Tall pastel-coloured houses, seven or more floors high, edge the picturesque harbour of Portovenere overlooking the Golfo dei Poeti where Byron and Percy Shelley once swam. It’s also the home of my favourite pasta sauce, pesto!
Portovenere, Liguria, Italy
Portovenere (or Porto Venere) is a delightful medieval town lying on the Golf dei Poeti, to the east of Italy’s Liguria region. It was once a favourite haunt of the poets Byron and Shelley.
Built by the Romans as a stepping stone between Gaul and France, Portus Veneris, as it was then known, has seen many come and go over the centuries including the Byzantines, Lombards, Genovese and Napolean, all eager to take advantage of the harbour’s natural defences. The village’s name may refer to Venus, the goddess of love and protector of fishermen. A temple dedicated to her once stood overlooking the village on top of the promontory that juts out to sea. Long since destroyed the temple has been replaced by a beautiful black and white striped marble church of Peter the Apostle. This, as was most of Portovenere, was built by the Genoese. The tall houses that line its narrow streets date back to the early 12th century.
Above the village, the fortress, Castello Doria stands proud. Its origins are uncertain but it was rebuilt in 1161 and has seen numerous alterations over the years. Today it hosts art exhibitions and is a popular location for weddings with views across the harbour, the nearby islands and the Gulfo dei Poeti in the east, and to the north-west, the Cinque Terre.
The town’s Genoese and fishing heritage is reflected in its cuisine. Muscles, prawns, pasta with pesto sauce and focaccia bread abound and its restaurants are popular with both tourists and locals from the surrounding area. The area was also the birthplace of pesto. You’ll find my quick and easy pesto recipe below.
From Portovenere, you can catch a boat to the Cinque Terre (five villages). In fact, up until about 50 years ago, this was the only way to reach them. They are now connected by a railway or an arduous and winding route by road.
A number of years ago I spent a delightful day hopping on and off the boats which visit each village in turn. Due to the steep cliffs along this stretch of coastline these villages have remained virtually unchanged in appearance over the centuries. Riomaggiore is a particularly picturesque little fishing port. Vernazza, pictured above, is a wonderful setting for some charming restaurants set around the harbour but I stopped for lunch at Monterosso. This is the most northern village, with its long sandy beaches and charming back streets. As I enjoyed a delicious seafood spaghetti sitting on a street-side table watching the world go by I heard the sound of singing. Looking up I saw a couple of young ladies, perched high above me on some scaffolding, singing as they painted traditional tromped’oeil around a window – a magical moment I’ve never forgotten!
My favourite local dish, however, is pasta with pesto, which I have enjoyed a number of times in the wonderful restaurants of Portovenere. Here’s my variation on the traditional recipe.
Easy Pesto Recipe
- 450 g vermicelli (or any ribbon pasta)
- 1 tbsp pine-nuts
- 100 g fresh basil
- 50 g parmesan or pecorino cheese grated
- 2 large garlic cloves
- 5 tbsp virgin olive oil
- freshly ground black pepper
- Lightly grill the pine nuts.
- Peel and coarsely chop the garlic.
- Wash and coarsely chop the basil, having first removed the stems.
- Pound the nuts, garlic and basil in the mortar.
- If need be this can then be transferred to a larger bowl and first the cheese and then the oil can be gradually mixed in until you have a smooth paste.
- Season as required with freshly ground black pepper.
- Cook the pasta, as per the instructions on the packet, until it is al dente. (You'll find a link to my recipe for making fresh pasta above.)
- Fry some spring greens or leeks and mushrooms in a little olive oil (optional).
- Drain the pasta and thoroughly mix in the sauce.
- Garnish with a few pine nuts, slivers of cheese and a sprig of basil.
When to visit Portovenere
The best time of year to visit is in the spring or autumn, avoiding the worst of the summer crowds. When I visited many years ago, this stunningly picturesque corner of Italy was not so well known and although the ferry to the other villages was busy, it was easy to get away from the crowds once ashore. Not so these days, or so I’ve heard. The best time to be there is after the day-trippers have gone home. But I can understand why it is so popular. Each village of the Cinque Terre has its own charms, and together with Portovenere, they are a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most picturesque coastlines I’ve ever seen. With numerous ferries from La Spezia stopping at Portovenere on their way to Cinque Terre, it’s a great base from which to explore the area.
How to get to Portovenere and the Cinque Terre
The nearest airports to Portovenere are Pisa, Florence and Genoa.
From Pisa, you can catch a train to La Spezia and then a bus on to Portovenere. The total journey takes around one and a half hours or longer depending on which train you take. You can find all the details including prices and times here.
Alternatively, you can hire a car at Pisa airport. It’s a little over 60 miles and takes around an hour and a quarter to drive there.
Where to stay in Portovenere
Hotel Belvedere is a lovely moderately priced hotel overlooking the bay, set one row back from the water’s edge on Via Giuseppe Garibaldi. Hotel della Baia is a good choice if you are on a tighter budget or even the hotel, Ostello Portovenere, which gets good reviews. If you are seeking something more luxurious, then it has to be the Grand Hotel Portovenere also on Via Giuseppe Garibaldi overlooking the marina in the historic centre of the town.
Where to eat in Portovenere
For local Ligurian cuisine, it has to be Portivene Un Mare di Sapori on Via Giovanni Capellini. For a special occasion try Palmaria Restaurant in the Grand Hotel. The food is excellent and the views sublime.
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