Portofino and the Cinque Terre
Unless you happen to arrive by yacht, you must enter Portofino via a teasing drive through the coastal towns of Rapallo and Santa Margherita. From the blank wall of buildings that forms its rear, you might wonder what the fuss is all about, but if you duck your head and enter the narrow arcades that lead beneath the houses and into the piazza you’ll get the point.
Rising around you is arguably the most gorgeous fishing village on the planet. At your feet is a tiny harbour that curves around like a tortellini. Rising from the water is a cobblestoned piazza ringed by houses painted in amber, yellow, cream and terracotta, which cast their reflections across the harbour in a dancing, bleeding kaleidoscope of gelato colours. Completing the postcard effect, the backdrop is a curtain of craggy hills which are intricately furnished with Belle Époque villas, gently crumbling castles and screens of cypress trees.
Just a short distance to the south, another landscape that causes hearts to beat a little faster is the Cinque Terre – the “five lands”. This is one of the rustic miracles of the Mediterranean – five small villages hewn from solid rock and suspended above the sea, with remnants of fortifications and churches that date back to medieval times. There are no roads along this part of the coast. The only access between one town and the next is via the sea, the small coast train or along the coastal walking track. If you do no other walks in the region, at least tackle the “Via dell’ Amore,” a paved trail cut from the cliff, which connects Riomaggiore to the nearby Manarola. Each of the villages has its own distinct character, but the Cinque Terre reaches its Kodak moment at the town of Vernazza, a rioting mass of tall, narrow, pastel tinted buildings that steps down the steep hillside to Piazza Marconi and the harbour.
While you could trek the 18 kilometre coastal track between Monterossa, most northerly of the Cinque Terre towns, and Riomaggiore, the most southerly, in a couple of days, this is no place for hurrying. Its charm derives largely from its isolation. Apart from tourism, the dominant industry of this region is viticulture. Against the backdrop of terraced hillsides, the Sentieri dell’Uva, the Grape Roads, are still planted with ancient fig trees to provide shade for the workers in the middle of the day, the boundaries and footpaths still lined with spikey agaves. Grapes are still harvested using the large wicker baskets known as corbe, which are now hoisted up the hillsides via a monorail system, the only modern innovation since the Middle Ages.
In the Italian scheme of things Portofino and the Cinque Terre are a great relief. There are no museums to make your feet ache, no churches to bring you to your knees, no architectural marvels to be admired. Here, the only miracles are the simple, elemental pleasures of warmth, wine, brilliant scenery and the sheer sensuality of a virile culture at play.
When to Go
To avoid the crowds but not the sunshine, September is the preferred month for visiting Portofino. May and early June are another good alternative, although the sea can still be a little chilly.
Where to Stay
In Portofino, the Hotel Eden is small, modestly priced and set in a lovely garden with a charming veranda for breakfast.
In Santa Margherita, Hotel Villa Anita gets rave reviews on Trip Advisor
For a big splurge Hotel Splendido. Formerly a Benedictine monastery, now a temple to the art of good living.