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The port is at the heart of Genoa's cityscape © Maudanros, Shutterstock
Dickens was taken aback, ‘It is a place that ‘grows upon you’ every day. There seems always something to find out in it… It abounds with the strangest contrasts; things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful and offensive, break up the view at every turn.
Genoa is a real port city. When Welsh poet Dylan Thomas arrived here in 1947, he wrote home to his parents, ‘The dock-front of Genoa is marvellous. Such heat and colours and dirt and noise and loud wicked alleys with all the washing of the world hanging from the high windows.’ Genoa is still a vibrant, sometimes intimidating place, that’s definitely on the up.
American writer Henry James described Genoa in 1909 as the ‘queerest place in the world’, and it is certainly different from any other Italian city. Until recently it wasn’t on the tourist trail at all and, despite efforts to clean up the old town, you will still see prostitutes, even on a Sunday morning. Yet, as James pointed out, ‘it is not fair to speak as if at Genoa there were nothing but low-life to be seen, for the place is the residence of some of the grandest people in the world’. That is certainly the case. Once a maritime superpower, Genoa has some of the most sumptuous palaces in Italy.
In many ways Genoa is like London: it was badly bombed in World War II and hastily rebuilt in the post-war boom years without any consideration for aesthetics. The Genoese are regarded by their fellow Italians as penny-pinching, and despite the city’s extraordinary wealth in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, they never spent anything doing up Genoa. As a result, it has Europe’s biggest and bestpreserved medieval town, which James believed, ‘it would be almost impossible to modernise’. He might well be proved wrong. There is a trendy feel descending on the old town as in the last couple of years hip bars, cafés and shops have begun to open up.
First impressions of Genoa are nearly always wrong. Dickens was taken aback, ‘I never in my life was so dismayed!’ and ‘the disheartening dirt, discomfort, and decay; perfectly confounded me’. He wrote later, however, ‘It is a place that “grows upon you” every day. There seems always something to find out in it… It abounds with the strangest contrasts; things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful and offensive, break up the view at every turn.’