“We Genovese were brought up British,” sighs my Burberry-clad guide nostalgically. “Our mothers always dressed us in gabardine raincoats, tartan scarves and Shetland wool pullovers. Now I have to make do with Burberry.” Elena urges me to visit Finollo, a men’s outfitters modelled on the temples of tradition in London’s Savile Row. “And we have jewellers and pastry-shops that supplied the Royal House of Savoy and your Queen. It is hard to steer her onto lesser matters, such as finding time to visit the largest historical centre in Europe.
Called “the most English of cities”, Genoa indulges in an unrequited love affair with us, despite the fact that the British fleet bombed the city in the Second World War. This affection rests on an antiquated notion of Englishness which, as ever in Italy, has a lot to do with clothes and rose-tinted spectacles. In the old-fashioned shops, the Genovese favour an Italianised version of the English gentleman look of yesteryear, from regimental blue blazers and club ties to, daringly, anything cutting-edge by Barbour or Burberry. Even Genoa football team, surprisingly not kitted out in checks or plus-fours, was founded by an Englishman in 1893. Perhaps this is why the rival city squad, Sampdoria, is now trouncing them, with the taunt ringing out from the terraces: “Genoa is history, Samp is the real story.”
Fortunately for visitors, Genoa is both: the history is the story. But in unravelling it, expect to lose yourself down alleys every bit as deep as Venetian canals, and find yourself in rickety lifts as high as the cliffs. Sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, this is a concertina of a city, with slate-topped palaces and squat skyscrapers bearing down on the old port. By turns sleekly streamlined and self-consciously restored, the port is the glittering symbol of regenerated Genoa. Above is a dramatic natural amphitheatre ringed by ridge-top forts. In between are alleys burrowing under medieval palaces, funiculars reaching dizzying heights, and tunnels emerging where least expected.
Genoa is a complex yet conspiratorial city, but you have to want to play the game. Even connoisseurs respect the house rules. Walk everywhere in this pedestrianised maze, succumbing to the slow rhythms of city life: stop for coffee in time-warp cafes; follow your nostrils to the next aromatic fast-food; or chat to strangers at communal tables in rough-and-ready inns. Learn to stroll with your gaze focused upwards: virtually every alleyway has striking architectural details, from friezes to trompe l’oeil frescoes. Before developing a crick in your neck, periodically abandon architecture for art, especially in the intimate Palazzo Spinola and in patrician Via Garibaldi. Let the city wash over you: Genoa is a city of sensibility rather than a city of sights.