Rymn Massand recharges her senses in this alluring Italian town and its surrounding wilderness while on a relaxing solo getaway
One of the many delights of Europe is its rail system; one can get from Rome or Milan to the spectacular coast or countryside within a few hours. Ensconced in a high-speed train, gazing out of the window at the Italian countryside zooming by, is a joy unto itself. After a few days of exploring Milan, I craved a moment in nature, an endless blue sea and a dose of old-school glamour to tie it all together. There are few places that fit the bill better than Portofino.
Located on the Italian Riviera, just down the way from Genoa and Amalfi, Portofino is a tiny town with a big history. Founded by the Romans in AD 30-79, it was named Portus Delphini due to the vast number of dolphins in the bay. It is also home to Castello Brown, a beautiful castle on the hill below the lighthouse — once inhabited by the British Consul, Montague Yeats-Brown. Frequented by film stars from the ’40s and ’50s onwards, home to Italian magnates, fashion editors and assorted locals (the duo Dolce and Gabbana have a home here), proud possessor of one of the most beautiful slices of coastline and protected national parks, situated on a magical bay. . . if there was a checklist for an idyllic spot for a long weekend, Portofino would tick every box.
Getting here is easy. Catch a train from any major Italian city to the town of Santa Margherita Ligure, located on the Ligurian coast and worth a visit itself. A 20-minute car ride later, along winding roads with the cerulean blue sea stretching out before me, I arrive in Portofino. It is truly postcard-ready; the bay stippled with boats, sails rippling in the wind; small hills lush with pine, fir and fragrant rosemary; a tiny port with tiny cafes filled with well-heeled Italians plus an assortment of chic tourists; a lighthouse perched on the hill above the town and the jewel in the crown. . .the Belmond Hotel Splendido.
I drive up through lush parkland with the port to the left and the protected national park above, and when the hotel appears before me it feels like I have chanced upon the set of a grand period film. The pink facade meets abundant gardens with overflowing portico bedecked in roses, large lemon trees in even larger terracotta pots line the driveway, all to the accompaniment of the fragrant scent of lavender, rosemary and lemons.
The other is the stunning rooms. Every room is different, inspired by the colours and patterns of the surrounding nature and decorated with such an eye for detail (plush sofas, the most luxurious bathrooms, original artwork, a safe hidden behind a painting) that one almost forgets the pièce de résistance. . .the view! Spread out before every room is the bay of Portofino. From sunrise when it looks soft and pink with the water a deep silver, to mid-day when it turns a sharp azure and bright green, to cocktail hour when it is golden and shimmering to, finally, nighttime when the lights of the port twinkle in the distance over the inky sea — this view is a marvel at all hours of the day. Situated as it is, perched above the bay and nestled in the Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino, the hotel is in the unique position of feeling separate from and yet being a part of this wonderful town.
Frequented by film stars, home to Italian magnates and fashion editors, proud possessor of one of the most beautiful slices of coastline, if there was a checklist for an idyllic spot for a long weekend, Portofino would tick every box.
I set off, walking stick in hand, up the path from the hotel and pass by lovely little houses and a small church set amongst a field of flowers. The path leads towards the coast, and about a kilometre in, I am treated to a spectacular view of the bay of Portofino, far enough that the splendour of the undulating curve of the bay and the sea beyond is visible in its entirety, with the forest around me adding a special flavour to this viewing. Onwards I walk, encountering intrepid hikers on the way, many plaques explaining the differences in the various kinds of pine and mushrooms growing in that region, several fields of flowers and rosemary and non-stop breathtaking views. Cliffs drop below me into rocks and sea, and all around me is the gentle cool air of the forest and its fragrant paths. It is not always an easy hike; there are a few moments when I wish for a guide or a helping hand as I skip from one path past a massive rock and onto another. But it is worth every single tiring step just to get to San Frutuoso. When I finally make it (four hours later) and descend onto the path to the village, I see small boats anchored to the various landing moors of the restaurants of the village, one of which — Ristorante da Giorgio — is my stop for lunch. Stone steps overhanging the sea and bay are set with tables, and as I rest my weary feet and snack on a delicious freshly caught fish, I chat with the owner. He tells me to make sure to take a boat out to visit the larger-than-life submerged bronze statue of Christ, which is just offshore. The statue was placed on the seabed in the mid ’50s as an homage to the famous scuba diver Dario Gonzatti who had died near that spot in the late ’40s. It is a surreal and strangely moving dedication and when viewed either from a boat at low tide (as I did) or by scuba diving down to it (as I didn’t!), quite awe-inspiring.
I head back to Portofino on a local ferry and, as we approach the bay, see the lighthouse situated on the promontory, another beautiful landmark that I promise myself to visit the next day, along with the cemetery that overlooks the water and the beehives that produce the famed Portofino Wild Honey (still produced the same way that it was centuries ago, by Benedictine monks). But for now, the rest of my day is going to be spent relaxing at the Splendido, drink in hand, walking the terraced gardens, through the hallways with the hundreds of photos of its famous guests and hearing all the insider tales from the warmest hotel manager I have ever encountered, Ermes di Megni. It is this warmth and attention from the staff when one travels solo, which are very good indicators of the real heart of the hotel — after all, luxury is not just beautiful rooms and a beautiful view but also how at home one feels amongst it. There is nothing stuffy about this most magnificent of places, the waiters are always chatty, the staff is always smiling and no detail is too minor to remember.
The terrace is a welcoming place to spend the dusk-to-dinner hours; the Italian apertivo hour being sacrosanct, I take the time needed to do it well and then move on to dinner. The food is fresh, simple and delicious. . . freshly-caught fish and local produce, the wines of the nearby Cinque Terre and, of course, the views. Many a conversation stops mid-sentence as the sky changes colour before me or the lights of the village come on across the bay. . . making it a fairy-tale moment.
As the evening winds down, the piano player plays his old film tunes and regales guests with anecdotes of film stars who have sung along with him at this very spot and of composers whose tunes he has played while they enjoyed dinner on this terrace. The next day brings more discoveries and adventures but for the moment, with the moon casting its shimmering light over the water of the bay, the boats quietly bobbing in the warm breeze below us and the dulcet tones of the piano floating above it all. . . it is the most splendidly perfect Italian moment.