Portofino, one of the jewels of the Italian Riviera, is one of those places that are hard to describe. Everyone who comes to Italy should visit this little village in the Tigullio Gulf, a succession of charming inlets that represents Italy throughout the world. The landscape is dominated by the blue sea and the green mountains, the pastel-coloured houses and the scent of herbs and maritime pines. The few, little beaches can only be reached by boat or by foot. And Portofino is the pearl of this stretch of coast.
How to get to the Tigullio Gulf
The best way to visit Portofino is to take the train and get to Santa Margherita Ligure, a charming town with beautiful hotels, shops and restaurants. The train station is close to the town center and the sea, so it’s easy to go anywhere even without taking a taxi (unless you’ve got heavy luggage, obviously). The prices of the hotels and restaurants are higher than the average, and for this reason some people choose to stay in the near town of Rapallo.
You can also get to Santa Margherita by car; there’s a large parking lot in front of the sea, next to the marina. In summer time and during the weekends, however, it’s really hard to find a space since this part of Liguria is always full of tourists. One of the first things to do in the Italian Riviera is to buy a slice of focaccia, the typical pizza bread with extra virgin olive oil, and try the vegetable and rice pies from Panificio Pinamonti.
From the pier next to the “Martiri della Libertà” square gardens leave the ferry boats to Portofino and San Fruttuoso, an old abbey that faces the sea in Camogli (another lovely village). San Fruttuoso is connected to Santa Margherita also by a hiking trail; if it’s not too hot and you’re sporty, it’s certainly worth organizing a day-trip. But today we’re going to Portofino, so we take the ferry and in 15 minutes we reach one of the most beautiful places in Italy.
The “little village” of Guy de Maupassant
The French writer Guy de Maupassant was bewitched by the Italian Riviera and Portofino. This “little village that envelopes like the arc of the moon around this calm basin” was once a fishing village and a safe harbour. Now it’s one of the most exclusive tourist destination in Europe, home to sought after hotels and a paradise for walkers. Portofino bursts with colours thanks to the pastel-coloured houses, the blue sea, and the green mountains. Art galleries, workshops, restaurants and cafés are housed in the old buildings; the Romanesque church of San Martino di Tour stands in the heart of the village.
We start climbing up the old stone steps leading to another church, San Giorgio, with a wonderful view over the coastline. The wind always blows up here, even when it’s hot, and the little church welcomes us with its marble altars and floors. Simple and mystical somehow, the perfect location for a wedding ceremony.
The lighthouse and Brown Castle
From the church, the trail goes on among citrus fruit trees, olive trees, pines and rosemary bushes. The landscape is emerald green; the air smells of lavender and rosemary, and we’re surrounded by the music of crickets, birds and cicadas. Finally we get to the Lighthouse, where we take a break. This is the perfect place for a picnic, with focaccia & torta pasqualina (with spinach and ricotta) or artichoke pie.
Yes, this is definitely one of the most beautiful places in the world. We reluctantly leave the lighthouse and head back to the village, stopping at the Brown Castle. This military fortress built in the tenth century was often targeted by the Saracens; it was then enlarged and bought (in 1870) by Sir Montague Yeats, the British consul in Rome. The rose garden and the terraces with a full view over the gulf make the castle a romantic place. The halls with artworks are also worth a visit.
Don’t leave the Italian Riviera without eating pasta al pesto
Later on, the golden sunset reminds us that it’s time to head back to Santa Margherita. Instead of taking the last boat, we decide to walk. There’s also a bus connecting Portofino to Santa Margherita, but it’s often crowded and it would be a shame not to fully enjoy the panoramic road. Halfway we stop at Paraggi, a secluded bay with a little beach owned by the renowned Bagni Fiore.
You cannot leave the Italian Riviera without tasting the famous pasta al pesto, a regional dish that consists of homemade pasta (trofie) with pesto sauce. The preparation of Genovese pesto requires fresh basil, pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil and parmesan to be ground in a marble mortar with a pestle. It has nothing to do with the pesto sold in supermarkets. To me, the Italian Riviera will always be associated with warm colours, delicate flavours and aromatic scents.
WHERE TO EAT AND SHOP ON THE ITALIAN RIVIERA
• Panificio Pinamonti, Via dell’Arco, 23, Santa Margherita Ligure: focaccia, vegetable pies and baked goods.
• Pestarino, via Palestro 20, Santa Margherita Ligure: a renowned bakery & café which also sells pasta and local products, such as pesto and walnut sauce. You can also have lunch here – everything is homemade.
• Ristorante da ö Battj, via Ruffini 2, Santa Margherita Ligure: a casual atmosphere, fresh catch and the best pasta al pesto.