Portovenere: What to see and things to do
Portovenere holds a special place in my heart. It might be because it’s the first place I managed to get to on public transport, without any significant delays or dramas. Or it might be because I enjoyed a huge aperitivo with a bucket of Aperol Spritz for the bargain price of €5 at the end of it.
Regardless, Portovenere is often considered the sixth village of the Cinque Terre (with less tourists), and it should be high up on your Ligurian hit-list.
There isn’t a train station in Portovenere so you’ll have to venture there by bus, boat, or foot. I suggest departing from La Spezia. That way, you’ll be able to grab a slice of La Farina (a Ligurian specialty) en route, walk along the Passeggiata Morin and people-watch in the Public Gardens.
By far the most enjoyable means of getting to Portovenere, you can travel by boat from April 1 until November 2. The most common departure point is La Spezia - boats leave and return hourly and cost €6 for a single journey, or €10 for a return. You can also get to Portovenere from Levanto or the Cinque Terre but it will cost you a little extra. Train timetables and further details here.
If you’re feeling thrifty, and you’re over the novelty of travelling around the Ligurian coast by boat, you can also take the 11/P from La Spezia, for €1.80. Buy a ticket at La Tabaccheria (there’s one located outside La Spezia station) as it will cost you double to buy it on the bus. The bus takes around 30 mins and runs every 10-30 mins from Monday- Sunday.
You can also walk to Portervenere but bear in mind this is quite a hike. The walk from Riomaggiore to Portovenere is by far the most beautiful and should take around four hours. More information over here.
Portovenere is a small town, and it shouldn't take you longer than a couple of hours to cover all of the key sights.
These skinny, colourful and iconic houses which line the waterfront are one of Portovenere's most distinguishing feature. Whilst they may just look like pretty seaside houses, these buildings were built to defend the town against frequent raids from the Saracens and Pisans. The houses are high and compact, with small windows and no balconies, making it impossible to scale them. The oldest examples are at the furthest end of the promontory
Suggestion: Once you’re off the boat, wander across the waterfront, past the palazzata, to the San Pietro Church which is located at the end of the promontory.
San Pietro Church
The name ‘Portovenere’ is thought to reference an early temple dedicated to the Goddess Venus, which once stood in the place of the San Pietro Church. Built in the Paleo-Christian epoch, and later remodelled into the Gothic style, this small black and white church offers spectacular views of the rest of Portovenere and the Cinque Terre coastline
Turn left for ‘Appias Cave’ or ‘Byron’s Grotto'
Legend has it that this is the point from which Byron decided to start a lengthy 7.5km swim to Lerici, where his muse Shelly was living. To mark this occasion, the Coppa Byron- or ‘Byron Cup’ is held annually to commemorate his efforts, and sees many mad people pop along to try it out for themselves. It is also said to be the place where the poet composed the highly revered ‘Corsair.’ The plaque above the entrance reads:
‘This Grotto was the inspiration of Lord Byron. It records the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici’.
Sadly much of the cave collapsed in the twentieth century, but it still offers visitors some beautiful views and the chance to take a really spectacular selfie.
The Carrugi and Via Capellini
The Carrugi, small narrow streets and alleyways, are a particularly distinctive feature in Liguria. Via Capellini, Portovenere's oldest street, is a great medieval example, stuffed full of fruit shops, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Admittedly, on a sunny day, you’ll end up shuffling behind lots of other tourists, all marvelling at the goods on offer, washing lining the streets and cats lazing in the sun.
Take a Caruggi upwards (all charming) to ‘San Lorenzo’ and il Castello.
San Lorenzo Church
A beautiful church built by the Genovese and dedicated to Saint Lorenzo, the patron saint of the city. It dates back to 1130. Several works of art adorn the church - most notably the painting of the Madonna Bianca. There is some mystery shrouding its origins, some say that the painting was found preserved in a hollowed trunk, washed up from sea. To celebrate the miracle, the Madonna Bianca is carried through the streets of Portovenere on 17 August.
Follow the signposts to the Castello Doria
This defensive structure was built in the twelfth century and offers spectacular panoramic views of Portovenere and the rest of the Golfo di Poeti. The castle takes its name from the wealthy influential Genoese family who constructed it to protect the village and surrounding areas. The castle played a key role in the war between Pisa and Genoa (1119-1290) and is the oldest surviving fortification in the Cinque Terre. Whilst it is mostly a ruin, there is a museum here, open until 18.00 (€5 euro).
Just outside the castle sit two short towers ‘i muliei del vento’. Dating back to the sixteenth century, these mills were used to transfer variable direction wind power to a fixed vertical rotating shaft, when the land was used to grow grain.
Perched on the far side of the mountain, just beyond the mills, lies what must be one of the world's most spectacular places to be buried. Small, serene and very, very pretty, its worth a visit.
Walk back down to Via Capelli to the Gate.
Located at the start of Via Capelli, the gate carries the inscription ‘Colonia Januensis 1113’, marking the beginning of Genoa’s rule.
Now you’ve completed your whistle stop tour of all the sites, pull up a pew, grab yourself a drink and enjoy an aperitivo on the harbour. The waterfront is lined with bars and restaurants, ranging in price, so you’re not going to find yourself stuck for choice.