This destination is the second of four on the Northern Italian Travel Planning circuit, as described on that post. As a coastal city which has revitalized its old town over the recent years, and with an opportunity to visit Portofino as a day trip, I looked forward to this stop.
It was a relatively uneventful drive from Milan to Genoa, mostly highway driving through farmland. On approach to Genoa, about 30 minutes out of town, the terrain changed from the flat, rich farmland of the Piedmont to the rolling terrain of Liguria. Driving suddenly became much more fun, speaking for myself. I like driving, and driving on twisty roads is like nirvana to me. Thirty minutes of it was pure joy. Two hours after leaving Milan, we arrived at the designated cafe to meet our apartment hostess. I had enough time for one Italian draft while waiting for her, just enough to descend from the adrenaline of driving through the hills.
We were sitting at an outdoor cafe by the harbor, having a beer while waiting for our hostess to arrive and show us to our apartment. Apparently getting there was too complicated in her mind to direct her clients straight to the property. I would soon learn just how right she was. I realized how different the cost of living was in Genoa compared to big city Milan. A large beer and a black tea set me back 6 euros, which would have cost 10 – 12 euros in Milan, depending on the location. As we relaxed and enjoyed our drinks, we did some people watching. There was a contingent of African immigrants living local to the waterfront, walking around, going about their business. Their garb and mannerisms gave them away as fresh immigrants. For example, there were multiple women walking by with babies in slings on their backs while balancing large loads – like a tall basket full of stuff – on their heads, dressed in what appeared to be colorful native garb. It reminded me of a scene from a National Geographic documentary somewhere in Africa.
Soon Roberta arrived, and she drove us to our home in Genoa. There was no way I could have found the property on my own. Not with Google Maps, and a professional navigator. The property was located in the medieval center of the city, comprised of streets (in name only) that accommodated at most, one smallish vehicle, but was regularly used by all kinds of vehicles. Driving in these quarters requires an Italian mindset, inclusive of talking to the other drivers, gesticulating hand gestures, and maneuvering a vehicle in a way most people can’t imagine. I was so glad she picked us up and chauffeured us to the property. At one point on the drive, we were on a two-way street too narrow to accommodate two cars, like most of them. The rule was that the uphill bound vehicle receives the right of way, and the downhill car should yield. The downhill bound taxi driver got an earful from our hostess because he didn’t properly yield – lots of hand gestures. The taxi driver was oblivious. The very last left turn she needed to make to access the apartment was not navigable because a vehicle was parked blocking the turn. She ranted under her breath, I caught some of the words, all of them unlady-like. She sounded the horn several times. A little old lady arrived to move the vehicle a few minutes later, words and gestures were exchanged, and we finally arrived. Wow, how unnerving, but so happy to have arrived.
Wow, what a lovely apartment. Two balconies, one larger than the other, and both with nice city views overlooking the rooftops. The apartment was on the seventh (6th European) floor of a historic building with marble floors, statuary in the entrance lobby, and on its own private piazza. Our hostess lives in the apartment when not rented out, so naturally it was decorated to suit her Italian flair and style. The apartment was rather large as European apartments go, with ample outdoor space exposing grand views. The Genoa apartment was larger than the one we had in Milan, at just over half the price. The holiday just got less expensive. I don’t focus on cost in general because my blog isn’t about “farther, cheaper, longer”, but it is noteworthy how much less expensive some destinations are as compared to others – even on the same itinerary.
Emerging from our Genoa apartment, from our grand lobby adorned with romanesque statuary, crossing marbled floors to egress through the grand door onto our private piazza, we stepped into the heart of the medieval part of the city.
Medieval Genoa is best described as scruffy and rough around the edges. There was a clear effort to rejuvenate some parts of the old town – it was visible in some of the buildings, and there were works in progress we observed as we walked along our discovery trek. But the flavor and feel of the old town is in high contrast with the elegant and historic building from which we emerged.
Medieval Genoa is collections of meandering alleys that pass for streets – where I would have thought I was in a pedestrian only part of town. Cars, service vehicles, delivery vehicles, transportation vehicles – all make their rounds through those narrow, hard to believe a single vehicle would be accommodated, let alone two, lanes.
