Retired in Rome Journal: Greta Garbot and Frank Sinatra had it right in Portofino

Portofino has been the hideaway for the likes of the Duke of Windsor, Frank Sinatra and Greta Garbot.
Portofino has been the hideaway for the likes of the Duke of Windsor, Frank Sinatra and Greta Garbot and the prices prove it.
Portofino's harbor was once considered too small for the Republic of Genoa.
Portofino’s harbor was once considered too small for the Republic of Genoa.
The 15th century Castello Brown.
The 15th century Castello Brown.
Part of the stone, manicured path through the peninsula.
Part of the stone, manicured path through the peninsula.
Portofino is only two miles from Santa Margherita.
Portofino is only two miles from Santa Margherita.

MAY 21

PORTOFINO, Italy — I learned something about myself on this trip. It’s something I’d known all along but was probably afraid to admit, kind of like having depression or actually enjoying the nightlife in Lincoln, Neb. I’ve spent much of this Cinque Terre blog barbecuing mass tourism as if it will eventually cause the second fall of Rome. I make fun of the American tourists’ guts, their T-shirts, their ballcaps, their complete inability to learn the word “Grazie.” But most of all I criticize the numbers. Tourists are everywhere. On the Cinque Terre I shuddered as I slithered past mobs of tourists following pretty Italian women holding guided tour flags like lemmings headed toward a tall cliff, which I hoped they were doing. What are they doing here, crashing my venture into paradise? Then I realized something.

I’m one of them.

I just dress better. But I’m just like they are. I’m trying to find beauty, relaxation and maybe a little adventure in my life, even if my life in Rome provides all of the above every day. After all, there’s a reason I found mobs of humanity nearly everywhere I went here.

These are fantastic places.

And I’m glad I joined them. Otherwise I never would’ve experienced the sheer, unabashed, pristine beauty of Portofino.

You’ve heard of it. It has been the roost for high-end celebrities since way before the paparazzi discovered Greta Garbot hiding behind expensive shades at the dockside Caffe Excelsior. It was always one of those places in Italy I never cared to see. Costa Smerelda in Sardinia is one; Taormina in Sicily is another. They are places that attract the filthy rich, the wannabe rich and star fuckers. They’re like Aspen with better pizza.

I had time to kill before my afternoon train to Rome so I took a local bus around the coast to Portofino. The ride took all of 10 minutes. What I saw I would’ve bused 10 hours.

Portofino sits on the end of a peninsula like a fisherman at the end of a dock. The peninsula is shaped a little like one of the Simpsons lying upside down with his mouth wide open. The gaping maw is just big enough for ridiculously expensive yachts and ferries to dock. Portofino’s harbor looks like it was designed by Aristotle Onassis. A tiny piazza is lined with tony outdoor caffes selling four-euro cappuccino and 15-euro bloody marys is surrounded by three- and four-story buildings in orange and yellow. Chiesa Diro Martino, built in 986, stands guard up the hill.

The Ancient Romans first called this Portus Dolphini, Port of the Dolphins, for all the dolphins that populated the gulf here. At one point, the powerful Republic of Genoa discarded it as a port for its growing merchant marine because it was too cramped. By 1950, tourism had supplanted fishing as its main industry. By 1951, the first paparazzi had arrived.

As a cruise ship spit up hundreds of tourists all wearing matching green tags, I walked down the harbor and up a steep path. Within minutes I was walking through a forest of pine trees, manicured hedges and flowers of purple and yellow and white. With every opening in the foliage I saw a better photo op to shoot the harbor. With the blue Ligurian Sea feeding the port, Portofino from a distance looks more like a series of bright dollhouses around big pond. Meandering around each bend I saw fewer tourists.

The views on the other side of the peninsula were of the Portofino few venture to see: A fisherman in a motor boat that wouldn’t look out of place in Central America. A little dive boat manned by a guy looking out onto a protected cove. Seagulls hovering at eye level, staring at me with curved mouths. Were those birds actually smiling at me? Hey, even the birds are happy in Portofino.

The biggest surprise? Portofino isn’t that expensive. Sure, the hotels are only affordable to major league movie stars and major league soccer players. The Hotel Splendido, a favorite of Frank Sinatra and the Duke of Windsor, goes for up to 975 euros a night. A white cotton dress shirt went for 675 euros. So much for Christmas shopping.

“It was designed by an artist,” said the aged clerk who warned people not to touch it as if it was sculpture.

But a short walk up the narrow pedestrian drag from the harbor, I had a quarter liter of fine white Ligurian wine at Pizzeria il Portico for 4 euros. A salami pizza was 8 euros. Nice men’s short-sleeved shirts for summer were 65 euros, about the same price I see in local neighborhoods in Rome.

I bought nothing but 50-centissimi postcards. The memories and photos were free.

Now I’m headed home with a perfect Italian vacation planned. Anyone who dreams of Italy, print and save this: Day 1, fly to Genoa and take a short train ride south to Santa Margherita. Chill out along a gorgeous harbor in a spotless town nearly void of tourists. Day 2: Take a day trip to Portofino and take one of the boat rides around the peninsula. They charge 100 euros an hour for a boat that seats about eight. For 200 euros for two hours, they’ll take you to little hard-to-reach villages along the peninsula, stopping at ideal swimming spots along the way. Day 3: Take the train 20 minutes to Monterosso and hike the Cinque Terre to Vernazza, about two hours away. Spend the night just so you can eat on one of the prettiest harbors in the world. Day 4: Return to Santa Margherita and relax any lingering tiredness in the legs around the lovely and affordable Hotel Continental. Take a late bus to Portofino as the sun sets at about the time you eat on the harbor. Then wander a town that may be as quiet as its fishing village past after the tourists and cruise ships leave.

You can thank me later.