Pittsburgh, Pa.
Contact Search Subscribe Classifieds Lifestyle A & E Sports News Home
Lifestyle Personals  Weather  Marketplace 
The Dining Guide
Travel Getaways
Advertise in Travel Getaways
Headlines by E-mail
Portofino Promontory and Golfo del Tigullio give rich returns for those on a budget

Sunday, August 10, 2003

By Debra Cole-Weber

PORTOFINO, Italy -- One of my travel dilemmas is this: I like what I can't afford, and although I am compelled to travel, I am willing neither to do so in discomfort nor to spend more than I can afford. I am quite like Adam Gopnik, who wrote in "Paris to the Moon" that he was "hedonistic but not at all heedless, a bad combination."

A view of Portofino's Church of San Giorgio from the castle above the bay. (Kurt Weber, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

If you go ...


Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino are easily reached from Genoa to the north and Rapallo to the south. Trains from Genoa run regularly to the Santa Margherita Ligure station, which sits at the top of a hill just west of Via Pagina; the ride takes 35 minutes. Timetables and ticket prices are available at The S1 and A12 roads both run the length of the Italian Riviera; the autostrada takes motorists from Genoa to Santa Margherita Ligure in about 30 minutes.

Regular daily ferries connect Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino and San Fruttuoso. Ferries also run to Camogli, Recco and Genoa to the north, and as far as the Cinque Terre and Portovenere to the south. Ferry information is available at the APT (Office of Tourist Promotion), and at the ferry docks in SML and Portofino. APT Tigullio, Via XXV Aprile, 4, 16038 Santa Margherita, Ligure (GE).


Lodging choices in Portofino are limited. They include the ultra-expensive Hotel Splendido, where the rack rates can soar in excess of 1,400 euros ($1,500) per night. Hotel Splendido, Salita Baratta, 16; 16034 Portofino.;

The moderately priced Hotel Domina Piccolo offers a waterfront location and advertises doubles at high season for 155 euros. Hotel Domina Piccolo, Via Duca degli Abruzzi, 31; 16034

The last choice in Portofino is the eight-room Hotel Eden. This tiny three-star hotel faces the harbor. Room rates are available through the hotel. Hotel Eden, Via Dritto, 18; 16034

At San Fruttuoso, the only lodgings available are the seven small rooms of the inexpensive Albergo da Giovanni. Albergo da Giovanni, Casella Postale, 23, San Fruttuoso, Genova.

Santa Margherita Ligure offers a wide range of rooms. Comprehensive lists are available at these Web;
The Continental and Metropole Hotels are a part of the local Ciana Hotels chain. Both hotels can be reached through the Metropole. Hotel Metropole, Via Pagina, 2; 16038 Santa Margherita Ligure (GE)


In Portofino, the Taverna del Marinaio, Piazza M. Olivetta, 36, serves excellent french fries and trofie with pesto. In Santa Margherita Ligure, we highly recommend the reasonably priced Trattoria Biacin, Via Algeria, 5; Santa Margherita Ligure. -- Debra Cole-Weber


Fortunately, I have found a destination that satisfies my need to be in touch with the amusements of the rich while not overspending. The Monte Portofino Promontory in Liguria, Italy, is that place.

There I can walk in the footsteps of royal pleasure seekers or those of backpacking hikers, then sleep in a resort hotel that gives maximum comfort for a reasonable sum.

I first visited the town of Santa Margherita Ligure 18 years ago. A cousin studying in Cannes lured me to Europe; from Cannes we rented a small car and drove eastward for our introduction to Italy.

On that long ago journey to Liguria, we had relied on a travel agent to pick our destination. We asked for a place that was beautiful, Italian and cheap. Her suggestion was Santa Margherita Ligure, just a few kilometers from glamorous Portofino.

Since then, this charming resort has become my favorite European destination. Santa Margherita is just large enough to be a great base for touring the Portofino headland. A short ferry ride takes the visitor to the harbor of Portofino, playground of glamorous movie stars of the past and Europe's yachting class. After a few minutes more, the ferry arrives at the scenic tiny beach of San Fruttuoso, below the abbey of the same name.

Together, Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino and, to a lesser extent, San Fruttuoso are the towns of the Golfo del Tigullio.

Santa Margherita Ligure

What I remember most vividly about that first drive into Italy is that I was frightened nearly witless by a highway overpass skirting Genoa on our way to Santa Margherita Ligure. Our tiny Renault seemed to be a mile above the sea. Once past Genoa and that heart-stopping highway in the sky, we were enchanted by the striking scenery of the coastal road, the S1, which we had opted for instead of the autostrada. The sparkling sea was on our right, and the steep green mountains to our left tumbled down to fishing villages that were a riot of Mediterranean fantasy shades: ochre, rose, yellow and brilliant white.

Sweeping down the Via Pagina into Santa Margherita Ligure, we had only a moment to wonder at the facades of elegant villas and the great palm-fronted luxury hotels.

The five-star Imperiale Palace is the awe-inspiring edifice that announces the town. We were quickly carried along in the buzzing traffic, past the big hotels and into the heart of the resort. The land leveled off, and we found ourselves along the pretty shoreline.

