Genoa (Genova), the Italian Riviera and the Cinque Terre Villages


"Making things has always been a pleasure for me – happy hands, happy mind – and making sandcastles (on a beach in Genoa) was my training in fantasy", so said the acclaimed Architect, Renzo Piano (Born in Genoa, 1937) in an interview with journalist Rosanna Greenstreet, reported in the Guardian Newspaper on Bastille Day, 14th July, 2015.

Genoa born Architect, Renzo Piano has designed many notable buildings including the Shard next to the River Thames in London, the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, New York Times building in New York and many other buildings around the world.  He credits his early passion for design and architecture to his play as a child on a beach in Genoa building sandcastles. His Building Workshop is located here in Genoa at Via Pietro Paulo Rubens 29.

Perhaps playing on the beach and dreaming of a world beyond, was also true of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) also born in Genoa who went on to travel to Spain and Portugal before setting sail on his voyages of discovery, discovering what would become the 'New World' and the Americas. Here in Genoa there is a statue of Christopher Columbus as a boy at the Museo delle Culture del Mondo in the Albertis Castle that was built between 1886 and 1892. The house where it is believed where Columbus was born, the Casa Cristoforo Colombo is at Piazza Dante in Genoa. The Museo di Genova is here too. You can also see an old Galleon here in Genoa, Il Galeone Neptune at Porto Antico wharf. It is a pretty amazing ship.

Genoa is a large Port city with a population of around 600,000 and a history dating back over 2000 years. Being a port on the Mediterranean in north-west Italy and located below the Apennine Mountains, Genoa has always been of strategic importance to the various warring parties over the centuries. It is thought to have been first under the control of the Greeks around 200BC before the Etruscans and then Carthaginians, Romans, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Franks, French and even Austrians (around 1746) gained control for short or longer periods of time over its destiny, with the Maritime Republic of Genova lasting from 1005 to 1815, when for a short Napoleon Bonaparte had control over the Republic.

When Garibaldi began the process of creating a Unified Italy, it was from Genoa that he sailed in 1860 with his Expedition force of 1000 on the conquest of Southern Italy.

The Republic of Genoa, as a City State, in its heyday had its own army and naval forces fighting and vying for supremacy over other Italian city states including Venice and Pisa for control over the sea, islands (including Corsica), territories and trade.

Great wealth came to Genoa through its value as a port and its control over trade, with the Genoa Cathedral being consecrated in 1118, the Palace of St George built in 1260 and while the city's population was decimated in 1347 by the Plague with the city coming under siege a number of times, the 1400's and 1500's saw the Banco di San Giorgio founded in 1407, the University of Genoa founded in 1481, the Palazzo Bianco built in 1540, the Torre della Lanterne Lighthouse Tower erected in 1543 and the Rolli di Genova Palazzi Palaces built between 1576 and 1664.

All of these building still exist in or close to the centre of Genoa, with Piazzas and small laneways running off them (Caruggi) and while train tracks, bigger roads and industrialisation has taken a toll on the overall look of the city centre, the history is still all there, enough for Genoa to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage City in 2006, topping an award it received in 2004 as that years 'European City of Culture'. 

The Harbour is a roughly circular shape, with wharves jutting into it, while the coast is also lined with wharves too, and there you will see the 117 metre high Torre della Lanterna built in 1543. It is a square shaped tower that is best seen when it is lit up at night overlooking the outer harbour.

On the harbour, at Ponte Spinolo is the Renzo Piano's massive glass ball shaped building that is part of the Acquaria di Genova, one of the biggest in Europe with a long pier walkway to the Isola delle Chiatte Island. Not far away either is the Galata Museo del Mare – at Calata de Mari 1 – the Museum of the Sea, which also has a submarine berthed here too. The Aquarium and Museum of the Sea are the most popular Tourist Attractions in Genoa, with the Marina here too and a sculpture in the water called the 'Bigo Monument', designed by Renzo Piano.

There is a Metro in Genoa and next to the Metro Di Ferrari station is the Piazza De Ferrari – a large square with a 1930's bronze fountain in its centre. The beautiful Teatro Carla Felice is here too. The Theatre was bombed in World War II but has since been restored.

