Genoa and Beyond – Palazzos and the Perfect Coast in Liguria:
It is a place that ‘grows upon you’ every day. There seems to be always something to find out in it. There are the most extraordinary alleys and by-ways to walk about in. You can lose your way (what a comfort that is, when you are idle!) twenty times a day, if you like; and turn up again, under the most unexpected and surprising difficulties. It abounds in the strangest contrasts; things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful, and offensive, break upon the view at every turn.
Charles Dickens – Pictures from Italy
Short trips have the advantage of slotting easily into a hectic schedule. They offer a chance to get a glimpse of a new place or refresh a memory of an old favourite. But, the initial invitation to the World Pesto Championships in Genoa was for just 2 days and, having never visited that part of Italy before, I wanted just a little more. The solution was to go a day early, giving me a chance to see a little of Genoa and to visit Cinque Terre, five small fishing villages, famous for their beauty, an hour or so from the city. Of course, what I’d failed to take into account was my luggage, which combined with the cobbled alleys and inclines of Genoa made the idea of wandering the streets a little impractical.
After about 20 minutes of wandering, I took a look in one of the majestic buildings that line the street running down from the main station. There was an old coach in the pretty courtyard and a statue. Easily sold by the helpful lady at reception who offered to store my bag, I went into Palazzo Reale. Upstairs at the start of the tour I sat down to watch a short film about the history of the palace. I don’t speak Italian so I hadn’t actually realised that I’d wandered into the nearest thing in Genoa to Buckingham Palace (Reale means Royal – as I now know). And, I watched entranced, learning about the history of the building which started as a wealthy merchant’s family home before being taken over by the Savoy family in 1823. Walking round was truly astonishing, despite the fact that throughout its history, both when the building changed family ownership and when the building was taken over by Royalty, many of the works of art were moved to Milan. The most stunning room for me, the Hall of Mirrors, was somewhere I lingered. And, the wealth of art still there warranted a much longer visit than I had time for.
The train from Genoa to Cinque Terra is frequent and efficient. I’d deliberately chosen a service that had no changes and I’d paid for a first class seat (a small supplement by comparison to the UK equivalent). I arrived in Monterosso mid-afternoon, in blazing sunshine. It was, of course, a complete contrast. I walked along the sea front into the old town, then back again to the station.
A brief train journey will take you to any of the other Cinque Terra villages. I really only had time to visit one more and decided to alight in Vernazza and look for somewhere to eat. It was clear from my all too brief stay that much the best way to explore the villages is on foot. And for that you need a week or more to walk in the hills above the villages and make your way along the coast.
It must be well worth the time and effort though, even in a few hours I saw some truly spectactular views. I climbed to the tower in Vernazza, where you can look out across the rest of the village and marvel at the church built into the cliff.
As a preview to the World Pesto Championships I dined that evening on anchovies followed by trofie with beans and pesto, two of Liguria’s best-known dishes. And, watched the sun set over the harbour. Cliched – yes – but none the worse for that.
It was a blissful and refreshing escape to the country and while I can’t claim it was quiet (Cinque Terre was busy with tourists even in April), it wasn’t impossibly busy and was definitely worth the train journey.
Back in Genoa the next day, we set off on a city tour to learn more about this city of contrasts. It is somewhere you’ll find artisan pasta being made in the entrance of an old Palazzo. Look up and you’ll see the original frescos on the ceiling at Pasta Fresca Fabio.
But, the real magic is in the machinery, invented by the current owner’s Father, to make some of the traditional Ligurian pasta shapes; Pansotti, Trenette and Corzetti. Trofie though, the only local pasta made without egg, is hand rolled into those curious worm-like bits of dough, designed to hold the perfect amount of pesto.
We visited Francesca Olcese – an artisanal restorer with a passion for her work. She explained how she’d known all her life what she wanted to do – and it was obvious from the photos and pieces in her workshop how committed she was.
But, just a few hours walking around Genoa makes it obvious this is the perfect playground for someone with an enthusiasm for reviving stunningly crafted works of art.
The city is full of Palazzos, the streets ornate with statues and the everyday is built into amazing buildings from the past.
And then there’s the food – a city with the ability to make simple ingredients taste wonderful. Of course there’s pesto. My visit is specifically to attend the World Pesto Championships. But, there’s more – tripe (for those who like it), rabbit and goat and a slow cooked sausage called Tucco.
101 different ways of presenting anchovies and Salsa di noci, made with walnuts, pine nuts, garlic, butter, and cream. I dine like a queen on a bowlful of trofie with saffron and sausage and have to try extremely hard to avoid eating the local foccacia, made with lard rather than olive oil and often topped with onions.
There’s a local cake called farinata made with chickpea flour and a tiny sweet olives variety, taggiasca. Traditional Ligurian food is substantial and hearty. Sustenance for sailors; food from a region where farming is hard because of the mountainous terrain, where despite the extensive coastline there’s little fishing and where, in the fifteenth century fresh vegetables were more expensive than meat.
I suspect there’s a lot more to see and a lot more to discover. A three-day introduction to Genoa and Liguria is just a taste, a promise of more that I now need to explore for myself. So, I’m planning my next trip to this fascinating hidden gem in Italy.
Why not pin this for later…
I was a guest of the Ligurian Tourist Board
For further information on Liguria please visit www.turismoinliguria.it
For further information on the Pesto Championships please visit www.pestochampionship.it The next championships will take place in 2018.
Return flights from London Gatwick to Genoa start from £95 with British Airways. (0844 493 0787)
One night B&B in a classic double room at President Genoa starts from £70 for two people. (00800 0022 0011)