The sound of clinking silverware and lunchtime conversations drifted into the alley through the dark green shutters of second-story windows. Up ahead, a pair of sculpted cupids floated above a pastry shop. I slowed down to inhale the sweet smell of baking.

A church bell rang as a woman approached me, “Scusi, signora, dov`è…”― I stopped her before she could ask directions. In my shoddy Italian I explained with a smile that I was lost too. She smiled back and I went on my way, meandering through the shadowy paths of the historic center of Genoa.

Most of the time, getting lost brings on grimaces rather than smiles. But losing direction in the maze of narrow and steep medieval streets in Genoa’s Centro Storico, the historic center, could not have been more enjoyable.

The idyllic area, squeezed between the port and the city’s terraced hillside, is said to be the largest historical town center in Europe. Old walls and forts surround this picturesque port city with its many Renaissance palaces and richly decorated churches, such as Annunciation and St. Ambrose (both 16th century).

The Cathedral of San Lorenzo (rebuilt in 1100 and frequently restored) is perhaps the most famous building besides the 16th-century Lanterna (lighthouse) ― an emblem of Genoa. So I tucked away my impossible-to-follow map and discovered that surrendering to Genoa, letting her reveal herself, was the way to find the essence of the ancient city.

Genoa, beautifully situated on the Gulf of Genoa, an arm of the Ligurian Sea, is the chief seaport of Italy. The city is also a major commercial and industrial center. About 700,000 people call Genoa home.

One of them was my group’s guide, Micaela, a flaming red-haired 20-something part-time pop music singer. Like the rest of the Genovese, she was enthusiastic about introducing us to Genoa’s high-profile sights.

Genoa was named a European Cultural Capital of 2004, and locals like Micaela were pumped to show off their city, “Genoa, La Superba” (The Haughty) ― this is the nickname the city took on during its 13th to 18th century maritime heyday.

Klainguti Caffe
Giuseppe Verdi often frequented Klainguti Caffé, which dates back to 1826.

But I found myself most attracted to Genoa the Humble. Micaela started us off at the Porto Antico (Old Harbor), badly damaged in World War II and rebuilt in 1992, when Genoa celebrated the 500th anniversary of the voyage of its most famous native, Christopher Columbus.

I drifted from the modern plaza ― designed by local architect Lorenzo Piano ― to the folksy food stalls.

There, under sunflower-colored tents, cooks sold regional specialties. I spotted what was to become my favorite Genovese snack: thin, lightly salted focaccia bread served hot and stuffed with melted cheese.

Our home base ― the Starhotel President ― is in the modern area of town, a short walk to the Via Settembre XX, a 19th-century boulevard flanked by a sculpted arcade which serves as entrances to chain stores and designer shops and eventually hits the city’s historic center.

Once again, I was drawn off the major thoroughfare to discover a treasure: the colorful Mercato Orientale. This old market was an Augustinian monastery and is now a daily stop for housewives to pick up the harvest of the season.

The most unforgettable sight and smell in the bustling market came from overflowing piles of basil. The leaves were smaller and of a more vibrant green than I’ve ever seen before. The pesto in Genoa, made from this basil, was the best I’ve ever tasted ― so much so I ordered it at every meal.

Closer into the historic center, we toured the palaces which encircle it. I admired the creamy yellow-and-rose façade of the Palazzo Ducale, which was formerly the Doges Palace. When I got closer, I realized I’d actually been admiring a masterpiece of tromp l’oeil. “The Genovese have a reputation for being cheap,” explained Micaela. “They didn’t want to spend money on stone masons, so they perfected an art of painting to make three-dimensional effects.”

I fell for this Genovese optical trick of perspective more than once. Visiting the Renaissance Palazzo Rosso on the Via Garibaldi, I kept doing double takes at a ceiling fresco. “Is that angel’s foot sculpture or paint?” I wondered. It took me a good few minutes of scoping it from all angles to conclude that I’d been fooled again.

A quartet of Jazz musicians stopped me in front of the San Lorenzo cathedral. Their simplicity contrasted with a dizzying Gothic backdrop: black-and-white strips of marble, curlicue columns, stone lions and saints. It was a classic gem of a Genovese scene ― mixing the humble with the superba.

Genoan Frieze
One of many handcarved friezes decorating Genoa’s doorways.

Shooting off from the cathedral square in all directions are the “doglegged” alleys (called carrugi) that make up the treasure-filled labyrinth of the old city. Curiosity piqued, I went my separate way from the tour group to explore the mysterious pathways that cut between seven-story-high buildings.

The historic center was created by Genoa’s rich merchants in the 13th and 14th centuries, when each family staked out its territory, building its own churches, palaces, and squares, and cramming in additions as they grew more prosperous.

This was once the site of chases and back stabbings between feuding families. But centuries later, my walk through it could not have been more peaceful. There were no cars, it was practically tourist-free, and I blended in with its working class locals.

It was like walking through an open-air museum, lit by slits of sunlight filtered through the shadows. I found votive stone figurines (called edicole) jutting from second-story corners of pale gold and ochre buildings, and Biblical scenes cut in friezes above the doorways.

One alley opened up to the Piazza Campetto, where I watched painters on scaffolding as they restored the pastel façade of the Imperial Palace. A steep stairway attached to the palace led me under starry frescoed ceilings to what was once the goldsmith’s loggia. It’s now the home of Fabrorum, a store, laboratory and museum showcasing the traditional Genovese art of gold filigree. Elegant rooms displayed everything from centuries old chalices to gorgeous necklaces and earrings for sale. I was offered a tour of the jewelry laboratory, but begged off, wanting to get more of the street flavor.

I found Klainguti, a caffé or coffee shop, dating to 1826, and where Giuseppe Verdi hung out during the 40 winters he spent here. Past the counters of confections, were small connecting Rococo salons featuring crystal cut mirrors and chandeliers.

The stores I stumbled upon could have been roped off with velvet as displays of life in another century, each decked out with baroque painted or sculpted signs. There were white-tiled butcher shops with marble-slab counters, pharmacies with colorful ceramic jars displayed in dark wood cases, and dusty engraving workshops.

Though the shopkeepers didn’t speak much English, I found browsing with smiles and hand signals was welcome. Unlike other Italian cities, the Genovese have not been burnt-out by an onslaught of tourists. As a result, the authenticity of the city has not been compromised, the locals are patient and accommodating, and there were no overcrowded restaurants or long lines at museums.

Farmacia San Bartolomeo
Farmacia San Bartolomeo is decorated with Baroque sculptures, reflective of centuries past.

At our farewell dinner that night, everyone in our travel group had stories to tell about their adventures in the “labyrinth.”

Tom had visited Genoa’s Jazz Museum, which chronicled the stars who had played at the city’s festivals and nearby coastal resorts. Antonia showed off a pair of pearly chic shoes she’d bought for a bargain.

I’d picked up a handmade cut glass lavender bracelet. It sparkled on my wrist as I made a toast: “To return for more days of getting lost and finding Genoa’s treasures.”

If You Go

Italian State Tourist Board

Genoa Tourist Board

Go World Travel Magazine

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