Illustrious Portovenere, From Pirates to Rainstorms

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Restorante Elettra in Portovenere famous for its anchovies w/lemon, stir-fry w/squid, shrimp and fish, and nettle noodles w/seafood.

Lovely Portovenere captivates, even on a rainy day. Picturesquely situated on the Riviera of Liguria, this cobbled and quaint little village offers a dose of old Italy in colorful hues.

On an early morning exploration of the Italian Riviera just this last September, I left Chiavari and headed south along the coast. Portovenere was on my radar, and I wasn’t about to let grey billowy rain clouds change my plans. When I did arrive, I was greeted by a thunderous torrent. So much for hospitality!

Portovenere fishing harbor with stunning yachts and sailboats amidst the little boats.
Portovenere’s sheltered fishing harbor
Stunning yacht amidst the little boats.
Stunning yacht and streamlined sailboats. This quay cafe provided a refuge from the downpour and a cup of steaming cappuccino!

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Fortunately the downpour eased up into a light sprinkle before long. But meanwhile I found refuge under this waterfront cafe.

Established since the first century BC, Portovenere was originally named “Portus Veneris,” translated ‘Port of Venus’. A temple of the goddess Venus is thought to have stood on the rugged cliff overlooking the sea where San Pietro church stands today (more of this in my next post), just above the village. In Roman times, Portovenere was a fishing community much like today, except now the harbor is dotted with trendy sailboats and yachts.

Piazza outside the entrance to the old village
Piazza outside the entrance to the old village–so inviting!

Greeted by tall pastel-colored houses, a medieval tower and castle crenelations, I passed a refreshment stand at the opening of the old town and proceeded through the archway (mid-picture).

Umbrelle'd fruit stand, ready to take on the weather
Umbrella refreshment stand, ready to take on the weather. I loved the rock-work behind it.
Entry into the old village shopping district
Entry onto Via Capellini, the old medieval main street lined with shops. Look above the arch and you will notice the prior arch which was higher up.

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The archway into the village and the surrounding walls were built in the mid 12th century. It has been resized a time or two, making it smaller. Above the arch is an old Latin inscription. An effigy of the “white Madonna,” patron saint of the village, was on the wall. Her feast day is celebrated in August, with hundreds of oil lamps lit at night that float on the water beside a torchlight procession. Wouldn’t that be a beautiful sight?

Shopping district
Shopping district on the medieval main street

Narrow gray brick streets centuries old dipped and swayed a bit in places. Tiny shops framed the street in tightly, some of their wares spilling out the doors. They were so colorful and intriguing, I must have peaked my head into all of them. Handmade gifts, olive oil, prosciutto, cheese, clothing, shoes, cafe’s, pizzeria’s, gelato, galleries, local Ligurian ceramics and handiwork….all creatively adorned.20131122-062109.jpg

Genio-Bar and Hotel
Genio- Charming little Bar and Hotel
Waterfront
Waterfront shops and restaurants

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The Calata Doria, or the quay, is lined with tall narrow houses six to eight stories high. Built in the middle ages, these buildings served as defensive towers against invading pirates. This position directly above the harbor gave them the advantage of escaping out the back doors and up the hill to the old Genovese castle fortress.

Below are stairs I descended to the waterfront. Long, dark and spooky, I can envision marauding pirates rushing up the stairs with knives in their teeth!

Stairs leading from the quay up to the village main street
Stairs leading from the village main street down to the quay.  
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Photo taken above the town. You can see the tower which marks the entrance onto the medieval shopping street

At the end of the street through the village, vaulted walkways and stairs lead up to the most exotic part of town. The old church of San Pietro sits perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. Ruins of the well-preserved Genovese castle rise majestically above it. The famous Cove of Poets lies below, the subject of a surprising story.

I’m excited to share the illustrious history and unstated charm of these cliffhanger dwellings in my next post. Coming very soon…..Stay tuned…..

Delight of the Village...San Pietro and Castle fortress
Delight of the Village…San Pietro and part of a castle fortress

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Look Again! Eye Trickery on the Italian Riviera

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Beautifully painted facade on a house near Camogli known as ‘trompe l’oeil’ (trick of the eye)

The Italian Riviera is one of my favorite places on earth. Beginning from Genoa and running south along the coastline to Portovenere, small towns along the way are a delight to explore. Camogli, Nervi and Santa Margherita are a few of the exceptional little villages that delight and charm. But they have another unique attraction that is most outstanding. Many of their houses and villas are painted with gorgeous exterior decoration. Caught up in this fascination with illusion, I spent a good amount of time seeking them out.

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Painted on window embellishments on a busy corner in Camogli

While walking through the maze of streets in these villages just this last September, several tall narrow houses caught my eye as being especially ornate. When I looked closer I was stunned to realize that some of the upper story windows were actually painted-on. Other houses had painted-on shutters, window frames, fancy stencil work around windows and even flowering window boxes. I had never seen anything like this before, and so I needed to investigate.

