Genoa’s Gorgeous Gardens
In a mysterious northern Italian seaport where showing off is a sin, Lisa Gerard-Sharp prizes open the secret gardens of `La Superba,’ Genoa’s well-deserved nickname.
Genoa is a complex yet conspiratorial city, resolutely urban yet studded with secret gardens. As the most densely packed medieval centre in Europe, Genoa is genetically unfathomable. Renzo Piano, the renowned architect, sees his home town as a “secret, inward-looking kasbah city.” Let the city wash over you: Genoa is a city of sensibility rather than a series of sights.
The wood-panelled Castelletto lift shudders upto Belvedere Montaldo and views over a choc-a-block cityscape tumbling down to the sea. It looks like a lego city built by a crazily inspired child, with pieces left as they fell. Palaces, churches, docks, rooftop gardens and an ancient lighthouse are concertina-d into improbable shapes that shouldn’t work but do.
As a medieval trading empire, Genoa has retained its salty spirit and sense of secrecy. This maritime republic was forged by sailors and adventurers, bankers and merchants, who shaped the city in their own image yet respected the prevailing ethos, one of inward opulence but outward restraint. The sea-power had a second wind in the 16th-century when, as Europe’s banker, it built palaces and parks that still survive today. My mission is to tease out the gardens, even the ghosts of gardens, concealed within city mansions or attached to barely-visited villas.
“Italy’s Most Beautiful Garden” – Villa Durazzo Pallavicini
Set in seafront Pegli, in western Genoa, Villa Durazzo Pallavicini has just been named “Italy’s Most Beautiful Park” in the prestigious competition of the same name. The journey to Pegli is part of the adventure, reached by a shuttle-boat from Porto Antico or by train to Pegli station, a service set in place by Count Pallavicini purely to gain access to his villa.
This Romantic, 19th-century villa garden was created by Count Pallavicini as an uplifting journey rather than a prosaic park. Dotted with follies and ornamental pools, the park is a poetic play, forming four fairy tale ‘acts’, further divided by ‘scenes.’ The theatrical performance takes us from darkness to light, from ignorance to enlightenment, all in a meandering walk. If nothing else, treat it as therapy. Unsurprisingly, the theatrical concept came from set designer Michele Canzio, the creator of the Carlo Felice theatre in Genoa.
With the best of intentions, I embark on a meditative journey from wilderness to paradise, winding past mausoleums, towers, temples and fountains. From a Roman bridge to a bold obelisk and a waterfall tumbling over a rocky bank, it’s a compelling journey back to the wistful 1840s. The palm-fringed path meanders past a pagoda up to an ornamental pool stocked with turtles and carp and framed by a folly. The heavenly temple is an evocation of Dante’s Paradise. The grotto and subterranean lake, once navigable by boat, represent Dante’s Inferno but are not yet restored. I’m looking forward to returning to such a poetic vision of Hell.
The newly-restored park can’t quite conceal the persistent hum of motorway traffic but in the right frame of mind, you can still meditate on the poetic journey and mentally erase sightings of modern Pegli. Despite minor reality checks, the park offers panoramic views from Portofino’s mountain to Cape Noli. I promise myself a return visit in spring when the park is ablaze with multi-hued camellias, many dating back over a century.
Seaside villa-visiting in Nervi
Genteel Nervi, the faded villa district in eastern Genoa, represents the most enchanting mix of gracious garden retreats and seaside strolls. The quaint resort is perfect for wiping the cultural slate clean by promenading along the coastal path or snoozing in adjoining villa gardens. This might seem sacrilegious given the art-stuffed villas, mostly turned into treasure-trove museums. Be consoled by the fact that the Genoese do just the same, coming here to admire rocky beaches and windswept views in winter or to chat under the canary palms in summer. After admiring the largely interlinked villa gardens and pounding the promenade of Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi, give in to a seafood fry up, with the scent of anchovies hanging heavy in the air. Nervi is an all-seasons resort and, given the mild climate, can make for sun-drenched strolling long after the summer bathing establishments have closed up shop.
