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Genuine Genoa

Travelers Can Still Walk the Medieval Streets Where the Historic Italian Port City Was Born

March 16, 1997|COLMAN ANDREWS | Andrews is the editor of Saveur magazine and the author of "Flavors of the Riviera: Discovering Real Mediterranean Cooking." (Bantam)

I spent much of the mid-1980s hanging around one great Mediterranean seaport and much of the mid-1990s hanging around another, and I can't help comparing the two.

Both were powers of medieval Europe; both have large, often mysterious medieval quarters. Both boast impressive architecture and art collections; both have their own language, or at least dialect--part of a cultural identity setting them apart from the modern nations to which they have become attached.

Those are the similarities. On the other hand, one has become an exciting, popular destination; the other has remained, for tourists at least, little more than an overgrown backwater.

The first of these cities is Barcelona, the second-largest city in Spain, which marshaled local pride and immense civic and national resources to become a celebrated metropolis. The second is Genoa, the largest seaport in Italy, which has done little to exploit its cultural resources and which rarely attracts outsiders.

Genoa doesn't seem to have discovered itself. Maybe it doesn't want to. The city's residents are famously self-satisfied and rather insular (an irony, considering their great tradition as long-distance sailors and explorers). And they are notoriously frugal.

The tale is told about Genoa's celebrated 16th century admiral, Andrea Doria: When he entertained important guests on his ship, he served dinner on golden plates and then made a great show of tossing them overboard after the meal as a sign of his wealth. Later, his servants would haul up the nets he had positioned around his vessel and retrieve the dishes. At more modest dinners today, the Genoese are famous for sitting long after the meal and talking--not solely for social impulses but also because no one wants to ask for the check.

"The Genoese always look at the price," a professor at the University of Genoa once explained to me. "Quality is important to the Genoese in all things, but so is what it costs. The Genoese will eat lobster at home sometimes, but codfish in a restaurant. They don't eat to show off. Their attitude is, 'People already know that I'm important. I don't need to prove it.' "

I passed through Genoa once for a few hours in the 1970s, but my first long visit was in October 1992, when I arrived--for the first of what was to be a dozen or more times--to begin research on a book. I had an introduction to a local photographer who'd promised to show me around, but other than that, I had no plans except to wander the city for a week to see what I could see.

At first, what I saw was a big, busy, traffic-snarled place with more than its share of clumsy modern buildings and tacky shops. Then one morning, taking refuge from a noisy avenue, I turned into what looked like a quiet alleyway and found myself in the midst of a warren of little streets, called carrugi, that is Genoa's medieval heart.

Here, most of the buildings, whether grand or modest, extensively rebuilt or modernized, date from the 16th and 17th centuries--some even from the 12th century or earlier. Nondescript shops neighbor ancient, noble houses. Everything is of human scale; buildings are rarely more than six stories high, palaces excepted, and are so close that laundry lines often hang between them.

I wandered these carrugi for hours: up lively but unfrenetic promenades lined with fabric shops and pastry shops and bars, down mute passages smelling of cats and garlic, into tiny squares defined by perfectly proportioned, elegantly ornate little buildings whose facades were often banded in broad black-and-white marble stripes.

Because this was Italy, much of what I saw along the carrugi had to do with food. I passed vendors of Genoese "fast food" selling crumbly slices of farinata (a sort of pancake made from chickpea flour and olive oil) and savory tarts filled with Swiss chard or mushrooms or potatoes. I stopped at one place whose walls were a mosaic, floor to ceiling, of glass jars filled with pickled vegetables, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and dried mushrooms; I stood in wonderment outside a white-tiled shop whose windows were decorated with slabs of tripe hanging on meat hooks and whose interior was dominated by huge copper caldrons in which tripe broth simmered over wood fires.

The carrugi of Genoa's "old town" spread outward from the city's famous port into a roughly fan-shaped web bordered approximately by the Via Garibaldi in the north and the Via D'Annunzio in the south. The carrugi are best visited in the day. The streets nearest the port should, in particular, be avoided after dark unless you happen to be a roisterous seaman.

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