“A quelli che giungono dal mare appare nel lido il porto di Venere e qui nei colli che ammanta l’ulivo è fama che anche Minerva scordasse per tanta dolcezza Atene sua patria…” (Francesco Petrarca, 1338)
Porto Venere, in the province of La Spezia, is one of the most beautiful Ligurian villages to visit, small and collected from the point of view of the urban area, but including a suggestive slice of coast, grouping it with the various hamlets that precede it after the capital: enchanting Fezzano and the tiny Le Grazie, renowned for the good grilled fish. It borders to the north east with the municipality of La Spezia and to the north-west with the nearby 5 Terre and to the south it faces the Ligurian Sea and the triptych formed by the islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto. Reachable without effort are Corsica, Sardinia and all the islands of the Tuscan archipelago.
Porto Venere is famous for poets and writers of the caliber of Shelley, Byron or Petrarca. For this reason the Gulf is called Gulf of Poets with Lerici on the other side. Since 1997, along with its islands, it has been included among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Food & Wine
Main courses, second courses, sweets and sausage, are all those of the typical Ligurian tradition, recalling the days of simple life. However, this does not mean, that they have less taste; during the years these recipes have changed, adding organic ingredients, and therefore even being mentioned by famous and international chefs.
The Castagnassu, or castagnaccio is the traditional cake made at the beginning of the autumn, it is made of chestnut flour, water and milk, garnished with raisins, pine seeds salt and sometimes rosemary, it is cooked in the oven, it’s a very tasty and soft cake that can be eaten even cold, for breakfast. Crepes and pesto testaroli come from the Genoese tradition, are a main course or the lasagna with pesto, will satisfy all tastes.
Cima alla Genovese, it’s a typical dish which is usually made of veal meat, filled with cheese, peas, ham and eggs, it maintains the softness of the filling, it is served hot, after a slow baking in the oven. Other second courses are the hare and game, served with tasty wine gravy or blended with the wines of the Cinque Terre. Farinata, made with chickpea flour and the crispy focacce can be found in bars and kiosks at a very low price, and are really good ! They are an ideal snack while you are walking on the shore, the focaccia can be filled with a slice of ham or with stracchino cheese melted on top during baking. The Pisciadela, that we have already met in the neighboring territories, is a focaccia with tomatoes, salted anchovy fillets, olives and garlic, it can be eaten while you are at the beach, but also in the evening, garnished with pickles as a quick dinner .
There will be, however, restaurants and family-run bed and breakfast, that can offer slow food not at an expensive price. Trenette, Trofie, soups, cereals, noodles and seafood risotto, can be found on the menus, not to mention fish, we suggest the anchovies, marinated or stuffed, and the muscles, cooked in every possible way, served with a bottle of Vermentino DOC Colli di Luni, or other wines that come fro the cellars of Riomaggiore. Finally the perfect dessert is eaten with fresh fruit of the season, the sorbetti, made with the lemons of the nearby terraces.
How to reach
The airports recommended to reach Porto Venere, are the Christopher Columbus in Genoa, which is at about an hour distance by car or by train (subject to an intermediate stop that we’re going to discuss later on), or the airport Galileo Galilei in Pisa, which is more distant compared to the first one but, it is easily reachable by all means of transport by land. If you choose to arrive from Milan there are two airports Malpensa or Linate aiport, but you will necessarily have to be patient and take a train to continue your journey, however, as Porto Venere doesn’t have a train station, you need to stop at La Spezia Centrale station, where you can take a bus, a taxi, or rent a car, but we don’t usually suggest this option for a few days holiday.
For those coming from the centre of Italy or from Tuscany you can reach Porto Venere with the A12 Genoa-Livorno, from the north of Italy the A15 Parma – La Spezia, after a stretch on the heavy traffic Cisa road, exit at La Spezia, follow the signs for the town centre pass through the town and keep your eyes open for the signs to Porto Venere, it doesn’t take much to reach the main road that leads you to the village.
