Portofino: a port town that has evaded the uglier side of tourism

How to holiday with the have-yachts

Given Italy's capricious style of government, it is a miracle that the Italian Riviera is as unspoilt as it is. This region, roughly described by a narrow coastal strip running from the French border at Ventimiglia southwards to La Spezia on the Ligurian-Tuscan frontier, is renowned for its mild climate, idyllic fishing ports and the siren-like allure of its landscape, which has drawn travellers since the time of Byron and Shelley (who drowned just to the south of La Spezia).

Columbus's home town of Genoa is the hub, but the jewel is Portofino. This tiny fishing village is balanced on a rocky promontory bristling with cypresses, pines and palms, behind which shyly peep luxurious villas. Were you to photograph Portofino today and compare it to a photograph taken when Rex Harrison "discovered" the place in the Fifties, the pictures would almost be identical.

As you stroll along the paths that criss-cross this promontory, you can almost see the ghosts of Cary Grant and Ava Gardner on holiday. Having politely relegated today's brasher Hollywood stars to Saint-Tropez, Portofino has matured into an ultra-discreet escape hatch for the northern Italian elite, for whom this former fishing village is Utopia sul Mare. No one fishes here any longer; instead, the locals – all 700 of them – have heeded Darwin and evolved into restaurateurs and boutique owners, while retaining their knack for landing big fish.

Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani, Silvio Berlusconi, the chairman of Pirelli tyres and the owner of Genoa football club all keep villas here. They come for the natural beauty (no concrete), peace (no noise allowed after 10pm – not even loud clothing), bomb-proof security, the excellent Ligurian seafood, and boat rides along the coast to the Cinque Terre, five ancient fishing villages hacked into the Ligurian coastline. Portofino is a shining example of "positive" despoliation, with a telephone directory that resembles the Italian Who's Who. Critically, it has grasped that essential truth about resorts: that there can only be so many "fun" people before a resort gets horribly tacky, and only so many rich people before it becomes horribly boring. It's Scylla and Charybdis, darling, and Portofino is somewhere in the middle.

Its pristine qualities lie in its inherent difficulty of access. Not on the way to anywhere except itself, Portofino has become an invisible club. Traffic in and out is vetted by carabinieri at a velvet-rope checkpoint on the road from Santa Margherita that twists around great jutting rocks overlooking the sea. In summer, a queue several kilometres long of overheating steel snakes along this road, hoping to be allowed in. Don't worry. Just drive a plausible car and say "Hotel Splendido", and you'll be waved through.

The Splendido is where everyone stays. This former monastery is located on a hillside overlooking the Tigullio Gulf. Its extravagantly beautiful views of potential assailants approaching from the Upper Tyrrhenian Sea failed to deter those assailants, and by the 16th century, the monks had grown tired of being attacked by Saracens and moved on. After a brief 19th-century interlude as the summer home of one Baron Baratta, the monastery reopened as a hotel in 1901. The aforementioned Ligurian-meets-Darwinian savvy says that one man's invader is another man's tourist, and if you cannot repel Giovanni Foreigner, you should put him up and make money out of him instead.

As soon as you sip the first of many proffered Prosecco cocktails – a "Rossini" is made with strawberries, "Puccini" with tangerines, "Canaletto" with raspberries, "Tintoretto" with gooseberries, "Bellini" with peaches, and so on – you sink into the rose-tinted bliss that is Italy. If you arrive in the evening, do say hello to Vladimir Gatto, the Splendido's very talented pianist.

Portofino overlooks and embraces a delightful cove. You find yourself caught up in the glorious crossfire of the olfactory war of attrition being waged by the plants that flourish here. One particularly heavy hitter is pitosforo (butter bush), the stunning aroma of which, pitched somewhere between orange blossom and jasmine, stops you in your tracks whenever you meet it. The lemon trees, wisteria and azaleas plunder the artist's palette with splashes and sprays of fierce colour. Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel, The Enchanted April, captures the impact this has on the unsuspecting Portofino debutante: "The wisteria was tumbling over itself in excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended, the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning... every sort of colour piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers."

An elegant navy-blue Baglietto yacht, rocking gently at anchor in the cove, completes the picture-perfect scene.

A tribe of Ligurians founded Portofino long before it was called Portofino. An industrious, hardy race that cling to a niche on the Apennines that runs along the coast, the Ligurians have scratched a meagre living from rock and sea for thousands of years. When the Romans, in their neighbourly fashion, tried to conquer them, they were rebuffed both by Ligurian ferocity and the sheer difficulty of getting there. One can imagine the Romans forming an orderly queue of chariots on the coast road, as they waited for the previous invaders to take their leave.

