I was cruising the Mediterranean from Barcelona to Rome with my mother, and we were scheduled to visit Portofino on the Italian Riviera for a day. We had been to Portofino in 1985 and were looking forward to seeing how much it had changed in 15 years. However, it was not to be. We ran into some bad weather, and the captain of our small cruise ship announced that we could not anchor at Portofino due to the rough seas. Instead of Portofino, we were going to Portovenere.
I had never even heard of Portovenere, and neither had any of our fellow cruisers. But, we were all game for an adventure. The harbor at Portovenere was very sheltered, and as we looked out over the small village, I had a warm, relaxing feeling come over me. I knew we were in for an interesting day.
The cruise ship staff had come up with a couple of last minute shore excursions to Pisa and La Spezia to replace the ones we missed at Portofino. They told us (and it was confirmed by some of the passengers) that Portovenere looked much like Portofino had decades ago. The village of Portovenere looked so charming that we decided to just wander the town for the day. It was a good decision. Armed with a map of the sights provided by the ship, we took the ship's tender ashore.
Like much of Europe, Portovenere has a fascinating history going back to pagan times. The village site used to be a temple to Venus Erycina, from which the name Portovenere is derived. It was a maritime center even then, and has been involved in many conflicts through the ages. The longest was the war between Genoa and Pisa (1119-1290). The castle that overlooks Portovenere from a rocky elevation above the village was an important defense tool during that war. Today Portovenere is the gateway to the Cinque Terre. Ferries cruise along the coast each day, offering passengers a chance to have a view of one of the most evocative landscapes of the Mediterranean. A trail to the Cinque Terre also starts here, but the walk is quite long and needs to be broken up into more than one day.
Our day in Portovenere was a rainy, dreary day, so we dragged along our umbrellas. The main walls of the city were constructed in 1160. We first walked along the narrow streets to the Church of St. Peter (S. Pietro). It was on a promontory overlooking the Gulf of la Spezia. Even with the rainy weather, the Mediterranean in the grotto below the church was a gorgeous azure color. The Genoese built the church as a reward for the citizens of Porto Venere for their help in taking the Lerici castle.
After wandering through the church, we started up the steep, rocky paths to the castle. The houses were fascinating, and each was marked with a distinctive tile. Mother and I marveled at the "water man". He was operating a gasoline-powered cart filled with glass water jugs he was delivering to the villagers. The cart had treads like a tank and could "walk" up and down the wide steps of the village paths. It was quite a sight! By the time we got up to the castle, it had stopped raining. The view of Portovenere below was quite wonderful. The castle was first built in 1161, but it was significantly reconstructed in 1458.
Near the castle is a great find not on many maps. It is the village cemetery, and it features a view of the sea below. We found this cemetery very fascinating. Many of the crypts in the mausoleum had photographs of the deceased on them, dating back to the early twentieth century. It was very interesting to see the pictures of the cemetery's inhabitants.
We wandered back down into the village and explored some of the shops. The people were friendly, and excited about having our ship with its 114 passengers in port. From my first look at Portovenere, I knew it would be a fascinating place to spend a day. I was right. All in all, I'm glad we had an Italian surprise!