Photos — Tina Berning Date — 30 March, 2011
The port of Genoa is the gateway to the world. It was the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, who set out to discover a new continent. It was from here that Admiral Andrea Dorea sallied forth to defend the maritime republic against pirates. And it is here that the old Lanterna – the Lighthouse and the city’s best-known landmark – still stands. Anchored alongside it are modern cruise ships, as high as skyscrapers. In the harbour, the yachts rock gently. Rocking gently in the commercial port – Italy’s biggest – are the containers. As a child, back in the 1950s, Renzo Piano stood here with his father. “There were no containers back then. The cargo simply flew through the air. You’d see cars hanging from the arms of cranes,” he remembers. Today, Renzo Piano is a world-famous architect, but he returned to Genoa 20 years ago to modernize the old harbour and make it attractive to visitors. His “Bigo” in the Porto Antico was modelled on the cranes of his childhood. But instead of cars, the arms hold a rotating lift. This provides a unique view from a height of 40 metres over the city and sea. Part of the Bigo is the “Bolla” by Renzo Piano: a glass-and-steel sphere containing an abundance of tropical plants.
But you shouldn’t leave the harbour without eyeballing a giant octopus in the Aquarium and savouring one of the miniature variety out on the jetty. The saltwater Aquarium next to the Bigo is one of the largest in Europe. Next to it is “I Tre Merli”, a restaurant where you can sit outside on the jetty savouring the harbour air. For anyone on the Ligurian coast for the first time, head chef Alessandro Giordano will recommend cheese focaccia, pasta with the famous Genovese pesto and deep-fried squid or dried cod with pine kernels. The sitting area on the jetty offers unimpeded views of the city. “It is built on an outcrop at the foot of the mountains which, like an amphitheatre, encloses the most beautiful bay,” wrote the German poet Heinrich Heine almost 200 years ago. Even back then it was easy to get lost in the narrow lanes between the mediaeval palazzi. It is a good idea to take a stroll from the harbour to the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. The interior of the Romanesque/Gothic-style edifice is decorated with frescoes by Italian and Byzantine artists. Directly behind it, on the Piazza Matteoti, is the imposing Palazzo Ducale, once the seat of doges and senators. Today, with its regularly changing exhibitions, it is one of the ancient maritime city’s most important cultural centres. Until May, it is showing another major exhibition: “Mediterraneo – from Courbet to Monet and Matisse”.
Verdant mountains fly by to the left while to the right sheer cliffs plunge to a turquoise sea, broken by the occasional sandy beach
Bogliasco is also an insider tip for gourmets
The route from Genoa to Portofino along the Ligurian Riviera follows the Aurelia, the longest and, unfortunately, also one of the busiest coastal roads in Italy. Verdant mountains fly by to the left while to the right sheer cliffs plunge to a turquoise sea, broken by the occasional sandy beach. After about half an hour’s drive, you reach Bogliasco and the start of the Golfo Paradiso coastline. In autumn, surfers from all over Europe converge on the beach. On a sunny spring day, by contrast, the place is virtually deserted. But the water is crystal clear and often warm enough for a first dip. Bogliasco is also an insider tip for gourmets. At “Al Solito Posto”, a restaurant she runs with her husband, Serenella Medone creates Ligurian dishes with a very personal touch. Among her specialities are black spaghetti with squid and mussels, or ravioli stuffed with artichokes and served with a seafood sauce. To accompany them, her husband Alessandro serves Ligurian wines like red Granaccia or white Vermentino. “We change the menus regularly because we don’t want our guests – or ourselves – to get bored,” says Signora Serenella. At this year’s celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, she will be representing her region’s cuisine.
Another of the coast’s highlights is the fishing village of Camogli and its ancient harbour. On the second weekend in May, the village hosts an enormous fish festival. But Camogli is also an ideal starting point for hikes and boat trips. From here, you can reach the promontory of Punta Chiappa on foot. The walk involves a 900-step descent to your destination but the breathtaking view of Portofino marine sanctuary is worth every ounce of effort. At our feet is one of Europe’s most wonderful diving areas. And if the thought of climbing back up the endless steps is too much, you can always hop in a boat to Camogli or continue to the abbey of San Fruttuoso, which has lain concealed for almost a thousand years on the Cape of Portofino, which separates the Gulf of Paradiso from the Gulf of Tigullio. Standing on the seabed in the azure waters of the bay is a 2.5-metre-high bronze statue of the bishop and patron saint of mariners. From here, an idyllic footpath through pine and chestnut forests takes you in just under two hours to Portofino.
But if you’ve left your car and luggage in Camogli, you’re best off taking the boat back. You can then continue by car to Rapallo. Located on the Gulf of Tigullio, the place was discovered in about 1900 by well-to-do travellers and celebrated figures like Guy de Maupassant. The elegant Art Nouveau villas that give the town its characteristic face were built around this time and housed the great political figures who signed the Rapallo Peace Treaties of 1920 and 1922. Also worth a walk is the mediaeval town centre, skirted by the palm tree-lined beach. As in other coastal resorts, the houses are very high and the lanes very narrow. The architecture is fortress-like, which provided some protection against the Saracens and pirates who for centuries plagued the coast. In Rapallo you will also find famous silk fabrics from Zoagli, the small village just a few kilometres away that is one of the few places in Italy to have upheld the tradition of silk manufacture to this day.
From Rapallo, the narrow, twisting coastal road takes you to Portofino. You drive through the lively seaside resort of Santa Margherita Ligure. Beyond it lies the idyllic fishing villa that once epitomized the dolce vita and is now a haunt of the international jet set. Many approach the bay on yachts – the quickest way to an aperitif on the famous Piazetta. On 23 April each year, an enormous bonfire is lit here on the square in honour of the town’s patron saint, St. George. The flames can be seen from way up high on the panorama terrace of the Hotel Splendido, the haunt of the rich and famous. For over 50 years, the hotel has attracted stars and VIPs from all over the world. “Everyone who is anyone has stayed here at some time,” says Fausto Allegri, who has served as concierge at the hotel for 44 years and given Victoria Beckham the same forthcoming service he once gave to Elizabeth Taylor. Many have sworn to return to this enchanting part of the world and to the Hotel Splendido. And, until now, they have kept that promise almost every year.