The most infamous Palace is the Palace of the Ducale (Palazza Ducale) where the Doge and the Senate governed the City and it is located between Piazza Matteottiv 9 and Piazza De Ferrari. Inside the Palace there are a number of prison cells where prisoners from the 16th century onwards were placed in the tower as a punishment. The Palace itself dates back to 1251-1275, with a number of upgrades since then. The Genova Opera House is also located on the Piazza De Ferarri – the most important square in Genoa.

Not far from Piazza De Ferarri is Porta Soprana (The City Gates) that were part of the walls of Genoa when it was a fortified City. The Porta Soprana has twin towers and you can also climb the stairways to the top of the towers to see over the City. There are still many parts of the old walls here in the City, their construction beginning in 1155.

Via Garibaldi is a long street lined with great buildings and Palaces on or near to it, including the Palazzo Doria Tursi which houses the Musei di Strada Nuova; the Palazzo Rosso Art Gallery and Palazzo Bianco. These great old palaces reflect the wealth of the merchants. The street itself was considered so important as a cultural part of the City, that it was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006.

Another Palace and one of the most interesting to see is the Palazzo Reale at Via Balbi 10. Inside it is as you would expect, quite spectacular and another is the Palazzo Giorgio (Palace of St George) built in 1260 and located on Piazza Caricamento on Via della Mercanzia. There are also other Palazzas here too in Genoa, some also with their special gardens too.

The ensign of Genoa is the St George Red Cross on a white background, dating back to the second Crusade in 1145, when Genoa was a port from which the Crusaders would sail from. Saint George is called the 'Warrior Saint' and is often depicted on horseback slaying a dragon. St George was a martyr to Christianity, born around AD 275-281 and becoming a Roman Soldier, before a purge began to rid the Roman Army of Christians, with Emperor Diocletian issuing an edict to that effect. George refused to recant his Christian faith and was then tortured before being executed. He became a Christian martyr and ultimately a Saint.

Other Legendary stories of his life tell a story of a dragon standing guard over a well of water, stopping villagers from obtaining the water, until they provide the dragon with the gift of a sheep, then a virgin maiden. St George comes to the rescue of a Princess destined to the thrown to the dragon, riding a stallion and slaying the dragon using his lance, Pike or spear to slay it.

This depiction of St George slaying the dragon as a triumph of good over evil is depicted in many paintings, sculptures, coats of arms and other ways, with St George being the Patron Saint of England and the St George flag, the Union flag of England and Wales and one of the most recognized flags in the world, also forming part of the Union Jack, British Flag.

The St George Red Cross on a white background is thought to have been brought back to England by Richard the Lion Heart in the 12th century following his Crusade. The Crusaders had voyaged under the protection of the Genoese fleet of ships from Genoa.

There are also, as you would expect, many great Christian Churches also in Genoa, the main Cathedral being the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo which was first constructed in 1098 and upgraded over the centuries, its main façade completed in 1307-1312. The Cathedral is located on the Piazza San Lorenzo, and inside there are the ashes of St John and Baptist - the Patron Saint of the City of Genoa.  There is also a museum in the Cathedral too – the Museo del Tesoro and nearby the Museo Diocesano.

In Genoa there are walking tours, Segway tours and buses, trolleybuses and the Metro to get around. There is also the main train station within a fairly grand station building located on Piazza Principe, and also 3 Funicular railways that run up the hills behind the City. The airport is just outside of the City, with flights to other parts of Italy and Europe too.

Being a Port City also means that there is a large marina and Terminals for both Cruise ships and cargo vessels, and of course in Genoa you will find great Italian food to eat too – with Genoa the home of 'Pesto' the flavour synonymous with Basil.

In and around Genoa there are a number of parks, one of the most beautiful the Park next to the Villa Durazzo-Pallavicini, located at Via Ignazio Pallavicini. It is a grand garden first designed in 1840-1846. The garden has great flowers, trees, walkways, ponds, statues, a Turkish Temple, the spectacular Temple of Diana, Madonna's Chapel, beautiful Flower House and even a Chinese Pagoda.

If you like marble sculpture work, you might also take a walk through the Staglieno Cemetery – on Piazzale Resasco where there are numerous crypts, graves and statues dating back to 1851 when the Cemetery was first opened. The Cemetery covers an area of one square kilometre with the most significant statue being one of 'Faith' that is some 9 metres high. Close by you will also see a replica building of the Pantheon. 

