It all began with a PBS concert featuring the music of Andrea Bocelli, set in the small village of Portofino, Italy. There were a few stars in the sky. Picturesque sailboats bobbed hypnotically in the harbor. Smiling concertgoers sat at small café tables at the water’s edge, with the strains of Italian ballads wafting through the air.
“Oh, I’d love to go THERE,” I thought to myself. It wasn’t long before I was poring over European cruise brochures, looking at Oceania Cruises itineraries and dates and planning my trip. As it turned out, I couldn’t quite decide between cruises that stopped in Athens, Greece, or Portofino itself. Now that I was actually going such a long distance, and paying the price to do so, I wanted to see it all.
On an impulse, I Googled tourism for Monte Carlo, Monaco, Oceania’s nearest stop to Portofino on an itinerary that included Athens. I called the tourism office in New York City and got the name of a reputable service that provides cars and drivers. (Due to the unfamiliar terrain and border crossings, it didn’t seem smart to try to drive myself.) I learned that I could arrange transportation from Monaco to Portofino and back in the same day, with hours to spare before my ship sailed. It wouldn’t be cheap, but I was good to go, visiting both Portofino and Athens on a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
On a sunny September morning, the Oceania Riviera docked in Monte Carlo. All went according to plan — mostly. A sleek black Audi and smiling driver waited next to the dock. I had arranged to drive past the royal palace in Monte Carlo and stop by the stately Saint Nicholas Cathedral where Princess Grace and Prince Rainier are buried. Then, before long, we were on our way to Portofino, driving along the winding hillside roads, in and out of tunnels, catching glimpses of small waterfront villages.
Portofino is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Monte Carlo, located on the Italian Riviera. The time seemed to go quickly and soon, we were pulling up to the main street of this little “fishing village” which has become a jet-setters’ tourist destination, attracting many sports and show business icons. The village has also claimed notable residents ranging from author Guy de Maupassant in the 1800s to actor Rex Harrison in more recent years. Earlier this year, Ferrari named one of their V8 sports cars after the town.
With a population of just over 400 people, and about one square mile of space, Portofino makes the most of its scenic waterfront setting. Its pastel-colored shops, cafes, art galleries and hotels, hugging the harbor, look like they were designed for a movie set.
I couldn’t have been more than 20 feet down the main street of town (which was virtually the only street) when the rain began to fall. This was not in my master plan! However, this just served as added incentive to duck into a bakery and sample a pastry, to wander through an art gallery, and to browse at souvenir and linen shops. Anything for the sake of chocolate and shopping, right?
In one souvenir shop, I had the chance to talk with a sales clerk, Valentina Monteverde, who described what summer tourist season is like in this small village. “Portofino is very busy from the second half of June to the end of August,” she explained. “People come from all over the world, mostly the United States, the Mediterranean area … People are enchanted by Portofino. The colors, the atmosphere, no cars — except for a few hours in the morning.”
For those who don’t wish to drive here, there are ferry and bus connections. Trains come as close as Santa Margherita Ligure, a town within walking distance. However, I didn’t have the time on a one-day cruise stop to make such travel arrangements.
Monteverde said that celebrities recently passing through town included Denzel Washington, Magic Johnson, Steven Spielberg, Goldie Hawn and Heidi Klum. The rain this early September day was unusual, she added, noting that it generally only rains there in late fall and winter. The temperature in Portofino also remains quite moderate throughout the year. In December, January and February, temperatures may range between a low of about 40 and a high of 50 degrees, while, at their peak in July and August, they run between the high 60s and about 80 degrees, according to World Weather & Climate Information.
Since time was running short on my visit — with the car and driver charging by the hour — I just had the chance to explore along the main street of town. I walked past flower boxes, bought a small painting of the village at an art gallery, looked in the windows of higher-priced jewelry and clothing shops, and continued down to the harbor to take pictures. Although Andrea Bocelli was nowhere in sight, the sailboats were still bobbing up and down in the harbor, as featured in the PBS special. A crew was even setting up a tent at the water’s edge for what may have been another concert of some sort.
For those who have more time, there are additional sights to see in this picturesque setting. There is Castello Brown, a castle high on a hill above Portofino whose cannons reportedly helped defend the harbor in the 1500s. The masonry Portofino lighthouse also looks out on the harbor from its hillside vantage point. The 12th-century Church of St. George is said to hold relics of this patron saint of Portofino. The Romanesque St. Martin Church, of the same vintage, is another landmark.
Rain or shine, Portofino is a charming village with friendly people. It’s well worth a visit. I’m sure that it is even more lovely in the sunshine or by starlight. However, I’m steering clear of those PBS specials for a while, so that I don’t get any more expensive travel ideas!