The poets of Porto Venere


The poets of Porto Venere

29 June 2016

Along the Ligurian Riviera, Porto Venere is a beautiful alternative or even addition to visiting the Cinque Terre.

Porto Venere is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, included with Cinque Terre and the nearby islands. It is believed that the village dates back to the 1st century, and its name derives from the ancient Portus Veneris, due to the presence of a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus, once located on the promontory where the church of Peter the Apostle stands today. Harbor of Portovenere Harbor of Portovenere - © Greta Ferrari

Nowadays, Porto Venere is considered a gem of the Italian Riviera, with its old castle, picturesque houses and churches, and hidden sea caves. And although it may seem like a “second” choice to the ever-popular Cinque Terre, its beauties were already appreciated by many foreigners, especially the English, in the 19th century. Byron's Grotto Byron's Grotto - Alan Kotok

The Poets’ Gulf of Liguria

The gulf of La Spezia has attracted poets and artists for centuries, which is why it’s also known as the Golfo dei Poeti, or Poets’ Gulf, covering the coast from Porto Venere to Lerici. Legends of authors and poets who have visited and lived here intertwine with fact until it’s difficult to separate the two. In particular, the Poets’ Gulf attracted the great English Romantic poets of the 19th century, Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley. One such tale says that in 1822, Lord Byron swam from Porto Venere to Lerici the moment he learned his friend Percy B. Shelley was staying with his wife there at Villa Magni in San Terenzo (he was said to be a impressively strong swimmer). Today, the Grotta dell’Arpaia cave, called also Byron’s Grotto, is marked with a headstone that reads, “This grotto, which inspired Lord Byron, remembers the immortal poet and daring swimmer who defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici.“ In fact, Byron had never been to Porto Venere, but was forced to stop in Lerici due to a bad fever during his journey towards Genova to reach his final destination in Greece. Nevertheless, every year a swim competition dedicated to him is organized in Lerici. For more than 50 years, swimmers from all over the world get together to swim those eight kilometers that separate Porto Venere from San Terenzo. Other Romantic English poets seemed to have been bewitched by this area. The castle of Lerici is said to have inspired that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Percy Shelley composed some of his most beautiful works while living here, such as “Lines written in the Bay of Lerici.” Tragically, Percy and two of his friends drowned during a storm in 1822 while sailing from Livorno to San Terenzo. These Romantic English poets must have left a sort of allure to this area, for still today, a large percentage of foreigners have made their homes in Porto Venere or close to it. The English community today remains active, to the extent that the International Women’s Club was founded here more than thirty years ago with the purpose of facilitating foreigners’ integration within the local community.

Visit Porto Venere: What to see and do

Looking out at the open sea from the top of a rocky cape stands the Church of St. Peter. It was built in the 6th century in orthodox Syriac style, and a Gothic addition was constructed later in the 12th century. Its romantic stoned lodge frames the coast and, seen from the path that connects it to Doria Castle, the view of the church and the entire territory is outstanding. Portovenere, Church of San Pietro Portovenere, Church of San Pietro - © Konrad Jagodzin´ski

Walking down toward the town center, you’ll reach the main street Via Cappellini, also called the Carugio, lined with colorful houses and dotted by small trattoria. Step inside for a taste of fresh fish or other traditional Ligurian dishes like trofie al pesto farinata or delicious anchovies al verde. And we hope you don’t forget to toast with a glass of local, dry white wine or, perhaps after dinner, the sweet Ligurian passito. Farinata Farinata - © Laura Adani

On the left hand side following the Carugio are two arched flights of steps, called I and II Capitolo. In the past, these flights of steps were the only access to the rocks that surrounded the Fortified houses. Today, they lead down to the "Calata," or port, where most of the fishing and tourist activities are held. Portovenere, Carugio Portovenere, Carugio - © Benedetta Salsi

Continue heading towards the small main piazza where you’ll find an ancient Roman gateway, built in 1160 AD. Look above it to see a 15th century fresco of the "Madonna Bianca" (White Virgin), patron of the village, enclosed in a large niche. Walking back to the Carugio, on the right side is the beginning of the climb to the castle. A little further ahead are three flights of steps that lead to the highest point of the village. Before heading to the castle, stop at the St. Lorenzo church. Its Romanesque facade was built by the famous Magistri Antelami between 1116 and 1130. Even 868 years after its opening, the church has maintained its ancestral structure of a nave and two aisles. The round archways are supported by black stone columns, some of which were substituted in 1582 by columns in white Carrara marble. Last but not least, at the very top of the town is the Doria castle. Of early-Genoese origin, it was built in 1161. The main body of the upper castle, with its monumental gateway that leads to the surrounding ramparts and a grand, rectangular hall, was reconstructed in 1458. Portovenere, Church of San Lorenzo Portovenere, Church of San Lorenzo - © Jose´ e Marina

As charming as the town is, perhaps the best way to enjoy the beauty of Porto Venere is from the vantage point of the sea. From here, you can admire the entirety of “La Palazzata,” the cluster of vibrant houses, each one unique but together forming a colorful mosaic. Portovenere, La Calata Portovenere, La Calata - © Sven-Ka°re Evenseth