Genoa: Following a noble path

The view from Passegiata Anita Garibaldi, Nervi
The view from Passegiata Anita Garibaldi, Nervi
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From opulent palaces to apparently the best pesto in all of Italy, Tina Walsh gets to the heart of Genoa.

If the sumptuous gold leaf and apple-cheeked cherubs on the Palazzo Spinola di Pellicceria’s intricately frescoed ceiling are anything to go by, interior decoration isn’t what it once was.

The palace is one of the palazzi dei rolli, in Genoa, capital of Italy’s north-western coastal region Liguria. The phrase refers to a scroll, or list, of aristocratic residences that were chosen to offer accommodation to illustrious guests and their entourages. Visiting popes, ambassadors, dukes and emperors were all assigned somewhere to stay based on their rank: the more important they were, the more luxurious the lodgings.

For a few weekends each year, the public is allowed a through-the-keyhole look at around 40 of these palaces and private houses, some of which would otherwise be off limits. The entrance fee is waived too.

Built between the 16th and 18th centuries by the wealthiest and most aristocratic families of the Republic of Genoa – the Grimaldis, Spinolas and Imperialis among them – they are considered landmarks in Baroque and Renaissance architecture. With their spectacular interiors and ornamental gardens, these World Heritage-listed buildings have inspired artists and writers down the centuries.

Collectively, the palaces make up Le Strade Nuove, or New Streets (today known as Via Garibaldi, Via Balbi and Via Cairoli) and represent a form of urban planning that was revolutionary at the time: noble families had never lived as neighbours before, they were too busy squabbling and fighting each other.

The Palazzo Tursi, made with a rare pink stone, is the biggest palace on Via Garibaldi. In the gardens, a just-married couple in evening dress are having their pictures taken. Inside, along with tapestries, Ligurian ceramics and a gruesome-looking collection of 17th-century medical equipment, a violin played by the Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) takes centre stage in its own room.

For a panoramic view – Genoa’s rolling, wooded hills, innumerable rooftop gardens and cruise ships rumbling in and out of the busiest port in Italy – take the lift to the top of the Palazzo Rosso. Once belonging to the aristocratic Sale Brignoli family and now a museum, the palace contains paintings by Italian artists such as Veronese and Guido Reni, as well as works by van Dyck and Albrecht Dürer.

However impressive, though, you can’t go to Italy and spend all your time looking around palaces. Genoa’s medieval town is the biggest in Europe and its snaking pedestrian alleyways are begging to be explored.

These dark narrow streets, known as the caruggi, zigzag from the main square, Piazza de Ferrari, all the way down to the port and evoke the intrigue and skullduggery of Genoa’s colourful past.

Many of the shops lining the passageways are listed as having historical significance. Pasticceria Liquoreria Marescotti, on Via di Fossatello, is one of them. Opened in 1780, the pastry shop, tea room and bar is famous for its eponymous marescotto, a sweet, spicy aperitif made with vermouth and chartreuse and served with ice.

On Piazza Soziglia, Pietro Romanengo Fu Stefano is a captivating timewarp of stuccoed ceilings and gleaming rosewood counters. The shop has been selling candied fruits and sugared confetti since 1814, as well as rose chocolates, preserves and sugar drops, which it makes using hand-picked rose petals from the Genoese hills. Such is its renown that it was asked to supply the sweets for the late Princess Diana’s wedding.

Although it’s in an enviable position on the Mediterranean coast, Genoa’s most famous cuisine is not seafood, but pesto, which is claimed to be the best in the world. The basil leaves are grown in Pra’, a few acres of hills that have an ideal microclimate about 10 miles west of the city. It lives up to its reputation too. Bright green and with a strong, sweet tang, you’d be hard pushed to find this in a jar. Local legend has it that Frank Sinatra used to order his from Zefferino’s restaurant, a Genoese institution opened in 1939 and still going strong.

Try the lasagne with pesto at Sa Pesta, a family-run trattoria in the old quarter that’s been serving traditional Genoese cuisine for decades. Other dishes typical of the region include focaccio con Recco, a kind of pancake in a cheese bechamel sauce; polpettone, potato, green beans and cheese cooked in the oven and ripierne, zucchini stuffed with ham and parmesan.

Genoa’s once gritty port area was given a full facelift for its tenure as City of Culture in 2004. There are great views from the Il Bigo structure – a rotating glass cabin that whizzes you, via a central column, 130ft into the air – designed by Genoese architect Renzo Piano.

The next rolli days will in be held on September 20-21. www.visitgenoa.it