Today we bid farewell to Alba. As we rise, early doors and pack up the car, I am overcome with reluctance to leave our beautiful little piece of paradise here in Piedmont. But alas, we have places to go and things to do, and so we say our goodbyes, heading off to our intended destination, and the final stop on this Tour Italia, Genoa.
The journey isn’t too long, but the road swoops back and forth, slewing us across the blacktop, which leaves me feeling a little dizzy. The skies are clouded over, and there isn’t much to see as we pass through tunnel after tunnel, all of which disappear straight into leafy cliff faces, real Thunderbirds territory.
As we inch closer to Genoa, the lanes of traffic suddenly multiply, with confusing signs and exits from the freeway here, there, and everywhere. I’m overcome with a mild sense of navigational panic, flashing back to the time I tried to get from Berkeley back into central San Francisco and missed my exit a solid seventeen times before nearly giving in and abandoning my ride curb-side.
Fortunately, we manage to only mess up twice, and join a steady stream of afternoon congestion slump, trundling alongside the docks. An industrial stretch of water, and the busiest cargo port in Italy, it’s literally fifty shades of grey, with a plethora of various sized boats all moored and bobbing listlessly in the gloom. It doesn’t look too appealing, and i’m really missing the quiet cobbled streets of our former home. Just as i’m feeling pretty downbeat, a van scrapes past us, clipping our car and driving off without stopping. I’m in disbelief-as visions of my rental deposit being returned are suddenly dashed-and for the rest of our journey I scowl out directions for the hotel from behind crossed arms.
We loop back on ourselves to catch the turning we missed earlier, and head up towards Genoa’s Piazza Principe rail station, it’s portico gleaming white in the classical Greek Doric order, a great heaving temple of commuters. No time to stare though, as this town really isn’t built for driving, or parking, and it is with dicey manoeuvring that we eventually pull up outside our hotel, from where our poor little car is taken off to an underground parking garage, safely at rest, far from the reach of unruly vans.
Our hotel itself is stunning. I had chosen it for our final evening’s stay as a real treat, given that in the pictures online reminded me of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Very true to type, the frontage is a pale pink with white pilasters, and each individual window flanked by white pointed pediments that look as if they have been iced on. A five-star accommodation, its name the ‘Grand Hotel Savoia’ (See, very Budapest, right?) is emblazoned across the the balcony in neon lights. Perfection. We enter and it’s like stepping back in time. The decor is extremely regal, with chandeliers, heavy hung drapes, and marble flooring everywhere you look, probably the original 19th century furnishings.
There’s an old man sitting in an arm chair in the foyer, regarding us with a hint of a smile, and i’m, pretty sure he might have been there since the place was built. The bell hop (yes an actual bell hop, complete with moustache!) takes our luggage and as we can’t check in until 3, we decide to explore.
We head for the water front, where I’m hoping to find a delicate seaside port with lovely restaurants and bars like Torrevieja or Tel Aviv. No such luck however, as my brief glimpse of boat-age beforehand was pretty much the extent of it all, with just a few cafes, a hotel, and a smattering of market stalls and street hawkers. I’m a little deflated since this is our big send off here in Italy, and I’m beginning to seriously question my destination choice.
It looks like it might rain, although the overcast skies could just be mirroring my sullen mood, so we stop to grab lunch at an outdoor eatery, where our table overlooks the murky water.
We have read up that there are a few delicacies here in Italy which are particular to the Liguria region and to Genoa, and so we order focaccia which is one of them. It’s not the regular type of bread I’m used to however, and we are served what looks like a pizza made of pancake batter, layered with salty melted cheese. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever tasted, and quite delicious, cheering me up somewhat.
After our early start we are a pretty tired threesome, and so just me and the brother head off to mooch, as our friend returns to the Savoia. we walk backwards from the ocean into the old town, heading for Genoa’s attractions.
First up, we pass Cathedral San Lorenzo, standing haughtily in its Gothic style, before turning left onto Piazza de Ferrari. Across one side is the Palazzo Ducale, once home to the Doges (a sort of elected Duke/public defender type person) of Genoa, but now a cultural centre. This sits adjacent to the Teatro Carlo Felice, a concert hall, that in the 19th century was the music epicentre of Genoa, and opposite this, is the church of Santi Ambrosia e Andrea.
The square’s centre-piece is a gorgeous fountain, shooting jets of gurgling water up high, and we pose for a quick photo op before moving on.
As we amble further, we zig-zag down side streets, with cafes full of Arabic speakers, giving it the feel of the souks of Egypt, Morocco, or Jerusalem. There’s also a subtle gathering of prostitutes on street corners, betraying a seedy undertone to life here in the Liguria.
We move on, where a steep slope sends us up towards Christopher Columbus’ house (although he doesn’t seem to be home), beautiful ruins of an estate credited to the great explorer who was born right here in Genoa.
The more we explore, and I think i’m beginning to get a sense of Genoa’s personality. There’s lots of gorgeous architecture, mainly in the classical and neo-classical style, and what is clear is that maybe Genoa is a city of indoor activities (no pun intended ladies of the night), as grand galleries, cultural centres for music, dance, and art seem to be its star attractions. We keep walking up the incline, stopping for a quick coffee on the scenic Via Garibaldi, before heading up to Spianata Montaldo.
