There are some travel destinations (Rome, Paris, London and the Loire Valley, to name a few) where there is so much to see that you need to prepare for your visit as though you were mapping out a military invasion. Does the cathedral close for a mid-day break? Is that museum open on a Monday? Do we need to purchase a special travel pass, so we can easily zip around the city without spending a fortune on transportation? How many chateaux can we visit before lunch? And then there are those destinations where all you have to do is show up with no research or planning required. Portofino belongs in the second category.
Portofino was founded by the Romans who named it Portus Delphini (Port of Dolphins) because of the large number of dolphins in the Gulf of Tigullio. After the Romans, Portofino was later controlled by Genoa (who established a merchant port there), Florence and the Kingdom of Sardinia; before becoming part of a unified Italy. After being a sleepy backwater fishing village for many decades, it was rediscovered in the 1950’s as a charming destination for the those seeking a quiet holiday in a beautiful setting. Soon afterwards it became a playground for the rich and famous who took advantage of the deep-water harbor for docking their yachts. As Portofino became more and more popular with celebrities, the primary industry was gradually transformed from fishing to tourism. Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Clark Gable, Orson Wells and Aristotle Onassis all vacationed there. And Humphrey Bogart visited Portofino with his wife Lauren Bacall in 1954 when he filmed the “Barefoot Contessa” with Ava Gardner. More recently, George Clooney, Beyoncé, Jimmy Kimmel, Madonna and Steven Spielberg have all been spotted there.
Before the current era where every move made by a celebrity is immediately documented and minutely dissected ad nauseam on social media, Portofino was used as a hideaway by famous couples wishing to get away from it all. Elizabeth Taylor famously escaped the glare of the paparazzi while staying there with Eddie Fisher, who was married to Taylor’s best friend Debbie Reynolds. (Which she did again in 1963 with Richard Burton when their illicit romance became headline news soon after the filming of “Cleopatra.”) Today it is one of the most famous seaside resorts, not just on the Italian Riviera but in all of the Mediterranean. Portofino is a dream town where every view looks like a picture postcard and is no longer the sole property of the rich and famous as it has been discovered yet again, this time by the average tourist, who flock here by ferry on day trips..
Portofino has a population of about 500 full-time residents and is located between Genoa and the Cinque Terre and is best accessed by boat. Our day started with a charming 30-minute ferry ride from Rapallo, where we were staying. After a quick ferry stop at the neighboring town of Santa Margherita, we continued pass the western part of the Gulf of Tigullio to Portofino. After disembarkation, we hiked up to Castello Brown, a 16th Century castle built to defend the harbor against invaders. British Author Elizabeth von Arnim vacationed here in 1922 and was inspired to write her novel “Enchanted April,” which in turn inspired working-class Londoners to vacation on the Italian Riviera. In 1991, the book was made into a movie starring Miranda Richardson, Alfred Molina and Joan Plowright. When we reached the top, we paused to look out over the harbor. We admired the view of Portofino and envied Lottie and Rose, who escaped 1920’s London to spend an “Enchanted April” in Italy. I also thought of Rock Hudson, who would spend a month with Gina Lolabrigitta at his home near Portofino (in actuality Castello Brown) in the 1961 movie “Come September.” Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of an entire month vacation, we only had a fortnight in Italy and just the one day in Portofino.
After a walk around the town and a quick look at the Chiesa San Martino, a 16th century church, we did what everyone does in Portofino: Sit outside in the Piazzetta, the plaza along the harbor, and watch the world go by. We chose the outdoor cafe of Bar Morena for our observation point, where we had a light lunch and a bottle of local Ligurian wine. Basking in the warm October sun, we watched the ebb and flow of tourists coming from and going to the docks. As I enjoyed a glass of Pigato and a Pizza Margherita, I felt sorry for the poor souls who were rushing to catch a ferry because they were on a fixed schedule. Fortunately, we were not on any particular schedule and there were no other tourist destinations on our agenda. Portofino was our one stop for the day and our only priority was to relax with a glass of wine and savor the moment. And dream. Seeing the yachts in the harbor, we dreamed of sailing around the Mediterranean in one. Looking at all the expensive high-end boutiques, we dreamed of having shopping sprees at Dior, Gucci and Louis Vitton. Thinking about the legendary Belmond Hotel Splendido, we dreamed about affording the €1,000+ per night room rate. And most of all, as we slowly sipped a glass of Vermentino (by now we were on our second bottle of wine), we dreamed about what it was like to bask in the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
In the 1941 classic Humphrey Bogart Film Noir detective movie “The Maltese Falcon,” when asked by Detective Tom Polhaus about the falcon, Sam Spade famously responded that it was “The stuff that dreams are made of.” Bogie could have used the exact same response if asked to describe Portofino.