Although it is not one of the Cinque Terre, Portovenere’s brightly coloured tower-houses lend it a similar picturesque appearance to one of its famous neighbouring fishing villages. Indeed, the town and its unique setting form one of the most attractive and easily accessible sights on this coastline. Its beauty dates back to Roman times, when it was founded as ‘Portus Veneris’. Its strategic position on the western shore of the Gulf of La Spezia served as the perfect base on the sea-route to Gaul and Spain. A temple dedicated to Venus Ericina was built on the present-day headland of San Pietro, thereby giving the town its name. It was around this ancient centre that the settlement first began to develop.
After becoming a Byzantine stronghold in the Middle Ages, it was later destroyed by the Rotari in 643 AD, only to flourish once more during the subsequent centuries, owing to the nearby monasteries on the islands of Palmaria and Tino. In the year 1113, rule over Portovenere passed from the Da Vezzano family into the hands of the Genoese. With the aim of expanding the town’s military and naval potential, they proceeded to construct extensive fortifications. These included the town-walls, its entrance-gate, its three towers and the imposing row of tall, defensive fort-houses along the waterfront. Between 1118 and 1130, they also commissioned the master builders Antelami to construct the hillside church of San Lorenzo, now accessible via cobbled paths and narrow steps from the town’s pedestrianised thoroughfare.
Throughout the long war against Pisa, Portovenere stood firm as an invincible bastion of the Genoese Republic. In 1256, official thanks were given to the local inhabitants for their outstanding part in the conquest of Lerici, by the construction of the church of San Pietro. Still to this day perched dramatically on the wild, rocky promontory bordering the town, its typically Genoese-Gothic bands of black-and-white marble combine strikingly with their natural environment. An ‘upper castle’ had earlier been erected by the Byzantines and successfully defeated two sieges by Pisa in 1165 and 1198. This was, however, replaced in the 15th century by the Genoese fortress, known as Castello Doria, after the great Genoese Admiral. Its extensive building-work continued in stages right up till 1751. Affording spectacular views from its terraced gardens, it is nowadays open to the public and frequently plays host to cultural events or exhibitions.
The Cinque Terre fishing villages can be reached from Portovenere by following a steep hillside pathway that leads through lush Mediterranean ‘maquis’ vegetation. From here the Muzzerone free-climbing region can also be accessed. Regular boat-trips run to the small neighbouring island of Palmaria, now a protected nature reserve, where building speculation is severely restricted. The region is home to idyllically secluded coves, beaches, cliffs and grottoes, which are only accessible by boat. One of these, the so-called ‘Grotta dei Colombi’, was originally a prehistoric cave-dwelling.
Other frequent passenger-services link Portovenere by sea to La Spezia and the Cinque Terre coastline. On the far side of Palmaria lies the tiny island of Tino, now a military zone, open to visitors only once every year on the feast day of San Venerio, a saintly hermit who had made this sea-rock his modest home in the 10th century. Further round the bay, located on an attractive inlet, lies the little coastal town of Le Grazie. The extensive remains of the ancient Roman Villa del Varignano, which formed its original heart, can still be admired.
In addition to its fascinating history and stunning natural setting on the narrow entrance to the Gulf of La Spezia, present-day Portovenere offers a whole range of attractions for the discerning modern tourist. Its beaches, yachting marina and diving opportunities from its coastal rocks make it an attractive holiday resort. Delicious traditional fish and seafood cuisine, specialising in razor-clam soup and locally farmed mussels, awaits you in the town’s welcoming restaurants. As the perfect accompaniment to these dishes, a fine selection of first-rate, home-grown Cinque Terre wines is on offer.