Genoa – churches, palaces and views

Piazza Fontana Marose

I could get used to hotel life, particularly one with such excellent breakfasts, friendly staff and perfect location – in the Piazza Fontana Marose, with the Via Garibaldi at one end and Via Luccoli going down the hill to Charles and Pierre’s place.

The view from my bedroom window was of course of a palazzo.  The piazza is home to three: the Palazzi Spinola, Interiano and Negrone.

The 15th century Palazzo Spinola dei Marmi (now the Bank of Sardinia) is next to my hotel. I love the black and white bands of marble. Like lots of the important palaces it was on the city’s list of places to play host to important visitors and later one of these years was Josephine Bonaparte. I find the Palazzo Negrone, on the left of the second photo, less impressive.  But a nice view to wake up to.


We kicked off to an early start: lots of ground to cover in my one full day in Genoa.  The day ended up making yesterday’s trek a little stroll.

To quote Mark Twain again:

I have not been to church so often in a long time as I have in the last few weeks. The people in these old lands seem to make churches their specialty.

I loved the exteriors but as an atheist from a Protestant culture I have to say that I find the interiors of many Catholic churches bizarrely over the top ornamented. Photography is forbidden in these churches, so you are spared these pictures, but I regret not being able to take them to help me remember which church was which!

San Matteo
The first we visited, the 13th century San Matteo, is part of the Piazza San Matteo – a visual gem. The church and the houses that surround the piazza belonged to the rich and powerful Doria family. Again, I love the black and white Gothic facades.

San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo is Genoa’s cathedral. It seems to have taken a few more centuries to be built and was never completed.  But it is magnificent and I particularly loved the columns, or rather ‘colonnettes’ supporting the three great arches at the West end. 

 Another case of every inch, literally, being covered inside by paintings, cherubs, gilt…

Chiesa del Gesu

This was a pleasant 16th century church, set in a piazza dominated by the Palazzo Ducale.  It featured two Reubens paintings which I did not think particularly good, but I liked its elegant proportions and the light shining on the gilt decoration. 

San Donato

Lastly we visited this much earlier Romanesque church.  My main memory is of a charming Flemish triptych in one of the side chapels.

After that morning packed with churches, we made our way out through the magnificent giant old city wall.  We passed the house dating from the time of  Christopher Columbus and then went down towards the harbour for lunch.

My appreciation of the old port was blemished by total fatigue!  But also, the port has suffered from some pretty dreadful commercial development and worst of all, an unsightly dual carriageway – albeit high up – cutting off the port from what would once have beena handsome sea front.

Funicular to panorama

After lunch we took one of the three funiculars up to the hills above Genoa – a great way to appreciate that Genoa is packed onto a hilly terrain.  The track was almost vertical and mostly underground.  At the top we should have had amazing views of the city, but the weather had decided to become misty and sombre. Still, there was a dramatic view of the Lanterna, the 15th century lighthouse, still in use, which is one of the world’s oldest and tallest.

Villa del Principe

Charles and Pierre had one last treasure to show me: a palazzo built by Andrea Doria, a wealthy and powerful admiral in 16th century Genoa. At first I was disappointed: we arrived by train and the huge but rather tired looking palazzo is surrounded by roads and trains, and its former glorious south-facing gardens now look over docks and a raised motorway.

The villa and its former glorious gardens have suffered from years of neglect, culminating in serious damage during the Second World War, when it was bombed by the Allies, who mistakenly thought it was the German headquarters, when actually they were in a nearby hotel.

The gardens are sad, though there is clearly work going on to restore them.  But the interior produced some absolute gems. You come first to a covered but exterior gallery, with frescoes of telve warriors of the Doria family, dressed bizarrely as Romans. Then you come to a hall with a superb ceiling frescoe of Jupiter (by this time I had been told no photos, unfortunately).