Remember that Porto Venere cannot be reached by train, so we kindly suggest you to use a bus or the ferry from La Spezia. After Porto Venere, the nearest village is Riomaggiore, which can come handy in case you need to take a train, because there is a train station.
In addition to the landing of the administrative centre of La Spezia to and from Lerici, the Cinque Terre, Portofino and Palmaria Island, the Consorzio Turistico 5 Terre – Gulf Of Poets guarantees ferries and trips, connecting the village with boat trips in some of the seasons. The Consorzio Barcaioli Porto Venere Service connects Porto Venere only to Palmaria island and the Cinque Terre, but you will be able to enjoy a more interesting trip. The Servizio Marittimo del Tigullio serves Rapallo, Chiavari, Lavagna and Sestri Levante up to the port of Genoa. These services are not just the ones suggested by us, there are info points where you can inquire, or the tobacco shop – located in the village, as people know how to move about to reach other destinations in the east.
How to move about
The car is a good way of reaching the village, there is a narrow and winding road that starts from La Spezia and goes throught the villages of Marola, Cadimare, Fezzano and Le Grazie, once you have reached Porto Venere, the car park is not free and it’s not so easy to find, you could decide to leave the car inside the station car park or if you arrive by motorway there is a big parking on the right hand side, just before you reach the town of La Spezia, here there is a shuttle service every five minutes, direction La Spezia centre, once in La Spezia you will have to take another bus, line P for Portovenere, it will take about forty minutes to reach the village, but you will be able to enjoy the view and is an economic way of travelling.
If the place of vacation is Porto Venere, you can move freely on foot for wonderful morning walks or by bicycle from one end of the village to the other, or you can use the ferry boat service to reach Lerici or the Cinque Terre, there are also paths that connect Porto Venere to other villages. The Sentiero Azzurro is a path that connects Porto Venere to Riomaggiore, you won’t need any special equipment, because it’s not difficult.
A bit of history...
It is believed that Porto Venere was already inhabited in pre-Roman times, as evidenced by the Maritime Itinerary document of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, where Porto Venere is mentioned as a port town just in the area that is the current Piazza Spallanzani.
During the High Middle Ages, Porto Venere was characterized, as well as other islands and sheltered coasts of the world, by the expansion of monastic life on the steep cliffs of Tino and Tinetto, and by the passage of the lands owned by Lord Grimaldo Vezzano, to the Genoese in 1113, with the intent of opposing the expansion of the trade of the town of Pisa.
Genoa founded, together with the same people involved in the riots, the “Catrum Novum” and we must thank her for the many strong, rustic, fortress-houses that there are by the sea, which are softened by the strong colors of the paint, but were in fact a lookout post . Together with the castro, the church of San Lorenzo and the first winding alleys were built.
Not long after, the walls, the three towers and the entrance to the village were erected; the following year the square of St. Peter of the “Castrum Vetus” was renewed. The purpose of the port town, that was protected by the hills behind, continues to be a Genoese outpost, helping the glorious captain not only against the traditional enemies, the Pisans, but also for the conquest of Lerici. In 1256, the Genoese workers built the church of St. Peter, taking advantage of the previous base of a votive temple dedicated to Venus Ericina, erected by the inhabitants.
The beauty, and usefulness of the village, lessens during the late Middle Ages. In 1340 a fire destroyed the houses of the “Castrum Vetus” and also part of the crops of the terraces, which are identical to the hills of the Cinque Terre. A century later Porto Venere is forced to help Genoa in the fight against the Aragonese, the seafarers were used to defend their home and women, but were prepared to have their houses reduces as ruins.
The battle was bloody, Porto Venere showed extensive damage, especially in its two highest places of worship. Despite the loss of tactical importance, due to the new strategic military outpost of La Spezia, the town remains an ideal seaport, expanding its wine and catch businesses.