Genoa is also roughly 200 kilometres (120 Miles) along the A10 (Autostrada dei Fiori) from Nice in France and the famous Côte d'Azure, French Riviera and if you were to travel from Genoa westwards – on the Italian side of the border you would be travelling along a spectacular coastline and small villages – along what is called the Riviera di Ponente – (Coast of the setting sun) better known as the Italian Riviera. To the east of Genoa you would be travelling along the Riviera di Levante (coast of the rising sun) where the Cinque Terre villages are located. This whole coastline is truly beautiful.

What you have here is a series of small villages and towns hugging the hillsides and touching an inlet or bay of the coastline beside the Gulf of Genoa and the Mediterranean Sea. The rugged coastline creates a road that ducks in and out of small valleys or moves through tunnels and winds its way along the coast. There is also a train line along the coastline here too.

Almost all of the villages have claims to fame for their 'La Dolce Vita' lifestyle, food, atmosphere, tiny shopfronts, villas, marinas and beaches.  These are all tourist destinations for people seeking the summer sun and the casual lifestyle and there also the glamourous villages like Portofino with their luxury villas, yachts and super cruisers.

Along the Riviera di Ponente – look for Voltri, Varazze, Savona, Pinale Ligure, Alberiga, Imperia, Alassio and the famous small town of San Remo renowned for its flowers.

Equally beautiful and spectacular are the villages that make up the 'Cinque Terre'. Here the roads are narrow and without much parking so it is better to come here by train and walk, though tour buses also come here too. This whole Cinque Terre area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and there is the Cinque Terre National Park located here too.

There are five small villages strung along the coastline making up the 'Cinque Terre' –

  • Monterosso that dates back to 643 AD, wraps around a sandy beach and bay with the Dorio Castle (Castello) overlooking the bay and village that is almost in two halves separated by the Castello on the Rock.
  • Riomaggiore that dates back to the eight century, located in a narrow valley with Villas and terraces up the sides where you can see the vineyards.
  • Vernazza that dates back to around 1050 and is probably the most popular village for tourists, with a Pier Jetty and a natural sheltered harbour with its moored fishing boats and other craft.
  • Corniglia is a more rural rather than fishing village high on the Cliffside rather than on the harbour or coast. This doesn't make it any less attractive to see, with its terraced vineyards and the old Church of San Pedro in its centre.
  • Manarola has a tunnel in its main street – the Via di Mezzo with the Church of San Pedro here that was built in 1338. The Manarola to Riomaggiore 'Via dell'Amore' 2 kilometre walk starts from here, and is well worth the effort to do if you have the time and the inclination.

The biggest City is to the south of the Cinque Terre villages and this is La Spezia, the home of the Italian Navy, on La Spezia Bay, that is often called the 'Bay of Poets' too – as in the 19th century a number of Poets and writers lived here.  The City has lots of history dating back to Roman days with the Castle of San Giorgio (Castle of St George) located here, the castle construction beginning in 1262, and then added to in the 1300's and 1600's. La Spezia being on the southern side of the Cinque Terre, means that it is often the place where train or boat travellers to the Cinque Terre depart from to head north, or where they dis-embark if coming south from Genoa. It is also closer to Pisa.

It should also be noted that at the end of World War II, La Spezia was the departure point to British controlled Palestine for some 23,000 Jewish people who had survived their imprisonment in Nazi Concentration camps. The British had a mandate from the League of Nations to govern Palestine from 1919 onwards and this was only relinquished in 1948, when the new state of Israel was created. Until 1919 Palestine had been under the governance of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

One of the best things about travelling is finding the little snippets of information that help make sense of the world and how it has evolved. It is almost like finding the missing pieces of a jigsaw.

Hopefully in what is written here about Genoa, the Italian Riviera and Cinque Terre, some small pieces of information that we have written about will add to your journey.

Certainly there is a lot to see and enjoy in Italy apart from the food and wine.

If you find a good wine shop – look for a 'Rossese di Dolceacqua wine – a special Alpine Red wine that is produced in the Liguria region at an altitude above 500 metres ( 1600 feet) around the small villages named Dolceacqua and Ventimiglia in the Italian Riviera. This wine was the favourite wine of Napoleon.

Happy travelling!

Geoff Stuart 

Happy Traveller

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