I researched further and found that corner stones were often painted-on where there weren’t any, washing lines full of clothes and even birds nests up high near the roof. Unbelievable, yet so detailed that it was difficult to tell what was real.

Close-up
Close-up

There are interesting historical ways of thinking in these communities that have made a tradition of decorative illusionism. Since the Renaissance, painted illusions creating optical tricks were popular especially in northern Italy. The Ligurians in particular used cosmetic exterior decoration on their facades to create an illusion of beauty.

Many of the houses in Liguria were built tall and narrow because of space restrictions. Several share exterior walls and remain attached in a continuous line. But the Ligurians have a reputation of being a pragmatic people, so by painting on windows, shutters and all kinds of adornments, they were able to dress up their homes without the added cost. They knew just how to dazzle the eye with charming appeal by elegant artistry.

Painted-on cornerstones and window decor
Painted-on cornerstones and window decor

This top row of windows could be painted-on. The use of shading created incredible 3-D effects that makes it difficult to know for sure.

Painted windows that delight the eye
embellished windows that delight the eye–are the top shutters real? I suspect not. Notice the painted balustrade below the windows.

It’s not unusual to see painted garlands gently hanging below a roofline, colorful ribbons over doorways, arches, porticoes, and curlicues. Like a blank canvas, the houses were bedecked and embroidered in the most attractive styles. I never saw two that looked just alike.

Camogli--what is real and what is not?
Camogli–windows with curtains and red flowers are all painted on. (This is not my photo credited to Creative Commons)

Evidently trompe l’oeil was first used by the ancient Greeks and then by Roman muralists. During the early Renaissance, false frames were painted depicting still life or portraits spilling out of them, and window-like images were painted on walls and ceilings that appear as actual openings.

Oculus on ceiling of Spouses chamber in the castle of San Giorgio in Mantoa. This is all painted on a flat surface but looks 3-D
Oculus on ceiling of Spouses chamber in the castle of San Giorgio in Mantoa. This is all painted on a flat surface but looks 3-D
Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso 1874
Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso 1874

These two paintings, for example, depict the same effect as the house facades do. By using innovative painting techniques, a flat surface comes to life by creating a sense of depth, and the eye is tricked. Notice the little cherubs standing on the rim and the faces gazing downward. The bucket balancing on the pole is very effective.

Even the frame is painted to complete this visual effect of the boy crawling out of the frame. By looking at these examples of trompe l’oeil, it begins to explain how these house facades particular to the Italian Riviera are achievable.

To this day, as I re-visit Camogli and the other surrounding villages on the Riviera, I gravitate to any charming house gaily decorated and take a closer look. And sure enough, those painted-on windows, cornerstones, curlicues and embellishments are truly exquisite.

Building front with painted-on shop doors and windows
Building front with painted-on shop doors and windows- This photo is NOT of a building in Camogli, but in Paris. However, it is a great example of embellishment that looks real.

Related Article:

*Trickery and Shattered Illusions in Baroque Rome

Portofino, Italian Riviera Posh

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Portifino….the prettiest and priciest village on the Italian Riviera. Small in size, it draws huge crowds, among them some of the rich and wealthy.  Visitors stroll the waterfront, watching the huge yachts come and go, hoping to catch of glimpse of a celebrity. The small village charm and ritzy class is the substance of dreams for most….if only for a day!

I spent one day here while exploring the beautiful Italian Riviera just a few weeks ago. The narrow two-lane road leading into Portofino offered no place to park. Motorcycles were lined up against the tall rock walls in single file, barely clearing the flow of traffic. I pulled into the only parking garage I saw. It worked and I found a space. But I knew I was in posh-land when I saw that my parking would cost me 5.50 euros per hour.

Giorgio Armani, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabanna own holiday homes in Portofino and are occasionally spotted around town. Steven Spielberg and Kylie Minogue are also known to hobnob around the area. In fact, not long ago Monica Belushi shot a commercial in Portofino for Dolce and Gabanna, introducing their limited-addition Light Blue fragrance, Dreaming in Portofino. There is no doubt that Portofino is a popular destination in Italy for the jet set and the affluent, the film stars and fashion moguls.

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From the harbor, there is a steep set of stairs that lead up to Brown Castle. This photo was taken partway up to the top, giving a different view of the harbor and a tall sailboat in the background. Sadly, the Castle will have to wait for next time to be explored as time was running short.

Yachts over one hundred feet long lounge on the bay waters that sparkle like diamonds when the sun catches it just right. Polished to perfection, they appeared to be the ultimate in glamour. As I stood on the boardwalk gazing over a couple of them, I wondered who they belonged to. It takes a staff of able-bodied crew to manage and care for these yachts on a daily basis.

