Genoa Old Port, here the past becomes the future

Genoa’s Old Port is the tourist hub of the city and at the same time the beating heart of its historical identity. Between Palazzo San Giorgio, the seat of the Port Authority, and Renzo Piano’s daring lift, between a posthumous galleon and the refreshing shade of the mulberry trees, the city’s entire history flows here every day, perpetually poised between a glorious past and a future that is incessantly pressing from all sides. Private boats and cruise ships dock at the Porto Antico: it is the privileged entrance to the city and at the same time an immense lounge in which Zenese and foreigners walk every evening.

Genoa’s ancient port, between the past and the future

Genoa is a city with a double link to its history. Petrarch called it “Superb for men and for walls” and today, if only a few gates and a few shreds of bricks remain of the walls, pride has remained almost unchanged: for this reason the city of Genoa remains firmly anchored to the memory of a glorious past and seems to welcome the future only in very small doses.

The Old Port is the place par excellence of the slow but inevitable change of the city and its inhabitants: over the last few decades Genoa has had to give up its identity as an industrial city in order to reinvent itself, reluctantly, as a tourist city. It has seen the exquisitely productive activity of the Old Port diminish and has had to transform its commercial heart into a picturesque postcard that, let’s face it, the people of Genoa are only partial to the point.

The Lantern of Genoa

The Genoa Lantern has been guarding the port since 1128, despite the fact that throughout its glorious history it has literally undergone everything: bombardments, military attacks, lightning strikes by the dozens, rethinking its original function and structural improvements. Originally, in fact, the tower at the end of the port of Genoa was only a watchtower. It was only later that heather and olive oil faggots began to burn on its top to show sailors the way home. The city coat of arms decorates the lowest of the three orders that make up the structure: it was painted in 1340 by a Milanese artist. In 1778 the city decided to equip the tower with a lightning rod and it was only in 1936 that the lighting system was electrified.

Bigo, the lift designed by Renzo Piano

Renzo Piano Porto Antico Genova
Bigo lift and sails

In 1992, on the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America and the Expo held in the Ligurian capital that year, the renovation and redevelopment of the Old Port was completed, giving the area the soul it has today. Renzo Piano has grafted in the centre of the stretch of water in front of the port the structure called Bigo, one of the architectural elements most loved by foreigners and most hated by the Genoese. The why is soon said: it breaks the romantic, vintage idyll with an overbearing graft of novelty. The Bigo is a lift that reaches a height of 40 metres and allows a 360 degree view of the entire city. It stands up thanks to an imposing structure that recalls the ancient loading cranes once used on ships. The same structure, which opens like a metal flower in the centre of the port, also has the function of supporting the tensile structure covering the Piazza Delle Feste, a large multifunctional space that hosts all kinds of events throughout the year. Aligned along the main front of the Old Port are the so-called sails by Renzo Piano: these are structures without any purpose, with a purely decorative function and which, for this reason, obviously give the Genoese the reason to grumble about the need to build them. As far as I am concerned, they are one of the most poetic things I have ever seen: rotating continuously with every breath of air, they remind us how closely a harbour is linked to both wind and water and how these two elements are characterised by an incessant movement. But don’t try to convince the Zenese of this, because you won’t succeed.

Genoa’s Old Port from East to West, from Cotton Warehouses to Galata

Lowering of the Old Pier
Cotton Warehouses

In Genoa, East and West do not exist as in the rest of the world. Nobody says “East” and “West” but Levante and Ponente. Why? Because they do, and foreigners should not ask questions anyway. That said, just like the rest of the city, the port is oriented from East to West. At the far east there are the Siberian Gate and the Old Pier with its Cotton Warehouses which today house the Congress Centre. In my opinion there is no place more nostalgic than this in the city. From the Molo Vecchio and Porta Siberia all food products entered Genoa, i.e. the food from which the gate takes its name and which, no, has nothing to do with the Arctic region. Today, after the customs and warehouse function has been abandoned, Porta Siberia houses the Emanuele Luzzati Museum, which was one of the most representative contemporary artists of the city.

Genoa Old Port
Panorama from the Old Pier

Even the Molo Vecchio has completely lost its original function: the huge warehouses where once huge quantities of the cotton from which jeans were later made were packed, now house a museum, a multiplex cinema, an unspecified number of restaurants and bars, the Babboleo radio (Genoa’s most famous radio station) and the Città dei Bambini e dei Ragazzi, a facility where children can learn, while having fun, many notions of science and technology. After all, there is still a lot of space left, frequently used for various kinds of trade fair events. Along the Calata del Molo Vecchio are still lined up the old and beautiful cranes that once loaded and unloaded goods from ships. Today, illuminated by permanent lighting installations, they are true post-industrial monuments. At the end of the Calata del Molo Vecchio you can enjoy one of the most evocative views of the Lantern and the modern, huge cranes of the commercial port. At the western end of the Old Port there are the Galleon Neptune and the Galata, Genoa’s Sea Museum.

Neptune, the Galleon of Genoa

Genoa Old Port
Galleon Neptune

The galleon is one of the most emblematic and at the same time most flimsy tourist attractions of the Old Port. It is a posthumous vessel (although everyone is convinced that it is a galleon) made as the set design for a film (also roughly insubstantial) directed in 1986 by Roman Polanski. Anchored in the harbour at the end of shooting, the Neptune was never dismantled: it was preferred to be used as a tourist attraction. Inside the vessel is completely empty because over time it has been stripped of all its furnishings. The exterior literally falls to pieces (recently part of the bow decorations have been torn away by the weather and in all probability they will not be restored) but despite this the Neptune is still able to exert an irresistible attraction.

Galata, the Sea Museum

Galata is the city’s Sea Museum: less known than the famous Genoa Aquarium, which is located a short distance away, it retraces the history of the migrations that started from Italy in the past decades and, above all, the role played by the city of Genoa in channelling Italian migration flows towards South America (particularly towards Argentina). For those of us living in this precise historical moment, Galata preserves a priceless anthropological heritage that should be rediscovered and enhanced.

Zenese and foreigners: the Genoese welcome

Bigo Porto Antico Genova
Bigo lift by Renzo Piano

The Old Port of Genoa has always had a multi-ethnic atmosphere. A short distance from the port runs the porticoed street of Sottoripa, which was built according to Arab architectural canons: a highly symbolic choice, since the city that loves to call itself inhospitable once had very much at heart that foreigners were at ease in its sestrieri, especially if they were rich merchants with a lot of gold to trade.

Today, there are basically two types of foreigners walking in the Old Port at any time of the day: they come from the sea or from the carruggi. Those who come here generally disembark from luxurious yachts tens of metres long, spend and spread their money in places practically lined up on the sea, and are regularly treated with frosty sufficiency by bartenders, waiters and restaurateurs; those who come from the “carruggi” live in the oldest and most humble areas of the city and end up populating the small playground next to which stands a statue of Ghandi with children of all colours. Although it seems completely out of context, that statue has become the guardian deity of a peaceful (and resigned) coexistence of the Genoese with those foreigners they have always needed in one way or another, even if they will never be able to admit it.

The Zenese, on the other hand, those who come to the port to enjoy the cool evening air and the view, seem serene, firm, literally in their natural environment, one with the Lantern in the distance and the sea at their feet.

Porto antico di Genova
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