Imagine celebrating Columbus Day IN Genova, the hometown of Christopher Columbus. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do that when I passed through the area a few years ago. In fact, I was about two weeks too early, and I only saw the train station, disappointed that I didn’t have an opportunity to explore this important port town in Northwest Italy. But it did get me thinking about Ol’ Chris and the controversy surrounding his special day in recent years. More on that in a minute…
Historically, Genova (Genoa in English) was one of the four major Maritime Republics of Italy (Venezia, Pisa, and Amalfi being the other three). During the Middle Ages, they had an extremely powerful naval force. If you study the flag of the Maritime Republics, you’ll notice that Genova (upper right quadrant) is represented by the Cross of Saint George, which bears a striking resemblance to the flag of England.
This is no coincidence. As Prince Edward, Duke of Kent said, “The St. George’s flag, a red cross on a white field, was adopted by England and the City of London in 1190 for their ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Genovese fleet. The English Monarch paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege.”
(*There has been some dispute of this statement, but there you have it.)
Celebrating Columbus Day in the U.S.
Much is made of Columbus Day in the US, both for good and bad reasons. Of course, for many of us Italian-Americans this is a huge deal, and it’s often celebrated with feasts, parades, and much pride in their heritage. Never mind that most Italian-Americans trace their roots to the South of Italy, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and their ancestors would have had little, if anything, in common with the Republic of Genova. Different cultures, different languages, and two completely separate countries before the unification of Italy in 1851 (in other words 350+ years after Columbus discovered America). But that’s a conversation for another day…
Meanwhile there’s the dark side of Columbus Day, as many people now lament the fate of the native Indian tribes, blaming poor Cristopher (Christoffa in Ligurian dialect) for opening the door to slavery and genocide. This argument is equally disconnected, as you can hardly blame one man for the choices of all of Europe, years and centuries after his death. Indeed, just like humans in the rest of the world, the Indians were slaughtering each other in violent wars centuries before Columbus showed up.
Poor Chris didn’t even know that he had discovered a new continent. Until his dying breath, he refused to admit that he had reached a landmass previously unknown to Europeans. He still thought (hoped) that he had found the Western route to India, hence he incorrectly named the people “Indians” which has stuck until today.
Then there is the word “America” taken from another Italian explorer and map maker, Amerigo Vespucci. His contributions are less well-known, but it was he who first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern borders as claimed by Columbus, but instead made up an entirely separate continent.
As a side note to my fellow citizens of the United States, be aware of calling yourself “American” in Europe. Not a huge deal, but some people are quick to point out that “America” encompasses two continents and many countries, and so therefore it does NOT refer to only the United States. Once in a while, someone from one of the other American countries is slightly offended by the presumptuousness.
Sites to See in Genova
Genova doesn’t make its way onto anyone’s “Top Ten List” for places to see in Italy. Indeed, the Rick Steves guidebook omits it completely, steering people further south along the Ligurian Coast to the Cinque Terre.
For myself, I am planning to go back there when I have chance to stay long enough to see something other than the train station—which is quite beautiful, by the way.
Some of the Genova highlights on my list:
Porto Antico – This is Genoa’s historical port zone where none other than Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World. Love him or hate him, you can channel his spirit here and imagine what he must have been thinking as he set off into the unknown.
Aquarium – The “Acquario di Genova” is the largest in Europe and boasts thousands of sea creatures from all over the world. They even have West Indian Manatees, native to my home state of Florida, and found in the very waters of the Caribbean where Columbus first arrived.
Pesto – Yes, that iconic green glaze that graces piles of pasta all over Italy these days originally came from this area. Exact recipes vary slightly from town to town (even from family to family), but the essential ingredients are basil, olive oil, pine nuts, salt, and parmigiano reggiano.
For a more complete discussion of Genova, visit my friends’ websites.
Silvia Moggia, who hosted me in nearby Levanto. She is a native of the area and knows all of Liguria very well: Genoa has to be seen looking up!
Sarah Dowling, who moved from Bologna to Genova and has been blogging about all her discoveries in her adopted hometown: What you don’t know about Genoa
As for me, my in-depth explorations will have to wait for another time. But I WILL be back! Hopefully sometime in mid-October.
And Happy Columbus Day, dammit! (There, I said it, don’t judge.)
"And the sea will grant each man new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home." Christopher #Columbus
*All photos in this post are from WikiCommons