Travel /
Liguria

Portovenere: The Ancient Village of Poets

“Listen to the distant beating of sea flakes among the leaves”.

We embark from the Gulf of Poets. The most fascinating way: the sea.

In the distance, the sky turns purple; immediately we understand that our destinies are at the mercy of the myth and folklore of distant peoples. The waves gently rock a jagged land, kissed by the sun, but almost forgotten.

In fact, if compared with the more famous “five” lands (Cinque Terre) of its neighbor (Monteresso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore) Portovenere seems to be the loneliest pearl of the riviera di levante. She herself rebelled against her “sisters” wanting to stand out from the group. But it is perhaps the most truthful and mysterious and for this reason it is called the “sixth” land.

As proof of its uniqueness, Portovenere gave birth to Simonetta Vespucci, the muse of Sandro Botticelli, one of the most famous and beautiful women of the Renaissance: blonde with clear eyes, like angelic women. Her family belonged to the Genoese nobility, but when she married at just sixteen, she moved to Florence, then considered the center of the known world, around which poets, artists, writers and high-ranking politicians gravitated. Another fortunate coincidence, archeology has testified that in Portovenere during the Roman times, there on the promontory that is made of fire in the summer, lived a small temple dedicated to Venus, the goddess of love. She, born from the foam of the waves, was painted by Botticelli himself in one of his masterpieces today in the Uffizi in Florence, “The Birth of Venus” … and it seems that he was inspired by the Gulf of Poets and the village of Fezzano (part of Portovenere) to set the painting. Everything connects like the constellations of a celestial map.

The temple and the goddess, as happened to other pagan divinities, were replaced in the early Christian age by a church and the Shrine of White Madonna, linked to a very particular cult. At nightfall, every 17th August, a man in a fireproof mantle lights the whole city with Roman torches. It illuminates the church, the stairways, the uphill streets, the walls, and the rocks of the village. The boats, in silence and in small groups, sway, pushing themselves up to the Church of San Pietro on the sea, where everyone advances religiously mute, with their hands folded around a light. The deep darkness of the night is captured by millions of sacred fireflies, which kidnap and interrupt the darkness.

Imagine a flickering in every direction, as if you were in the middle of a fire that was not dangerous at all, with no screams, only calm and sweet sounds in the distance, the lapping of the waves and an earthly warmth, as if you were in the center of the world. Here and there the outlines of things begin to blur until they disappear in the red obsequious crowd.

The rite of the White Madonna in Portovenere dates back to 1399, in memory of the miracle that took place in the house of Luciardo. According to legend, while he was praying, he saw a painting depicting the Virgin Mary light up and come to life. That was not just any painting, but an icon that arrived by sea, hidden in the hollow trunk of a Lebanese cedar from, in all probability, the Holy Land. Even the period was unique: the village was tormented by plague and famine. Miraculously, following the Virgin Mary’s appearance, the disease suddenly disappeared. From that day on, every 17th August, Portovenere pays homage to its champion, dotting the village with lights and small immaculate icons.

But a trip to Portovenere hides other secrets. Writers and artists used to walk along the “rugged and essential” Ligurian coast, among the towers and colored houses stacked one on top of the other, to be inspired. This is the case of Eugenio Montale or the English Lord Byron to whom a cave worthy of the romantic “sturm und drang” (storm and rush of the heart) has been dedicated: through the Arpaia path, the marvelous Byron Cave opens in a semicircle, at peak on the sea. At this strategic point the young love to stop for an aperitivo and observe the entire coast.

 

There comes the Triton

by the waves that lap

the thresholds of a Christian

temple, and every next hour

it is ancient. Any doubts

leads by the hand

like a girlfriend.

 

There is not who you look at

or listen to yourself.

Here you are at the origin

and deciding is foolish:

you will leave later

to take on a face.

Portovenere by Eugenio Montale

 

Montale was very attached to the Ligurian land; a good way to get to the heart of the spirit of Portovenere is to abandon oneself to its verses and “listen to the distant beating of sea flakes among the leaves”.

To better explore all the stone ravines, which like wounds open onto the inlets, you need to take a special boat, in the direction of the three islands: Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto. Of these, Palmaria is the largest and only inhabited one. It’s full of scenic trails and walks, perfect for those who love adventure and wild trekking. The Blue Grotto, the Volcanic Grotto, and the Grotta dei Colombi must be tackled by renting a canoe, which allows you to visit them without difficulty. In general, nature is uncontaminated and offers a variety of rare species of plants and animals, such as green oysters, raised here, which have now become a symbol of La Spezia cuisine.

In addition to the boat, however, there is another way that allows you to reach Palmaria, especially at lunchtime. If you book lunch at Locanda Lorena, it offers a private transfer to the restaurant with a Venetian taxi-boat, to live a dolce-vita-esque experience in another corner of Italy.

An exquisite culinary experience is among the narrow alleys, where class or with cheese focaccia, fugàssa which means cooked in the hearth in dialect, is the queen of leavened products. The pesto, just as green as the oysters, is perfectly salty and fragrant to the point that it guides you through the village paths. Favorite stop: Bajeicò, the pesto shop!

And don’t tell me you’ve never tried the Genoese breakfast early in the morning, perhaps at the Relais Santa Caterina from which you can enjoy an excellent view of the marina: cappuccino and focaccia, greasy, greasy and delicious, perfect to soak like a biscuit in the coffee with milk.

Back to Portovenere, there are many roads, because everything’s reachable within a few hours. From one port to another, there is Portofino, a cult destination on the Riviera. Train or boat, the Cinque Terre are just a few kilometers away, also reachable on foot. Portovenere is full of signs that lead to unexplored and magical places, such as the Casa del Gelso di Monesteroli with a staircase emerging from the water, like a staircase to Atlantis or Paradise or the steps that, from the Hotel Genio in front of the medieval gate, lead to the rocky cliff of the Doria castle.