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Bustling Italian port and medieval maze undergoes renaissance as Europe 2004 01 25 04:00:00 PDT Genoa, Italy People used to call Genoa "the Naples of the north" because the two Italian port cities share a crazy jumble of weathered buildings, funiculars, chaotic dog's leg streets, swarms of sailors and a hive of multi ethnic activity.

But the resemblance stops there. Poised halfway between Tuscany and Provence, Genoa crowns the swank Italian Riviera. It's the louis vuitton bags red inside busiest ferry, container and cruise ship harbor on the Mediterranean, a financial hub and a budding high tech center. After nearly two decades and $5 billion worth of urban renewal projects this once rusty louis vuitton purses how much industrial harbor, bombed in World War II, looks less like Naples these days and increasingly like Florence a city of culture and art. Workers are putting the finishing touches on scrubbed monuments and palaces. Miles of car free areas have supplanted clogged arteries. The revamped seafront, Porto Antico, draws out of towners to new hotels, restaurants, cafes, shops, museums and an unusual aquarium made to look like a freighter. So utterly changed is Genoa that the has named it (along with the French city of Lille) "Culture Capital for 2004." To celebrate, the Italian government is forking out about $40 million on 110 temporary events throughout the year (see "If You Go"). Enter Genoa's sprawling harbor on a cruise ship, as several million passengers do each year, and you're treated to an experiment in verticality. Medieval towers, Renaissance palaces and postmodern pastiches teeter between the boomerang shaped coast and castle crowned peaks reached by funiculars and cogwheel or narrow gauge railroads. In the mid 1800s, likened Genoa's setting to "Satan's fortified encampment." It has always seemed more benign to me, an operetta set with decors at improbable angles. Pastel colored apartment houses perch on porticoes pressed against Romanesque churches amid a hodgepodge spanning the past millennium. This is the probable birthplace of Baroque trompe l'oeil decorative stuccoing and headquarters of globetrotting contemporary architect. The freighter aquarium is his; so is most of the Porto Antico redevelopment zone and abutting wharves. I've been coming to Genoa since the early 1970s and experienced the city's rusty nadir, when the port was dying and the biggest business was migration to Milan or Turin. But on a recent stroll, I saw the concrete grain elevators and nearby docklands from the bad old days being toppled by demolition. Out of the dust the soon to be completed and Navigation has already started to rise. It's set to open in June in a reconverted 17th century building integrated into what will be Italy's most ambitious multiplex museum complex, with something like 20 vast exhibition venues. A few hundred yards west, at the Stazione Marittima, a 1920s Mussolini period pier complex, I revisited the freshened arrivals and departures lounges. Passengers from renowned ships such as the Rex, Michelangelo and once sat on the varnished wooden benches and gazed at the lounges' 30 foot murals depicting exotic destinations. Facing the Stazione Marittima is Palazzo del Principe Doria. It dates to louis vuitton agenda second hand the 16th century's golden age, when authentication of louis vuitton Genoese admiral Andrea Doria made sure the silver of the Spanish conquests in America wound up in Genoa's coffers. The two story rambling palace has always been in Doria hands (now Doria Pamphili). Its current scions have spent untold sums repairing the slate roofs and sea facing loggia. Where until recently there stood a weathered outdoor movie theater, now there's a Renaissance garden with herbs, parterres and a tuneful fountain. Perin del Vaga, Raphael's star understudy, frescoed the vaulted salons. The Doria Pamphili heirs have brought back the palace's original belongings, including priceless tapestries of the 1571 naval battle of Lepanto, which pitted Genoa and a coalition of fleets against the. Back at Piano's palm tree lined Porto Antico, I followed the crowds under the 1960s overhead freeway an eyesore yet to be removed and into Genoa's medieval alleyways, called carugi. Sunlight slanted down a few knife slits, but most others were atmospherically dusky, with a kaleidoscope of hawkers selling fake bags. Bigger than Venice's, this is Europe's most densely populated medieval downtown. Columbus was born here, though the ivy clad hovel the Genoese claim as his was actually built a century after he died. Medieval Genoa was also the seat of the world's first modern bank; for the past eight centuries, the city has been the headquarters of some of Italy's wealthiest clans. That's because shipping, a lead role in the Crusades and an early start in finance made the Republic of Genoa into a powerful city state. It also explains the wall to wall palaces. Most are now auction houses, brokerage firms and banks, or museums with enviable collections. Finding Genoa's nests of culture is a treasure hunt. The city is still a maze, designed to thwart pirates and block Mediterranean winds. "It abounds in the strangest contrasts," wrote of old Genoa in his 1846 "Pictures From Italy." "Things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful, and offensive, break upon the view at every turn." If you subtract the lampposts and cellular telephone antennas, the tilting carugi alleyways and their street corner shrines are surprisingly unchanged since Dickens' day. Between the castellated Porta Soprana city gate from the 1100s and the hulking 19th century Principe train station, the Middle Ages live on. Outdoor fruit, vegetable and book markets thrive in squares the size of a tennis court. Prostitutes beckon from sidewalk level hovels lit with red lanterns. Hole in the wall shops spill salt cod, silk and digital cameras into the narrow alleys. Happily, several well lighted and clearly marked itineraries lead you through the carugi to troves like the at Palazzo Spinola, a sumptuous house museum. It boasts two so called, or Noble Floors, one originally conceived to receive ambassadors to the Republic of Genoa, the other for family apartments. It's hard to say which is more unsettlingly rich in terms of plasterwork encrustations, frescoes of battles and heroic feats, and sculpted or inlaid marbles. Part of the 's permanent collection will be on show in 2004 at the city's premier exhibition, "The Age of Rubens: Genovese Homes, Patrons and Collectors," at the Doge's apartments of Palazzo Ducale (the Duke's Palace). Genoa's dukes and doges lived on a rise about 15 chiaroscuro minutes on foot from Palazzo Spinola, a walk that passes the black and white striped medieval cathedral of San Lorenzo, many a Romanesque or, and several animated piazzas swirled with cafe tables. The Rubens exhibition is set to fill the palazzo's echoing chambers from March 20 to July 11. Their 60 foot ceilings swarm with decorations, however, making it hard to concentrate on anything else. With more than 120 paintings by Rubens and contemporaries active in Genoa Caravaggio, Procaccini, the De Wael brothers, Caracciolo, Simon Vouet and the mega exhibition will also feature Brueghel, Reni, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. Period tapestries, furniture and silver centerpieces evoke the glory days of Genoa, once nicknamed "La Superba" the haughty. During Rubens' 1604 1608 Genoese sojourn, he drew architect 's Via Aurea (now called Via Garibaldi), a grand Renaissance street whose 13 palaces have complementary frescoed facades. All are now grime free, and as I explored their courtyards' hanging gardens, grottoes and fountains, the scaffolding was being taken down. I felt I was inside a giant New Year's present being unwrapped. Trompe l'oeil curlicues in Pompeii red, marble balconies and colonnades leaped out of the stonework. Via Garibaldi's Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Bianco, residences of the startlingly rich Brignole Sale family, have long housed the city's main museums. For 2004 they've been renovated and linked to the even bigger, more extravagant Palazzo Tursi Grimaldi, Genoa's city hall. I scaled the triple wide, colonnaded marble staircases, then swept my eyes from the gilded ceilings to the life size family portraits by Rubens and Van Dyck, some displayed in the rooms where they were painted. Beyond the tall French windows gaped teeming alleyways. As in the Renaissance, the lifestyles of Genoa's haves and have nots living cheek by jowl remain irreconcilably different. At the turn of the 17th century, construction began a few hundred yards west of Via Garibaldi on an even more sumptuous street of palaces, the Via Balbi. Seven enormous mansions once belonging to the plutocratic Balbi clan include Palazzo Reale, whose monumental staircase brought back memories of dust and decay it's another of Genoa's fine art museums, and I'd been to it before. But as I stood in the opulent entranceway, the sparkling frescoes and gold encrusted plasterwork stunned me. This Genoese Versailles has its own Hall of Mirrors, now blindingly lit. For 2004 it will be hosting "Masterpieces of the Durazzo Collection, from Bronzino to Rubens" (April 21 to July 21). As I walked down Via Balbi, the potholed asphalt was being replaced with 17th century style flagstones, and each of its outsized palaces wore its face lift with dignity, looking almost handsome in a brooding, bulky way. At each end of this thoroughfare, pedestrian only areas have been carved out. As dusk approached, spotlighting transformed Via Balbi into a surreal stage crossed by Genoese strolling arm in arm, their silhouettes tiny against the towering mansions. It was dark by the time I'd walked down medieval alleyways back to Via Garibaldi and found the entrance to the Art Nouveau municipal elevator at Piazza Portello. It raised me to the pine edged belvedere of fashionable Castelletto, my favorite spot for admiring this mysterious city strung between the Apennines and the Mediterranean.

Porto Antico was ablaze in light, and everywhere it seemed people were out enjoying what used to be dicey streets. Direct trains link Genoa (Genova in Italian) to Nice, Milan, Turin and Rome. The international telephone code for Italy is 39; Genoa's city code is 010 (dial all the digits, including the "0," plus the local number, which may vary from five to seven digits).

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