It’s hard not to feel slightly smug when you stroll along the promenade of the famous village of Portofino. Playground of movie stars, Presidents and the rudely rich, it’s easy to dream that you ‘belong’ for the day. Expensive yachts, charming dingys and pastel-coloured buildings are reflected in the pristine water. Stylish, tanned people sip cappuccinos at little tables, while others emerge from pretty boutiques carrying expensive-looking shopping bags. And then we bump into a particularly glamorous couple – our travelling buddies Tracy and Sean.
We’ve met up with the McCoys, to enjoy a few blissful days in the nearby port town of Rapallo.
Rapallo is a mere 30 minute drive from the regional capital, Genoa, and is known to be the second home for many affluent Italians, who come to relax, play golf at one of the oldest courses in the country, or sail and enjoy the picturesque harbour, shopping and plentiful restaurants.
Rapallo has amazing colourfully decorated buildings and alleyways and we wasted no time exploring the town with Tracy and Sean, idly taking turns to pick the beautiful pastel-shuttered house that we’d choose to purchase.🤪
We’re staying at the oh-so-conveniently located Il Convento. We’d booked here at the recommendation of our Italian friends Rosella and Neville.
Originally a 17th Century monastery, it has been transformed into simple but comfortable self-catering accommodation. It is in a really wonderful spot, central and overlooking the bay of Rapallo.
We wandered along the many pedestrian shopping streets, drooling over the Italian produce and admiring the markets and sidewalk restaurants. We made notes of where we’d like to dine.
Walking through the streets of Rapallo, we noticed that virtually every Italian is accompanied by their dog, seemingly everywhere they go. There were dogs in the markets, dogs beneath the tables of the sidewalk cafés, dogs in bicycle baskets and our favourite of all – a large golden retriever in a old fashioned pram. We stopped to chat to the owners, explaining that we too had a golden retriever. They told us that they had a home up the hill and their dog was getting too old to walk back after their evening stroll, so they simply pop him into the pram! Love it so much!
We enjoyed a gorgeous dinner with Tracy and Sean where they shared that they had gotten engaged while in Venice! We were so happy to celebrate with them.
Rapello Castle is surrounded by the sea and connected to the dry land by a pier. Its unmistakable silhouette is one of the symbols of Rapallo and is reproduced in engravings, postcards, stamps and souvenirs.
The fort was built in 1550 for defensive purposes after the looting and destruction of the town by the pirate Dragut, who enslaved many people. Used for a long time as a prison, it was then restored and is now apparently a prestigious venue for exhibitions and conferences.
I loved its many faces – flanked by fishermen in the early dawn light, a backdrop for aperitvo at sunset, or lit up at nighttime as we strolled home from dinner admiring its reflection in the calm waters of the bay.
Possibly the most fun way to get to Portofino is by water taxi. It’s a 30 minute ride westwards along the coast, providing incredible views of Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure and astoundingly gorgeous villas, gardens and beaches.
The first glimpse of Portofino is incredible and we were lucky to have arrived on a sun-drenched morning showing off the colourful boats and buildings to perfection. Baskets of flowers, hibiscus and bougainvilleas provided an exquisite accent.
We wandered around, exploring the pretty streets, taking photographs of the old but beautifully maintained buildings, admiring shops that house world-famous brands and salivating over the mouth-watering seafood of the day, displayed on chalkboards as lunch-hour approached.
Although it’s purported to be a tourist trap, Portofino does not disappoint. I loved the way the beautifully maintained buildings lean over the busy streets. The air smelled of summer bliss, freshly-made pastry, the finest espresso and the buttery, garlicky aroma that accompanies the freshest of seafood.
We decided to eat at Ristorante Lo Stella. Lo Stella offers authentic Ligurian fare and was founded back in 1850. The current owners are 8th generation and pride themselves on their pasta, their seafood and the local specialty – pesto sauce. We enjoyed a feast of seafood linguine, ravioli, lasagna and vongole with the crisp house white wine. 🍝
In food and wine heaven, we sat beside the promenade, chatted and watched people come and go by boat.
Liguria is synonymous with a string of centuries-old seaside villages on the rugged coastline, known as Cinque Terra (Five Lands). In each of the five towns, colourful houses and vineyards cling to steep terraces, harbours are filled with delightful fishing boats and trattorias turn out simple tasty seafood specialties. If you have time or the inclination, there is a breathtaking, cliffside hiking trail that links the villages and offers sweeping sea vistas.
Tucked away in a particularly mountainous kink at the eastern end of the Italian Riviera, the villages of the Cinque Terre (pronounced chin-kwe ter-re, with a rolled “r” sound) were shaped by their profound isolation. Set amid some of the most dramatic coastal scenery on the planet, these vibrant towns are exciting and I felt as though we’d stepped right into a 5000-piece puzzle. The five villages are no longer the isolated hamlets they once were, but there’s still a feeling of authenticity here, with few roads (cars have been banned within the villages for more than a decade), perfectly preserved architecture and a network of stunning coastal and mountain trails.
