Thursday, July 14, 2016

Genoa, Italy

After Marseille, our cruise on the MSC Poesia took us down the colorful coast of what is referred to as the lower "boot" of the Italian Peninsula.  As hard as I try, I don't really see a boot when I look at a map of Italy, but then, I can't see most of the constellations in the sky at night either.  According to those with better imaginations than me, we were heading down the lower leg and would arrive at the ankle the next day when we stopped in Naples.

We crossed the languid blue Ligurian Sea and stopped in the early morning at Genoa, the home port of the MSC cruise line.  There were ships of all sizes, including many rusty freighters, and ferry boats zipped around Porto Antico harbor like water striders  This was clearly a place of important commerce.

It was a beautiful sunny Sunday, the temperature was about 70 degrees, and we were off the boat in the first wave.  

The dock was located near the heart of the old city, so there would be no death march along the highway this time around like back in Marseille.  We walked through an old, slightly dilapidated warehouse complex, under hanging concrete street arches where scruffy merchant seamen lounged along the sidewalks smoking and drinking small cups of coffee as they awaited their next billet.  Cabs were lined up by a long row of glass doors and we followed families carrying suitcases into the MSC cruise terminal that had recently been spruced up for the tourons. The ticket counter area was bustling with travelers as we walked up some brown marble steps that we hoped would take us to the street above.  At the top of the steps we were greeted by a large sign next to the tiny Genova Tourist Office (they say Genova and we say Genoa)  where they happily provided maps, brochures, and sold tickets for the scenic Hop On - Hop Off bus tour.  We paid $35 for two tickets, walked outside, hopped on a nearly empty open-top, double-decker bus and settled in for a leisurely ride.

The Pesci in Genova Tour offered eight stops and took about an hour to do the circuit around town.  As usual, they gave us some cheap headphones to plug into the small audio box at each seat, providing the play-by-play of the tour in six languages.

I knew nothing about Genoa other than the fact that it was the home of Christopher Columbus and a powerful trade center from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.  The colorful brochures explained that it was Italy's main commercial port.

From a distance it looked like a tough, soot-stained town sprinkled with lovely old buildings dating back many centuries to a time when Italy ruled the civilized world – such as it was.  The waterfront was dominated by the Piazza Caricamento, where pastel buildings covered steep hillsides above the long, curving waterfront. 

Genoa is essentially several large Piazzas (open air plazas) lined with grand office buildings, fountains, museums, restaurants, mansions, palaces, churches, monuments to government, and shops, all interconnected by carrugi (lovely pedestrian stone streets) and criss-crossed by narrow, shady alleyways.  

We sat atop our sunny perch as the bus did the slow circuit around town via the main drags that were undoubtedly less crowded than usual given that it was a Sunday morning and Italy is a very Catholic nation. We marked the sites on our handy Genova map that we planned to re-visit on foot, like the ornate Comendmenda di Pre, Cathedrale San Lorenzo, Castello D'Albertis, Basilica St Annunzita,  and the Bigo, a panoramic lift which offered an amazing 360-degree view of the city, the historical center, and the sea.  To the south, dancing in the blue haze, lay the dreamy island of Corsica. 

Once back at the industrial waterfront, we stayed on the bus while it reloaded with passengers and then took it to the third stop at the spectacular Piazza de Ferrari, Genoa's main square, where we hopped off to check out  the stunningly beautiful Palazzo Ducale, the former royal palace which now houses the Judicial Court.

Genoa is a walker's paradise.  Other than the main streets, generally running north to south, it's built and operates at a pedestrian scale.  But it's a rat maze of streets, most of which go east to west and often dead-end without warning.  So, you always have to be checking your map and thinking a few streets ahead if you aren't on one of the bigger through streets; otherwise, much like in Venice, the street will abruptly end at a building or wall.  Then you have to backtrack, and take a connector alley over to one of the main streets.

The alleyways are where Genoa's real treasures are found and they are full of constant surprises.  More on this a bit later.

After checking out the palace and the ornate fountain in the center of the plaza we were ready to go exploring.  Our eyes were drawn to a fancy street to our left lined with marbled Byzantine arches.  This was Via XX Settembrethe city's most upscale shopping district where elegant Gucci and Cartier stores were nestled like Russian Easter eggs under the Portici Via XX Settembre (marble and tile porticos similar to Bologna) that stretched as far as the eye could see  This busy street links the old and new city and is flanked by magnificent Liberty Palaces where the wealthy Genovans once held court.

