Written by Missy Johnston
Perched on the tip of a promontory alongside the Gulf of Poets, the area of Portovenere, also known as Porto Venere, (a UNESCO World Heritage Site included with the Cinque Terre), is comprised of the little towns of Fezzano, Le Grazie and Porto Venere, and the three islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto. Portovenere, originally settled during the first century BC, was graced by a Temple to Venus, hence the area and the town name. Today, this is a sleepy little area, where time stopped during the medieval period. Visiting charter yachts can anchor in a protected bay between the village of Portovenere, and the island of Palmaria for guests to enjoy this little jewel, in the same manner as have civilizations in years past.
When visiting on a Mediterranean yacht charter, after anchoring and heading ashore in the ship’s tender, explore the little winding medieval alleyways of Portovenere where the still standing medieval gate opens to the historic old town center. Close beside the gates is a tower, and at the top of the promontory looming over the town is the old Castello Doria.
Porto Venere is located on the Gulf of Poets, also known as the Bay of La Spezia; so re-named given the legions of writers, artists and poets that are said to have found inspiration in this lovely area, such as writers David Herbert Lawrence and Percy Bysshe Shelley, writer and painter George Sand, and poet Lord Byron. Supposedly, the early-Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli created one of his most extraordinary masterpieces, the Birth of Venus, after meeting Simonetta Vespucci, model for Venus in his painting, while visiting the local village of Fezzano. Some art experts believe that the bays appearing on the right side of this masterpiece are depictions of the Gulf of La Spezia, with Fezzano and Palmaria Island. The Bay of Poets is filled with grottos, and it is said that one of these Grottos, now sadly collapsed, was a favorite haunt of Lord Byron, who famously swam across the Gulf of Poets to visit his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, the same Shelley that later met his end in a boating accident on this very same Bay. Gunkholing by ship’s tender is a fun activity to explore over 36 grottos in this area.
The long quay front in Portovenere reflects the famous Tuscan colors in the facades of the buildings; colors also seen in the building facades in the Cinque Terre and copied in the building facades in the modern created town of Porto Cervo. In Portovenere, visit the old churches of St. Lorenzo and St. Peter. Walking up to St. Peter church (Chiesa di San Pietro) perched above town offers a great view of the surrounding area.
Close by Palmaria Island is uninhabited, and there are two fortress structures that can be admired from the outside only, as the interiors are closed. There are many foot trails on the island, including a trail around the island that is a lovely hike that takes about 2 and ½ hours. Tino Island is a declared military zone and cannot be visited. The structure seen at the top of the island is a monastery from the 11th century. Tinetto Island, right beside Tino, is a stark rock pile, however hosts a rare subspecies of wall lizard, found just on this island, and nowhere else in the world. Located on Palmaria is Ristorante Locanda Lorena, which is well known for excellent cuisine. Reservations are required and reaching this restaurant is only possible in the restaurant tender, which leaves from a tiny dock in Portovenere.
What to See and Do in Portovenere, Italy
Castello Doria: While the original construction date of this castle remains a mystery, the current structure was built in the 150’s, and is an excellent example of Genovese military construction. A very important defensive castle at the time, today, other than standing as an example of an historic construction method, the castle offers terrific views from the terraced gardens.
Byron’s Grotto: Once known as Grotta Arpaia it is said that Lord Byron and friends spent many hours within this particular cave on the seaside. Unfortunately, the cave ceiling has collapsed, but the rocky terraces remain, as does the beauty of the area where one can imagine Byron musing.
Chiesa di San Pietro: Built on the ruins of a 5th century church in 1198, originally this site was home to a Roman temple honoring Venus. It is said that it is after this temple for Venus that Portovenere was named.
Palmaria Island: Enjoy hiking the many trails on this uninhabited island, part of the Porto Venere Regional Natural Park
Ristorante Locanda: An outstanding restaurant on Palmaria Island, reachable by the restaurant tender from Portovenere.
This lovely area is a “must see” on an Italian yacht charter cruising the western coast of Italy.