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Rubbing Elbows with Chris Columbus

Written on: Tuesday December 30th, 2008

A journal entry from: Nuovo Anno

Academic consensus holds that Christopher Columbus was from Genova, or one of the islands under Genovese control.  Today we made the drive down from Milano to Genova to see the sights of the hilly seaside town.

I haven't mentioned it yet but I'm really coming to appreciate the Lonely Planet book on Italy that Katharine purchased for our trip.  The coverage is excellent, the style is fun and information is invaluable.  It is an excellent source of local information as well, telling you a bit about each city's history and attractions, as well as potential pitfalls to avoid.  So far we've used it to pick restaurants to enjoy, shops to peruse and hotels to sleep.  If you plan to travel abroad I would highly recommend one.

Genoa is markedly different from Milano.  For starters it is a harbor town and the local Ligurian cuisine features plenty of seafood dishes (more on the food later).  The topography is very very hilly; it feels like the entire town was painstakingly carved out of the seaside cliffs and mountains.  Entering the town on the Autostrade from Milano you pass through valleys and tunnels, finally emerging high above the city for a beautiful vista.  It is here that I get my first taste of the stereotypical European city streets: tight, meandering, cobbled and, well, foreign.  Milano was difficult to navigate by American standards, but at least most of the streets were bi-directional and well marked.  The notable exception is street names.  Street names are inexplicably carved into small stone slabs attached well above eye level on the sides of buildings.  How locals navigate, without pre-existing knowledge of the streets, is beyond me.  Genova's streets, in addition to having the same name slabs, are much tighter, much more meandering, and much rougher.  It is a very common experience as an American driver in Italy to have pangs of panic when you can't decide whether the street down which you've just turned is one-way, pedestrian only, closed entirely, or all of the above.  Even the streets on which cars are allowed and expected are crowded with pedestrians.  The sidewalks, on the rare occasion they are even present, are always narrow, forcing most of the foot traffic into the street itself.

Despite the challenges, Genova is a beautiful town.  Again the buildings are old, the architecture grand and the restaurants tasty.  Many times I've visited restaurants in the US where the interior feels like a cheesy reproduction of a romanticized Italian street.  I'm here to tell you that it wasn't romanticized.  Here they have the genuine article.  For dinner tonight we walked up one of those streets (the kind an American would think cars aren't allowed but yet they're present anyway), then turned down a steep, narrow alley and found the address proscribed in the Lonely Planet book.  Inside we are in the basement of a building where the roof is arched, the walls are brick and the wooden bar is apparently very old.  And none of it is fake or artificially constructed for "atmosphere."  That's just how the building was built.  I have to imagine that this is what New York would feel like (with the complete lack of space to build new structures) about 500 years from now.  That's the biggest difference between the US (ESPECIALLY Atlanta where nothing is older than 50 years) and Europe: everything is Europe would be preserved as a museum were it located in the US.  Yet these buildings are where everyone lives, works, shops and eats.  While this is all true of Milano as well as Genova, I think it finally sunk in while visiting Genova.  Milano is a more modern town; it's the center of fashion, business and industry and as such has more modern accoutrements.  Genova is a town at a slower tempo and seemingly more connected to its past.

Tonight's stay is courtesy the Hotel Cairoli.  This hotel occupies the top couple floors of a five-story building and even includes a rooftop terrace.  Tomorrow we will depart for Spoleto and pay homage to the Festivale dei Due Mondi.