12. Exploring Genoa

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Apr 26th, 2011
12. Exploring Genoa

Weekend in Genoa

The hotel breakfast each day is a spread of pastries, sugar-crusted croissants, and heart-attack-strength coffee. This is Italy after all, and I can see why their conversations all take place at high speed – the progression from languid Latin to modern Italian was probably caffeine-induced.

Front garden of Royal Palace, with fishpond and mosaic parterre

As our hotel is a few houses down from the old Royal Palace, now a museum, we took the tour. The palace contains richly furnished rooms hung with a large collection of paintings by Donatelli and other renaissance masters – mostly portraits or heroic battles or biblical scenes; and rich brocade curtains with gilded tassels, even a throne room and beautiful marble-topped carved-legged tables and priceless antique clocks and lamps everywhere. No taking of pictures inside the museum is allowed. In the gilt-and-crystal Hall of Mirrors which is like a small version of Versailles, the fine lifesize marble statues lining the walls of the Hall have all had their penises chiselled off (we never did find out why). The sculptures are nevertheless magnificent; it’s a pity they didn’t just drape fabric or add a figleaf instead of inflicting permanent damage on the family treasures.
We learn that one of the ornate chandeliers has the precursor to the disco ball at the top; a flimsy sail-like device, designed to revolve in the rising heat of 100 candles, throwing dots of crystal-reflected candlelight over the domed ceiling, which of course is painted with cherubs and naked huntresses etc. We couldn’t actually see the effect because it was broad daylight and of course there have been no candles lit since the palace was wired for electricity. But still a bit of a gobsmack! And must have been rather fab in it’s day.

There is a magnificent parterre at the front of the palace, a mosaic made entirely of smooth white and black pebbles. Perhaps Kim back home could be inspired to start doing terraces too?

Black and white river pebbles for a royal mosaic

The fashion here is pretty much the same as it was in Spain: the girls all wear outfits comprising knee high boots, solid black leggings/pantyhose, very short miniskirts (often denim), a stylish leather jacket or a short cropped coat. Scarf, bag etc. completes the look. Some of the boots are pretty amazing, from Three Musketeer type thigh-high ones with big top cuffs, to flat Oggis. Almost without exception, everyone’s footwear was new-looking and fashionable. Well, this is the land of the high fashion shoe: Prada, Ferragamo et al. I consider wearing full Islamic garb to hide my SA takkies.
The men in Genoa still wear black leather jackets and jeans sagging down round their bums – how long will it take for that fashion to disappear, please God?  But the office types wear long slim black tailored wool coats, and gather in packs at the aperitivo hour, more of which later.

The main streets are lined with ranks of tightly-packed, parked Vespas, Lambrettas and every brand of scooter on earth, looks like, plus motorbikes. These outnumber the cars on the road, and at the traffic lights, they lead the charge when the lights change to green, tearing away like a pack of farting ponies in a race.

 

No wonder dragons are now extinct

Later we check out the old port and waterfront which has been renovated and turned into a pleasure park for the city. The whole area is pedestrian but at the cost of having a major highway built as an overpass, which spoils the effect somewhat with traffic whizzing by overhead. But very pleasant nevertheless, with lots of families with prams are out for a promenade. Along the harbour walls lounge the inevitable West Africans selling sunglasses and knock-off designer handbags. But there’s a huge maritime museum, and a weird sky lift which looks as though the design engineer got completely carried away, a skating rink, an old Spanish galleon, a biosphere, and an old submarine. Some of the old warehouses have been converted to larney shops along the yacht wharf where some very impressive vessels are moored.

The sky-lift at the waterfront - and skating rink

The Sky Lift is Genoa’s version of the London Eye, built to take paying visitors up for a gull’s eye view of the city and the harbour. It was, says the blurb, designed to echo the cargo cranes in the port…. Nearby is a large skating rink covered in sail canvas, from under which come music and the screams of terrified/joyful children. The biosphere is indeed full of greenery and, it appears, birds, reptiles and insects. But it’s a giant spherical greenhouse really, not an experimental self-sustaining ecosystem.

The Spanish galleon is entirely phoney – it’s the rough shape of the famous old ships that looted the Americas but has way too much decoration, an enormous figurehead of Neptune, and too many gun ports, which would have made it a battle ship. Turns out it is only a film set: the ‘Neptune’ was built and used for Roman Polanski’s movie ‘Pyrates’.

The film-set Spanish galleon

On Sunday, the maritime museum doesn’t disappoint: it’s a full 5 floors, enough space for housing lifesize replicas of different ships – including a roman galley (with oars) and a mediterranean trading barque. Fascinating for anyone who is interested in ships, how they were built, navigation instruments, naval battles, armour etc. Genoa was a port from where Nelson launched a battle or two against the French. There’s an entire interactive section on the sea voyage of Italian emigrants to land at Ellis Island in New York, with an excellent walk-through tour of one of the 1900′s passenger steamers and the conditions on board – for both steerage and 1st class – very ‘Titanic’. Pity the audio-visual stuff is only in Italian.
The ticket included a visit inside the little WW2 submarine moored nearby – interesting but extremely claustrophobic!

How to build a wooden ship

Model ships, almost 2 metres high, every detail perfect

Lefesize replical of a trading barque, you can climb in and look around

In the afternoon, having explored the lower part of the city we decided to see what it all looked like from the castle on the hill above our street. So we tried out the famous one-of-a-kind pedestrian lift. The cabin takes about 8 people, with fold down plastic covered benches. It is automatically operated, every 10 minutes the cab doors close and it trundles horizontally on rails into the dark hillside along a tunnel for about 300 metres. Then it clanks to a halt, lining up beside the cabin coming in the other direction. A dramatic pause, while you can peer out at gears and cables and solid rock walls, then suddenly the cab rises straight up for another 150 metres. Apparently this is a one-of-a-kind lift, the only one in the world, glory to the Italian engineers. You get out to find yourself opposite the entrance to the castle on the hill.

Unfortunately the weather had turned grey and rainy, so the visit was brief. Huge whalebones decorating the entrance, and the hugely thick stone walls rather overgrown with weeds and saplings. The hoped for view of the magnificent harbour from the battlements was not too fabulous due to the weather. Just a bit fabulous.

The beer here is way more expensive than wine, we find. That makes the choices easier then! In the evening I tried a local speciality, pansottis with walnut sauce. (pansotti are like large ravioli). It was delicioso!

A note for any would-be travellers to Italy: DO NOT TAKE AMERICAN EXPRESS  travellers cheques, even if they are in Euros. No banks will take them. We are hoping to be able to change them at the AmEx offices in Florence.

 

 

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