Genoa: No expectations, thoroughly delighted (5th – 6th June, Days 11 – 12)

“The Most Serene Republic of Genoa ruled the Mediterranean waves during the 12th to the 13th centuries, before deferring to the superior power of Piedmont. Its crusading noblemen once established colonies in the Middle East and North Africa, and its emblematic flag, the red cross of St George, was greedily hijacked by the English.” Lonely Planet

I still had some 15 km to go to reach my hostel after I left the first gelataria I had found once I’d hit Genoa. The route followed narrow, heavily trafficked, streets with far fewer bicycles than, say, Milan. But still the motorists gave me space and none showed any agro.

I arrived in Genova ignorant and without expectations. I pedalled a major roadway boarding the port with a highway overhead (like the Cahill Expressway in Sydney but bigger and uglier) stopping now and then to refer to Google maps for directions to my hostel. When I turned off the major road I found myself almost immediately in a cool dark warren of narrow ancient roads lined with shops of all variety (not just tourist crap) and bustling with people. Wow.

And then: is that a prostitute? Oh, oh, yes it is, and there’s another, and another. Oh look she’s negotiating with a customer. The idea of prostitution doesn’t bother me – it’s called the oldest profession for a reason and so long as men will pay for sex there will be women who will sell it. I think it best to accept that reality and make the transaction as safe and fair as possible. That said, the presence of active prostitution makes me uncomfortable and I was pleased when I left that part of via Maddelena behind.

My hostel is on the third floor of a very old building on a road that is actually stairs. These were challenges I could have done without at the end of a long hot day of riding. However once arrived I find OstellinGenova lovely and welcoming.

Davide, one of the owners and the person staffing the hostel through most of my stay, points me toward a popular-with-locals hole-in-the-wall restaurant with award winning pesto (a Genovese speciality). It was just what I needed – a short pasta liberally dressed with rich earth pesto, fried calamari and ¼ litre of house red for A$23.

I emerged to see the city, rising on the hills above the harbour, bathed in late evening tangerine light which also danced and sparkled gently from the water. Genova’s waterfront has had the Darling Harbour (Sydney) and Inner Harbor (Baltimore) treatment – an attempt to beautify and make commercial an old industrial area. Of course here the old industry dates to Roman days. Like Sydney they built an elevated highway between the harbour and the city, and, like in Sydney, it’s a scarring mistake.

I’m wrecked and with some light still in the sky I retreat to my hostel bed for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

6 June –

My hostel is full tonight but they have found a bed for me at a nearby hostel. I’ll have another day and night in this beguiling place.

It’s already hot hot when I head out mid-morning to have a more thorough look around. I begin with via Garibaldi – which is UNESCO listed and, back in the day, the residents were required to host visiting royalty, popes, and other dignitaries. It’s impressive and yet I know the glories and decadence is actually hidden behind what are, in comparison, modest facades. One now seems to serve as a municipal marriage hall; several bridal parties are lingering in the courtyard and applause and cheers come from rooms above.

I am heading for a focaccia place recommended by Lonely Planet (another Geovese speciality) when I come upon a busy piazza. A busking trio of fiddle, bass and accordion play a gypsy-ish swing; a couple dance. A kiosk overflows with flowers. An 11th century church rises at one end and beneath it a hardware store with old-school window displays full of too much stuff. Masses of people – tourists and locals alike crowd past each other coming and going from the dark cool alleyways that lead off the piazza in five directions.

Hunger gets the best of me and I spot an especially interesting looking focaccia in a window: a base of an almost liquid white cheese, mozzarella slices, tomatoes, olives and a sprinkling of oregano. I buy a piece and take it to the steps of the San Lorenzo Cathedral. I watch kids kicking a ball and immigrant street sellers moving their tables closer to the gaggle of tourists being led by a guide; theirs is a vain hope of someone wanting cheap fleuro sunnies. The focaccia is interesting, messy and good. When I finish I notice the name of the focacciaria on the wrapping … it’s the place I’d been looking for.

I make my way out of the maze and traverse the port side of the old town through a shop-lined arcade – fishmongers and junk shops, pizzerias and kebab stalls. Life and commerce spilling out all around. I am heading toward Palazzo Reale and trying to keep from the harsh hot sun as I go. I find myself in a Muslim quarter and suddenly everyone speaks Arabic.

I share my hour at the Palzzo Reale, observing the decadace of old Genoa, with five other tourists. Gold and red velvet, mirrors and crystal chandelliers. Grey and white marble terraces the size of children’s football pitches bake in the glaring sun. The view beyond is of the machinery of the modern port. Above me, a group of young people lunch on a roof terrace of a nearby apartment block and all around laundry flutters on washing lines.

I have a moment tonight when it all sorts of hit me – I feel a little teary, a little emotional. The setting sun, again, does magical things – this time lighting up voluptuous clouds in way that doesn’t happen at home. There is a warm, wet, sea-salty softness to the light. They are the clouds of old world paintings – where are the cherubs with harps? A woman is singing with a strong, clear, unembarrassed voice to piped in pop music. I am passed by more of these beautiful dark featured blue-eyed Italian men … smoking. (Italy: smoking like its 1983.) I arrive again at the waterfront and the undeniable whiff of sewerage. Two young men stroll skulling a bottle of red wine.

Genova is doing my head in. Mostly in a good way. A city of such contrasts and in such proximity – the whores, the ancient wealth, the voices of women coming from churches, the immigrants hawking crap from cardboard displays – it is life in all its vibrancy.

That’s a hardware store beneath a church.

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