For those of us old enough to remember the sixties, Portofino was one of the millionaires’ playgrounds that we mere mortals could only dream of visiting. The secluded villas and designer homes around the tiny peninsular were snapped up by the celebrities of the day, and the likes of Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor would wander amongst bemused fishermen on the quayside. Humphrey Bogart would enjoy a drink at his favourite waterside bar, and Princess Grace would regularly travel along the coast from Monaco.
Portofino today may have slipped a little down the list of glitterati hotspots, but it’s still popular, and wildly expensive. So what’s the attraction? Well, apart from the idyllic setting, the picture postcard harbour, the immaculately pretty main street, and the crystal clear turquoise sea, there’s not much to shout about! If you had to paint a picture of the perfect seaside village, the finished artwork would look just like Portofino.
Its remote location also played a large part in its early popularity. Even today, the only way to reach it on land is along a narrow, nerve-wracking road from Saint Margherita Ligure. It clings precariously to the cliff side, passing tiny coves and rocky outcrops. Not that you can see much of them if you are driving, as you daren’t take your eyes off the road for a second. Cars and busses appear like missiles from blind hairpin bends, whilst swarms of scooters buzz around on all sides.
The best way to arrive is really by sea. Be it on one of the many water-busses that come in from the surrounding resorts, or, for those who can, aboard your chosen million pound yacht. Coming by sea also gives you an awe-inspiring view of the town as you arrive.
However you get there, without doubt the area around the harbour is the focal point. A bright, welcoming piazza slopes gently up from the waters edge, with an eclectic hotchpotch of pastel coloured facades fronting it on three sides. Bars and restaurants vie with gift shops and art galleries for the visitors’ attention. The small natural bay is filled with immaculately painted fishing boats, bobbing in perfect harmony with luxury cruises and yachts. Stare into the clear waters, and you’ll see families of fish also touring the quaysides in search of the best place to eat.
From the piazza, a string of buildings reach out on either side, along the harbour arms. Fishermen’s nets are draped across the railings, and gas lamps hang from restaurant awnings, but most, I suspect, are purely for effect. If you are thinking of choosing one of these gloriously located eateries, then just beware. Prices are very much geared to those who don’t need to check the bill before handing over their credit card.
If you want more reasonable establishments, although never cheap, then head to the areas around the top of the main street. This quaint, neatly presented little hill, winds its way up past designer shops and busy artists, taunting the visitor with intriguing alleyways and narrow paths disappearing off to hidden courtyards. At the top it widens out as it meets the road from St Margherita Ligure, and traffic chaos is not uncommon. This is as far as most vehicles can go, so there are coaches trying to turn and drop of passengers, taxi’s hoping for clients before getting moved on, and all the comings and goings of the main car park. But it’s a momentary distraction, and pretty much the only busy part of this quaint town. The only other exception would be the quayside, as another boat full of noisy, excited tourists snake their way along to the piazza, guidebook in one hand, and camera in the other.
When you’ve had you fill of the harbour-side and the town centre, you really need to get your walking shoes on. Gazing upwards from the waters edge, the surrounding hillsides seem steep, especially as they are covered with lush green cypresses. But take the path from the southern side of the harbour, and it will lead you up to the headland for some amazing views back across the cove. The first place of interest is the church of San Giorgio, which is said to contain the remains of St George – although there was little to substantiate this it seems. The real gem is another 15 minutes climb, however, when you come to the Castello Brown – named now after the British Consul Montague Yeats Brown, who purchased in the 19th Century, and began transforming it to make the most of its breathtaking location. The two towering pine trees on the main terrace were planted for his wedding in 1870, and now stand as a memorable local landmark.
If you want to continue following the path, it meanders down to the old lighthouse, on the extreme end of the peninsular. The sea here is a perfect shade of blue, and you’re unlikely to get disturbed as you sit and relax. This region off of the coast here is part of a protected area, with European corals, and other rare species. Motor boats are banned, and divers come from all parts of the world to explore this amazing underwater world.
Inland, too, the area surrounding Portofino is mostly a National Park, and there are ample marked walks to make the most of the natural beauty. Like the walk up to the castle, it can at fist look daunting to scale these tall cliffs behind the town, but in reality there are relatively few steep sections, and for the most part they are fairly gentle hikes. The rewards are something to behold, however, with spectacular views along the Italian Riviera in both directions. To the west, it’s about half a days walk to take in the various tiny hamlets, and small coves, before reaching Camogli. On the eastern side, St Margherita Ligure is only about one and a half hours, although it’s easy to get distracted along the way.
To begin with the best of the small beaches is on this route, at Paraggi. It’s close to the main road, but the steep drop down to it provides an air of seclusion. There are a couple of bars set back from the road, but if you really want to get a taste of this coast, go just a little further along, past the cliff top home of Prime Minister Berlusconi, and tucked discreetly down between the road and the sea is a small, exclusive restaurant, resting on top of the wave splashed rocks. Capo Nord Beach is the haunt of those in the know, those who like excellent cuisine in a stunning location, and those who like to mix with the celebrities and well-to-do clientele. It’s not uncommon for guests to arrive by private yacht or motor cruiser, moor off-shore, and take a smaller craft in to the restaurant’s own jetty.
Locally sourced seafood it brought in each day, and prepared for a menu that compliments the maritime location perfectly. Mussels in a ‘Marinara’ sauce, accompanied by exquisitely crispy anchovies, led the way to a gnocchetti and seafood grill. Impressed as we were by the meal to that point, the dessert really took our breath away. Mouth-watering ice cream, made in-house, and served in the deep frozen shells or skins of the fruit that derived its particular flavour. Let me tell you, this was a magical moment.
You, too, can live the life of a celebrity here in Portofino, even if only until your bank manager finds out. But sitting eating the perfect strawberry ice cream from a frozen strawberry shell, and gazing wistfully out across the gently rippling turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, the real world seemed a million miles away.