A visit to Portovenere Posted by Serena on Jun 15, 2009 in Uncategorized
Last week my husband, my uncle and I went for a day out to Portovenere, a little jewel on the Riviera di Levante (the Eastern Riviera) in Liguria. Portovenere is a medieval fishing village situated on the southern tip of the Golfo di La Spezia also known as Il Golfo dei Poeti (the Gulf of the Poets), which takes its name from the 18th century British poets Byron and Shelley, who loved this area and lived here for a while. On arriving we set out along the promenade which is backed by an impressive wall of multicolored case torri (tower houses). Reaching the end of the promenade, we climbed up the stone steps to the small church of San Pietro situated on a rocky outcrop on the very edge of the peninsula. This small church, originally constructed in the the 6th century A.D. was rebuilt in 1277 in the typical Genovese Gothic style, with its grey and black horizontal stripes of local stone. From the cool dark shade inside the church you can walk out onto a tiny balcony at the back that affords a great view accross the stretto (straight) that divides terraferma (the mainland) from the luxuriant, green Isola della Palmaria (Isle of Palmaria). On the western side of the church there is a small portico with romantic arches facing towards the beautiful coast of Le Cinque Terre and its magnificent scogliere (cliffs). The church of San Pietro is said to be built on the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Venere (Venus), and from this comes the name of the village, Portovenere, literally “Venus’ port”.
After a quick visit to La Grotta di Byron (Byron’s grotto), from which Byron famously swam to visit his friends the Shelleys in Lerici on the other side of the gulf, we walked down the main street to the molo (pier) where we were picked up by a beautifully stylish motoscafo (motor launch). The motoscafo took as across the narrow stretto to a famous restaurant on the Isola della Palmaria: I felt like a film star arriving at the Cannes festival! We had a wonderful meal of fish and frutti di mare (fruits of the sea, e.g. shellfish etc.) accompanied by a deliciously refreshing Vermentino (a white wine), and ending with a fantastic dessert, Torta di pere e cioccolato con salsa di cioccolato calda (pear and chocolate cake with hot chocolate sauce), and a creamy sorbetto al limone (lemon sorbet). All of this was a treat from my uncle, who regularly brings his guests to this place when he wants to fare bella figura (make a good impression). While waiting for ‘our’ boat to take us back to Portovenere we chatted to an old pescatore (fisherman) who was cleaning his catch of cozze (mussels) ready to be sold in the pescheria (fishmongers). He told us that Portovenere’s bay is one of the biggest farms for cozze in Italy, and that they export le sementi (lit. ‘the seeds’, i.e. the baby mussels) to other Italian mussel farms. He also showed us the trecce (plaits, or cables), that are attached to poles planted in the water, and on which the cozze live and breed, complaining that nowadays they are all made of plastic because it lasts longer, and you can no longer find the old ones made from canapa (hemp).
When we got back to Portovenere, my uncle had another surprise for us: he sent us off on the Giro delle Tre Isole (Tour of the Three Islands) on a battello (passenger ferry). Situated in front of the very tip of Portovenere are three islands all in a row. Firstly there is Palmaria, (where we had our wonderful lunch) which is the biggest and has very few houses which are lived in by civilians, the bulk of the island being a military base. Then there is Tino, the middle island, which is owned entirely by the military, and is only open to civilians once a year, on the 13th of September for the celebration of the festival of San Venerio. San Venerio was a hermit who lived on the island in the 6th century A.D., and on stormy nights used to light fires to warn ships of the presence of rocks and shallow waters. He is now the patron saint of semaforisti and faristi (signals people and lighthouse keepers). The third island is Tinetto, which is just a largish rock in the sea. During our tour the remains of the cave di portoro (quarries of the local marble) on Palmaria were pointed out to us by one of the crew. Portoro is a precious black marble with golden veins which was quarried here until about 30 years ago, and in a small sheltered bay on the far side of the island you can still see a scivolo (slide) running down the steep hillside which was used to carry the portoro down to the sea and load it into boats, a pretty dangerous operation! Also on Palmaria is the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Cave), which can only be visited in una barca a remi (a rowing boat). On the island of Tino there are the remains of fortifications built by the Germans during WW2 in defense of La Spezia’s harbor, which was (and still is) an important naval base; some of these fortifications and the sheer cliffs on which they are located were used as a set in the famous film I Cannoni di Navarrone (The Guns of Navarrone).
The highlight of our Giro delle Tre Isole, however, was the fact that we had the good fortune to see two pesci luna (moon fish), which are also known as pesci tamburo (drum fish). This was my first encounter with pesci luna despite the fact that they are native to the Mediterranean sea, and I must say they are amazing! This peculiar creature is a flat, round fish that can reach over two meters in diameter. It comes up to the surface to sleep, and in fact on first sight I thought that the first one we saw was dead, but after a couple of seconds it flipped its fin as if saluting us and disappeared into the deep.
For more info. on Portovenere, and some photos have a look at this website: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porto_Venere
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