We enjoyed our leisurely pace in our overnight ferry from Split, Croatia to Ancona, Italy. But that pace was about to go into hyper-drive. We arrived with no transportation or lodgings booked so we scrambled to the train station. Thankfully, in Italy there is always another train coming. We were impressed if a little overwhelmed. It would be three trains – Ancona to Bologna, Bologna to Milan, Milan to Genoa that we were catching that day.
The good news here is that you don’t need to go first class. Client comfort is king in Italy and the seats were contoured with the best built in head/neck support I have ever witnessed on any trip, voyage or flight. Engineers please go to Italy and see how it is done. The tickets were also surprisingly inexpensive and easy to get. Our longest wait was one hour. During WWII, the Italian dictator Mussolini bragged that his Fascist party got the trains to run on time. Whether he can take the credit or not is for historians to decide, but for us catching a train in Italy was an act of clockwork precision.
It went something like this:
A crowd would gather in front of a dark terminal display. The sign would suddenly flash the boarding terminal and platform information with just minutes to departure, causing everyone to run as fast as they could while dragging and bumping luggage. The stations are huge. Often the boarding platform is a fair distance on a different floors or at a different terminal. The train would slow down, passengers would pour out, and you would jockey to find your coach and seat before it was leaving again. We would arrive red-faced, but no matter how sweaty we were there was always a good looking man to handle our bags…or anything else that may need tending. Ahh Italy, the country of romance. We figured it wasn’t the olives, but running for the trains that kept everyone here fit and healthy.
We arrived in Genoa in late afternoon after spending the day riding the rails. It is a big city and after the laid back Dalmatian Coast we were wide-eyed and a bit out of our element. The stations in cities are notorious for criminal activity and we saw police in force. That didn’t dissuade the unsavory characters who were busy eyeing up our locked down over-sized suitcases. “Pick me,” they said. Not wanting to leave the station we found a small Chinese restaurant with Wi-Fi. It was ironic that our first dish in Italy would be Chow Mein noodles. When Marco Polo arrived in China in 1274, pasta was well established and while many credit him for introducing it to Italy, there was pasta in Sicily in the 1100’s. But maybe, just maybe he helped make it popular!
Having scored a 4 star hotel on our budget, we splurged and caught a cab. We were glad we did. Genoa is a big noisy city that has a relentless vibe that caught us off guard. After passing out for an hour in our room, we got up to explore using my phone GPS. We continued walking, the streets getting dirtier and noisier, the pedestrians rougher, and us getting more anxious. We were in a neighbourhood that had no tourists. A bloated dead pigeon laid in a fountain and heavy soot hung in the air. A row of industrial cheerless blocks dominated the skyline. We passed a vending machine sporting various sizes of condoms. I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore, I said. The GPS had lied.
We retreated and found a delicious Margarita pizza – the first of many to come and a splendid bottle of red for $3 Euros. Being off the tourist path has its rewards.
We were in Genoa for a reason. This is the city that gave birth to the famous book The Travels of Marco Polo. When Marco Polo was captured in the Venetian–Genoese War off the island of Korčula he was sent here – and in the prison cell is where he would meet writer Rusticiano who wrote down the stories that he told. We could picture them working feverishly in their cell, the cell’s walls shatter under Polo’s prose, as another world of Kublai Khan roars to life. Soon word spread of his tales and Marco became a celebrity with many visitors to his jail and an audience hoping to get a glimpse of him in the courtyard.
Adriane and I are standing at the very site that a book was born — one that would change the way we see the world. We picture an animated Marco retelling his tales, his eyes burning with visions yet put to words, while the scribe struggled to keep up. We linger around the building, long enough that the locals are giving us curious gazes. An outdoor bazaar is set up and we can’t resist a little shopping.
Finally, we force ourselves past the grip of history and into the sunshine of today. Old Town is filled with cathedrals and mansions, arts adorn the doorways of the ancient buildings. We explore the narrow side streets where the real action takes place.
We stumble onto a giant farmers market and sample Genoa salami, cheese, bread and more Chianti wine. We visit Christopher Columbus house, and marvel how the two antagonist cities Genoa and Venice, would lay claim to two world explorers. Columbus was inspired by Marco Polo’s book and on his voyage of discovery, a well annotated copy of his travels sat on his chart table. Sometimes, our enemies are our friends.
Genoa has finally shown us her true face. What we had seen as ugly when we arrived, was now awash in a timeless mature beauty.
We strolled along the busy port, admiring the cityscape, the working boats, this is Italy’s main commercial port. Workers mingle with tourists and both stop to admire the art and modern sculptures along the harbour. A world class aquarium in a modernistic dome beckons.
Yes, we were once at war and while those old battles may be lost to those walking along the harbour today, this commercial port very much wears the crown of Queen of the Sea.