David’s Discoveries: Portofino Perfect

Portofino’s horseshoe-shaped harbor and plumb-line cliffs are among the more actively gorgeous places on the Italian Riviera, as Italians call the boomerang-shaped region of northern Liguria. And Liguria is one of my favorite regions in the world for hiking, eating, dreaming and wandering.

A picture-postcard faux fishing port, Portofino is the Riviera’s most glamorous time warp: the villas of the super-rich perch on pine-studded promontories jutting into the Mediterranean. Billionaires like Silvio Berlusconi spend precious leisure hours here. “Precious” is the operative word.

Five hundred years ago one irreverent overnight traveler noted that in Portofino “you were charged not only for the room but the very air you breathed.”

Paying for the atmosphere is still what Portofino is all about.

But my wife Alison and I have a novel way enjoying Portofino for free. It includes some of the greatest views on the Mediterranean seaboard, plus lots of fresh air, and exercise. Naturally on either end of our “Portofino Perfect” walking experience (and even halfway along it) you can drop a few euros for a cappuccino, or spend $200 per head for a snack at a fashionable ristorante.We live much of the year in Paris, but spend several months-usually in fall and winter-in Liguria. Childhood attachments and more–call them elective and professional affinities–draw us back.

Why fall and winter (and spring, for that matter) and not summer, when you can swim and sunbathe? The easy answer is we prefer the low-season peace and ease of access. And I am not a lover of heat
Our fall-winter ritual is to trek to Portofino from the neighboring resort of Santa Margherita Ligure. This is an unwise proposition in summer, when the traffic on the narrow, serpentine coast road flies thick and fast. Until recently it was not only unwise, it was downright suicidal. That’s changed.

So to ring in the autumn, we laced up and marched toward Portofino on foot, marveling at the scenery: a jigsaw of conglomerate boulders and cliffs, offset by those patented Italian umbrella pines and deep blue waters, where sailboats, fishing boats and motorboats splashed and spluttered.

What’s refreshingly new on this walk is that cars, buses and trucks were unable to molest us.

A skillfully sprung boardwalk now runs from Santa Margherita Ligure a couple of corkscrew miles toward Portofino, via the oligarchs’ hamlet of Paraggi. It’s hunkered down in a hairpin curve a few hundred yards west of Berlusconi’s turreted castle.

The boardwalk ends at Paraggi. A steep, curving, perfectly paved forest pathway leads the remaining mile or so to Portofino.

We scrambled up it, amid the pines and strawberry trees–arbutus to a botanist–and drank in the scent. The wisteria and jasmine were having their third blooming, and the arbutus trees were covered with spiky orange fruit and tiny, sweet-smelling, bell-shaped blossoms.

Instead of battling summertime crowds to reach Portofino’s stone-paved harbor and airborne, black-and-white church of San Giorgio, we were practically alone. A garrison of cats guarded the Castello Brown-the hilltop fortress-mansion where Enchanted Aprilwas filmed.

Back down in the quaintly costly village, there were no lines at the fashion boutiques-not that either of us could afford to or wanted to shop. Shop for designer clothes in Portofino? That’s what the sun-bronzed vacationers who roll off the 200-foot motor-yachts do, before hitting perennial Portofino hangouts and glam, chic-issimo Lo Strainer, on the wharf.

More important to us, there was no wait for the onion focaccia at the sole bakery in Portofino. No, it is not the best focaccia in Liguria, but it’s not bad, and it won’t bankrupt you.

This year my understanding and appreciation of Portofino and of “Enchanted April” deepened as never before: I actually read the novel and was enchanted. Enchanted April, the book, is better than the movie. Read it, take this leisurely seaside stroll, and you too may understand why, back in the 1840s, Portofino became Italy’s first full-blown resort. You might also appreciate why it’s so popular today. Granted, “popular” isn’t the right word. In its peculiar, pretentious, gilded way, Portofino still manages to distill the essence of the Italian Riviera.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.comand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Flickr image via Valentina_A]