In subsequent years, Porto Venere passes from hand to hand of famous people, who in some way heal the wounds: Andrea Doria, which will name the Castle, and extends it, builds the defensive tower of Torre Scola on the largest island of Palmaria, the arrival of the French in hand of Napoleon, means a direct link with the administrative centre. The road named Litoranea was built, and is still in use today.
During the nineteenth century the extraordinary beauty of the Porto Venere and of the Gulf is reconsidered, both by the poets who lived in this area and by the new loyal customers of its summer residence. Lord Byron, Shelley in nearby Lerici, without forgetting Petrarch up to Montale who wrote and lived in this area.
The magnificence of the village and its urban structures survived the vicissitudes, Porto Venere was an important landing place throughout the twentieth century for the European bourgeoisie, but because it didn’t have the endless beaches of the Tuscan coast, was prerogative only for few people, the most faithful.
In 1998, Porto Venere obtained a well-deserved reward, the village was included in the list of UNESCO world heritage and became seat of the Regional Natural Park in 2001 .
The biodiversity of the sea and the mountains merged together in the short stretch that connects Porto Venere to the rest of the east coast, is impressive. The National Park of the Cinque Terre is bigger than the area of Porto Venere of about 400 hectares, and includes the Cinque Terre, the area of Campiglia and Tramonti.
The region, with its two beautiful woods, includes the marine environment, which is has an area with mussel farming, known here as “muscoli”; the environmental impact of the ferry boats and beaches is low, despite the many yachts in the harbor during the summer season.
There is therefore a genuine exchange of views when high society, with its sailing yatchs or private boats, meets the love for nature. It is not uncommon to see whales, the whale watching service is always open in Spring.
The last ridge of the Ligurian Apennine overlooks the crystal clear waters of the bay, the deep green colour is typical of the Mediterranean Maquis.
The warm microclimate which can be found even in the winter, lets the Aleppo pines, acacias, oaks and chestnut trees grow undisturbed, even where the trees don’t let the sun in, the average temperature does not drop below twenty degrees.
The peculiarity of the end of the summer weather, is given mainly by the ” thermal ” hot winds that bring the warmth of Provence.
In the rocky areas the rosemary, the arbutus and the sea fennel that can be seen from the rocky beaches and along the paths, grow wild .
Succulents and fruit trees, the lemons and citrus groves of the inland, add touches of warmer colours to the palette. Even the peregrine falcon nests here, as a living sign of the cleanliness of the park, and also the raven that comes down from the heights hunting, in the morning and at sunset.
There aere many small predators in the underbrush such as the dormice, weasels, martens and the red fox .
However, for your own safety, you must always be on the look out due to the presence of wild boars, particulary dangerous during the mating season, and from March to September.
Be careful on the rocky ridges, easy den of vipers and other poisonous snakes. For your excursions always equip yourself with proper footwear, possibly as high as the ankle, and everything you need to be adequately found in the event of an accidents, especially when walking in paths not marked by the CAI or on the hiking maps, can be very dangerous.
Do not be put off by all this, the inhabitants of this area have always climbed on foot or with the use of sticks the many paths, we can assure you that the views you will be able to enjoy, are breathtaking.
We recommend one path in particular, it’s the one that goes from Porto Venere to the Telegraph Hill, with its long stairway that starts from beside the castle walls. It goes up to the small village of Campiglia, reaching the hight of 516 meters, on sunny days, you can even distinguish the marble quarries of Carrara.
Places of interest
The current promontory of the church of St. Peter, is worth the trip. It was a property of the lords of Vezzano; in 1113 it was bought by Genoa, this place gives the idea of a fortification by the sea, brushed by the winds and the warm currents. The castle consists of two adjoining parts, a lower part with an access from the village, and the highest part, which was adapted for defensive purposes, has a flat area that was used for the guns, this part probably dates back to the sixteenth century, it is linked to the village walls and includes three bastions overlooking the sea.
