Dramatic Landscapes and a Pristine Architectonic Jewel
Portovenere it is also called the “Sixth Earth” as it was an extension of the nearby “Cinque Terre” National Park due to its vicinity and similar landscapes. The village was named part of the UNESCO Heritage in 1997 as the Cinque Terre villages, but I was deeply surprised by the perfect conservation state of the typical Ligurian buildings, churches and the picturesque landscape stretching in front of my eyes.
It is a must day trip for all those travellers visiting the Cinque Terre National Park beside. The origin of its name it’s linked to an ancient legend: according to it, there used to be a temple erected in honour to the goddess Venus famous for her extreme beauty, born directly from the sea’s foam. The holy place was right where today the San Pietro church is.
Here are the main attractions if you only have a day to visit this charming village:
1.The Entry Gate to the Old City
When approaching the village from the beach or the main Bastrieri Square, the imposing medieval stone door will welcome you to this outstanding little hamlet. Following the paths on the left you will reach the top of the hill where the Doria Castle dominates the area. The whole Old City is encircled by defensive medieval walls finely conserved and decorated with mullioned windows; besides the main village entry door you will notice a 12th century tower built for defensive purpose.
2. The Old Town
Before starting the climb to the castle, we couldn’t help with ceasing to temptation and stopped by one of the appetizing bakeries cooking homemade Focaccia with pesto and local desserts such as the Pandolcino Genovese, a sort of fruit cake with raisins, candied fruits and pine nuts. A real treat!
The alternative is to try out one of the many seafood restaurants on the Promenade if you prefer to sit down and relax while eating. I have a lovely memory of Via Giovanni Scarpellini, the main street, dotted with little restaurants, souvenir shops and bakeries. From here many alleys lead you to the top of the hill in 15 minutes, from where you can enjoy peaceful and stunning views over the Palmaria, Tino and Tinello Islands in front of Portovenere. Remember to wear comfy baskets and to leave strollers at home!
3. Sanctuary of the White Madonna or San Lorenzo Church
On the stairs towards the castle you will notice a beautiful white church: it is the San Lorenzo Church opening over a small piazza. I remember seeing kids running up the stairs to join their catechism lesson and the priest waiting for them at the door. I was surprised to see a village where young people still live permanently in and respect the religious traditions; I had the feeling of stepping into a village where time stopped 50 years ago and I took the time to absorb the serene quietness of the scenery.
This church was apparently linked to the God Jupiter , where a temple dedicated to him once was erected at the church’s place. The church was probably first built during the 11th century but then repetitively destroyed, first by a fire during 14th century and then by Aragon invasions.
The church got the sanctuary status because of an alleged miracle happened in 1399 when Portovenere was struck by a plague epidemic. A local inhabitant prayed for the end of the epidemic in front of the Madonna white painting and in a few hours the illness disappeared. People still come to visit the portrait conserved inside the church which is now a famous pilgrimage destination. The Church is a mix of white marble and black stone and presents a mix of Gothic and Romanesque style architecture due to its various refurbishments.
4. The Mills
Walking around the church you will stumble upon a small alley going downhill towards the castle. Here you will see the beautiful stone mills which used to be defensive watch towers. From here you can enjoy remarkable panoramic views over the sea. Later on, the towers were reconverted into flour wind mills.
5. The Castle
Looking uphill from the San Lorenzo Church you will see the imposing Doria Castle characterized by a pentagonal base oriented towards the sea. The entry ticket is around 6€ and it is definitely worth it to take some great shot. The castle is a ruin so you won’t find furniture inside and it was once used as prison for political enemies during Napoleon ‘s occupation.
The castle dates back to the 12th to the 15th century and was built by the Genoa’s people to get shelter from invasion and monitor the surrounding area. Very impressive are the walkways surrounding the castle and the amphitheater where theatrical plays take place during summer.
6. San Pietro’s Church
This Church was erected on the rocks and boasts amazing sights over the Palmaria island and the sea. The Spallanzani Square is considered as the oldest part of Portovenere since ruins of ancient walls have been found below the ground level dating back to a few centuries after Christ.
The church is the result of two sections: the Romanesque one dating back to the 12th century and the the Gothic one to the 13th century. This church is decorated with horizontal black and white lines on the stone walls and I clearly remember the particular light inside this building mainly coming from the big windows behind the altar. A striking terrace is also accessible to admire the surrounding panorama.
7.The “Palazzata a Mare”
The “Palazzata a mare” is an Italian expression to describe the typical Ligurian tall terraced buildings characterized by lively colors that you can find standing besides the Promenade of Portovenere. These houses similar to towers were purposefully built in this narrow clustered vertical way to protect the Old City from naval attacks and have their foundations planted in the rocks below. This unusual and iconic buildings appear on all Portovenere’s postcards and surprise for their unique beauty. This pastel colored houses have no architectonic decoration to avoid invaders climbing on the façade.
8. Portovenere’s beach
After having checked out all the main city’s landmarks, you can find some rest walking along the seafront promenade leading to the city’s main beach. This pebbly beach is frequented by families since it easy to reach by boat, car or bus and offers all sort of beach facilities and restaurants. From here you will be able to take the ferry to join the best beaches on the neighboring Palmaria Island.
9. Lord Byron’s Cave or Grotta Arpaia
Taking the path going down to San Pietro Church you will notice a crowded bay hiding the Grotta Arpaia, also known as Lord Byron’s cave. The region is dotted with marine limestone or marble caves, but this one is particularly beautiful being also home to several reefs and sea species extending over 25 meters below the sea level.
The name’s origin refers to the English romantic poet, who loved to came to this spectacular cave to find poetry inspiration and admire the beauty of nature while thinking.
The cave is over crowded with people coming to bathe in these turquoise waters during high season, but beware of jellyfishes!
Other Must-Do Activities
If you are staying a couple of days in Portovenere you will be able to explore the little Archipelago right in front of the town: the islands of Palmaria, an emerald green island famous for stunning beaches, lush vegetation and caves, Tino a natural reserve where people are not allowed but that can be circumnavigated by boat, and Tinetto a rocky small islet accessible to local citizens only where seagulls breed and a few ruins can be found.
From the ferry jetty you can reach the Cinque Terre National Park in about 30 minutes and enjoy scenic views on arrival while breathing at full lungs the sea breeze.
I can also recommend you to take some online remote tours of Italy through “Take Tours” a great independent company organising tours in the main Italian and European cities cities including online cooking classes to help you go through the Covid-19 isolation period!
Intrepid Travels also organise small groups guided tours jampacked with adventures ad sightseeing.