The waterfront is the center of life here. There are two harbors, one in the middle and one at the western end of town. The first harbor, busy with fishing vessels, is the place to catch the various ferries that travel up and down the Riviera. At the end of the long ferry pier, a statue of Santa Margherita, rendered in marble from the Carrara quarries, blesses the fishermen who set off to sea from beneath her serene gaze. I like to visit her when no one is around, to keep her company in her vigil.

Across from the waterfront, Santa Margherita's main street, the Via Pagina, is a wide boulevard lined with elegant shops, restaurants, piazzas, cafes and gelaterias. A pleasant walk begins or ends at the western harbor finale, where the impossibly wealthy dock their yachts. I fondly remember a moonlit August night, standing with my husband in the yacht harbor, gazing back at our waterfront room at the Hotel Metropole while the moonlight danced across the bay in front of us. This, I thought, is where I always want to be.

Strolling back down the Via Pagina, we stopped to help a fellow American couple struggling with an ATM. They asked what we knew about the town, and were surprised that I was there on my third visit. "Are you Italian?" the man asked me. When I said I was, he continued, "Then this must be your family's hometown." The truth of my ancestry lies far south, in the barren mountains of Basilicata, but I didn't bother to set him straight. Santa Margherita Ligure always feels like home to me.

A view of the bay in Portofino, Italy, with colorful boats moored along the waterfront. (Kurt Weber, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Historical records for Santa Margherita begin in the 13th century. A feud (what else?) put the town under the control of Genoa, where it remained until the end of the 1700s. Yet another feud caused the town to separate into two communities, and the Cantone di Santa Margherita withdrew from her bitter rival, the Cantone di San Giacomo.

Napoleon reunited the villages, and Vittorio Emmanuele christened the port Santa Margherita Ligure in 1863. To many visitors, it is affectionately known as SML.

On my first visit to Santa Margherita, we shared an inexpensive room set on a small hill above the waterfront, in an area more residential than touristic. On my second visit, I stayed as a guest of my mother at the gorgeous Hotel Continental. Our airy room had a balcony looking over the hotel's gardens that ramble downhill to the sea. A small bar in the garden was serviced by a handsome (again, what else?) young Italian, who, when I asked if I could please have a cioccolatto caldo, a hot chocolate, he replied in perfect English that I could have anything I wanted! I thought I was then too spoiled for lesser hotels, but my husband and I later spent an idyllic few days at the Hotel Metropole in an annex room above the water. I highly recommend the Metropole, where reasonable high-season rates include half board.


There are only two ways to get to Portofino: by water or by the Via Pagina as it runs from Santa Margherita Ligure, past the small settlement of Paraggi and into the overly busy piazza where the road ends. Parking there is difficult; arrival by ferry is a better choice.

The buildings along the main street in Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy, are intricately painted with faux details. (Kurt Weber, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

The rich have been coming here steadily since after World War II, to dock their yachts and visit at private villas. With very few hotel rooms other than those of the extremely pricey Hotel Splendido, Portofino remains a place for the moneyed among us. The harbor is lined with terraced restaurants, and none of them is inexpensive.

Several, however, offer fare that is delicious nearly beyond description. My husband, a man who loves potatoes, shockingly ordered fried ones along with his pasta at Taverna del Marinaio on the Portofino waterfront. I sneered as the waiter placed a plate of french fries in front of us, but I didn't leave the table until we had consumed the last of them; they were, quite simply, the most delicious potatoes I have ever eaten.

Trofiewith pesto had been my choice, and these were as delicious as the french fries. Pesto originated in Liguria, and trofie are the perfect foil for it. Born of the same soil and sensibilities, they are a type of long and thin potato-based pasta; a gnocchi drawn out to a fine line, as enticing as the surroundings in which one consumes them.

The trofie and the french fries were reasonably priced. A seafood extravaganza a few years before had been outrageously expensive. Clams, mussels, shrimp, the ubiquitous cuttlefish of Liguria and several other varieties of seafood were piled high on a bed of seaweed, then set upon a sizzling slab of rock for grilling and serving. The charred goodness of the fish combined with the salty tang of the seaweed was all the flavor necessary to make this meal unforgettable, even if it hadn't been presented to us on a huge piece of heated stone.

The cove entering San Fruttuoso, Italy, is dominated by the 13th-century abbey, isolating the small beach from the rest of the village. (Kurt Weber, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Away from the harbor front, Portofino has a street or two of expensive shops, but we tend to heed our budget and indulge our need for nature by heading up the path that leads from the docks to the Chiesa di San Giorgio and its cemetery. Views from the church out to sea and down across the little town are spectacular, and the cemetery is an evocative series of outdoor rooms, lined with white tombs and a marble angel, as sweet and charming as the statue of Santa Margherita that sits across the bay.

Beyond San Giorgio is the Castello, built as protection from invading Turks; a short ramble through the gardens there provides still more lovely views. The best reason to leave the harbor is for the surfeit of beautiful vistas available to anyone willing to make the short but challenging climb from the town out to this part of the promontory.

