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Portovenere Is Italian for the Unwinding Place

April 20, 1986|SHERALYN WEBER | Weber is a San Francisco free-lance writer.

PORTOVENERE, Italy — This Italian Riviera town clings in splendid isolation to the rocky slopes of a promontory jutting into the Mediterranean.

Unlike nearby Portofino and Rapallo, often so glutted with tourists that traffic resembles gridlock in Manhattan, Portovenere has retained much of the character of a placid fishing village. Neither Dante nor Petrarch, who journeyed through the town and mention it in their poetry, would find it much altered.

Portovenere's setting is striking, on craggy, striated cliffs augmented by works of man that surmount, and seem to grow out of, the rugged rock formations. On a warm afternoon one finds myriad pleasures for the senses: the bright Mediterranean hues of the houses, the slap of water against the wall of the harbor, scents of ocean and cypress, a meal of sweet, fresh mussels and cool, white wine. All can be savored at a pace sure to soothe the weariest traveler.

Portovenere's uncrowded calm is due to its location at the tip of a finger of land curving into a sheltered gulf, long accessible only by a winding, narrow road from the naval and commercial port of La Spezia. In spite of its military installation, that city is a pleasant and popular resort, and a convenient base for exploring Portovenere and other towns of the region.

Take the Bus

A new road will soon link Portovenere with other coastal towns to the north and south. The adventurous way to get here is by bus from La Spezia. Tickets for the seven-mile ride can be bought in tobacco shops (of which there are many as in any Italian city), and the fare of about 25 cents is a bargain for the breathtaking ride.

Boarding the bus on La Spezia's main street, you join a lively crush of housewives, schoolchildren and a few travelers. The women, from the pastel stucco houses on the hills above the bay, come into La Spezia to shop at its huge outdoor market. Aromas of bread, fruit and cheese escape from their neatly wrapped parcels.

As the bus labors up the steep, winding road, the panoramas of the harbor become more spectacular. The combination of sparkling sea stippled with boats and lush green hills with their vivid patchwork of houses, tile roofs, bougainvillea vines and citrus trees, would sorely try a visiting driver's ability to concentrate on the road.

But you are free to luxuriate in the view with only such minor distractions as when, at some blind corner, yet another tiny Fiat narrowly avoids an inadvertent kamikaze attack. The braying of the bus klaxon sounds at every curve in the road.

After this exhilarating journey, you are deposited in a small piazza at the end of Portovenere's waterfront. The mouth of the Gulf of La Spezia spreads before you, glinting in the sun beyond ranks of small boats rocking at their moorings. The low outline of the island of Palmaria, sheltering the village from the buffeting of the open sea, seems close enough to trace with a finger.

Looming Stone Wall

A continuous wall of houses, most seven or eight stories high but scarcely 12 feet wide, rises to your right as you walk along the wharf. Many date from the 12th Century and were fortified by the Genoese during their occupation of Portovenere and its strategically important harbor.

The once-forbidding aspect of the looming stone wall has been softened by the shutters and terraces and sunny colors of each narrow house. Against a background of terra cotta or pink or saffron plaster, many terraces sport a profusion of potted plants or a cage of bright, noisy parakeets.

Occupying the ground floor of most houses are restaurants and cafes, with outdoor tables under awnings that spread out over the wharf-side esplanade. You may sample fresh seafood specialties or sip a glass of wine as you observe the endlessly absorbing flow of activity around you.

At the height of summer, the cafes are filled with vacationing Italians, laughing and animated, but in spring or fall a peaceful calm prevails.

Pilots of small excursion boats relax in the low afternoon sun, talking idly and smoking. They seem to have adopted a uniform of battered black cap, white T-shirt and loose khaki shorts from which their wiry legs emerge as brown and knotted, from years of sun and sea, as the ropes tethering their boats.

Continuing along the promenade, you reach the end of the harbor. The course broadens to form a wide, sloping pathway of rose-gray stone rising to the church of San Pietro, which caps a pyramid of rock cleaving the bright ocean. This small church with its bands of bicolored stone is a 12th-Century Genoese structure, built on the ruins of a 6th-Century monastery, of which little remains but a few worn marble paving stones.

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