Sunday, September 29, 2013

Porto Antico And Porta Soprana

When we weren’t venturing out of town, Jory and I were usually hanging out near the old port of Genoa (above) -- known locally as Porto Antico -- or in the neighborhood of the Porta Soprana, adjacent to our berth at the Hotel Cristoforo Colombo.

Considered a key Roman port, the city's name means "door." Active since about the 5th century B.C., Genoa was the epicenter of ancient maritime routes. Later, the harbor district became a hub for explorers and sailors of all stripes, and no less than the likes of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot hailed from Genoa.

Renovated in 1992 in commemoration of the voyages of Columbus, Porto Antico now features a world-class aquarium, distinctive biosphere (above) -- a giant glass ball replete with tropical plants, birds and butterflies -- a replica pirate ship and maritime museum.

Explorer Marco Polo was once incarcerated in the frescoed Pallazzo San Giorgio, built in 1260. Today, this spot -- known as the Piazza Caricamento -- hosts periodic exhibitions. A panoramic lift hoists a cylindrical viewing cabin about 200 meters into the air to absorb the full perspective of the ancient port.

The Porta Soprana (left) is what remains of an extensive defensive system of walls that encircled the city and joined the Porta dei Vacca on the north side. These “walls of Barbarossa,” built in 1158, are likely the first example of Gothic architecture in Genoa. During the French Revolution in the 18th century, the towers served as executioner's chamber, complete with fully-functioning guillotine.
On the east side of the Porta Soprana is the purported birthplace of Christopher Columbus, along with an adjacent columnar structure that housed a cloistered garden for nuns and monks from a nearby monastery.

Near the tower is the Café di Barbarossa, a lively bar with a life-size statue of Elvis greeting you at the door and some of the best people-watching in the world.

The neighborhood was peppered with eateries, bakeries, fish markets, knick-knack shops and stores of all kinds. Jory and I agreed that our two favorite restaurants were the Trattoria Alle Due Torri and La Mama's Pizzeria and Ristorante.

We also spent some time at the Barbarossa nursing our drinks and munching the free “apertivos,” while waiting for the nearby restaurants to open at 8 p.m. Though it cost five euros to access the towers, it was worth the expense for the views and photo opportunities. Plus, it was a fine stairway workout to the top (above).

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ventimiglia: A Bit Of Heaven

The plan was to venture to the province of Piedmont near The Alps, where my grandfather had spent the first 20 years of his life before immigrating to America. But even the best laid plans of mice and men go astray, and we missed the last morning train from Genoa to Turin.

So having seen the eastern portion of the Italian Riviera, Jory and I instead purchased train tickets to Ventimiglia (above) near the French border on the Riviera di Ponente. This stretch of the Ligurian coast provides a more down-to-earth experience compared to the opulent Riviera di Levante of Portofino and Portovenere to the east of Genoa.

The train ride offered spectacular views of the Mediterranean in between stops at Savona, Noli, Finale Ligure, Albegna, Alasio (a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway), Imperia and San Remo. Except for San Remo, perhaps the liveliest city along this stretch of coast, most towns feature a more low-key paradise of their own.

Arriving at the westernmost edge of the Italian Riviera, we had about five hours to explore this delightful town of about 55,000 people. Located on the Roia River as it empties into the Mediterranean, Ventimiglia is best known for its outdoor market, with hundreds of booths with vendors peddling everything under the sun.

After purchasing our return tickets back to Genoa, we immediately proceeded to the beach, which can only be described as a little bit of heaven. Sunbathers and surf swimmers were in abundance, and the water was quite warm. After taking a few pictures, Jory and I stopped at the Stella Marina Ristorante for lunch.

Sampling a real Italian calzone, the large pocket of bread was stuffed with prosciutto (dry-cured ham), mushrooms and cheese, with only a hint of marinara sauce the size of an Italian postage stamp. The calzone was “eccellente,” and the view from our table at the Stella Marina (above) wasn’t too shabby either.

Between the road and the railway line on its eastern edge, Ventimiglia features Roman ruins, including an amphitheater and public baths dating to the 2nd and 3rd century A.D., when the Roman town was known as Albintimulian. Ventimiglia itself is primarily residential, and the city center is alive with tourists and retirees.

After lunch, we ambled through a beachfront park (above) and watched some of the locals play bocce ball. Toward the end of our stay in Ventimiglia, we checked out the shops, as well as yet another medieval church before taking the train back to Genoa.