Past glories

The glimpse into history offered by Genoa and Ceuta goes unrecognised too often
December 12, 2012

The old mariners' neighbourhood of Boccadasse in Genoa (photo: Umberto Fistarol)

To experience the Mediterranean in winter is to experience a sea whose character has changed, along with that of the places along its shores: Venice immersed in fog, Vesuvius lost in the clouds above Naples, and the Sierra Nevada high above Granada blanketed in snow. Those places are magnets for tourists at any time; but there are other places where it is possible to escape from crowds of visitors and to lose oneself among the locals. There is a chance to experience the rhythm of life when a place is not dominated by tourists.

Here, then, are two places bound together by their remarkable history. One is a self-confident community of citizens, the other a curious remnant from the early years of European empire—the Italian city of Genoa, and the Spanish outpost of Ceuta, located on the northern tip of Morocco.

It is a mystery why Genoa is left off the list of cities that any visitor to Italy should try to see. It tends to be treated as the summer gateway to the very beautiful towns and villages of the Ligurian coast and yet its museums and monuments are reminders of a scintillating history of trade and empire, in bitter rivalry with Venice. Rather than great panoramas across canals, Genoa offers narrow streets that have not altered since the Middle Ages, where you may see a scurrying monk who reminds you that you are in the 21st century rather than the 13th only by carrying a plastic bag full of groceries. Instead of the sense of floating on the sea under wide cerulean skies, Genoa cascades down the side of the Ligurian Alps, and there are switchback rides to be had on little funicular trains that carry you up to the 17th-century fortifications high above the city.

Genoa possesses a grand street full of Renaissance palaces, now converted into a series of museums—the Palazzo Bianco and the Palazzo Rosso. There, portraits by van Dyck express the pride of the patriciate of a city known as “la Superba.” But it is the tightness of space that strikes you. The medieval cathedral is covered in alternating bands of black and white marble, but is so crowded with buildings that it is difficult to stand back and get a sense of its scale. Once inside, the treasury mimics the sense of secrecy the city likes to convey. In a dark cavern, you can see the Roman bowl made of green glass that was brought from the Holy Land by Genoese crusaders over 900 years ago. They were convinced it was the dish used at the Last Supper. And this is one of Genoa’s most appealing features: you never know what surprise awaits you around a corner. It may be the Galleria Nazionale, whose treasures include a portrait of Christ by the pioneering Renaissance painter Antonello da Messina. Or the treat may take the form of a bowl of trenette al pesto in a small trattoria, which bears no relation to the potted pesto on supermarket shelves.

In its medieval heyday, Genoese merchants traded right across the Mediterranean, travelling to and beyond the great port, as it then was, of Ceuta, now an autonomous Spanish city on the north coast of Africa, bordering Morocco. Enclaves and anomalies have a special appeal, and the Straits of Gibraltar contain two: one, Gibraltar itself, is popular and accessible, while Ceuta is less easy to reach and many of the people you see on the fast boat from Algeciras simply use it as a gateway into Morocco. Ceuta is built on a spit of land so narrow that you can see both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to left and right as you walk up the main street. Reminders of its complex past are everywhere. Its great trading history ended when Prince Henry the Navigator helped capture the city for Portugal in 1415, and the Portuguese walls still impress. The Arab baths can (in theory at least) still be visited, though the opening times seem to be a fantasy. As you approach the intimate cathedral of the Virgin of Africa, there are street signs you will not see in other Spanish cities, except pointing to historical monuments: Catedral, Sinagoga, Mesquita—the Ceutans take great pride in the free exercise of the three Abrahamic faiths by citizens of the city.

Modern Ceuta has its attractions: the former casino is one of Spain’s most striking art deco buildings, decorated with great sculptured dragons, and a different, darker Spain can be rediscovered in the Museum of the Spanish Foreign Legion, adorned with the motto “Legionaries to fight, legionaries to die.” Or there is a higgledy-piggledy historical museum, with beams from the mosques of medieval Ceuta, and Roman and Arab pots and anchors, serving as a reminder that this was once a city choc-a-bloc with warehouses and madrasas.

Both Genoa and Ceuta are places that speak of lost glories. Genoa is now a second-rank Italian city and Ceuta seeks an identity, trying to promote a cosmopolitan culture without sacrificing its belief in its Spanish identity.