Everyone was walking around clutching flower bouquets, mostly red roses.  Sunday is flower day in Genoa and it seemed like the whole town was buying flowers for a loved one, or to take home.  There were flower markets and rickety stalls down every side alley and vendors walked the street and stood on every corner.  It was like the wonderful world of flowers.  At one of the markets a vendor was selling purple and blue roses, something I had never seen before.  A dozen roses sold for about 7 euro ($10) which wasn't bad at all.

We stopped for a snack at an outdoor cafe before continuing a few blocks west to the Piazza della Vittoria where spacious gardens adorned with beautiful sculptures and benches stretched for several blocks and covered a wooded hillside framed like a portal to paradise by the Arco della Vittoria (a giant white marble arch that resembled the Arc de Triomphe in Paris)  After that, it was time to start heading back toward the ship.  We still had a long walk ahead of us and lots to see.

When we returned to Ferrari Plaza, we noticed that everyone seemed to be heading down the Via San Matteo, a street dating back to the Middle Ages and looking pretty much untouched by time, where musicians played for the passing crowd and children in their Sunday finest carried individual roses.  A noisy wedding party suddenly came out of a lovely church and took over the street with gay abandon.  We were all suddenly a part of the wedding party and there was much hugging and rejoicing between family and strangers alike.  Italians are happy and very expressive people and they wear their emotions on their sleeves.  The women were dressed in tight red, yellow, and black dresses that showcased their exceptional beauty.  If I wasn't very happily married, I might have considered getting hitched myself.  It looked like big fun.

When I looked at the map I realized that the street we were on dead-ended a few blocks ahead, so I suggested to Inna that we take the next alley on our left down to Via San Lorenzo, named after the lovely cathedral that featured a wondrous mix of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance architectural styles.

The alley was dark and winding, like walking down the rabbit hole. After a short distance it became eerily quiet.  And that's when I saw the whores.

There were women dressed provocatively, standing or sitting in almost every doorway.  Some were negotiating with would-be clients, but most just leaned listlessly against the doorways smoking and no doubt wishing they were somewhere else.

I wasn't shocked by seeing prostitutes – I've spent some time in Amsterdam  but stumbling upon a hundred ladies of the night, sitting and standing brazenly along the street at two in the afternoon in front of their apartments on a Sunday, less than a block from one of the city's grand cathedrals, was a bit out of the ordinary.  Inna and I did our best not to stare and point.  And the girls seemed to find our obvious surprise a bit amusing.  They giggled and winked at us as we quickly headed for San Lorenzo where street vendors sold their wares.  I guess you could say that everybody was selling something in Genoa that day.

On our way back to the Poesia, we did what everyone does when in Italy.  We tried some pizza.  There was a small plaza behind an ancient church made of grey and green Florentine marble and limestone where there were several small outdoor cafes.

I always find it amusing that pizza was originally a peasant dish because it was so filling and yet very cheap to make, and is now one of the world's most popular meals, served in some of the fanciest restaurants at a markup of about a thousand percent.

But the Italians still make the best pizza.  It's all in the ingredients.  They use only the best flour, cheese, and tomatoes.

The inside of the cafe was crowded with fans of all ages screaming and yelling as they watched a soccer match on the TV hanging from the back wall.  Italians, like most Europeans, are obsessed with football. And unfortunately, so was our waitress.  She seemed really put out that she had to periodically come outside to wait on those of us who were more interested in the sunny street world, rather than the one where little men were kicking a tiny white ball around in a far away stadium. She initially brought us several icy Coronas.  Luckily, I ordered two for myself because I was really thirsty after our long walk.  It would be another twenty minutes before she brought us some menus.  And before she took our orders, she demanded payment for the beers, which I thought was both rude and ridiculous.  But she was insistent. So I paid her and she left in a huff without taking our order.  I didn't speak Italian, so I really couldn't complain.  But when I saw her standing by the cash register watching the soccer game I started to get pissed. She eventually returned like we were ruining her day.  We ordered two prosciutto-topped pizzas.   She snatched the menus almost angrily and headed back inside to watch the game.

We waited patiently for another thirty minutes and then I grinned at Inna as I finished my last beer and said, "Well, I think it's time to go.  Don't you?"

Inna smiled, "Exactly."

And we got up and left.

The waitress was intently watching the soccer game and never noticed our departure.

I don't know why, but I felt really pleased with myself.  And I was no longer hungry.

The pizza back on board the ship about an hour later totally hit the spot. We didn't have to wait a single minute.  And it was the best pizza I ever tasted.

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