GENOA, Italy -- A few nights before I was to leave, I got in the mood by dining at Mare in Boston's North End. When I told chef Marisa Iocco where I was going, she got a dreamy look in her eyes. ''The oil!" she exclaimed. ''Ligurian olive oil is the best in the world."
The province of Liguria is little more than a salty rim of the northern Mediterranean where the Apennines shelter the coast from the cold European winter. The pine trees and dairy sheep of the mountains provide the nuts and cheese, the slopes above the sea the delicate olive oil, and the precious strip of arable coastline the intensely perfumed herbs. No wonder pesto and Genoa are synonymous.
But there's more to the Ligurian capital than its cuisine. Overrun by Romans, scourged by Saracens, and at intermittent war with Venice, Genoa reached its apex of influence around 1550-1650, when Genovese financiers bankrolled Spain's adventures in the New World.
Riches were plowed into the Baroque architecture above the harbor, especially along Via Garibaldi, where limestone palaces hulk along the herringbone pavement. Genoa claims to have the largest historic center in Italy, and the best way to explore it is by wandering the streets. Even some of the most modest 17th-century homes on narrow alleyways are adorned with intricate, masterful carved stone lintels.
Noble palaces overwhelm the rest of the architecture, including marvelously squat Gothic churches and even Genoa's 12-century cathedral, San Lorenzo. The exterior of the cathedral has the same banded stone as many of the older palaces, suggesting that the facade was ''updated" during Genoa's glory years, but traces of its medieval origins persist inside. Florid Baroque paintings and statuary fill the church, but the best work might be the fresco of Christ surrounded by saints painted around 1312 by the Master of Constantinople.
Eventually, all streets lead down to the sea -- and the trattorias, salumerias (delicatessens), and friggitorias (fish-fry shops), of the long arcade of Via Sottoripa (''below the bank") along the waterfront. Two of my misconceptions about cuisine disappeared as I munched my way through this bustling stretch of food sellers. The true ''Genoa salami," called Sant'Olcese, is a substantial blend of cured meats completely unlike its overprocessed American namesake. And the tender calamari of Sottoripa could never be mistaken for fried rubber bands.
Maybe that's because the fry guys in these cave-like friggitorias cook in bubbling vats of Ligurian olive oil. Even more popular than the calamari are the lightly breaded and crisply fried bianchetti, the tiny spawn of anchovies and sardines, meant to be eaten whole.
The fish are brought ashore in small boats to little fishing villages such as Boccadasse, on the outskirts of Genoa. If the sleekly modern Acquario di Genova, the focal point of the showcase Porto Antico district, has its way, such family operations will be the future of fishing in this part of the Mediterranean. The aquarium is a leading research institution on sustainable fisheries, and a sponsor of the annual Slow Fish event, the piscine side of the Slow Food movement.
Tucked behind a mountain peninsula a few miles east of Genoa, Portofino is the perfect example of the pocket harbor village: rust, ochre, faded pink, and powdery blue houses surrounding a small blue bay and backed by steep green hills.
A narrow road curlicues over the mountain to Portofino, but it's more fun to take a quick train to Santa Margherita Ligure to catch a ferry and enter the port in the manner of travelers since antiquity. A plaque at Portofino's harbor commemorates the 1889 visit of Guy de Maupassant aboard the yacht Bel-Ami, named for his most successful book. In the 1950s, Portofino became a watering hole for movie stars and minor royalty, and yachters still moor in the harbor to shop in the upscale boutiques, sip Campari along the quays, and see and be seen.
The sheer drama of Portofino is best appreciated from the ramparts of Castello Brown, named for Montague Yeats Brown, the 19th-century British consul in Genoa who turned the old fort into a trophy home. A long staircase leads from the church of San Giorgio up to the castle -- roughly a 10-minute ascent. Small gardens surround the structure, and the halls and stairwells are lined with Renaissance and Baroque paintings, mostly by Ligurian artists. But few visitors stop to smell the roses or admire the angels; they head straight for the terrace and its incomparable vantage on Portofino and the Ligurian coast.
Tucked into its harbor and surrounded by wooded mountains, Portofino distills Liguria in a glance. No wonder de Maupassant dubbed the town ''a marvel of nature."
David Lyon, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at email@example.com.