It is rough around the edges in the sense that it is unkempt. There is a distinct smell of urine in many of the passageways that pass for streets, probably due to so many days having passed without a good rain. Many people have dogs, as we’ve observed lots of folks walking them at all hours. I should say that there wasn’t a lot of evidence of dog poop during our discovery trek.
Portofino Day Trip
The route to Portofino from Genoa is pretty interesting. Getting out of town is harrowing. Genoa is a snaggle of twisty roads, seemingly going in all directions – fraught with heavy traffic comprised of scooters, trucks, buses, and endless maniacal little vehicles. It takes 30 minutes to leave town. Continuing on, we encountered a blissful 30 kilometers of toll road with a 1.70 euro tariff outbound (2.90 euro inbound). And once we left the highway, the fun began. A 8.5 kilometer drive on a two lane road with buses and trucks that sometimes required a full stop to allow oncoming traffic to pass due to the narrowness of the road. It wasn’t quite the Amalfi heart-attack drive, but it was so similar. The difference being that I was a passenger on the Amalfi drive, while on this occasion I was the panicked driver. The drive was all along the coast, rock wall on the right, cliff to the ocean on the left. Panic city. The drive did pass through two lovely little towns along the way, Rapallo, and Santa Margarita. Both of these little towns had extensive pedestrian areas along the waterfront where it looked like it was possible to walk for miles along the water, with breathtaking scenery as the reward.
Portofino itself is very compact. Without doing the climb to Castle Brown, and the Faro Lighthouse, the whole town was walkable in an hour or less. It was picturesque, and to my surprise, possibly because I was there on a Tuesday morning, not swamped with tourists. It was definitely a worthwhile day trip from Genoa, but folks that have been to Cinque Terre, or have done the drive from Sorrento to Ravello on the Amalfi coast, will grade this experience as less impressive.
Antica Sa Pesta
A genuine local eatery. No one spoke English, but the owner, and no English menu. Packed with locals for lunch. We both ordered a mixed salad and grilled octopus. It was the first time we were served octopus whole. The ink sac had been removed, otherwise it was the whole thing. My wife’s serving was on the smaller side, and I think that’s why hers was very tender. Mine was quite a bit larger, and either overcooked, or otherwise a bit tougher due to its size. One out of two ain’t bad. I’d go back to this place if I had the chance, and try their other menu items.
La Buca di San Matteo
Mixed plate of Ligurian appetizers, risotto with seafood, stuffed anchovies, and Ligurian fruity white wine. This was a quiet little place very close to the apartment, discovered on the fly as our first choice as recommended by our hostess was closed. The food was good, but not what was expected per the menu description. Stuffed anchovies turned out to be anchovies over baked veggies. Not bad, but not as described..
Trattoria Tripoli Portofino
Ravioli stuffed with seabass, fried squid, shrimp, and anchovies with frites. This was a little place at the bottom of the port, facing the water. We stopped in for lunch after our long hike to Castle Brown, and the Lighthouse Faro. The food was middle of the road, as was the presentation. The service was good.
We were once again foiled in our efforts to dine at Roberta’s highly recommend restaurant, as it was closed for reasons only an Italian speaker would understand, based on the recording I got when trying to call. Fried anchovies to start, followed by Catalan style crispy octopus, with a mixed salad on the side. The anchovies were presented too hot to eat, and they were very good, fat and crispy. The octopus was very tender, and a smaller portion than Sa Pesta. An excellent local experience with very good service.
Final thoughts on Genoa. The city gave me the impression that it was larger than it actually was – something like a quarter the size of Milan as a population center. It might have been because Genoa was less organized, more chaotic than Milan, and took more time negotiate the route on entering and exiting the city. But whatever the reason, Genoa seemed large and intimidating. The medieval part of town had its own sort of charm, with very nice restaurants, and enough sights to keep busy discovering for a day, or two. The side trip to Portofino was a huge highlight, and a great compliment to the stay in Genoa, with incredible contrast between the two places. I enjoyed my stay in Genoa, and had a great immersive experience at Roberta’s apartment. It was impossible to feel more like a local at this destination.
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