Of secondary interest at the Castello are its rather empty rooms, and a small historical exhibit showing Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Prince Rainier and other fortunate jet-setters of days gone by frolicking in the waters of Portofino.

After visiting the castle, it is pleasant to walk out to the faro, or old lighthouse, that guards the promontorio. The land levels off a bit, and the climbing is much less strenuous than that required to reach the church and castle. The path here is partially paved and lined with tall trees that provide shade as it meanders past tiny farmsteads and the gates of hidden villas. There is a small cafe at the lighthouse, and it's a good place for watching fishing boats and ferries heading toward Punta Chiappa and the ancient Abbazia di San Fruttuoso.

San Fruttuoso

A statue of Santa Margherita sits on the wharf, facing the sea, and praying for the safe return of the fishermen to the city that bears her name. (Kurt Weber, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

The Parco di Monte Portofino is well-known to European hikers for the path that leads across the headland to the Abbazia San Fruttuoso di Capodimonte. It is a challenging two-hour walk over the mountain and down to the tiny harbor at the foot of an ancient abbey.

While I admire those who hike the distance, I prefer to make my visit by boat. Frequent ferries run to the abbey from Santa Margherita via Portofino to the south and from Camogli from the north.

Most non-Italian visitors to the San Fruttuoso abbey come to take in the scenery of this remote gem, which is only accessible by boat or foot. The abbey is a worthwhile destination, both for the integrity of its restoration and for its beautiful setting. But I suggest wearing your bathing suit beneath your clothes and putting a towel in your bag.

Then you can do as the Italians do and swim in the clear blue waters at the foot of the abbey. It is also possible to enjoy an inexpensive meal at one of the tiny trattorias that line the small beach.

Benedictines have been at the Abbey of San Fruttuoso since the Byzantine period. The seagoing Doria family were integral to the abbey's fortunes for centuries; their influence reached its peak when Andrea Doria himself reconstructed the Abbey in the 16th century. Traces of the older parts of the church can be viewed in excavations below ground level. Today, the huge arches that support the abbey have been stripped of the heavy wooden and iron gates that covered them; bathers and picnickers find shade here, beneath the towering structure of the abbey.

The cloister and center courtyard at the 13th-century abbey in the village of San Fruttuoso. (Kurt Weber, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Nearly every visitor to San Fruttuoso is a daytripper come to bathe or tour the abbey, but it is possible to stay after the last ferry of the day departs and to have the ancient settlement nearly to oneself. The Albergo and Ristorante da Giovanni offers seven rooms that all overlook the beach and bay. Accommodations are rough, with shared showers and toilets, but good food is served on a balcony over the water, with the abbey looming behind, and the quiet of the abandoned abbey can transport the visitor far into the past.

I am, obviously, an enthusiastic booster of the Monte Portofino Promontory and all it has to offer. The charms of the scenery and weather here are heightened by the delights of the palate. In SML, we have feasted on a simple casserole of potatoes and porcini, the earthy taste of which my cousin and I still speak of many years later. At the Hotel Metropole, a plate of shrimp, tiny anchovies and curly squid, all fried in the crispest and lightest of batters, stands out as another exemplary culinary memory. The unimposing and inexpensive Trattoria Biacin on Via Algeria, a block off the Via Pagina, serves the sweetest melon wrapped in salty prosciutto, followed by rich buridda, the famous Genovese fish stew.

Pesto, olive oil and focaccia

Tourists use the ferries to shuttle between the small villages and towns of the Italian Riveria. Here, a group leaves the dock at Santa Margherita, destined for Portofino and San Fruttuoso. (Kurt Weber, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

A wide piazza opens from the baroque Basilica di Santa Margherita and leads to the local shopping streets. It is worthwhile to venture into this part of town, where locals shop daily for fresh ingredients and wonderful prepared dishes. Shops offer tempting arrays of tiny marinated fish; tomaxelle, Ligurian veal rolls; and cappon magro, a fish salad, to the mostly Italian clientele who rent holiday flats nearby.

Consider purchasing jars of prepared pesto and bottles of Ligurian olive oil, some of the finest produced in Italy. Another local specialty, crusty focaccia, is available warm from local bakeries in SML and Portofino. The promontorio doesn't produce a well-known wine of its own, but delicious Ligurian wines are always available at reasonable prices.

The region's Vermentino and the dry white Coronata produced in the hills around Genoa are recommended.

Although it is easy to find costly dining options in the resorts of the Monte Portofino Promontory, it is equally as easy to eat well for very little money. I have dined in Liguria on a seafood feast served from atop a very expensive piece of rock, and on focaccia from a bake shop costing less than a euro. I like these kind of options, and they suit my budget and my hedonistic, if never heedless, travel style.

Debra Cole-Weber is a freelance writer who lives in Pittsburgh.

E-mail this story E-mail this story  Print this story Printer-friendly page

Search |  Contact Us |  Site Map |  Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise |  About Us |  What's New |  Help |  Corrections
Copyright ©1997-2007 PG Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.