Once upon a time, there was (and there still is) a long, narrow city, squeezed between the hills and the sea. In the past, its inhabitants were fishermen, sailors, craftsmen and merchants. Every day, sailing and merchant ships left the harbour, their prows aimed toward exotic places with names that were almost magical: the Indies, New America. When they returned from their travels, they brought back rare, valuable, little-known goods: silk, spices, exotic fruits. The port and the surrounding area thus became the heart of a very busy city; the inhabitants needed houses, and since spaces were tight, they built upwards, with blocks packed like sardines, one right next to the other, and stretching ever higher, as we can see for ourselves to this day when visiting the heart of Genoa.
Genoa is a city for exploring with your eyes turned upwards.
In this labyrinth of streets and passages (the alleyways known in Genoese dialect as caruggi), shaded grey by slate roofs and pavements, narrow façades stand out in hues of red and yellow and pink, dotted with beautiful green shutters. The larger, more important constructions often boast entire frescoed tales on their façades, featuring heroes, soldiers, princesses and gods engaged in adventures from mythology and history. Can you tell who they are?
Wandering through these narrow alleyways, there are curious discoveries to be made. For example, their names almost always allude to the workshops and trades they once played host to: hence Vico della Lepre (Alley of the Hare), Vico della Rosa (Alley of the Rose), Vico del Ferro (Alley of Iron), Vico delle Foglie Nuove (Alley of New Leaves) and Vico delle Foglie Vecchie (Alley of Old Leaves), Vico degli Indoratori (Alley of the Gilders), Vico dei Lavatoi (Alley of the Washtubs), Vico delle Pietre Preziose (Alley of Precious Stones), Piazza delle Oche (Geese Square), and Via degli Orefici (Goldsmiths Street): it's rather like walking through a fairytale city. Why not try making up a few of your own: what would you like the street you live on to be called?
A host of treasures large and small are just waiting to be discovered here, such as small squares that open up unexpectedly before you, revealing bubbling fountains with pigeons fluttering around them and a kitten or two curled up asleep.
In the centre of these squares are often tiny churches: Genoa's noble families often had their own personal places of worship built, so they did not need to be too large; inside, however, they house small, yet splendid works of art.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, an open front door offers a quick glance into small gardens filled with plants, fountains and old statues, perhaps a little weathered, but enchanting nevertheless; or, peeking through a window, you might glimpse frescoes and gilded stucco decorations adorning entire halls and making everything look like real gold!
On the corners and above the entrances of many buildings, the watchful visitor’s eye can spot a host of little treasures: niches with statuettes of the Madonna and other sacred images that have silently observed the city's events for centuries, along with chubby little cherubs climbing up entryways of marble and slate to stare curiously at all who enter and leave.
Every so often, the image of St. George, the city's patron saint, appears above a portal: always on horseback, in shining armour, confronting the terrible dragon to save the princess in those enthralling stories we all love!
But the surprises don't end here: as we said before, Genoa's history is based on trades and commerce. And to this day, visitors to the city can admire many "Traditional Shops": craft workshops that have remained unchanged over the years, with their ancient craftsmanship techniques preserved intact.
There are many different types, but those sure to interest your sweet tooth most are the pastry shops... and there are plenty of them! It's like uncovering the magical work of the gluttonous elves that have secretly filled shop windows with aromatic fondants, beautifully coloured fruit jellies, candies filled with surprises, grandma's classic sweet syrups like rose syrup, small pralines dyed with a drop of rosolio (a rose petal liqueur), and freshly made chocolates, bursting with cocoa and a thousand other aromas. To say nothing of the torrone nougats and cakes and sweets, as well as pizzas, savoury pies, farinate (chickpea pancakes).... and scrumptious focaccia! We know what you're thinking, kids: you're in Wonderland.