La Dolce Vita: Rapallo, Santa Margherita and Portofino
The Ligurian coast is stunningly beautiful with jewel-like towns dotting the coastline between the Cinque Terre and Genoa. One of my favourite areas is the Gulf of Tigullio, home to three towns, Rapallo, Santa Margherita and the famous Portofino. This is where the rich and famous came to live La Dolce Vita, anchoring their mega yachts near Portofino’s little harbour and filling the luxury hotels and gorgeous private villas on the hills above the town. If you have seen Aaron Slims books about life of the “high Society” back in the day, Portofino features prominently in his images.
Driving to the area is easy and it is also accessible by the Cinque Terre train that takes you up to Santa Marghertia, about 5 km north of Portofino. We drove there from Tuscany with ease and stopped at each of the towns for a walk and a bite to eat, planning to have lunch at Portofino at the tip of the peninsula.
First stop en route to Portofino is Rapallo. Rapallo is an ancient town with several historical monuments but has a modern, sophisticated feel. We arrived mid morning and found ourselves in the middle of a street market on the main avenue along the beach promenade. We parked the car and went to check it out. There were a few vegetable vendors with displays of gorgeous fresh vegetables and a cheese vendor (from a truck) with some mouth watering cheeses. I had to restrain myself and settled for a few clusters of golden grapes, so sweet and juicy that you just can’t get enough of them. The rest of the market was mostly clothing and household items, but there was one kitchen supply vendor and I managed to buy the wooden forks Italian use to mix pasta noodles as they cook them. After walking around town for a while we settled in a cafe overlooking the main street and the market and enjoyed the scene passing in front of us with a macchiato and pastries. The macchiato by the way is nothing like the sweet Starbuck kind. This is an Italian macchiato, espresso “stained” with milk. From Rapallo you can take a ride up the funivia (funicular) to Montallegro and the 16th century sanctuary, 600 meters above the town. Views from there are spectacular
Reluctantly we had to leave the scene and move on to the next town. We reached Santa Margherita in a couple of minutes or so, just around the corner from Rapallo. Now we really fell in love, with the town that is. This place just oozes charm, beautiful streets, beautiful shopping, beautiful cafes , how many times did I say beautiful? Definitely high end and a must visit. We walked around, did some shopping, regrettably could not do another coffee so soon but loved walking around the town and along the beachfront and through a couple of the cathedrals.
We left Santa Margherita and drove the 5 km of picturesque winding road along the sea to Portofino, the smallest of the three towns, yet the most famous. Portofino became fashionable in the 60’s as the iconic symbol of la dolce vita. The rich and famous came there to see and be seen and live the beach and party life on the yachts and villas surrounding the port. Papparazzi followed and soon it became the place to go if you could afford it. Truman Capote, the Aga Khan, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, Arstotle Onasis, Maria Calas and the incomparable beauty Sophia Loren frequented and were photographed in this lovely place. You can see some images here. Today it has toned down and become more accessible. The Piazzeta in front of the small port is a lovely place to sit around, eat, drink and enjoy the scene. There are excellent gelato shops around the port as well. To the right of the Piazzetta there is a trail leading up to the lighthouse and you can stop for a gelato at a small place up there. It was closed for the season but as I remember from previous visits, the best gelato I ever had…
We parked rather easily in the town’s parkade, it being off season there were not that many people around. We settled for lunch outdoor at Taverna del Marinaio in the beautiful November weather and watched the scene. Lunch was outstanding with wine to match. My husband had a sole filet with butter sauce, like the famed sole meuniere, mine was a sea bream with white wine. We selected a bottle of Pigato, a white wine made with 100% local pigato grapes with balanced acidity that was a wonderful partner with the food. We shared a tiramisu that was one of the best I have ever had.
It was a perfect lunch in a perfect setting, one of those moment you can call upon years later to cheer you up when necessary.
Lunch at Taverna del Marinaio, Portofino
After lunch we walked the steep stairs up the hill to check things out. The town rises steeply above the small port and it is remarkable how everything is built vertically in these small communities. There are a couple of historical hotels in Portofino that are worth visiting in season (they were closed in November) just for the history and the story they tell. Hotel Eden is down behind the port and easy to reach. The other is Hotel Splendido up on the hill. At the Splendido you can stay at the Dolce Vita, the Presidential or the Ava Gardner suites, a sweet reminder of the good life.