Visiting Portofino in the Italian Riviera

Visiting Portofino in the Italian Riviera

Portofino has long been one of the playgrounds for the rich and famous to park their yachts while cruising around the Italian Riviera in the summer. The tiny village surrounding the port is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Italy. It is a tiny place and the road into it is very narrow and windy and cars must be parked at the village entrance. In summer the queues are long with entry restricted to a certain number of cars. A cruise around the coast is the best way to see this area. Portofino is full of designer boutiques and the place to be seen in your Sunday best. However the pink and yellow houses add up to a picture perfect place to visit.

In Portofino We Recommend…

Take a 2 km walk up to see the Abbazia della Cervara 1361 which is surrounded by formal gardens. Take one of our Boat Tours out the see the submerged statue of the Christ of the Abyss ….or to Santa Margherita Ligure trek to San Fruttuoso…

Abbey Cervara

Abbey Cervara, also known as San Girolamo, a former religious complex in the town of Santa Margherita Ligure on the Ligurian coast of Italy. Located on the road to Portofino, the Abbey is a national monument.

In the Middle ages, this area, like all the coast of the Gulf of Tigullio up to Portofino, was called Siluria because it was covered with primeval forest (“silvae” in Latin means “forest”). Later Silveria” was transformed into “Cervara”.

The monastery was built in 1361, the year on the initiative of Ottone Lanfranco, a priest in the Church of Santo Stefano in Genoa. He was later transferred to the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino, who in the 15th century engaged in the restoration of the structure. At the time the monastery was a center for the dissemination of Flemish art in Liguria.

In 1546, the year the monastery was elevated to the status of Abbey and then was strengthened considerably in response to the increased threat of attacks by North African pirates. At the end of the 18th century the Abbey was abolished and pillaged, and kept there a valuable work of art, known as the “Polyptych Cervara”, divided into parts and sold separately. Today, parts of the polyptych are in the museums of Genoa, Paris and new York.

In the 19th century, the entire religious complex was passed from hand to hand, some time it housed a school, and in 1912, the year it was declared a national monument. Today you can see the Church surrounded by a gallery of the cloister of the 16th-century tower built to protect against pirates, in fact, the building of the monastery and a lovely garden. The garden is characterized in that facing the sea, offers a spectacular view. Preserved monastery garden, which from Medieval times grew healing herbs.

Cervara today the Abbey is privately owned but it is open to holding public cultural events and also for visits in organized groups. The owners carried out a complete restoration to return the monastery to its historic appearance. One of the restorers – Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, previously with the restoration of the famous “last supper” of Leonardo da Vinci.

Christ of the Abyss 

Christ of the Abyss (Cristo degli Abissi) statue, submerged in the waters of the Protected Marine Area of Portofino, has become one of the most famous and popular diving sites in the world. The statue was placed in the waters of San Fruttuoso di Camogli on 22nd Aug 1954 at a depth of about 18 meters by the Costa family.

It was the idea of the Italian diver Duilio Marcante, a pioneer of diving techniques who wanted to dedicate it to the memory of this friend Dario Gonzatti who was the first Italian to use SCUBA gear in his dives and tragically died near this spot in 1947. The statue is meant as a reference point for divers in distress and it has become a symbol for all scuba divers.

It was made by sculptor Guido Galletti in bronze and is impressive 2.5 metres (8.5 feet) tall. To acquire the amount of bronze needed for its creation, the sculptor melted and fused together medals, naval artefacts and bells. The statue was raised to land to be lovingly restored in 2003 due to the increased corrosion and replace a hand that had been broken by an anchor. It was returned to the water in July 2005.

As almost everything in San Fruttuoso, diving in this spot is a unique experience. Amongst the natural beauty of the Protected Marine Area you are greeted by the open hands of the statue directed towards the sky (surface ) in sign of peace. The dive is fairly easy as it takes place in relatively shallow waters and has the protection of the Bay against strong winds. There are numerous diving centers in the nearby town of Santa Margherita that organise diving expeditions to the waters in front of San Fruttuoso and around the Riviera coastline.

A moving ceremony is held on the beach of San Fruttuoso on the last Sunday in July each year when a torchlight mass is held to commemorate all those who have lost their lives at sea, with divers placing crowns of flowers at the foot of the underwater Christ.

If you cannot dive or simply prefer to stay dry, you can approach the spot with a boat in a clear, calm day and peak at it from the water surface. Another option will be to visit the public Church of the San Fruttuoso Abbey and see its replica near the entrance.

Interestingly, there are other Christ of the Abyss bronze casts created from the same mould around the world. One is located in the waters off the coast of St. George, the Caribbean capital of Grenada. It was presented as a gift of the navy of Genoa for assistance in rescuing the crew of Italian vessel Bianca C’ , a liner that burned just outside the port of St. George and the statue was submerged in the waters in October 1961.

A third replica stands in the waters off Key Largo in the upper Florida keys facing a beautiful and large brain coral. It was donated to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in 1965 by the Cressi family to celebrate the creation of the first underwater park in the United States.