But what I will always remember is the astounding 15th cent Flemish tapestries recounting the feats of Alexander the Great.  I’ve never really been a fan of tapestries but these were absolutely splendid.  We spent quite some time working out the dramas being enacted. (I have reproduced the postcards, given the absence of photos).

That was then enough, despite the fact that I could see many more treasures in the galleries beyond.  But a suitable end to my day and a half in Genoawith my mad but dear friends Charles and Pierre.


Arrival in Genoa

Looking back on the day – I arrived at midday – it was incredible and crazy what we packed into the afternoon and evening.


I was met at the station on Wednesday by Charles and Pierre and whisked off on a long bus ride to Nervi, an outlying suburb of Genoa. It was a sublime sunny day – a relief after days of rain. We walked along a promenade to a restaurant with a magnificent sea view, basked in the sun eating another delicious fish based meal. 

Via Garibaldi

Afterwards – a siesta?  Mais non. Back to the centre of town and a ‘stroll’ (Charles, who is never tired, striding ahead, and Pierre and me limping behind) along Via Garibaldi.

This is a stunning road of sixteenth century palaces, each with a sumptuous entrance hall leading to a magnificent courtyard. A manifestation of the wealth of the Genoan aristrocacy.  The road was designed just above the existing old town and one end finishes in the Piazza Fontane Marose, where I was staying.  (A perfect location.)

It was too late (and I didn’t have energy left for tours of the palaces, several of which are open to the public, but we did peer into several and walked round one of the biggest, now the Town Hall!

Difficult to do justice to the palaces when tired, not wishing to hold the others back, and when not doing the tours.  Also, the immense front facades are difficult to photograph, even though the street is wider than the older streets of the Historic Centre. I’ll just have to come back – no hardship.

Via Luccoli

From Via Garibaldi we descended down into the old, medieval city.  Charles and Pierre live in a second floor flat on the Via Luccoli, which runs through this quarter and is buzzing with life.  The buildings are all tall, dark, in massive stone, with their original medieval windows evidently replaced through the centuries. But you get the sense that people are living on all the floors above the – mainly quite smart – shops.

I’ve just discovered Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, thanks to the Internet and Project Gutenberg and plan to dip into it further, but here is his take on Genoa streets:

These people here live in the heaviest, highest, broadest, darkest, solidest houses one can imagine. Each one might “laugh a siege to scorn.” A hundred feet front and a hundred high is about the style, and you go up three flights of stairs before you begin to come upon signs of occupancy. Everything is stone, and stone of the heaviest—floors, stairways, mantels, benches—everything. The walls are four to five feet thick. The streets generally are four or five to eight feet wide and as crooked as a corkscrew. You go along one of these gloomy cracks, and look up and behold the sky like a mere ribbon of light, far above your head, where the tops of the tall houses on either side of the street bend almost together. You feel as if you were at the bottom of some tremendous abyss, with all the world far above you. You wind in and out and here and there, in the most mysterious way, and have no more idea of the points of the compass than if you were a blind man. You can never persuade yourself that these are actually streets, and the frowning, dingy, monstrous houses dwellings, till you see one of these beautiful, prettily dressed women emerge from them—see her emerge from a dark, dreary-looking den that looks dungeon all over, from the ground away halfway up to heaven. And then you wonder that such a charming moth could come from such a forbidding shell as that.

The entrance to Charles and Pierres place is a bit like that: a dingy door in a side yard, up two flights of stairs that have seen better days – and then you enter a flat which dates partly back to the middle ages.  When they bought it I disapproved, because of the stairs and because it is not really big enough, but now I understand why they fell for it.  The sitting room in particular has lots of character.

One thing Mark Twain does not seem to have mentioned is Genoa’s dogs.  I have never seen so many dog owners promenading with their pooches, mainly but not all small and elegant.  And not a turd in sight!  In fact the streets were remarkably clean, though somewhat covered in white powder which Charles reckons is anti-rat stuff.