You either laugh at all the graffiti--"Fuck Gentrification," urged an English one in big, black letters painted on a storefront gate--or you don't. Genoa genuinely doesn't care.
Example: the Genoa Metro was built in 1990 and serves 11 million passengers a year. Yet for reasons known only to the Zena, it is a paltry 4.4 miles in length with just eight stations. It connects Genoa's main railroad terminals (Principe and Brignole) and reaches into the suburban hills. Yet no one thought to extend the subway to the city's small airport. "Take the Volabus," said a passing Zena who overheard me explaining the oddity to another visiting American in a passenger walkway leading to the Principe station. "The Metro doesn't go."
Example: The Port of Genoa is the busiest cargo entrepôt in Italy and sprawls for 13 miles along the Ligurian Sea, yet the city of 600,000 people remains overwhelmingly (about 95 percent) Italian. There are small Chinese and Indian neighborhoods and some pockets of Latin Americans and North Africans, but Genoa seems immune to all of the immigration spreading throughout Italy. Yet those few who settle in Genoa seem to adore it. "I love this place best of all," a waitress born in Siberia told me in Italian-inflected English. "I hope to never leave."
The "secret" of Genoa struck me late one night as I was wandering along the Via Luccoli, a street I belatedly realized connected the Caruggi District to the Via Garibaldi, one of the city's main arteries. Genoa is the Philadelphia of Italy. It's ignored because it exists in the shadow of Milan, Italy's fashion and finance capital, much as Philadelphia is overwhelmed by New York. They're even geographically approximate. Genoa is a just 88 miles from Milan, a cheap, easy train ride away. Much as some folks commute the 95 miles from Philadelphia to New York for business, you can live in Genoa, commute to Milan and totally ignore the Milanese mania for overpriced restaurants, oppressively expensive housing and fashion slavery.
As everyone knows from their wildly inaccurate schoolbook history, Genovese sailor Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World. Genoa wouldn't mind if you returned the favor and visited sometime. But, if not, the Zena are okay with that, too.
GETTING THERE Genoa Airport is compact and calm, with a roving gelato cart, a common-use lounge that has just been renovated and a branch of one of the city's elegant sweet shops. But there are no nonstops from the United States or Canada. You must connect via Air France (Paris), Alitalia (Rome), KLM (Amsterdam) or Lufthansa (Munich). British Airways flies to Genoa, too, but from London/Gatwick, not Heathrow. Otherwise, fly nonstop to Milan/Malpensa and train it in. Cars are useless in wide swathes of the city, although major rental firms are represented at the airport.
GETTING AROUND The aforementioned Volabus connects the airport and the city's centrally located train terminals, Principe and Brignole. It's 5 euros each way. A cab between the airport and most center city locations costs about 20 euros. ... Buses and ferries, like the Metro and the Volabus, are controlled by AMT Genova, the city's omnibus transit agency. It even operates a narrow-gauge railroad and funiculars, including one that runs horizontally as well as vertically. All forms of transit can be bundled into AMT's network of passes. ... Uber does not operate in Genoa.
WHERE TO STAY Except for a Marriott AC Hotel far from the city center and a Holiday Inn near the ferry terminal, the big chains haven't reached Genoa. The "best" hotel is probably the Melia Genova, but it's on the edge of the centro storico (historic city center) and far from the action. ... The NH Genova Marina has great harbor views. Unfortunately, it's also next to the city's most hectic tourist attractions. But if you drive from elsewhere in Italy, you can park your car here--and that's no small perk. ... That new hotel I kept misplacing is the Hotel Palazzo Grillo. It opened in April and is in the heart of the Caruggi District. It was a bit stark for my tastes. Your design aesthetic may vary. ... Your best bet may be the Best Western Hotel Metropoli. It's a solid three-star property and perfectly located at the top of Via Luccoli right where it connects to the Via Garibaldi.
WHAT TO DO I'm a sucker for towns where you can walk endlessly and explore odd little nooks and crannies and unique shops. But if you need more, there's the city's Renzo Piano-designed aquarium and the maritime museum. Genoa's glorious main square, Piazza De Ferrari, is a genuinely uplifting bit of urbanity. Sufficiently heartened, you can then shop or wander along all the streets leading out of the square. For other ideas, consult the city's surprisingly decent tourist site.
WHAT TO EAT I went to Genoa so I could say that I once ate genuine pesto. And I did, but mostly I gorged on focaccia, the puffy Ligurian bread of life. It's everywhere. I happened to make multiple visits to Focaccia & Co (91R Piazza Soziglia) and its "rival" across the square, Titti & Fede. Go early for the widest selection. I adored the onion-topped versions. I ate so much I forgot farinata, Genoa's famed chickpea pancakes.
WHERE TO DINE No one will ever agree on the best pesto in Genoa, but the consensus of my little group was Ristorante Rustichello, a charming and unassuming place between the busy Via XX Settembre and Brignole Station. ... My favorite meal--a Sichuan pepper-infused version of cacio e pepe--came at Bella Bu Bistrot. Everything on its menu was similarly inventively tweaked. ... The seafood and the surroundings are stylish at Icuochi. Yet you may leave admiring the food and the dining room more than loving them. ... The fare at Ombre Rosse seemed just as creative--and it had a better wine list. If you are lucky, you sit in a nice little garden.
WHAT TO READ After decades of editorial neglect, publications suddenly seem to be writing about Genoa. Two years ago, to plug his book about the city's maritime tradition, historian Nicholas Walton talked to The Guardian about his favorite bits of Genoa. ... The writer Michael Frank penned a long love note to Genoa two months ago in The New York Times. ... And the latest issue of Conde Nast Traveler offers up an eating guide.
LOCAL COLOR Genovese love their food halls and the biggest and most phantasmagorical is the Mercato Orientale. The name is a misnomer. There's nothing Oriental about it, just endless stalls of fresh fish, meats, vegetables, pastries, breads, spices, groceries and wine. If you walk upstairs to the mostly disused second level, you'll even find a butcher specializing in horse meat. ... Genoa Airport authorities have suspended the 3-ounce rule for liquids in carry-on bags. But only for locally produced pesto. You are now allowed to carry up to 500 grams in your hand luggage.
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