A designated viewing point, there’s a sort of suspended look out balcony, complete with little funicular to get you there. Once the summit is reached, you are gifted a full 360 degree panorama of the city. And boy, what a panorama. I look out over colourful rooftops, chimney pots, gardens, and church domes, to the faint outline of mountains beyond. It’s all very Parisienne, a little like being at the top of Sacré Coeur, and with the sky now clear, I can see all the way back to the water.
Happy to have had such a beautiful vista, we attempt to head back down towards the port and our hotel, but become tangled in high-walled walkways leading nowhere, and little rabbit warren lanes.
Usually my saviour, google maps fails to pick up any of the streets (if you could call the uneven gunnels we keep finding ourselves on that), and I wonder how in the world anyone get’s their post delivered here on the imaginary roads of Genoa.
Just as i’m musing this, a jolly fellow strides past us, abruptly entering a gate off one such lane into a hidden apartment beyond. It’s pretty quirky around here, and it feels as if i’ve entered a secret society of safe-houses.
Our route master wants us to take a shortcut down a gated tunnel and spiralling staircase to reach our destination. I’m excited as it feels very Da Vinci Code, but my plans are scuppered as the gate is padlocked shut and won’t give. Dan Brown eat your heart out.
Just as we are debating how to get down to the road we want without the aid of our mystery tunnel, my phone rings. It’s our other compadre back at the hotel with news of a spa!
Apparently there’s a spa in the hotel, and she is about to head on down for some R and R. I tell her we will be there in 15 minutes, and we scarper, hot on the heels of some folks who appear to know where they are going, stopping only for a quick photograph of the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato, a Catholic Cathedral painted in Baroque frescos of vivid golds.
Once safely back, I finally get to see our room and it’s amazing. The room itself is huge, the wall behind the bed daubed in a watercolour of seafront scenery, and a little corner balcony that offers us a view out over the Piazza Principe.
The soft furnishings are a vision of mint green, there’s plush velvety cushions, along with satin drapes, as well as fluffy robes and slippers all laid out for us. Now THIS is what I ordered.
We put on our robes, so giant they swamp us, giving us the appearance of baby Geishas, and head on down to the spa.
Calming music plays and the decor is done as a mermaid’s paradise. I plonk myself down on a curved seat made of heated stone, and read a little, before a dip in the pool washes away the last of my morning’s troubles.
Firmly relaxed, we go back to the room to shower, change and pack before heading out for our own last supper here in Italy.
We are going out tonight to procure Genoa’s other famous foodie-fare, and our pilgrimage requires a bus ride down slick-wet streets, as the rain threatening to pour from earlier finally gives way.
We alight in the twilight, on what must be a main drag of streets, as I spy high-end shops. We turn just off this stretch, to a very grand looking establishment, and I’m feeling a tad under-dressed.
Never fear though, as despite my casual attire, we are given a warm welcome to ‘Zeffirino’s’ by a fully suited and booted maître d’ who is all smiles.
Established at the outbreak of World War II by the Belloni family, it’s a pretty famous eatery, and the son of the Chef Zeffirino Belloni, now leads the helm at his very own ‘Zefirrino’s’ in Las Vegas at The Venetian Hotel. Very swanky.
The decor consists of painted ceilings, and table cloths over dark wooden furniture. There’s also cotton and lace doilies which I don’t think I have seen in the flesh since the actual 80’s. It’s as if time has stood still here at the restaurant where Frank Sinatra apparently got his pasta. Perhaps they wanted to keep hold of those glory days by not changing the place since he last stepped foot in it, or perhaps they are just very old-school, but either way, I quite like it.
The chef himself comes out to greet us and shake hands, and we order starters of hot seafood salad, and minestrone soup, which is served with more of a stew consistency, but packed full of flavour nonetheless.
A Japanese tourist group piles in, and once again our chef is wheeled out, this time to dish up their food.
Given the pace he moves at, I begin to have a sneaking suspicion as to whether he actually goes near the stove anymore, or if he has now solely retired to hosting duties, letting his younger counterparts sweat it out in the hot kitchen. It’s a nice touch though.
We sip our wine and then our main course-and the grand finale-arrives ‘Pesto alla Genovese’.
Genoa is where Pesto originated from, and this particular recipe, handmade on-site, is apparently the best, so much so, that jars of it are actually prepared for the Pope. Well, if it’s good enough for him…
It arrives, a rich vibrant shade of green, served on handmade mandilli pasta, which translates as ‘handkerchiefs’ so called as its soft, thin rounds fall gracefully across the plate, giving the appearance of a dropped handkerchief.
It smells amazing too. The notes of fresh basil, pine nuts and olive oil all hitting my nose at once, making my mouth water in anticipation. It tastes equally sublime, the pasta light as a feather, and it’s easily the best pesto I’ve ever eaten, no wonder it’s the Pope’s preferito.
Fit to bursting, we roll out, waving our goodbyes and offering our gratitude to the Chef, and maître d’.
We talk about the pesto all the way home, and once back at our hotel, we head on up to the rooftop bar to toast the culmination of our trip with a cocktail nightcap.
The breeze is blowing in off the ocean, and the city below is lit up like Christmas, complete with little twinkling lights from all the traffic passing by.
I feel completely relaxed and satiated. I know I will miss this wonderful country, and tomorrow sadly heralds the return to reality, a move to London ahead of me to think of. So I stop, in this moment, to capture it all, to just breathe in the sea air, letting it dance across my cheeks and through my hair. My eyes are closed and a lazy smile upon my lips as I seal this memory in my mind forevermore, saying my silent grazie to Genoa, and bidding a bittersweet buonanotte to Italy.