Portofino and the Ligurian Coast
~Self Guided Walking Tour ~
Portofino is the star turn of the Italian Riviera and needs little introduction. It sits at the tip of a green promontory, a beguiling cluster of multi-coloured houses, bars and restaurants crowded around a small fishing port, hugged by steep forested hills that have enticed the rich and famous since English lords first started coming here at the beginning of the 19th century. Portofino though is only one of the highlights of the Gulf of Tigullio, a fascinating stretch of coastline on the Ligurian seaboard 40 kilometres east of Genoa.
Blessed with a long and fascinating history and a mild climate even in the winter, the string of towns that wrap around the Gulf have been long appreciated by northern Italians, particularly the well-to-do of the large inland cities such as Milan and Turin, many of whom have holiday houses here. Surprisingly, it is little known to foreigners, particularly compared to its nearby neighbour, the Cinque Terre.
In June, July and August, towns like Portofino, Rapallo and Santa Margherita come alive, their ports crowded with pleasure boats and their narrow lanes and water-front promenades bustling with the rhythms, smells, movement and colour of the Italian summer.
There is however another side to the gulf, a quiet meditative world of tiny villages, ancient religious sanctuaries and olive groves, tucked into the forest and valleys of the hills that rise steeply behind the coast, a world best explored on foot, following the network of paths that have criss-crossed the range since medieval times.
This week long self-guided walk combines the best of both these worlds allowing you enjoy the peace and serenity (and views) from the trails during the day and the buzz of the towns in the evening.
The tour starts in Camogli on the west side of the Portofino promontory, a former fishing village (known in medieval times as the 'city of a thousand sails') which was described by Charles Dickens as 'the feistiest, roughest, most piratical little place I've ever visited'! It's a little more couth these days but has lost none of its nautical charm.
The walks on the tour are quite straight forward. The first goes across the national park that separates Camogli and Portofino following a series of well-marked trails through pine and oak forests above spectacular coastline with some of the most beautiful views in northern Italy. The second takes you back through the national park to Santa Margherita and then on to Rapallo, entering the town via an arched brick bridge that was said to have been crossed by Hannibal and elephants. The accommodation is in a 4-star hotel overlooking Rapallo's main square.
From Rapallo a steep path climbs into the hills and picks up the route of the Via Francigena the medieval trail that skirted above the coast (avoiding the malarial wetlands and pirate raids that afflicted this area into the 17th century) taking pilgrims and traders from France to Rome. You will follow this for the last two days of the tour.
The trails have been cleared and marked by local enthusiasts, some sections still preserving their ancient paving stones. They wind deep into forests, passing shrines and chapels that provided shelter and spiritual succour to the travellers, as well as crossing terraced olive groves and vineyards with vistas over the sea. The last walk finishes with a grand finale: pausing at the ruins of a small chapel perched on a cliff high above the water you can see the whole of the Gulf of Tigullio from Portofino at one end to Sestri Levante, where the tour ends, at the other. Sestri Levante, where you spend the last night, is one of the coast's hidden treasures: the old town is built on an island that is joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus created by the Bay of Fables (Hans Christian Anderson lived here at one stage) on one side and the dreamy Bay of Silence on the other.
Of course, it's not all walking! Food must be a highlight of any visit to Italy the history and character of each region is best captured in its unique cuisine, which has evolved over centuries and is based on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients and Liguria is no exception. The locals (like most Italians) are a parochial lot and like to use their own trusted products most of which come from the coastline with its rough, mountainous hinterland or which is fished out of their own waters. It is an austere but delicious style of cooking that has produced such specialities as pesto sauce and focaccia (apparently created in Camogli). Even the wines, grown with great effort on the steep, rocky terraces seem to have been invented in Liguria, and suit the local food perfectly.