Upstream, the walls form a large circular tower that overlooks the whole hill from the sea.
Porto Venere has a tower on the left of the entrance to Via Capellini, making the historic town center an example of ancient rural workmanship, with its small roads and alleys, the so-called carrugi, in the local dialect this word is pronounced without the doubles. Opposite the smooth sea, for those who dare a swim, lies the archipelago with the three islands, which are part of the Regional Natural Park of Porto Venere. Tino, which is a military area and is accessible only during the festivities in honor of San Venerio, that is on the 13th September. Tinetto is the second island, which is just behind Tino, last but not least Palmaria island, the biggest of the three.
On the road going back to the town of La Spezia, we find the village of Le Grazie which preserves the traditions of the fishermen of the old times, who still fish without using the method of bottom trawling, and passing the secrets concerning the best fishing places orally. This village honors the archaeological remains of a Roman Villa – Varignano, but there is also the late Gothic sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie to be mentioned.
So here we are, back to the starting point, the beautiful churches of Porto Venere, two for importance and historical significance. The church of St. Peter, located on the promontory overlooking Palmaria island, is beautifully preserved and is recognizable by the alternating types of pale marble and travertine, is in Gothic style of Genoa, and has a fine bell tower with mullioned windows, joined to the main part by two round arches.
It was a main pilgrimage destination for observants, and has nothing to envy to the most hidden and impressive cathedral of San Lorenzo, built at the beginning of year 1000. The style of the facade is Romanesque, it was made by the Magisters Antelami. It was attacked later, by the Aragonese, during the duel Genoese period , it had a subsequent restoration until the sixteenth century, with the addition of an octagonal dome and the rebuilding of the tower bell .
Without abandoning the landscape heritage of Porto Venere, you must see the karstic rock that hosts caves and sinkholes, formed by the rare “portoro marble“, and the stretch of coast where the church of St. Peter stands, which is the home of many varieties of birds and the Byron cave at Arpaia cove. Smaller but equally wonderful are the Blue Grotto, which is semi submersed and the Cave of Pigeons on Tinetto island..
Accommodation, tourism and events
Porto Venere has always been greedy about celebrating big events, perhaps mindful of a history that has seen her as the first outpost of the defensive line and only later on the village became a treasure trunk full of great wonders.
The few festivals that are celebrated are all really choreographic.
First of all Porto Venere takes part to the Palio del Golfo, sporting event held on the first Sunday of August, it’a a boat race between all the villages of the Gulf. The race takes place in La Spezia, just in the strech of water in front of the sea promenade. Four rowers and a coxswain on each boat, have to go round the buoy for three times, in ten minutes, the prize is called the Palio.
On 29 and 30 of June there is a medieval costume party that recalls the attack made by the Aragonese, dance, music, flag throwers, acrobats and everything that a celebration requires. If you are lucky enough, there will also be hawkers.
Not to be missed is the Madonna Bianca procession that takes part along the roads of the historic centre and throughout the promenade.
The Virgin is carried by hand, on foot and is surrounded by the faithful, the roads are lit by roman torches from the Church of St. Peter to the first houses, plunging the viewers into a mystical stillness, again, thanks to its landscape.
On 13 September there is the celebration of the patron Saint Venerio on the island of Tino, with the possibility of visiting the island.
Porto Venere is full of memories and legends about the great deeds of its inhabitants. The village is enclosed in a charming windy area, between the lanes of the Cinque Terre, it makes a sort of imaginary division line of the villages that live surrounded by its legeds. At exactly half way between the white beaches of Versilia and the first foothills of Sestri which ends in the Genoese area, is surely not easily accessible, certainly hidden but musn’t be missed.
Located at just fifteen minutes distance from the administrative centre and at one hour from Genoa, a little bit less from Tuscany, has the advantage of being a crossroad of the boat trips of the Gulf.