Given that our destination was on the Italian Riviera and is the second largest port on the Mediterranean Sea, it seemed only fitting that our journey would begin at the Sea’s largest port and hug the coastline of the French Riviera. In keeping with that theme, we started on a French train from Carcassonne and transferred to the Italian Thello once we arrived in Marseilles. Familiar sounding city names such as Cannes, Nice, and Monaco appeared outside the window on the passenger platforms where we stopped but then after emerging from a tunnel the station names took a definite change in spelling. First we saw Vintimille, then Sanremo, Diano, and Alassio meaning that we were definitely in Italy with dinner waiting for us that evening in Genoa.
The only thing that I could remember from school about this coastal city was that Christopher Columbus was born there so I was surprised when Bill suggested we break our train journey to Venice with an overnight there; however, once we saw a travel video showing some spectacular palaces to tour, museums to visit, and historic sites dating back to the Phoenicians and Etruscans, it became clear that we were going to need a few days there instead.
In France’s Loire Valley there are over 100 castles to visit so “chateaux fatigue” can be a real problem. In the heart of old town Genoa where there are over 100 palaces, we had to pick carefully so we started at the top, the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) and worked our way down from there. When your neighbor is the University complex completed in 1640 and said to have the city’s finest courtyard and gardens, your palace had better be pretty spectacular, and the Reale certainly is. There are grand staircases and balconies, frescoed rooms, crystal chandeliers, and the sumptuous Gallery of Mirrors that would feel at home in Versailles. Outside on the terrace are views of the harbor and back inside the extensive art collection includes original furniture and decorations from throughout its 400 history including several paintings by Van Dyck.
Although we couldn’t find a Plaza Alfa Romero or Lamborghini we knew from photos of the fountain at Piazza De Ferrari that we wanted to go there. From this central hub the streets fan out, each with a different emphasis from finance, to culture, to shopping. There are Art Nouveau buildings, the stock exchange, and one of the largest opera houses in Italy. It was a short walk from there along Via Dante towards the harbor into the oldest part of the city where the two towers of the city gate, Porta Soprana, from 1155 still stand. In the shadow of those towers is the stone house where Christopher Columbus, born in 1451, spent his childhood.
Lots of cities around the world seem to have a street where everyone wants to live and in 17th century Genoa that was apparently Via Garibaldi. There are so many wall-to-wall palaces lining both sides of this narrow lane that it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are not all open for tours but we did get inside three of them—Palazzo Rosso, Bianco, and Tursi—to admire their carvings, frescoes, loggias, courtyards, and art collections that make them such an interesting stop.
As you would expect in a major Italian city there’s no shortage of churches to visit so as with the palaces, we were selective. Although Piazza Matteotti is dominated by the former palace of the ruling Doge, the interior of the adjacent church of Santi Ambrogio e Andrea is well worth the visit. Started in 1588, the floors, columns, walls, and ceiling are totally covered with marble, gild, stucco, and frescoes and there are even separate paintings by Peter Paul Rubens. On the other side of the palace is the church of San Matteo from 300 years earlier with a distinctive black and white striped exterior. Dating even earlier to the 1100s is the Cathedral of San Lorenzo that houses a chapel built to hold the ashes of St. John the Baptist. Legend says that the platter also there was used by Salome to present the saint’s head and that another artifact in the treasury’s collection is the Holy Grail.
Even though this was originally just an overnight stop that expanded to four days, we still didn’t have time to visit everywhere that was on our list. Given how easy it was to get to Genoa from Carcassonne, we can easily return. Now, on to our next destination: Venice!