Latecomers to seafaring life, the Romans acquired ocean-going capability only after the Third Punic War (149BC-146BC), when they toppled Carthage, the Mediterranean's chief maritime power. So the Romans hardly bothered with Liguria, and those few that did make it to Portofino had great trouble translating the local name. Instead, according to Pliny the Elder, they hailed it Portus Delphini (Port of the Dolphin), after the dolphins that cavorted offshore. Unlike the dolphins, the name stuck and evolved into "Portofino".

In the 19th century, British and northern European aristocrats began to visit. In 1867, Montague Yeats Brown, British consul to Genoa, bought the fortress on top of the promontory for 7,000 lire and transformed it into a villa. In 1949, his descendants sold it to an English couple, who eventually sold to the city of Portofino in 1961. Today, Castello Brown, as it is known, is used for cultural happenings. When Rex Harrison turned up in the Fifties, he triggered a word-of-mouth epidemic among his Hollywood friends. This eventually enabled tourism to supplant fishing as the economic mainstay (it is illegal now to fish in the harbour, or swim). The harbour became ringed with glamorous waterside restaurants, cafés and boutiques.

Instead of joining the traffic on the road from Santa Margherita, most film stars and jet-setters arrive by yacht. Or is it the other way round? Do the have-yachts rock up here to escape the heaving biomass of the French Riviera? "Yes," laughs Maurizio Saccani, managing director of the Splendido. "The owners book every restaurant on the Riviera for lunch but end up eating an apple on board in the cove. A little chap then has to go around all the restaurants handing over cash for the no-shows."

My friend Giulio, a flamboyant adoptive Florentine from Puglia who is also an expert on Portofino, showed me around. Giulio is a man you look up to: stylish, sophisticated and ever-so-slightly jaded. As we strolled among the scented promenades, I made the mistake of asking him to describe the Ligurian character.

"We think of Ligurians as a very busy race of people," he said, subtly planting some doubt as to whether Ligurians were people at all. " A very productive people..." he continued, implying scant enduring return on their efforts (unlike with the Florentines). "The Ligurians have little agricultural wealth, no fertile plains and no land, really. Just mountains and coast. So they had to become a maritime people. They are the most entrepreneurial region of Italy for maritime endeavour. Ligurians are stingy. Poverty can make you stingy. If you had to work that hard to earn money, you would hate to part with it."

Of course, one of the things Ligurians have brought the world was the discovery of the Americas. Christopher Columbus was Ligurian; a wall of his house still stands in Genoa. Ligurians also founded another important place: Saint-Tropez. By a tidal quirk, a current flows directly from Liguria to Saint-Tropez. The name derives from Torpes, a Roman centurion whom Nero beheaded AD65 for being Christian. His body was thrown into a small boat which drifted westwards to the bay 200 miles away. Today, St Torpes is the patron saint of Pisan and Genoese sailors.

In subsequent centuries, whenever the Ligurians got bored of eating rock, they set sail and, like as not, washed up in Saint-Tropez. You can see the Ligurian influence in Saint-Tropezians today: they are short, big-headed, hairy-chested, dark and thickly eyebrowed. It is a source of pride among Saint-Tropezians to claim Ligurian descent. There is even a register of families who settled there from Liguria from the 15th century onwards.

This tidal caprice recurred in 2001 when, on the night of 8 January, Countess Francesca Vacca Agusta, wife of Corrado Agusta, the helicopter magnate, disappeared from her cliff-top3 7 Portofino villa, the 40-room 19th-century Villa Altachiara. According to witnesses, the Countess had flown into a tranquilliser- and whisky-abetted rage and stormed out on to her cliff-top garden clad in bathrobe and slippers with the words "I'm going for a swim". Three weeks later, her body washed up in Bormes-les-Mimosas, near Saint-Tropez, 200 kilometres from Portofino. " Bah," shrugged Giulio, "the Mediterranean is one big bath that goes slowly round and round."

Lazily washed by the waters of the harbour, the tiny centre of Portofino consists of a simple piazza flanked by façades painted with a trompe l'oeil effect of engraved stone to enhance the otherwise bland architecture. This lends the place a film-set quality. One of these made-over buildings is the car park. If you dare park anywhere else, you are liable for a massive fine.

The restaurant to head for – book well in advance – is Chuflay at the Splendido Mare hotel at the head of the harbour. Everyone who is anyone eats here. I can recommend the insalata tiepida di crostacei, the perfect Mediterranean fish and seafood dish; the brodetto di pesce di scoglio del Tigullio, a tomato-based fish soup; and carciofi alla mentuccia, a sublime pairing of wild mint and artichoke.

