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Portofino

A multi-coloured Mediterranean harbour, medieval churches and an isolated 10th-century abbey reached by ferry

By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

Portofino travel guide

Sailing boats and super-yachts bob away, almost close enough to touch from the painted houses and quayside restaurants of Portofino. This is the jewel of Liguria’s Riviera di Levante, a simple fishing port whose impossible beauty made its name — and millions.

If the little town is pretty, the setting is even more so, wedged into a sheltered inlet 22 miles east of Genoa. Steep hillsides that wrap around the port are dotted with villas in every style, from Liberty to modernist to faux-medieval.

Yes, the harbour front has branches of Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Ferragamo. But you also don’t need to wander far to buy a postcard or an inflatable crocodile.

In the Beginning…

Portofino is part of Italy’s cultural wallpaper, though its exact origins are obscure. Pliny the Elder claimed it was founded by the Romans. It remained an insignificant fishing village until the Middle Ages.

Interest in its beauty is not a new thing. The Tuscan Renaissance humanist Petrarch visited in the mid-1300s, just to see it. Famously maudlin writer Guy de Maupassant sailed in in 1889 and was enchanted by the scenery.

In the 1950s, a canzone by Fred Buscaglione and Leo Chiosso describes Portofino as “un angolo di cielo” (a corner of heaven). And it’s no coincidence Frank Schaeffer chose it for his 1992 novel “Portofino”, in which a teenager from a strict Protestant family comes of age amid the relaxed Catholic mores of the 1960s Italian Riviera. Pretty much anyone who was anyone in Italian or Italian-American celebrity was snapped in Portofino during its Dolce Vita heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s.

The jewel of Liguria’s “Riviera di Levante”, a simple fishing port whose impossible beauty made its name

Visit This

Portofino’s beauty is staggering, especially in the early morning or late evening when the day trips and ferry service have finished. 

Its Museo del Parco is a terraced outdoor sculpture garden beside the marina. Around 100 contemporary artworks in various media, including by Joseph Beuys, coexist alongside the magnolias, palm trees, camellias and olives. 

Away from the photogenic harbour, Portofino’s sights are all uphill. The church of Divo Martino has roots in the 10th century. Most of the current structure is Romanesque (12th century), including a simple façade in total contrast to an interior seriously embellished in the 1800s, with elaborate chapels, stained glass windows, stucco, gilt and frescoes covering the ceiling and apse.

The little Church of St. George dates to 1154, though it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries. Relics of the saint — patron of both Genoa and Portofino — were supposedly stored here after “adventurers” brought them back from the Holy Land. 

Both of Portofino’s main churches have contemporary bronze doors decorated with legends of St. George. 

All the way at the top of the promontory, Castello Brown has the best views in town. This is (or was) a real sea fortress; the current (1500s) version is the latest edition of an outlook that’s occupied this strategic point since at least Roman times. Turks, English, French, Florentines and no end of local strongmen have occupied it, or tried to.

For most of its life, the castle’s main role was to spot and repel pirates. It was bought by an Englishman and converted to a private residence in 1867, adding gardens with views over the bay and back to Portofino. 

The interior is a curious mix of mid–20th-century and medieval. Exhibits include a collection of black-and-white photos of Dolce Vita Portofino, when paparazzi snapped Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Greta Garbo and many more of the glitterati on its chic piazzetta.

Beyond the castle, about a half-hour walk from Portofino, the lighthouse at Punta del Capo — Il Faro — is a landmark for anyone navigating this stretch of coast.

Out of Town: San Fruttuoso Abbey

It’s a couple of hours on foot from Portofino, or a short ferry journey (from either Camogli or Portofino), to the Abbazia di San Fruttoso. This warren-like structure is built around a cloister dating to the 900s and looks out over a cobalt-blue cove. 

There was already a church here before the 10th century, and it has survived a lot over the intervening millennium, including countless pirate raids from the Levant and North Africa, and a calamitous landslide in 1915. Medieval marble tombs of the Doria family — noble patrons of the abbey for centuries — are intact on the lower level.

Outside, there’s a pretty little tortoise garden and a shingle beach where you can rent sun-loungers, umbrellas, snorkels or kayaks, or just plant your towel for free and enjoy.

Sharp-eyed fans of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s “Trip to Italy” BBC series might clock Da Giovanni, next to the abbey, as one of the restaurants in the show. Occasionally in summer there’s a night-time concert at the abbey, so ferries from Portofino continue after dark. 

Out of Town: San Rocco & Camogli

Named after the patron saint of dogs and gravediggers, the laid-back village of San Rocco is well stocked with restaurants and bars. Favourites with locals in the area include La Cucina di Nonna Nina, whose seasonal menu specialises in Genovese and seafood dishes.

From San Rocco you can walk easy paths to nearby villages, or drive 3 miles down to the beach at Camogli.

Festivals

In summer, Portofino Classico is a series of solo and chamber concerts staged mostly at Portofino’s little theatre.

Three Excursions from Portofino

  • Genoa: for glorious maritime history and the noble palaces and art museums of the Strada Nuova, plus attractions in the revamped port including Italy’s best aquarium
  • Santa Margherita Ligure: Portofino’s larger neighbour has a palm-fringed esplanade, a lively fish market and neoclassical Villa Durazzo with tropical gardens
  • Cinque Terre: day-trip ferries link Portofino and Santa Margherita with the coastal villages of the Cinque Terre, including Riomaggiore, Monterosso and Vernazza

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