With a free weekend, we decided to hit the west coast and visit the port city of Genoa, where pesto and seafood dishes are abundant, and where historic homes and tiny alleyways beckon along the hills of this ancient town.
It feels a bit strange to travel due south to hit the western seacoast of Italy, but that’s how far north Milan is from Genoa and the coast. We got a head start on Friday afternoon and took a 90 minute train ride from central Milan to Genoa Piazza Principe, the main train station in Genoa. Having decided upon our destination mid-week (slightly last minute), we missed out on a recommended bed and breakfast and settled on an old hotel practically adjacent to the train station instead.
Hotels near train stations can be hit or miss, so we were slightly apprehensive about our selection, but the reviews were ok and the location was good, so we went for it. http://www.grandhotelsavoiagenova.it. Apparently the hotel was renovated about 10 years ago. The bar, waiting rooms and dining rooms are ornately designed with gold and painted birds on the walls. Old style, but not tired looking. There is a small sauna/spa area that I investigated but we didn’t use. The hotel room was clean, with a view to the port, and the top 7th floor had a terrace that allowed us to see the historic city from all sides.
Breakfast was included- a buffet of cakes, salami’s and cheeses, egg dishes, yogurt, fruit, nuts, and of course a delicious cappuccino to start us on our way. The hotel manager said that this is the perfect time to visit Genoa, before the heat of the summer. In the spring, the skies are clear and the days are somewhat cool, and the heaviest throngs of tourists are not yet descending on the city. Genoa is an embarking location for cruise ships which has definitely helped the town’s tourism industry, but it also changes the type of visitors that descend in throngs for a day. It was clear that a number of the hotel guests were either beginning or ending a cruise vacation and there are special deals for these guests everywhere.
We were forewarned that one should make dinner reservations in advance, so Kevin successfully reserved us a table at a recommended trattoria in the historic district, with typical Genoese fare. No menus, just a blackboard with the daily specials, and one of the owners greeted us and reviewed the dishes with us in English. http://www.trattoriarosmarino.it/
Knowing that pesto and seafood dishes are specialties in Genoa, we each tried an appetizer that fit the bill. Kevin had reginette al pesto, a pesto dish that is practically neon green, with basil grown locally, and a ribbon pasta with curled edges. I tried a ravioli with fish inside it, on a sauce that was like a shrimp bisque. Of course another famous dish of Genoa is their focaccia- there is no comparison to the focaccia in Genoa from that which we have tried elsewhere. The bread was savory, salty, leavened and with a delicious and generous brushing of fresh olive oil that was fabulous. We saw these 3 items on the menus of every restaurant we visited in Genoa for the rest of the weekend, and Kevin tried pesto and the focaccia every chance he could. The owner described the dish I chose as a roast chicken, but it was in fact a guinea fowl- more of a gamey poultry dish than a domesticated chicken taste, but I liked it just the same.
After watching Duke play in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen at 2:45 am Saturday morning, we fell back asleep around 5 am after a close game. The morning alarm came way too soon, but we had made reservations for a walking tour of Genoa which started at 10 am, so out of bed we got, filling ourselves with coffee and breakfast, and off we went.
This was our second walking tour in Italy (the first was in Bologna), and I highly recommend it as a nice introduction to an unfamiliar city. You hear the basic history of the area, and for 2 plus hours, you are guided around and learn what is worth visiting in depth later, all while meeting others interested in learning more about the town. Our tour was in English and in Italian, so we tried to listen to the Italian parts and see how we were coming along with our language skills. Suffice it to say that Kevin is doing better than I am with comprehension of the rapid Italian we hear.
As an aside, I also recommend that you see if the New York Times has done a ’36 hour’ write-up of the town you are heading to- we read the one on Genoa in advance, to get a flavor for their recommendations as well. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/travel/30hours.html
We started at the ancient port area of Genoa and worked our way through the historic section of town, learning that like Venice on the opposite coast, Genoa was a republic run by doges for quite a while in its history. UNESCO has named parts of Genoa a world heritage site. There are beautiful churches, houses and museums with paintings by Flemish artists such as Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, as well as Italian artists from the Baroque and Renaissance periods. We saw where Christopher Columbus grew up (a small building right on one of the main streets into town by a historic wall of Genoa), and of course we saw a number of beautiful piazzas. As a part of our walking tour ticket, we also had access to several historic homes (or palaces).
In 1576 the Senate of the Republic of Genoa set up a roll (or list or roster) of public lodging palaces owned by aristocrats who were officially chosen to house famous guests and their entourages on state visits. The palazzi were divided into 3 categories according to their level of architectural value and luxury, and each category reflected the guests’ social and political status- there were dignitaries, royalty, popes, and emperors who would come to visit. It was an honor to be chosen as the top dwelling place for the most honored guests, and lots were drawn to be selected for the annual right. Of course you also had the cost associated with hosting such a dignitary- this was not for the faint of heart or wallet.
We mustered up the strength to visit one of the historic homes (the Palazzo Rosso) and climbed and climbed the stairs, visiting each floor and hoping it was the last floor on the tour because we were so tired (see above, the Duke game!), only to be met by an enthusiastic docent on each floor who would eagerly point us to the next set of stairs leading up to yet another floor. Don’t get me wrong- each floor was stunning, what with their beautiful paintings and furnishings (and views). It got to be a laughing matter when we thought we were at the end, and out from a doorway would pop a smiling man or woman pointing us to another room, or another floor. Thankfully at the very top there was a small elevator to allow us a quick exit down. We recommend a tour of the historic houses- just perhaps avoid a long walking day after a sleepless night!
That evening we chose a light aperitivo and a cocktail for dinner, and hit the hay pretty early. The next day we decided to take a short detour to Portofino before returning home (see the entry, “Portofino in the Spring”), so we stored our bags after checkout at the hotel which made for an easy return and hop back on the train to Milan later in that day. But not before we found time for yet another museum tour in Genoa shortly before our train left the station! Near the Genoa train station (and across from Genoa’s university) is the Palazzo Reale di Genova. We took a quick tour, which was a cool, calm way to while away the hour before we needed to head back to the station for Milan. We were practically the only paying visitors during the late Sunday afternoon! More beautiful paintings and views- this is the main pinoteca ( or ‘picture gallery’) of Genoa- we recommend it as well.
It was finally time to collect our belongings and head back home. Somehow Kevin’s train seat was double-booked with another person who was already in the seat (a relatively uncommon, but not unheard of, experience) and we were lucky that he was able to find an empty seat another row back. We are told that in the peak season (summer), you MUST book your train tickets well in advance, because there are many tourist traveling to the coast and back to hike, particularly by Cinque Terre (which one can get to from Milan through Genoa). We saw many hikers on our train, coming and going to Genoa, and then switching to local trains down the coast.
All in all, it was an exceptional spring weekend of travel. We are blessed.