We took the train along the 19th-century railway line that runs along Italy’s west coast and connects all five villages. Our starting point was at the most westerly and the largest of the villages – Monterossa. It is known for its spectacular stretch of beach and is famous for lemons and anchovies. We strolled along the walkway overlooking the beach with its reserved deck-chairs and distinctive orange and green striped umbrellas.From Monterossa we took the train to the most eastern village of Riomaggiore with a view to walking back to Manarola via the famous Lovers’ Walk.
The hiking trail Via dell’ Amore (Lovers’ Walk) is the most famous and romantic stretch of the Cinque Terre coastline. It It connects the picturesque villages of Riomaggiore and Manarola and is only about 1 km long. The trail has a magical atmosphere as it has been excavated from the hard rock and winds along the cliff-face overhanging the sea. The history of the Via dell’Amore path dates to the beginning of the 20th century during the modernisation of the Genoa – La Spezia railway line. A footpath was needed by the railroad workers to move between Riomaggiore and Manarola during the construction of the tunnel between the two villages. The legend holds that this footpath became a meeting place for lovers from the two towns.
Together with newly-engaged Sean and Tracy, we took a pleasant stroll along the Lovers’ Walk, marvelling over the spectacular views of the cliffs, vineyards and the sea. It’s equipped with charming benches along the way making it ideal to pause and take pictures. We paused to add our names to the scrawls of other lovers that had recently passed this way.❤️
Riomaggiore is the largest of the five villages and acts as the unofficial headquarters. Its peeling pastel buildings march down a steep ravine to a tiny harbour, often the classic postcard view that advertises the region. The town literally sparkles in the sunlight and I can only imagine how it must glow romantically at sunset, and we vowed that one day we would stay overnight in one of these charming towns when we would have the time to climb the hill as well as swim from the pebbly beach.
Arriving in Manarola from the end of Lovers’ Walk, the view of the town is amazing. I was dizzied by the swatch of bright colours and the glistening boats tethered in the tiny but bewitching harbour. Manarola village nestles below bountiful hills of grapevines, apparently more prolific than any other Cinque Terre village and is famous for its sweet Sciacchetrà wine. It’s also noted for its priceless medieval relics, supporting claims that it is the oldest village of the five. I kind of wanted to stay forever and immerse myself in the village life.
We hopped back on the train and headed to Vernazza. In the interests of time, we decided to “save” Corniglia, the fifth and middle village for next time. Corniglia is the only village that doesn’t have a harbour and is situated on the hillside. I suspected that as it doesn’t have a beach, it might be less touristy and is probably very appealing.
Vernazza’s small piazza is dominated by the lovely Santa Margherita di Antiochia Church with its bell tower topped by an elegant cupola. In addition there is a medieval castle, clinging to the hillside, making the town feel particularly medieval and quaint.
The restaurants were filled with people enjoying the local fare and we enjoyed a delightful lunch of frutti di mare pasta, while sitting under colourful umbrellas in the late afternoon sunlight.
Tired, but content after a busy day, we headed back to Rapallo on the train.
We were up early the next day having decided to hire scooters and head up into the hills above Rapallo. We identified a circular route and had the most amazing time whizzing along the curving roads, stopping occasionally to admire the spectacular views and to work out where the hell we were on the map!
We headed to Montallegro which is roughly 600 meters above sea level and the view was breathtaking. We took a walk to one of the holiest chuches in the region, the Sanctuary of Montallegro. Apparently it was here that there was an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1557.
Folklore has it that the site of the church was chosen because on 2 July 1557 the Virgin Mary appeared there to a farmer, Giovanni Chichizola.
She is said to have shown him an iconic religious painting, brought from Greece by angels, which was to remain on the mountainside as proof that she was watching over the townsfolk.
Nevertheless, young Giovanni tried to remove it on his own and when he couldn’t, he went down the mountain to summon help from locals. They returned to find a spring had miraculously appeared there.
However, after they hauled the painting down to Rapallo, it inexplicably vanished and reappeared back at the scene of the apparition. Suitably chastened, it was left there and the following year building work started on the church, which was opened in 1559.
Fifteen years later a group of Greek sailors shipwrecked in the Tigullio bay are said to have been awarded ownership of the painting by a judge and tried taking it back on their vessel – only for it to again miraculously vanish and reappear at the church. It has remained there ever since. (Rapallo Tourism)
We returned our bikes with only seconds to spare. It was a hair-raising journey down to Rapallo to make it in time and not be charged for another day!
We spent our last evening together sipping cocktails on the waters edge overlooking the castle.
On our final morning, we took a long walk through the yacht club and beyond towards San Michele, passing beautiful hotels and villas with stunning gardens, private beaches and jetties.
We were sad to pack up and leave, but grateful to share a wonderful few days in a heavenly part of the world with good friends.
Italy, oh Italy! There is a lovely saying “non basta una vita” – a lifetime is not enough. With your delicious pastas and wine, old towns and amazing scenery, I wouldn’t mind living in Italy for a month every year. We love Italy!