Genoa’s showcase street – Via Garibaldi
Refreshed and back in the city centre, we can combine culture with palace-and-garden envy, estate agent-style. Patrician Via Garibaldi, the city’s showpiece street, teases with trompe l’oeil facades, conjuring up an illusion of space in narrow alleys. A cursory glance reveals grandiose courtyards, hanging gardens, the odd waterfall and baroque grotto, as well as largely intact art collections. In the 16th-century, the homes of the grandest families were designated ambassadorial residences, fit for visiting kings or courtiers, depending on their status. The resident families were obliged to make room for important guests, to foot all bills and to spare no expense on entertainment. Known as the Palazzi dei Rolli, the most palatial mansions and gardens make up a Unesco World Heritage site and can mostly be visited.
Start with the Chamber of Commerce at number 4, which must be the country’s most princely temple to industry. Palazzo Tobia Pallavicino, which doubles as the Chamber of Commerce, is a superb palace built for a 16th-century nobleman, merchant and ambassador. It is one of the most sumptuous Palazzi dei Rolli, with a rococo gilded gallery that feels like a miniature Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. This part of the palace was once the garden but few can complain that nature lost out to an illusionistic game of mirrors. A ghost of a garden remains in the entwined goddesses and grotesques, garlanded in golden foliage.
Palatial gardens at Palazzo Lomellino
Palazzo Nicolosio Lomellino, over the road at number 7, is unmissable, with its grey-blue façade festooned with decorative stuccowork depicting harpies, daggers, grotesques and garlands of fruit. The frescoed interior develops the theme of plenty, along with the mystery promised by the façade. Inside is a depiction of the New World, with astrological and mythological symbolism, ruled by Bacchus, the God of Wine, dominating a land of plenty.
The festive air culminates in a gorgeous two-tiered garden, typical of Genoa’s hanging gardens. The secret garden is centred on a nymphaeum, a water feature ostensibly dedicated to nymphs but all part of glorifying past owners for posterity. The garden set-pieces include a two-tiered monumental fountain supported by giant tritons, messengers of the sea. In the centre of a parterre, a pool features Hercules fighting a snake. In a secluded grotto, studded with shells and stalactites, Adonis, lover of the goddess Aphrodite, fights a wild boar to prove his manhood, a combat which sees the death of the fragile youth.
But above all, the garden embodies a spirit of pleasure, expressed through parterres and pergolas, fountains and fanciful sculptures. Bacchus and his followers reign on the balustrades overlooking the courtyard. A minaret at the end of the garden probably started as a 16th-century tower but was turned into a mirador, an 18th-century observation point for admiring the park, with its lemon groves ranged above, stacked against Castelletto hill.
This garden folly celebrates Genoa as a city of secret pleasures, a trail that inevitably leads to seafood in rough-and-ready inns or seductive snoozes under frescoed ceilings. The choice is yours. Unlike Florence or Rome, Genoa offers no must-see list, only a must-feel list.
Visit Genoa city information: www.visitgenoa.it
Rolli Days: 14-15 October 2017, Genoa (and in April 2018). Free admission to the Rolli Palaces. These Unesco World Heritage mansions were once selected by public lottery and used to host nobles and ambassadors coming to Genoa for State visits.
Nervi, `the Riviera in the city’: http://www.visitgenoa.it/en/parks-and-museums-nervi
Where to Eat:
Al Veliero (seafood grill portside by Porto Antico, friendly service, run by a character): www.alvelierogenova.com
Il Gozzo, NH Marina (Porto Antico setting, like eating on the prow of a ship, for slick service, cocktails, seafood risotto): www.nh-collection.com/hotel/nh-collection-genova-marina
Le Rune (friendly, unpretentious, authentic, unpricey, fresh): www.ristorantelerune.it
Ristorante Giotto, Hotel Bristol Palace (gourmet and traditional cuisine at un-gourmet prices so trofie pasta with pesto or sea bream with Ligurian olives): www.hotelbristolpalace.it
Lisa Gerard-Sharp is an award-winning travel writer whose work, including blogs, can be found on www.lisagerardsharp.com
Header image credit: Comune di Genvoa