March 02, 2015

Porto Venere and the Gulf of Poets

A few years ago I fell in love with Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Cote d’Azur. Nothing can match the beautiful scenery and casual ambience of a small seaside town. Now I’ve lost my heart to the charming village of Porto Venere on the Ligurian coast of Italy. This stretch of coastline is known as the Riviera di Levante, the coast of the rising sun.

Porto Venere on the Italian Riviera

We travelled from Florence through the famed marble mountains of Carrara to the northwest coast of Italy. There we boarded a boat in the port of La Spezia and sailed across the gulf to the town of Porto Venere. The gulf is nicknamed the Golfo dei Poeti (Gulf of the Poets) for the English poets, Byron and Shelley, who were equally enchanted by the region. This deep bay is also known for its mussel farming and hosts the chief naval base in Italy.

The Marble Mountains of Carrara, Tuscany

Tour Boats in La Spezia

Italian Naval Ships in the Gulf of La Spezia

The waterfront of Porto Venere is lined with colourful multi-storey buildings and the flag of Genoa, capital of Liguria, flies above the small boats in the harbour. There’s a ticket booth on the dock for boat trips into the Cinque Terre and pine trees shade the seaside promenade.

Calata Doria (Doria Quay), Porto Venere

Tour Boat Docked in Porto Venere

The Flag of Genoa

Ticket Booth on the Quay, Porto Venere

Porto Venere's Seaside Promenade

Ligurian Menu

A medieval wall surrounds the oldest section of Porto Venere and the Latin inscription above the gate declares the village as a Colony of Genoa since 1113. Official Genoese measures of capacity stand next to the gate. Our guide pointed out the holes above the entryway used to pour boiling oil on unsuspecting attackers.

Porto Venere Town Gate

Latin Inscription Above the Gate
"Colony of Genoa since 1113"

Official Genoese Measure of Capacity

Defensive Openings Above the Entryway

Inside the Gate

Houses in Porto Venere have two entrances, one on the waterfront and another a few stories higher on the main street, Via Capellini. Enclosed stairways link the quay with the street up above.

Stairway Entrance on Calata Doria

Porto Venere Stairway, Scala del 1º Capitolo

The narrow streets of Porto Venere are called carrugi. They were designed to provide shade and protection from the wind.

Via Capellini

The Narrow Streets, or Carrugi, of Porto Venere

All along Via Capellini there are seafood restaurants featuring  Ligurian specialties such as fresh mussels (muscoli) and anchovies (acciughe). Wine bars serve up the local Cinque Terre wines. 

Osteria Baracco, Porto Venere

Local Wines

Fresh Fruit

Souvenir shops sell olive oil and products made with olive wood; black and gold-veined portoro marble mined from local quarries; dried pasta like the stamped circular croxetti and twisted trofie; and my favourite pasta sauce.  

Olive Wood Products

Olive Oil

Portoro Marble Souvenirs

Pasta Curtains, Portovenere

Croxetti, Trofie and Other Local Pasta

Fragrant pesto sauce was invented in Liguria and it's made with basil, olive oil, pine nuts and parmigiano. I later enjoyed a plate of pasta with pesto for lunch in the Cinque Terre town of Monterosso al Mare.

La Bottega del Pesto, Porto Venere

Tray of Fresh Basil

Pesto Sauce, La Bottega del Pesto

Trofie Pasta with Pesto

Just off Via Capellini is a tiny square, Piazza Paolo Centinaro. The Fountain of Lions now stands over an old public well that was built to collect rain water.

Fountain of Lions, Piazza Paolo Centinaro

At the end of sheltered Via Capellini the street opens out onto Piazza Spallanzani and I’ve never seen anything like it – sun, sky and sea all coming together on a vast terrace of stone. Sunbathers cluster on the rocks below Torre di Gian and Castello Doria crowns the hilltop.

The End of Via Capellini

Piazza Spallanzani, Porto Venere

Sunbathers in Porto Venere

Torre de Gian

Castello Doria

Straight ahead is the 13th century Chiesa di San Pietro (Church of St. Peter) sitting atop the rocky promontory. The church’s black and white striped marble façade is typical of the local Gothic architecture. A Roman temple to the goddess Venus once occupied this spectacular site above the waves and gave Porto Venere its name.

Chiesa di San Pietro, Church of St. Peter

A window in the sun-baked stone wall frames the view of a bay where Lord Byron used to swim. Byron’s Grotto is a cave which long ago collapsed and the sign refers to Byron’s legendary swim across the Gulf of la Spezia to visit his friend Percy Shelley in Lerici.

Window Overlooking Byron's Grotto

The Bay of Byron's Grotto

My visit to Porto Venere was a brief introduction to the town as we were only beginning a full day of travel. Another boat would soon take us to the rugged and remote Cinque Terre (Five Lands) thirty kilometres up the coast.

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere

UNESCO has designated Porto Venere and the neighbouring Cinque Terre villages as a World Heritage Site. And though I was excited to embark on the next leg of our journey I hope that I return one day to lovely Porto Venere.

Next:  Cinque Terre: the Five Lands

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  1. Faye, I really enjoyed looking at your beautiful photos, it bought back memories of my solo journey to Italy in 2007, what a dreamy place, I still,have the label from the jar of pesto from that Gorgeous shop!
    Adrienne from Brisbane

    1. Thanks so much, Adrienne. I didn't buy any pesto as we were doing a lot of travelling that day but I'll bet you enjoyed it.


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