Rory Ross holidays with the rich and famous on the Italian Riviera
GIVEN Italy’s capricious style of government, it is a miracle that the Italian Riviera is as unspoiled as it is. This region, roughly defined by a narrow coastal strip running from the French border at Ventimiglia southwards to La Spezia on the Ligurian-Tuscan frontier, is renowned for its mild climate, idyllic fishing ports and the siren-like allure of its landscape. Travellers have been drawn here since the time of Byron and Shelley (who drowned just to the south of La Spezia).
Columbus’s home town of Genoa is the hub but the jewel is Portofino. This tiny fishing village is balanced on a rocky promontory bristling with cypresses, pines and palms, from behind which shyly peep luxurious villas. Were you to photograph Portofino today and compare it with a photograph taken when actor Rex Harrison ‘‘ discovered’’ the place in the 1950s, the pictures would be almost identical.
As you stroll along the paths that crisscross this promontory, you can almost see the ghosts of Cary Grant and Ava Gardner on holiday. Having politely relegated today’s brasher Hollywood stars to St Tropez, Portofino has matured into an ultra-discreet escape hatch for the northern Italian elite, for whom this former fishing village is Utopia sul Mare. No one fishes here any longer; instead, the locals — all 700 of them — have heeded Charles Darwin and evolved into restaurateurs and boutique owners, while retaining their knack for landing big fish.
Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the chairman of Pirelli tyres and the owner of Genoa football club all keep villas here. They come for the natural beauty (no concrete), peace (no noise allowed after 10pm, not even loud clothing), bomb-proof security, the excellent Ligurian seafood and boat rides along the coast to the Cinque Terre, five ancient fishing villages hacked into the Ligurian coastline. Portofino is a shining example of positive despoliation, with a telephone directory that resembles the Italian Who’s Who.
It has grasped that essential truth about resorts: there can only be so many fun people before a resort gets horribly tacky, and only so many rich people before it becomes horribly boring. It’s Scylla and Charybdis, darling, and Portofino is somewhere in the middle.
Its pristine qualities lie in its inherent difficulty of access. Not on the way to anywhere except itself, Portofino has become an invisible club. Traffic in and out is vetted by carabinieri at a velvet-roped checkpoint on the road from Santa Margherita that twists around great jutting rocks overlooking the sea. In summer, a queue of overheating steel, several kilometres long, snakes along this road, hoping to be allowed in.
Don’t worry. Just drive plausible car and say Hotel Splendido, and you’ll be waved through.
The Splendido is where everyone stays. This former monastery is located on a hillside overlooking the Tigullio Gulf. Its extravagantly beautiful views of potential assailants approaching from the Upper Tyrrhenian Sea failed to deter the invaders, and by the 16th century the monks had grown tired of being attacked by Saracens and moved on. After a brief 19th- century interlude as the summer home of one Baron Baratta, the monastery reopened as a hotel in 1901.
As soon as you sip the first of many proffered prosecco cocktails (a Rossini is made with strawberries, Puccini with tangerines, Canaletto with raspberries, Tintoretto with gooseberries, Bellini with peaches, and so on), you sink into the rose-tinted bliss that is Italy. If you arrive in the evening, do say hello to Vladimir Gatto, the Splendido’s talented pianist.
Portofino overlooks and embraces a delightful cove. You find yourself caught up in the glorious crossfire of the olfactory war of attrition being waged by the plants that flourish here. One particularly heavy hitter is pitosforo (butter bush), the stunning aroma of which, pitched somewhere between orange blossom and jasmine, stops you in your tracks whenever you encounter it.
A tribe of Ligurians founded Portofino long before it was called Portofino. An industrious, hardy race that clings to a niche between the Apennine Mountains and the coast, the Ligurians have scratched a meagre living from rock and sea for thousands of years. When the Romans, in their neighbourly fashion, tried to conquer them, they were rebuffed both by Ligurian ferocity and the sheer difficulty of getting there. One can imagine the Romans forming an orderly queue of chariots as they waited for the previous invaders to take their leave.
Latecomers to seafaring life, the Romans acquired ocean-going capability only after the Third Punic War (149BC-146BC), when they toppled Carthage, the Mediterranean’s chief maritime power. So the Romans hardly bothered with Liguria, and those few who did make it to Portofino had great trouble translating the local name. Instead, according to Pliny the Elder, they dubbed it Portus Delphini (Port of the Dolphin), after the dolphins that cavorted offshore. Unlike the dolphins, the name stuck and evolved into Portofino.
In the 19th century, British and northern European aristocrats began to visit. In 1867, Montague Yeats Brown, British consul to Genoa, bought the fortress on top of the promontory for 7000 lire and transformed it into a villa. In 1949, his descendants sold it to an English couple, who eventually sold it to the city of Portofino in 1961. Today, Castello Brown, as it is known, is used for cultural happenings. When Harrison turned up in the ’ 50s, he triggered a word-of-mouth epidemic
Coastal jewel: The small former fishing village of Portofino, where luxury yachts and cruisers now jostle for space in the picturesque old harbour hemmed by lively restaurants and cafes, is a lure for discerning celebrities