Most of you know by now that I recently moved to Genoa, a city that most people kind of cock their head at and say “Where’s that?”. Several people mistakenly think it located in Switzerland – confusing the Swiss city of ‘Geneva’ with the Italian one, ‘Genova’ (Genoa in English). Others have simply never heard of it before (Rome, Florence, Venice and Naples seem to be the only cities that exist in Italy for most Americans). Even I myself was pretty clueless about what Genoa would hold before moving here. All I really knew was that it was near the sea.
So I thought it might be appropriate to share with you, my dear readers, a little bit of what I’ve learned about Genoa so far, a city that has really taken me by surprise and opened my eyes to a whole new meaning of what Italy is.
8 Things You Don’t Know About Genoa
FOCACCIA IS A DAILY ORDEAL
One thing I can’t get over is the abundance of focaccia bread everywhere. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, ‘focaccia’ is a type of leavened bread, made with flour, salt and lots of olive oil. The result is an incredibly soft, savory bread with pockets of olive oil that simply melt in your mouth (and make you addicted forever).
So yeah, there’s lots of focaccia here but that’s not the amazing part. The amazing part is that people eat the stuff ALL THE TIME. It all starts in the morning at the bar where focaccia bread sells quicker than the cream filled croissants. I’ve heard Italians comment on how they find it strange that Americans can eat a savory breakfast alongside a cappuccino, but here in Genova eating a piece of salty, oily focaccia with your morning coffee seems to be the norm. Of course focaccia is also the perfect mid-morning or post-lunch street food of choice and you’ll often see locals carrying a strip of foccacia wrapped in paper as they walk down the street (particularly in Via San Vincenzo where there are tons of delicious focaccia bakeries). You’d think the focaccia madness would end there but no — it also makes it appearance on to people’s lunch plates, topped with pesto, cheese, tomatoes, herbs, ham or sevred just the plain old way as a quick and cheap take away lunch. The soft square of comfort seems to be the way Genovesi get through the day.
I’m fully addicted to the stuff, so much so that my colleage has changed my name in his phone contacts to ‘Sarah Focaccia Helpline’ as I always bring bags of the stuff to work for everyone (thanks to the best Foccaceria di Ghia on Via Galata which has some of the tastiest focaccia in town).
GENOA SALAMI ISN’T A THING IN GENOA
Most of you may be well familar with ‘Genoa Salami’ – a simple deli sausage that you can find in most American supermarkets alongside the huge blocks of cheddar cheese and Ritz crackers. It often makes its way onto cocktail party platters and we all feel pretty sophisticated knwoing we’re eatng salami that came from Genoa. However what you probably didn’t know (and I’m sorry If I burst your bubble here) is that ‘Genoa Salami’ isn’t Genoese at all. In fact, Genoese cuisine is pretty scarce in the meat department due to the rocky terrain and nearby sea. Instead, you’ll find lots of seafood, olives, as well as grain based food like pasta, focaccia or farinata (chickpea flour flatbread).
ELEVATORS THAT GO UP, DOWN AND SIDEWAYS
When you walk around Genoa, you quickly realize just how many layers the city has. I loved the comparison that Nicholas Walton made in a when he said Genova “is tiered like a wedding cake”. The mountains sort of dive right down into the sea and everything in between is scattered hills and layers, giving the city a thousand different perspective points. It also makes for a difficult city to get around, and sometimes the fastest way to your destination is to take a steep set of stairs or, if you’re lucky enough, one of Genoa’s many elevators that run up, down and sideways (the funicular railways run diagnoal).
CITY OF THE ‘APERITIVO’
After living in Bologna for three years where ‘aperitivo’ (happy hour) is enjoyed to the max by university students who indulge in giant aperitivo buffets called ‘apericena’, I have to say that I’m pretty impressed with the aperitivo scene in Genoa. I recently discovered that Genoa is known as ‘la citta degli aperitivi’ – the city of happy aperitivo – because of it’s popular happy hour snack time where locals have a quick drink and bite of basically any kind of foccacia concoction the bar can come up with. For a good Genova aperitivo try Via San Vincenzo, any beachside bar on Corso Italia, Piazza dell’Erbe, Piazza Lavagna or Eataly’s portside rooftop bar with a view that rocks.
A NEW SORT OF ‘RED LIGHT DISTRICT’
One of the not so beautiful aspects of Genoa (yet oddly fascinating) is its public offering of illegal substances and services. Any Genovese knows well to steer clear the small, narrow ‘vicoli’ (alleyways) in the historical center. One of the first times I came to Genova I accidentally encountered a group of prostitutes. One might expect to see prostitution in the middle of the night in a bad part of town but this was 11am and I had just veered off Via Garibaldi – one of the more posh streets in Genoa – because I was curious by a sign that read “Ligurian Cuisine” and pointed down a small alleyway. Whoops! Never again.
With the largest historical center in Europe, Genoa has a notorious history for being home to visibly present prostitution, as well as many illegal drugs that are easily smuggled through the port. Moral of the story: when in Genoa, stay on the big, well-lit streets even during the day and avoid walking alone at night.
MORE THAN JUST CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS
Fun fact about Genoa – it’s the city where Christopher Columbus set sail from before discovering America in 1492. Much of the maritime scenery is still felt today inside Genoa’s historical port zone called Porto Antico. Here you can take a stroll down the long docks lined with million-euro yachts on one side and dazzling restaurants, bars and nightlife entertainment on the other. Nearby there’s the Aquarium, full of marine life and thousands of curious sea creatures. Further along you’ll spot a replica of a pirate ship that looks a lot like one of the boat rides you might see at Universal Studios. Behind that massive cruise ships are docked for the day, and you can even witness the shipwrecked Costa Concordia being dismantled – a sort of modern day titanic that’s a constant reminder that even the biggest ships can sink. You’ll also notice a huge blot on the port landscape – the sopraelevata – an overpass motorway that cuts traffic time in half, as well as the panoramic view of Genoa.
A STONE’S THROW AWAY FROM SOME OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BEACHES IN ITALY
While the beaches in Genoa might not be the most spectacular places, a little drive down the coastline proves to be another story. Beaches such as Camogli, Portofino, and the 5 villages of of Cinque Terre boast of the kind of Italian beach scenery you see in the movies: a backdrop of mountains, colorful buildings, and the rocky deep blue sea. All of it is beautiful but also a constant reminder of the difficult terrain the Ligurian people have had to overcome in order to survive.
DIE HARD SOCCER FANS (for a good reason)
Originally established as an English Cricket Association in 1893, Genoa’s football team is the oldest in all of Italy. In fact the team’s jersey red cross jersey harks the colors and design of the English flag. The cricket association later became one of the most popular Italian football clubs in the nation and is one of the top ranking teams in Italy, historically speaking. During game day, the city is packed full of jersey dressed fans and the roar of the stadium can be heard echoing throughout the city.
NEON GREEN PESTO
The region of Liguria is famous for it’s bright green pesto, traditionally made of basil, pine nuts, oil, parmesan and garlic. I’m sure most of you are pretty familiar with this delicious, yet simple sauce. The thing about pesto here is that it’s pretty hard to find bad pesto. Even the supermarket sells pretty good pesto (I love the Novella brand). The traditional way to have pesto is with trofie pasta – little worm like noodles made fresh from flour and water. They’re really cute and tiny and SUPER easy to eat (no twirling around the fork). I still haven’t tried too many restaurants in Genoa yet, but I’ve heard good things about Sa Pesta and Il Genovese, both of which I’m excited to try.
Stay tuned kids – I’m on a mission to discover the best of Genoa and can’t wait to share it all with you!