Es­cape hatch

Rory Ross hol­i­days with the rich and fa­mous on the Ital­ian Riviera

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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