The little town of Portofino is built in the slice of a hillside that drops into a tiny sheltered natural harbor opening into the Mediterranean Sea. The experience of arriving by water is one of awe as if opening a long sealed treasure chest or finding that someone has changed-out your seasonal closet and in addition to arranging everything in color order, has washed and neatly draped last year’s favorite coffee stained sweat shirt over your chair. Portofino has a language of its own that says, “I see you’ve returned.” Even if you’ve never been there before, it gently wraps it arms around you and pulls you home.
Portofino is not a town like others small communities on the Italian Riviera. It does not have a white sand beach dotted with umbrellas; it is a harbor town. Mega yachts moored outside the harbor are the first indication that you’re about to enter the land of something special. The captain steers our boat around the anchored sea vessels and mountains hiding the harbor knowing that his passengers are about to ooh-and-ah and then be dumbstruck. The visual magic of Portofino grabs the day-tripper by the waist and doesn’t let go until the last boat taxi toots its horn good-bye.
The captain maneuvers through the waters inhabited by fancy boats floating alongside small fishing boats. A salty fisherman salutes our captain then turns to wave to the uniformed crews on private floating mansions. All the boats boast a gleaming polish and the largest are outfitted with huge fresh floral displays on tables at the stern, which look to be set for afternoon cocktails. Our captain told us that famous people gravitate to Portofino and that a few days earlier Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were here.
A policeman on shore monitors the dinghies as they drop-off and pick-up their passengers. We watch a crowd gather on the pier looking toward the big white yacht where people move about. They’re watching a silver haired man followed by a cameraman as they disembark. I don’t recognize him as a movie star, but maybe he is. They quickly blend into the crowd and as we see them throughout the day, their oddity seems to have waned. A man talking on his cell phone looks like a movie director from the way his shirt collar is cocked up to cover the back of his neck and he wears two pair of reading glasses. He too mixes in the crowd unruffled. There seems to be a general understanding that famous people are not to be bothered here and I’m thinking that perhaps that’s why no one is bothering me.
The facades on the buildings are faux painted, giving them the detailed three dimensional feeling of pages from a pop-up book. There are designer shops next to sidewalk cafes, and people reading travel brochures and eating gelato. There are no maps here – the town is so compact, people just point you in the right direction. The smaller boats in the harbor are lined-up creating patterns in the water, and punches of color from flowers, awnings, restaurant umbrellas, and signs accent the shot through the viewfinder no matter where you aim your camera. It’s a simple little town overflowing with happiness. The natural beauty quiets even the outward passion of lovers as you catch them in a deeper shared longing, stolen from this moment and this place.
Not too far up the hill, the Church of St. Martin, built in the 11th Century, looks back down to the town center and harbor of Portofino. Divo Martino is as precious as a tiered wedding cake with butter cream frosting and layers supported by Corinthian columns with capitals dipped in gold, accented with piped sugar roses. The community church pulsates with only the flickering of candle light as if to say, “Come in, friend.” A modest collection box next to the candles has a sign thanking visitors in advance for their donations to light a candle. I make a donation but don’t light a candle. The church already glows to perfection.
Portofino has what I think of as cobble stones, whereas other cities have blocks or bricks with angled sides in their streets. The stones of Portofino streets are rounded, perhaps from being worn down by centuries of water currents and then removed from the sea and arranged artistically into roads. Some of the roads have a picture mosaic made of stones. There is a celestial stone mosaic on the open air patio entrance to my favorite little church.
There is an uncanny familiarity about Portofino that gives me a feeling of wellness and satisfied fullness. There is a gentle peace here that mixes easily with the bright hues of the bougainvillea and climbing vines, the architectural impact of the painted buildings rising up the hills, the calm harbor, and the sea air. It’s a feeling of being safely held captive in a life-size snow globe. Portofino is the one place I am most sad to leave. I leave with the residue of desire, the desire to return here and feel content again.