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TRAVELING IN STYLE : The Perfection of Portofino : The tiny village appears today as it has for centuries, its facade unchanged, a stage upon which romantics reach for the stars.

October 18, 1987|JERRY HULSE | Hulse is editor of Traveling in Style. and

Not surprisingly, Portofino reaches a romantic high at sunset, when crowds make their exit and the water takes on the shade of pale-blue lace, and the espresso machine wheezes at La Stella and couples stop for an aperitif at La Gritta (the Harry's Bar of Portofino) or for dinner at Al Navicello with its splendid view of the harbor.

As the sun swings low, clouds filled with fire bathe the horizon. Starry-eyed visitors, young and old, study the scenes: the darkening sky, the harbor--and Portofino's smoky-colored hills.

Some memories linger well into the autumn of one's life, bittersweet recollections of youth, when each twist in the road gave promise of unknown adventure and excitement. I recall my first visit and an evening spent at La Gritta, sipping Campari and soda while candles flickered and a mandolin whispered the melody of a love song whose lyrics spelled out desire, along with life's search fo fulfillment.

Portofino, on the Italian Riviera, 22 miles southeast of Genoa, is that sort of place--a stage upon which romantics reach for the stars (as well as one another) in tender moments that frequently die with the dawn but remain forever serene in the recesses of one's mind.

It was more than half a century ago that the 700 or so residents of Portofino stoped the clock. Since then, nobody's bothered to rewind it. Portofino appears today as it has for centuries, its facade unchanged, although small cubbyholes where fishermen once stored their boats are stuffed with smart apparel from the fashion salons of Europe, and in other caves the propretors pour spirits for visitors.

Tourists began arriving in Portofino in the late '20s. But it wasn't until 1935 that locals eleced to establish their village as a national monument. As such, not a shutter can be repainted or a cobblestone replaced without the permission of the Town Council. Buildings, lemon-colored and rose and shades of peach, rise along the little crescent that is Portofino. It is special. Like Positano, which is far to the south, it is a drug. All who have been to Portofino want to return, whether they have visited once or a dozen times. I can think of no other spot on earth quite like it. It rises on a peninsula on the Gulf of Tigullio, breathtakingly beautiful. Experienced, it becomes a habit that is hard to break once the drug is ingested. Because Portofino is a national monument, new construction is forbidden. The result of all this has been a stampede of tourists who spend long hours at sidewalk cafes or sneak a few rays in the warm Ligurian sun.

In the old days 7 p.. was the witching hour. At precisely that moment shops were shuttered and hte great crowds up from Genoa would melt away, and once again Portofino would become an unhurried place of timelessness and tranquility.

Although crowds stay later, Portofino has lost none of its appeal. Guests still steal onto the terrace of the Grand Hotel Splendido, whose register is graced with the names of Laurence Olivier, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Aristotle Onassis, Clark Gable, Greace Kelly, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as well as dozens of other celebrities (royalty and political figures as well as film stars).

Moments of the old life remain. Fishermen still mend nets in the cobbled piazza, and along narrow alleyways shopkeepers set out boxes filled with strawberries and peaches and apples. I recall the iceman, Pippo, who began his rounds early in the morning while Genio, the street sweeper, performed his assignment ambitiously, fastidious in his pursuit to rid the cobbled streets of refuse.

Portofino draws artists and writers as well as the rich. The artists set up their easels, sketching small boats and magnificent yachts and ancient buildings that dip to the harbor, framed by hillsides smoky with olive trees. In Portofino, lovers stroll through the piazza or sit quietly on benches, gazing out to sea. Winston Churchill arrived frequently to record these scenes with brush and canvas.

Rex Harrison carried on such a torrid love affair with Portofino that he returned to occupy a villa of his own--not far from the Grand Hotel Splendido. Hemingway was in the vanguard of early visitors, as were the British. Others followed. Finally, Portofino became the chic place for a holiday. Paticularly if one happened to be rich.

Because of the law prohibiting new buildings, the village's character remains unflawed. Old fishermen continue to stroll the streets of the thimble-size, hairpin-shaped bay while white-haired women stare after them from green-shuttered windows framed by yellow and rust-colored buildings, so ancient that one occasionally sags under its own weight.

Well, that's not altogether true--that Portofino is unflawed. Because of the crowds, a few old fishermen have forsaken the sea in favor of the prosperity that comes with selling post cards and mememtos that recall for visitors precious moments spent under Portofino's spell.

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