In the ’50s it was subtly jet set. Now mega-yachts and cruise ships vie to visit the stellar village of Portofino. If it all gets a little rich for you, a simple palate-cleanser lies just west along the coast. Nick Redman boards a ferry for a spirit-lifting stay in tiny San Fruttuoso
Nowhere in Italy is blessed with marine waters quite like Liguria. In San Fruttuoso, their quiet paperweight clarity shelves to mysterious depths the shade of old jade – just made for a solitary swim (even though it’s early October) and calm midlife contemplation. I wade in and, as I float, around me swirl acorns and slender pine needles, twirling down into obscurity with each breaststroke.
A lady with a grand bandanna drifts past, back and forth, impossibly elegant, wearing sunglasses the size of saucers, and plenty of immaculate plum lipstick.
I wanted the Med of bygone beauty and I’ve found it here, in the fingernail cove of San Fruttuoso, hidden at the end of a long, narrow inlet, as if to keep the spot a secret. It’s a speedboat’s skim north of busy-bee honeypot Portofino, where Hollywood stars used to stay and play in the ’50s, while fishwives mended nets on the cobbles. There, today, the stitches are by Hermès and Pucci – or Dolce & Gabbana (who live on the far hill). But in San Fruttuoso it feels as if the clocks stopped in Technicolor times. As I sit, post-swim, in a white folding seat at bar Giorgio, that lippy lady quite resembles the young Sophia Loren cavorting – then again, it could be the blur induced by my Campari, served in a rough-and-ready tumbler.
If real luxury is simplicity, I’ve found it – although complications meant I nearly didn’t make it. My train from Genoa was supposed to reach Camogli at 2.25pm, in good time for the last battello to San Fruttuoso at three. Yet we shuddered to so many halts in tunnels, inching between so many suburban stations, that we clanked in at 2.47pm and made it to the harbour in a taxi screech with two minutes to spare. So far, so un-superstar.
But the $13 voyage was priceless. Twenty minutes in, midway to San Fruttuoso, dolphins appeared, breaking the surface in whirlpools. So entranced were all on deck, the captain slowed the boat and span it in idle circles as passengers photographed the pop-up circus of fins.
Dolphins. Delfino. Porto Delfino, the Roman name. For years it was Portofino that pulled me back to Liguria. The world-famous village of candy-coloured homes, curled in its amphitheatre of pine-green and aquamarine, felt ‘Riviera-retro’, minus the Côte d’Azur-size crowds. Particularly in late season, when seen from the distant terrace of the place to stay, Hotel Splendido – five-star-aloof on its hill above, like a movie star itself. Staying here, usually a lucky guest of friends with influence, I’d spend hours taking in that view… A paint swipe of pool-blue among cypresses in late sun; parasol pines, silhouetted like broccoli on the dusk headland; the Church of San Giorgio, butterscotch in evening light; and the dots of gulls over the dark Gulf of Tigullio.
That was then – or thenabouts. I’ve been here a few times in the past 20 years, and it all blurs into one beautiful memory. Today? You don’t need to keep up with the Kardashians to know that tiny Portofino has hit a new stratosphere. In every paparazzo pic, it seems, there’s some slinky Russian mega-yacht with three pools, or a Gulf State goliath, all teak decks and helipad. They tell the story of a newer Porfofino – and an older me. Ah well, the world has a way of moving you over a horizon. I’m not bitter – I’m fiftysomething, nearing that look-back time of life, to when holidays were more Kodak than Kindle.
Midlife crisis? Might the roadless remoteness of San Fruttuoso be the mini-break to heal matters? When the battello pulled in I couldn’t wait to drop my bags at Da Giovanni, a restaurant with rooms I’d remembered from day trips of old, sailing in from Portofino: long lunches among the balcony’s red geraniums, forking up sheets of lasagne smothered with pesto in the regional fashion, and jug after jug of exquisitely gluggable white.
With plastic hangers in the wardrobe and a Cell Block H-worthy shower about 10km down the hall, this wasn’t Portofino – it was Pauperfino. But wrestling open the window of room No. 8, I could hardly complain. San Fruttuoso was lovelier than I recalled, with wrinkly rocks of elephantine grey framing the cove in soft evening light, and vertical flanks of pine rising to near-mountainous heights above its centrepiece: a Benedictine abbey tilting in the shingle, wedged in fast and topped with a shell-like dome, as exotic and elusive as a hermit crab.
Flip-flopping down to a café, La Cantina, I drank a $7 pottery jug of fizzy Soave while the day dwindled like a spent candle over vessels pulled up on their wooden racks. The last blaze turned the sky and the sea ivory, the figures in rowing boats into jerky black shadow-puppets moving across it. The day’s final battello came and went, chugging out of the cove and south to its next port of call, Portofino, taking basically everyone with it – except me.
