‘I found my love in Portofino’ is a song by Andrea Bocelli. While it’s not true for me – I met my match at secondary school – I have spent many hours wandering Portofino’s honeysuckle-scented streets. Spend five minutes exploring the small harbour town and you’ll understand why the sweet-smelling air, delicious food and numerous glasses of Italian wine might tip those rose-tinted glasses.
On a recent trip my boyfriend Louis and I were staying at the Belmond Hotel Splendido, which sits on the hillside overlooking Portofino. One afternoon we set off on a romantic cruise aboard the hotel’s Corsair 36, but as we puttered out of the harbour, leaving the fruit-pastel coloured town in our wake, it seemed I’d left my rose-tinted glasses at home. We’d been running late to meet the Captain, which caused sparks to fly, and now we were sitting on opposite boat cushions, the fizzle of tension still in the September air.
The evening was clear, with just a whisper of cloud overhead – and the setting sun sent an orange shimmer along the horizon. We swung out of the harbour past the Portofino lighthouse and headed for the open ocean. In the dim light the mountainous coastline of the Portofino National Park looked majestic and our Captain, dressed smartly in white, began telling stories of the families that live on the secluded hill.
Local rumours still circulate about the young Italian Countess who was found washed up in France, he explained as we gazed up at the clifftop villa where she was said to have fallen from. Whether she was pushed, jumped or simply slipped from her window ledge is still a great mystery in the town.
“Everyone’s got a secret on this side of the hill,” our Captain said, “especially this family…” and he pointed to a house perched at the top of some steep stairs leading from the sea. “It’s only accessible by canoe” he explained with a chuckle. I looked at Louis knowingly, his eyes a reflection of the olive trees scattering the coast. He lived in Portofino as a boy and knew some of the characters the Captain spoke of.
Turning a corner, the pretty bay of San Fruttuoso came into view, along with its tiny Benedictine monastery. The bay, only accessible by boat or foot, was named after the martyr bishop Fruttuoso who appeared in the dreams of five monks ordering them to bury his remains here.
A popular local hangout during the day, the beach was now abandoned and I joined Louis port-side, staring together at the tiny church and trellis-covered restaurant on the beach. We’d caught the public boat to San Fruttuoso earlier that day with hoards of locals, yet as we drifted at its entrance that evening it could have been our secret.
We set off again and soon we saw the town of Camogli glistening in the twilight. The soft-hued houses with flowers tumbling from their balconies seem to be stuck in a timewarp. We mulled over its beauty, deciding much of the Italian Riviera is best seen from the sea. As we turned back towards Portofino, Camogli’s church chimed ominously, its tolls ringing out over the water.
This part of the Riviera is an intriguing place, somewhat shrouded in mystery, popular with the rich and famous, but still as charming as when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton frequented the Belmond Splendido. I was totally besotted, and as we leaned back to watch the dwindling sunset I realised I did find love in Portofino after all. Andrea Bocelli was right.