And another in the “near but not in Cinque Terre” series, which is a look at several towns in the same area as the famous Cinque Terre, but are likely overlooked. Portofino is a town that may be less overlooked than others in the area, due to being nearly as famous for being the playground of the rich and famous.
Portofino is a “small fishing village” turned resort town. It is between La Spezia and Genoa on a peninsula that juts out into the sea. There is no train station in Portofino, so to get there get out in Santa Margherita Ligure and take a bus or a boat down to town. This is exactly what my parents and I did. We had lunch in Santa Margherita and took the crowded public bus down to Portofino. The ride down is pretty neat with several hairpin turns when the bus honks without slowing down, presumably hoping any cars coming the other way will stop. But hey this is Italy, what is the change of that? The bus stops at the top end of Portofino with the town drifting downwards along one main street toward the harbor.
Boat Shows with Champagne Reception
The day we picked to go to Portofino was apparently the day of a big boat race. The harbor was full of boats from around Europe and beyond. Alongside the harbor there were stands being set up and caterers in impeccable white clothing preparing large groups of champagne classes. Not a tiny fishing village anymore.
Ice Cream Search
A reason I wanted to see Portofino was to have an ice cream (err gelato) there. One of the best places to have ice cream at home in Freiburg is Portofino Eiscafe. It is also one of the few places that stays open all winter when the other places shut down. So I have eaten many a gelato from Portofino in Germany, I wanted one from the “real” Portofino. The real Portofino however is hellishly expensive. The single flavor portions in Portofino were nearly double the price what we had seen elsewhere in Liguria. So I bailed on that dream.
If the Cinque Terre towns do feel even somewhat like traditional fishing villages, then Portofino feels more like Disneyland. Places are refurbished and manicured to keep the rustic feeling but still house those clothing stores with blank white walls and only a few pieces of clothing on display and not even a rack to be off of. So the town feels a bit artificial and made up: Welcome to Traditional Italy Land. In waiting for the bus to head back to Santa Margherita I saw a posh young woman carrying a hat box up the hill to deliver it to someone in a very expensive looking car and head back down the hill.
Castello Brown and the Lighthouse
There are some redeeming and free things to do here. Portofino harbor is nestled in a crook of the coastline and out on a point there is a lighthouse. In just sitting down to rest our feet we saw the castle and a sign leading up to point at a set of stairs. My dad and I decided to go look at it. That walk was amazing. Steep up some stairs then an alley with views back over the harbor and up to the castello.
At the top of the hill the castle stands and an echo of the riches below had a hefty entrance fee to just see a castle. We decided instead of treking out to the lighthouse to walk back through the park around the castello and back into town. A few marked trails led down the hill and gave some more views of the harbor and the sea. It led around an old World War era bunker and deposited us at the end of the harbor where we went back to join my mom who had enjoyed watching the people bring in their shiny boats.
Worth a Visit, but not a Stay
So my take on Portofino is that it is certainly a pretty little town. The rich and famous apparently spend a fair amount to make it remain so. It feels somewhat out of step with any history that was there at some point. That said, come, take the bus down for cheap from Santa Margherita, hike to the castle and lighthouse, take your pictures and head back to your hostel. I definitely would not feel comfortable spending much money here, but it is worth seeing.
The other option may be somewhat more adventurous. The peninsula that Portofino sits on is not very big and has hiking trails across it. We saw in the guidebook a listing for a tiny cove that had a single isolated monastery. There were boat trips, but given far more time it would have been interesting to walk to it. Ahh maybe next time.
As always there are more pictures at the Grounded Traveler facebook fanpage.