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Genoa: Introduction

142km (88 miles) S of Milan, 501km (311 miles) N of Rome, 194km (120 miles) E of Nice

With its dizzying mix of the old and the new, of sophistication and squalor, Genoa (Genova) is as multilayered as the hills it clings to. It was and is, first and foremost, a port city: an important maritime center for the Roman Empire, boyhood home of Christopher Columbus (whose much-restored house still stands near a section of the medieval walls), and, fueled by seafaring commerce that stretched all the way to the Middle East, one of the largest and wealthiest cities of Renaissance Europe.

Genoa began as a port of the ancient Ligurian people at least by the 6th century B.C., when it traded with the Greeks and Phoenicians. Genoa threw in its lot with Rome against Carthage and was destroyed for its loyalty in 205 B.C., but Rome rebuilt it. By the early Middle Ages, Genoa had become a formidable maritime power, conquering the surrounding coast and the mighty outlying islands of Corsica and Sardinia. Though all Mediterranean ports competed, the rivalry was particularly strident between neighbors Genoa and Pisa. After countless battles, Genoa soundly trounced its enemies at Meloria in 1284 (Pisa would never truly recover), after which Genoa's growth knew few bounds. She established colonies throughout North Africa and the Middle East, and made massive gains during the Crusades. With bigger success came new, bigger rivals, and Genoa locked commercial and military horns with Venice, which took the upper hand in 1380 with a naval victory at Chioggia. Though La Superba -- "The Superb," a proud nickname given the city by Petrarch himself in 1358 -- nurtured its own powerful families, after Chioggia the city's power was broken, and Genoa was increasingly controlled by a series of French and Milanese kings and potentates.

In 1528, Genoese naval hero Andrea Doria led an insurrection that reestablished local control, but the self-made government quickly turned tyrannical. Genoa's days at the top of the heap were ending. The locus of sea trade was rapidly shifting to Spain and eventually to its American colonies, a trend exemplified by Genoa's most famous native son, Christopher Columbus, who had to travel to Spain to find the financial backing for his voyage of exploration across the Atlantic. By 1684, the French had reconquered the city, and soon after the Austrians took control until 1746, followed by Napoleon in 1767. Austria tried again, failed, and Genoa set up a Ligurian Republic in 1802, but it was quickly subsumed into Piedmont, which became a French province.

Genoa's new links with Piedmont made its future, though, as it was deeply embroiled from early on in the Risorgimento, the 19th-century Italian unification movement. In simplest terms, the Risorgimento was built on a four-sided foundation: a king (Vittorio Emanuele II), a general (Giuseppe Garibaldi), a political leader (Camillo Cavour), and a political philosopher (Giuseppe Mazzini). Mazzini was Genoese born and bred, and in 1860, Garibaldi staged his single huge military push from this port city, the embarkation of the "Thousand" red-shirt soldiers who sailed to conquer and otherwise successfully bring all of the peninsula into the new Kingdom of Italy. In World War II the Allies bombed the heck out of this major port, but Genoa responded by rebuilding and expanding rapidly in the following decades, becoming once again a major Mediterranean port.

It's easy to capture glimpses of these former glory days on the narrow lanes and dank alleys of Genoa's portside Old Town, where treasure-filled palaces and fine marble churches stand next to laundry-draped tenements and brothels. In fact, life within the old medieval walls doesn't seem to have changed since the days when Genovese ships set sail to launch raids on the Venetians, crusaders embarked for the Holy Land, and Garibaldi shipped out to invade Sicily in the 19th-century struggle to unify Italy. The other Genoa, the modern city that stretches for miles along the coast and climbs the hills, is a city of international business, peaceful parks, and breezy belvederes from which you can enjoy fine views of this dingy yet colorful metropolis and the sea that continues to define its identity.

Genoa still bears some public-relations scars from when it hosted the ill-fated G8 summit of 2001. After sweeping undesirables by the truckload into local prisons and welding 3.6m (12-ft.) iron barricades across the streets to seal off the historic center, Genoa was still deemed too dicey for the world leaders' safety, so the conferences were moved into luxury ships docked at the port. Meanwhile, the international protesters that swarm such high-level economics meetings swelled to as many as 80,000. They clashed with the 15,000 police and military forces, and things got ugly: Full rioting broke out, culminating in the police shooting and killing one Italian protester who was hefting a fire extinguisher and waving it toward a police truck.

Be prepared to deal with what is probably the seediest port city in Italy. Though the city has made an impressive effort in recent years to clean up the legendary drug use in its historic center, and popular restaurants and wine bars have taken over previously shady piazzas, thieves, prostitutes and other unsavory characters still exist in the back alleys, all night and all day long. Stick to the major, well-lit streets and you will still uncover Genoa's gritty and authentic charm.

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