We’ve all done it. Peering through a stranger’s windows is one of the great joys of travelling: a tiny flash of local life when you’re working from the tourist map. But there’s no need for that here in Genoa, I think smugly, as I head up a monumental Renaissance staircase to knock on a door carved nearly five centuries ago. Because here, they’ll happily throw the doors open to you.
Genoa has long been miscast as a rough-and-ready port; in fact, it’s a city that lives its history like no other in Italy. Off the main tourist trail, instead of converting its masterpieces into museums and galleries, it’s kept them for everyday use. Never before had I eaten lunch at a table so close to a Renaissance fresco that I was able to study the individual brush strokes over my gnocchi, as I did at Cambi Café; nor had I ever drunk an aperitivo under the watchful eye of Neoclassical busts — until my visit to Les Rouges Cucina & Cocktails. And I’d never breakfasted in a 16th-century stuccoed chapel until I checked into Hotel Le Nuvole Residenza d’Epoca.
Cambi Café, Les Rouges and Le Nuvole are all Palazzi dei Rolli (palaces built by the Genoese nobility in the 16th and 17th centuries). Of the original 163, 85 remain — 42 are UNESCO World Heritage Sites; most are on Via Garibaldi, a pedestrianised catwalk of 16th-century extravagance carved from the hillside above Europe’s largest medieval city centre.
Three of Via Garibaldi’s palazzos are museums; the rest are shops, offices and even homes. Walk past at night, and you’ll catch tantalising glimpses of glittering chandeliers, colour-popping frescos and gilded stucco. By day, though, you can get closer. Most caretakers will let you into the huge atriums — designed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and to please the most demanding foreign diplomats. Some — shops and banks, for instance — allow you all the way inside. Others allow regular visits: number 4, the Palazzo Tobia Pallavicino (now a municipal building), opens its Galleria Dorata — a jaw-dropping, gold-plated hall of mirrors — whenever it’s unoccupied, while the deliciously outré (think baby blue facade jazzed up with lifesize stuccos) Palazzo Nicolosio Lomellino, at number 7, offers guided tours of its first-floor frescos and 16th-century garden on the first weekend of every month.
On Genoa’s ‘Rolli Days’ (see ‘How to do it’ for dates), dozens of private Rolli Palaces open their doors to the public. But there’s no need to wait — the Genoese are so open with their heritage that many are available year-round for private visits, arranged via a local guide. That’s how I’ve ended up tackling this staircase — carved from black Ardesia stone — and knocking on the door of the Palazzo di Giovanni Battista e Andrea Spinola, built by the Doria family in 1567, whose descendants rent out the first floor to a gentlemen’s private members’ club, the Circolo Artistico Tunnel. Women rarely come here, yet Anna, my guide, leads me past marble busts, under a chandelier carved with raunchy 16th-century figureheads, and into the main room.
It’s more spectacular than some royal palaces, with a ceiling higher than my house, frescoes that bring to mind the Vatican, and a monumental fireplace propped up by what appear to be marble mermen. ‘Members only,’ says a sign, as we enter the dining room, with solid silver cutlery piled on a sideboard; and gilded stucco, frescoes and elaborate canvases crowding out the walls.
Seeing these palaces used as everyday spaces is revelatory — instead of the hushed reverence of a museum, they’re buzzing with five, vibrant centuries of life. Palazzo Andrea Pitto is now an office for a shipping company, its workspaces nonchalantly set up in ballrooms, with carved angels watching the employees from on high. The first floor of Palazzo Cesare Durazzo, built for a duke, is currently unoccupied — its hulking carved doors are unlocked especially for me.
And then there’s Palazzo Lomellini-Patrone, with its medieval Doric columns and fresco cycle of the story of Esther covering two floors. The headquarters of the Ligurian army, it’s one of the most sought-after visits during the Rolli Days. But again, with prior approval, Anna sweeps me inside to the station commander, who explains the 17th-century political symbolism behind the Old Testament story depicted on the walls. Along with everyone else we’ve met today, he’s fiercely proud of his digs — luckily for me. The Genoese are so happy to live their history, that they’ll happily let you share it too. All you have to do is ask.
How to do it: Genoa is served by direct flights from Gatwick on British Airways and from Stansted on Ryanair. Hotel Le Nuvole Residenza d’Epoca has rooms from €85 (£60) per person, B&B. Anna Ardito, from Genovaguide, can arrange private Palazzi dei Rolli visits; entry is usually free, and guiding costs from €120 (£93) for three hours to €210 (£163) for a full day. The 2016 Rolli Days are 2-3 April; 28-29 May; and 15-16 October.
Read more in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)