Thursday, 29 May 2014

Days 430 to 432: Genoa

Welcome to... England?

In fact, this is the Genoese flag, the St George cross of the red cross on a white background. A rumour, seemingly from the Victorian times, has the English effectively nicking the design from the Genoese, but that's just Victorians getting over-excited. They both date from the Crusades, when St George and his dragon-slaying came into vogue. The Genoese previously had as their patron saint some guy called St Lawrence, but his miracles were just stuff like making extra bread to feed people: clearly that can't compete with killing a dragon, so he was dumped and George was brought in. St George had his own flag at the time, but by the 14th Century it had been simplified into the Crusader-era red-cross-on-white design. Around the same time, England was adopting St George as their own too, with the all-new flag design package that came with him. As it happens, Italy kicks off its World Cup campaign on June 14th against England - makes you wonder what flag the Genoese contingent of the support will be waving.

Despite being fairly well travelled, I've never been to Italy before. Genoa was my introduction - what an introduction. From the moment we'd arrived, it was clear this was new territory - I've never been anywhere like this before. For me, Genoa brought to mind some unexpected comparisons. Think of the dark Los Angeles portrayed in Bladerunner, or the city-planet of Coruscant in the Star Wars saga. Genoa had that feel - dark, clustered, and very vertical. Clearly, Genoa isn't a skyscraper-filled city of the future, but its tiny streets and alleys are like deep canyons between the sheer vertical mass of buildings that tower alongside. As a result, they are permanently cast in shadow, as though in some underworld. This is not a city of broad boulevards and bright lights.

Added to this evocative setting is Genoa's cast of characters: a whole bunch of mentalists. We arrived early evening, taking the metro for a stop. Bare and scabby, Danielle compared it to one you might see in a disaster movie, Sylvester Stallone diving out of the way of a series of explosions. Upon emerging in the centre of Genoa and its dark, somewhat intimidating network of alleys, everyone around seemed like twisted characters in a Dickens novel. I'm sure they were lovely people if you get to know them, but their behaviour seemed erratic and vaguely menacing. They had a look that suggested they were ready to fight. From nowhere along a quiet alley, footsteps would sound, a dark figure would appear by your shoulder - and then peacefully pass by. People drinking in doorsteps would look up at you. Some would not - they'd be busy conducting a conversation with themselves. A couple of old men, for some reason, were wearing large ladies' wigs. This is just the colour of many cities, but Genoa's claustrophobic lanes and shadows gave even innocent events an edge of theatrical villainry.

This may not sound like the most flattering of descriptions, but I suppose it depends on how you like your cities. Do you like them shabby and threatening, yet majestically atmospheric, or do you like them a little more on the nicer, cleaner side? Danielle and I had differing opinions. While she partially liked it, she's not an overall fan of the shabby look - I have no idea why she married me - whereas I love a bit of mess and squalor, within reason. Genoa is unashamed in its shabbiness, it is gorgeous in its old-school Middle Ages grime. It's an old man that can't be bothered getting washed and dressed in an unfamiliar suit just because he's meeting the queen that day; instead he says screw it, and turns up at the palace in his threadbare jacket, torn trousers, and a 30-year-old flatcap, stinking of booze. He gets away with it too, because beneath it all he's richly cultured. And I love it for that. Genoa is all about character. Its buildings, its people, its streets, its culture, its history.

We had two nights but only really one day, which was enough for Danielle and not enough for me. However, in terms of the set-pieces, we covered the essentials in the one day. We visited the Palazzo Reale, a gorgeous and grand mansion from the 16th Century. Genoa is not a city about wide open spaces, and this mansion-turned-palace-turned-museum could quite easily be missed if you weren't looking for it - it's just another door on the street. But once inside, into its open courtyard that turns into a garden that overlooks the port, and up a couple of stairways, a grand mini-Versailles, complete with its own Hall of Mirrors, is present.

Our ticket also gave us entry to another mansion, this one hidden almost impossibly within Genoa's street maze, a six-storey vertical home hemmed in by the rest of the city, packed with paintings and period furniture, although tragically badly damaged during the Second World War. It had a rooftop terrace, offering some respite from the congestion of the streets. It seems that if you go up, there a different world exists on the sky of Genoa.

"Going up" is something Genoa rather enjoys doing - there are multiple ascensores, that is public lifts, across the city. Genoa is a vertical city for a reason - there's not much room between the mountains and the sea, thus not much space to build in the old medieval city except up. But it has spread way beyond this core, up and across the hills, and so numerous lifts, for about 0.90, save you the effort of walking and take you up there. Although they clearly must be a little more modern, these lifts seem like they themselves come from the Middle Ages, being creaking, battered, and poised to snap at the worst moment. But once up there, there are lovely views across the city.

Christopher Columbus is reputed to have been born here too. Certainly, he was born in the Republic of Genoa, back in the days when it had loads of territory - whether he was born in the city itself is uncertain. Nonetheless, you can visit the house of his maybe-birth for 3. Don't. Simulate the experience by walking in and out of a concrete cupboard three times. Fortunately, the ticket also covered climbing up a nearby pair of towers. In case we hadn't had enough view across Genoa, this gave us a few more. Including one of Columbus's rubbish house.

There's plenty more to the city too, from the bustling port, the lighthouse, and a celebrated aquarium, which costs about 18, which I'm sure is good value if you like looking at fish. But Genoa's not really about the set-pieces, it doesn't need them. Like the shabby old man meeting the queen, it seems to shrug its shoulders about whether you approve or not. Because it doesn't need your approval. It just needs a can of super-lager and a doorway - and it's got plenty of that.

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