"The boutiques have changed over the years," said Giulio, as he sipped a glass of Sauvignon Villanova di Farra. "There used to be a few knick-knack shops, as well as the grocer, fruit and vegetable shop, milk shop and souvenir shop. Now they are all Gucci, Pucci, Mucci... Christian Dior is about to open, as well as Loro Piano for fabrics and cashmere.""

After lunch, you may feel like a stroll. You can't stroll far, though, as Portofino is so compact. Head for the chapel of San Giorgio, a simple church rendered in white plaster and marble. The original was built in Romanesque style in 1154, rebuilt in 1691 and again in 1950 following the destruction of altars and furnishings during the war. On the terrace just in front of the church, you get your first great view of the whole of Portofino bay.

Beyond San Giorgio, a path winds to the lighthouse at the end of the promontory. Here, as you stand above the sleepy sea heaving gently amongst the rocks, you can take in a magnificent sweep of the entire Ligurian coastline right down to Tuscany, including the Cinque Terre: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.

After breakfast one day, we decided to pay a visit. As our speedboat nosed out of Portofino harbour, we passed Giorgio Armani's villa on our left, a cream building set behind palms and pines on the hillside. To our right, on the promontory, Dolce & Gabbana's waterfront villa has distinct blue shutters (all other shutters in Portofino are green). In a beautiful pink villa with a wisteria-covered loggia, the late Gianni Agnelli (one-time head of Fiat) used to spend his summers; close by is Rex Harrison's old villa, which now belongs to an Italian businessman.

The elegant Baglietto sailing yacht at anchor in the harbour belongs to Marco Tronchetti Provera, one of Italy's most restless deal-makers, former chairman of Telecom Italia and present chairman of Pirelli tyres. "He is a very shrewd industrialist," said Giulio, his eyes narrowing with begrudging admiration. "He smells business everywhere and is very good at making it bloom."

Moving further out towards the sea, we pass Villa Barone, precipitously perched above Portofino harbour. It belongs to the owner of Genoa football club. Silvio Berlusconi's villa is a rather squat, castellated number near Paraggi beach, which is the nearest swimmable beach to Portofino.

The Cinque Terre resemble what Portofino would be like if Rex Harrison hadn't been so popular. These poor but proud coastal towns bivouac on the rock face. "You cannot put a deck chair outside without permission," boomed Giulio, as our speedboat docked at Vernazza one perfect April morning. "You cannot do anything here but walk." To cover all five Cinque Terre would take a five-hour hike. If the rustle of Day-Glo nylon is your thing, the most celebrated itinerary, La Passeggiata dell'Amore, is a romantic 45-minute cliff-top walk between Riomaggiore and Manarola. According to Guilio, "Most people who visit here go by train to Riomaggiore, then walk to Manarola, continue on to Vernazza for lunch, and then take the train home."

Squeezed between the sea and the mountain, Vernazza is the smallest of the Cinque Terre and possibly the most attractive. You could cover the town in minutes were it not for the vertiginous layout, which offers a cardiovascular workout. We put our heads through the door of the 14th-century church of San Quarantore, built from rocks rough-hewn from the mountain from which it seems to issue forth seamlessly.

We climbed the mountain above the town, picking our way through terraced vineyards carved from the rock. As the church bell tolled noon, a butterfly fluttered past. "Butterflies mean clean air," said Julio. " They cannot tolerate the least pollution. They are very delicate. Fireflies are another insect you never find in polluted areas. June is the time for fireflies."

Ahead of us stretched the Mediterranean, an improbable shade of blue. Somewhere over the horizon lurked Saint-Tropez. I expect hundreds of generations of Ligurians have stood on this spot and wondered what Saint-Tropez was like. Well, I know where I'd rather be.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

The writer flew to Pisa from Gatwick with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Portofino is around 140km away; the nearest airport to it is Genoa, served only by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted. Alternatively, Alitalia (0870 544 8259; www.alitalia.com) flies from Heathrow via Milan; some flights from Manchester are offered via Paris. You can also take an overnight train from London Waterloo via Paris and Milan (Rail Europe: 08708 371 371; www.raileurope.co.uk). To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

Hotel Splendido, Salita Baratta 16, Portofino, Italy (00 39 0185 267 801; www.splendido.com). A two-night stay at Hotel Splendido starts from €1,888 (£1,350) per person, including breakfast and one à la carte meal (either lunch or dinner). Bookings can be made through Orient-Express (020-7960 0500; www.orient-express.com).

Hotel Splendido Mare, Via Roma 2, Portofino (00 39 0185 267 802; www.splendido.com). Doubles start at €561 (£400), including breakfast.

MORE INFORMATION

www.comune.portofino.genova.it (00 39 0185 269075)

www.italiantouristboard.co.uk(020-7408 1254)

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