Birdsong embroidered the night as I ate on the terrace, blissfully alone but for a slightly sinister figure, berating his companion first in French, then Italian. Da Giovanni is half board and you eat what they bring you. There was salad, pesto lasagne and a strange ice cream-and-crunch combo — all delicious, which was just as well. Nowhere else seemed to be open in San Fruttuoso at this hour, and I doubt even Sir Chris Bonington would survive the pitch-black ascent up and over the headland to Portofino. Next day, it was a different story. With four great little beach cafés and very few tourists, I was in love with my own (practically) private hideaway. To think a place of such rarity and affordability could still exist in the Med! The smug thought alone merited another pottery jug of Soave, and I sat like Robinson Crusoe enjoying a lock-in, recalling younger days of simpler stays. Before long I’d made friends – 30 people live here in summer, I learned from Alessandra, who rented the sunloungers, although apparently the number dwindles to three out of season.
Alessandra filled me in on Lina, who had managed the little market by the abbey since the ’50s and lived in the crenellated Doria Tower, right at the top. There was Arturo, 90 years old, who came from the Veneto after World War II and spoke a mix of Genoese and Venetian. (‘It’s quite difficult to understand him,’ she confided, erring on the side of extreme understatement.) Then there was Anna, who ran La Cantina and served up quite extraordinary mussels cooked in garlic, parsley and Prosecco, served in huge shells crowned with barnacles. With their big, warped, sideways smiles, those fleshy pink bivalves looked like a cross between Mick Jagger and Ridley Scott’s alien, and rocked your socks off.
My midlife crisis mini-break was getting nicely into its groove. The usual stressy, holiday-history-book stuff was, handily, limited to a few details in a volume lent to me by Alessandra. It was in Italian, which I don’t speak, but flicking through its photos on a lounger in the sun, I got the picture. It seems villagers settled in the first half of the 16th century; however, the abbey was much older, last inhabited by French monks in 1879, although, long after, fishermen continued to drape their nets from it to dry. And there ended the lesson – I was already fast asleep.
That night there were, perhaps inevitably, mussels on the menu at Da Giovanni, served by the nice-if-a-tad-gruff proprietress Giuseppina, who’d been here since 1972 and smoked cigarettes with a perilously long ash that sometimes I feared might end up as seasoning. But I didn’t mind eating the same thing twice in one day. Who wants an arm-length menu when you’re on holiday? Pure option trauma. All the same, as I sat alone contemplating my secondo piatto of fried fish, I couldn’t help wondering what might be going on at the Splendido.
Would guests be singing Elton and Kiki’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with shiny-jacketed pianist Vladimir, the way I used to do? Would there be just one more late drink under the faded photos of glamorous guests Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis? There is a fine line between solitude and loneliness, I realised, as I drifted off, window open. The shallows lapping sounded so content, so rhythmic, they could have been someone I loved lying next to me, deep in sleep. With that, an unwelcome sound of snoring struck up through the wall of my room and I remembered I wasn’t totally alone.
The magic of San Fruttuoso is also its curse, namely its inaccessibility. If you miss any of the ferries from it, the only way out is to hike up: north to Camogli, south to Portofino. I did need the exercise. I’d been eating and drinking way too much and by day three I’d milked dry the sightseeing potential of San Fruttuoso. How many more times could I kill 20 minutes fingering the novelty pencils in the abbey gift shop before being lynched?
When, finally, I hobbled into Portofino, I worked out I’d only taken two hours, but it felt as if I’d walked for a week. Inhalations and exhalations were raspy roars between my ears as I made the initial 400m climb out of the cove – up steep, endless steps, among glades of green light, to the top. All along the summit, the sea, framed by pines, was radioactive blue. The descent to Portofino was a civilised breeze. What midlife crisis? Powering downhill, I felt fit and fiftysomething, passing olive groves radiating downy light, a dusty Fiat basking in rusty retirement under a bough. Glimpses of Tigullio Gulf appeared, flecked with sails, then the Splendido, in all its russet-and-ochre glory. I reached the port ready for a gulp of much-needed glamour.
It was my first close-up in years. If, previously, dusk and distance had lent enchantment, Portofino in the harsh light of day wasn’t such a celebrity stunner. Breathy disco-house tracks pumped from a bar. Gift shops were selling Limoncello in small, glass bottles shaped like stilettos. Baseball caps sporting the town’s multi-million-dollar name were piled high – $10 a pop, should designer gear in the Pucci boutique be beyond anyone’s budget. The ferry back to San Fruttuoso was a breath of fresh air.
The modern me would have had a meltdown if I’d spent a day, let alone three, in crowded Portofino. But I was so glad I spent my last night there. I had to – to get from San Fruttuoso straight to Genoa in time for my morning flight would have called for divine intervention, and with my persistent gift shop browsing, I’d definitely exhausted any last goodwill from the higher powers in the abbey.
So, late the next afternoon, I stepped off the ferry from San Fruttuoso one last time, and into my pensione off the Portofino piazza. When I came back out it was evening. Peace had settled over Jolly Wine Bar, with the Church of San Giorgio brooding beyond the boats, and the outline of Castello Brown rising under an immaculate full moon. The cruise-ship crowds had gone, leaving a few hardcore devotees to their water’s-edge drinks, reclining on the blue-and-white-striped banquettes – very retro-Riviera.
The stars of the past would surely have recognised this Portofino and approved. Ella Fitzgerald’s Night & Day, then Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York drifted as a waiter emerged with olives, and I would have stayed longer, but from somewhere up there I heard the siren call of the Splendido. Might the love song of Elton and Kiki be needing my attention? Perhaps it was time for the old grande dame and me to try another duet.