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Smaller boats weave and bob about the harbor like a broken string of pearls, scattered in different directions. Most of them are fishing boats, but some are rubber dingys that motor about the waters. A few sailboats stood off in the distance, tall and stately.

Mr. Rhino suspended from straps
Mr. Rhino suspended from straps

This rhino was hanging on the waterfront by the boats. Not sure of the significance, but it did catch my eye. I was holding my breath as I passed under him, hoping he wouldn’t fall on me.

Diamonds!!!
Diamonds!!!

More than one box-like window in front of a jewelry shop on the boardwalk had exhibits like this one. I must have stared for hours. They shimmer and shine so exquisitely. I looked for prices, of course, but saw none attached to them. No bargain prices here….

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This waterfront restaurant had one of these delicately painted ceramic eggs on each table as a decoration piece. Many shops on the Riviera have hand-painted plates and bowls like these, but this was the first time I saw one shaped like an egg.

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Hillside Heaven- Villas set like jewels around Portofino

Gorgeous day on the Portofino waterfront. The crowds had thinned out so it was a perfect time to take a picture. I loved the tall pastel houses hugging the base of the hill by the water and those clinging toward the top.

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This ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ stood high above everyone, barking his heart out. We all just kept smiling up at him and taking pictures. No one took him seriously, poor guy. But I was glad to see him behind a fence. Not the kind of fella you want to run into in a dark alley….

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This is a towering villa that caught my eye. The driveway leading up to it is lined with a few interesting statues. I would love to have walked it, but would have felt like an intruder. The view from this villa must be stunning.

My time was short in Portofino, but the small quaint village presence left me feeling enriched. My senses had feasted on beauty and luxury, and though I can’t be there I can take and cherish the memories and visual eloquence with me for a lifetime.

Related Articles: Just for fun!

Monica Belucci arrives in Portofino

Splendors of the Italian Riviera

Porto Venere's Bay of Poets and St. Johns Church. Byron's Grotto is just below
Porto Venere’s Bay of Poets and St. Johns Church. Byron’s Grotto is just below the church but difficult to see

My last post left you in the midst of thunderstorms on the Italian Riviera. But like a worrisome story with a good ending, the next morning was beautiful! All around me lay clear evidence of a rainstorm that had swept away all the old debris and polished my earthly surroundings with a new freshness.
I drove from Chiavari north through the towns of Santa Margherita, Portofino and Camogli. Following are some photos of the stunning Riviera in all its glory….

Beaches along the Riviera
Crescent Beaches along the Riviera
Most Every Riviera Town has a Promenade
Most every Riviera town has a Promenade with a continual Passeggiata
Portofino
Portofino, haunt of the rich and famous 
Shimmering Mediterranean
Shimmering Mediterranean
Camogli, Italy
Bobbing Boats of Camogli
Camogli basilica on the harbor beach
Camogli Basilica on the Harbor 
Portofino
Stately Villas of Portofino
Italian Riviera Villa
Sun Splashed Villa 
Porto Venere viewpoint with the Mediterranean behind me
Porto Venere viewpoint with the Mediterranean behind, where the past and present converge into a timeless beauty that is the Italian Riviera.

“And from then on I bathed in the Poem of the Sea, steeped with stars and foamy as milk….”   Arthur Rimbaud

Thunderstorms on the Italian Riviera

Casa Rosmini in Chiavari on the Italian Riviera
Casa Rosmini in Chiavari on the Italian Riviera
Ceriale Italian Riviera town
Ceriale Italian Riviera town (Photo credit: Martina Rathgens)

Who could guess that our beautiful day in Chiavari on the Italian Riviera would switch from lovely to thunder and lightning flashes all night long? The morning brought relentless sheets of rain bashing my umbrella as I tried to navigate this new land of puddles and wet shoes. With much sightseeing yet to do, I have decided to forge ahead in the torrents. So much to do, and such little time left. My home in NW Oregon has made me toughen up to wet, blustery weather, so this was nothing new to me.

Casa Rosmini, my residence for three nights, is a beautiful convent with the most accommodating and loving Sisters. At the door, I was instantly greeted with cheery and welcoming smiles, taken up to my room, and shown where to park my car. It wasnt til after all of this that my passport was requested. Later that evening after returning from a beachfront dinner and relaxing walk along the waterfront, I returned to be greeted again at the door by one of the Sisters asking me if I had eaten dinner yet. After I patted my tummy and assured her I was well fed, she grinned and retreated into the shadows of her room. I love these ladies…..they bring sunshine on the worst of days. 

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Today I venture out to explore some of the legendary towns of the Italian Riviera. Stay tuned as I share my discoveries….coming very soon!

The following website provides great info on Casa Rosmini. I booked my lodging here through Monastery Stays.

Casa Rosmini in Chiavari