Santa Margherita Ligure trek to San Fruttuoso

The Portofino promontory sits over a peninsula with its towns of Camogli, Rapallo, Santa Margherita, and Portofino. The long arched line of the Ligurian coast running down from Genoa is interrupted by a square promontory, about three miles each way, with Camogli (north) and Rapallo (south) as its limits. It is perfect for short hiking tours. 

This corner of northern Italy is easily accessible by train, offers good hiking trails, and excellent people-watching in places such as the piazzetta in Portofino. Among hiking tours in Italy, this one is now one of my favorites.  

The Regional Park 

The peninsula is part of the Portofino Regional Park. There are plenty of scattered settlement among the hills, wherever the gradient of the slopes permits. Villas and small farms appear among olive terraces and citrus groves, churches and sanctuaries. However, the area has not been overbuilt like other Ligurian coastal settlements. 

The four villages vary markedly in character. We agreed that our favorite is Camogli. If there is a dominating theme in the architecture (and this includes even the more remote villas and churches) it’s the colorful trompe-l’oeil painting of exteriors. Some depict window openings to give a façade a more balanced aspect.

Another feature, more sporadic but a good deal older, are the tower-houses. In the days when the Genovese coasts were threatened by Turks, corsairs, Venetians and other enemies, thick square towers were built either by the shore or with a more distant view of the sea. Many of these survive, several centuries old but turned (usually) into rather fine homes. They aren’t always obvious, because they may now be part of a larger building – sometimes a villa with trompe-l’oeil decoration!

The dominant rock of the headland is a hard conglomerate, in which large pebbles and stones have been compressed together through the effects of time and pressure. This forms craggy ground where it is most exposed to the baking sun and salt winds, but elsewhere tends to break down into a dark soil. The natural vegetation on higher ground is holm oak, a low evergreen species, along with some Mediterranean pine, but this is replaced by deciduous oak and sweet chestnut in the cooler and damper conditions of the summits and northern slopes.

The promontory is rich in wildlife, including boar and both migrant and resident bird species – with peregrine falcons along the cliffs. There is also a marine reserve, to protect fish, cetaceans and sea-bed flora and fauna. In contrast, sandy beaches are scarce. This coastline is generally better for the scuba diver than the sunbather.

You can visit the official Parkwebsite. There are good descriptions and trail maps.

The trail we followed is a nice introduction to the local trails; it’s easy to navigate, and provides cultural immersions in the history and traditions of the fishing villages. The route starts in pretty Camogli, climbs up to the Sanctuary of San Rocco, and descends to the monastery of San Fruttuoso. From there, one can take a boat back to Camogli, or to Portofino and then Santa Margherita, or continue on foot, taking the trail to Portofino (about 2 additional hours).

The hike from Camogli to San Fruttuoso takes from 2 1/2 to 3 hours with rest stops and plenty of time to admire the scenery. The numbers on my Garmin GPS showed 3.36 mls (or 5.4 km), and 1,500 feet (460 mt) up and then down. It was of moderate difficulty. You are going over a small mountain – walking on uneven terrain much of the time. Be prepared, be prudent, and take your time.

We followed the two dots trail signage. The beginnings of the walks, starting in the towns, aren’t always clear, but once on the way you should have no problems. There are painted way marks, coded according to the route, and signposts at junctions. Hiking Italy for dummies!

Trail signage in Camogli on the way to Sanfruttuoso

The Mediterranean scrub is a constant and pleasant trail feature. Depending on the season, colors and scents will change slightly. We found a few bushes of Mirto (Black Myrtle) and Corbezzolo (Killarney Strawberry Tree), both edible. Well, mirto is also drinkable! But I don’t know of any producers locally; perhaps there are not enough berries unlike in Sardinia. 

Mediterranean scrub plants

In Santa Margherita Ligure, we shared thoughts about the hike over an aperitivo. Are the views better the other way? Is it better to start or to end in Camogli? Is that other trail more forgiving on knees? What is the tradeoff? We had shifted into R&D mode: we were thinking of our groups, of the best possible options.

Before the beginning of the season, I will go back one more time because I have one last option in mind that keeps me wondering.

A few words about San Fruttuoso

San Fruttuoso is one of those gems that we Italians tend to take for granted. San Fruttuoso is not much more than an indentation along a mountainous coastline, accessible only from the sea or on foot. But it has a powerful attraction: the Benedictine monastery (San Fruttoso Abbey). The monastery is a stunning stone building with a small dome, which straddles the beach. Parts are medieval, some Romanesque, and the burial vaults of the aristocratic Doria family of Genoa are here. Until nature decided to throw up a beach in quite recent times, boats moored directly under the supporting arches of the monastery and could unload directly into the cellars. You can still walk beneath these arches and find the odd boat or two resting on the stones out of the weather. The surroundings of San Fruttuoso are worth exploring.  The main monastery building and the sixteenth-century watch tower a short walk away have been donated by the Doria family to FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano).

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