The streets of Genoa

A long time ago in Aix en Provence, they tried to pass a rule stating that the streets should be at least eight metres wide, for sanitary reasons. This is why, the more you walk south in the city centre, the wider the streets are going to get, until you reach that area near the main avenue where it’s all breathy and clear, but there are still almost no cars allowed and the houses seem cosily huddled together, their high walls a harmonious counterpoint to the wide, slightly sloping streets. The walls are fully lit by the sun and blue skies can be seen from everywhere, and every now and then you come across one of our omnipresent fountains where you can even get a drink of fresh water. You get the sun, not the thirst. Though I know that past centuries were far from being heaven on Earth, I can’t really imagine a time when it was not pleasant to live in Aix. The picture just won’t stick to my mind.

Now on Sunday, I was coming back from an old friend’s wedding in Trento, on the far side of North Italy. The train journey was so long that I decided to break it in Genoa, and enjoy a full afternoon of tourism. The city is not that big, and it only takes about fifteen minutes to walk from the topmost part of the city centre to the port, despite the sheer number of streets. I started with the mediaeval part, around the San Lorenzo cathedral.

It was a very strange impression. You see, Genoa is a Mediterranean city, with all the charm of old Italian streets: colourful walls speckled with high windows, the odd baroque church every now and then on a little peaceful square, centuries stacked on top of each other, Middle Ages and Renaissances branching together on Roman foundations. Except that after a couple of turns in the old town, "charming" was the last word I would have used. Narrow streets and high red walls are lovely and mysterious and cool in the summer… but in Genoa, the streets are about one metre wide, with six- or seven-storey tall buildings all around, so old that they lean towards each other at the top, blocking the sunlight even further. Down there in the street, it seems to be permanently dark. Of course no one could even think of bringing a car down there, so in the afternoon it is all quite silent. It seems that the lower three or four floors of the houses never get any sunlight, nor anything that could be called a view, except for the windows ot the house in the front, that you could almost touch by extending your arm.

What such a place could have been like three hundred years ago, before gaslight and sewers… People pouring their rubbish into the streets, that must have been much too narrow for so many people at the same time; buckets of filthy water dumped from the seventh floor (how could you ever avoid them?); noblemen on horseback crying for the crowd to let them pass, but of course it would have been hardly possible for a horse and a crowd to pass each other in those cramped streets… And if it’s so dark by day, the obscurity must have been complete by nightfall. And I hear that port cities were not the safest places to live altogether, whatever the width of their streets…

It was hard to imagine the Genoan old town as anything else than hell on earth until not so long ago. How lovely it was, still, to see the streets suddenly opening on the dazzling sunlit waters of the port…

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