Portovenere is yet another beautiful town on the Ligurian coastline, close enough to the Cinque Terre to almost feel a part of it, yet secluded enough to avoid the tourist crowds. On a good day it is only a 35mins ferry ride away from the first village of the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore otherwise a bus ride from the centre of La Spezia.
It is a romantic, picturesque fishing village, lined with tall colourful buildings and quaint alleyways that wind and climb up to the Dorian Castle giving a spectacular view.
It was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997 for its outstanding architecture, and landscape and its exceptional example of human interaction with the environment. This includes the nearby Islands of Palmaria, popular for its beach and two tiny islands with the lighthouse Tino and Tinetto
We were here to find Venus, after all it is the Port of Venus named as such from the middle of the 1st century BC as supposedly there was a Temple dedicated to the goddess Venus at the tip of the promontory on the site where the Church of St Peter now stands. According to tradition Venus was born from the foam of the surf below! So far historical diggings have only shown a pre existing 5th century Church under the Church seen today which was consecrated in 1198. Cleverly the later addition of the 13th century is identified by the black and white stripes creating a complex mix of Gothic and Romanesque styles and an incredible landmark for the town.
From every angle the views are amazing – back towards the Cinque Terre, across the bay to the Dorian Castle or over towards Lerici on the mainland or to the Island of Palmaria. Craggy rock formations, hidden caves, and a wild impervious terrain abound, although not sufficiently dangerous to put off raids by the Normans and later Saracen pirates.
The name may be instead from St Venerius – a hermit monk who lived between 550-630 on a monastery built on the Island of Tino. Each year in September the town celebrates the Saint, taking his statue across to the Island to be blessed.
Lord Byron was inspired by the beauty of the place and a frequent visitor, so much so that they named the bay after him. He was known to have swum across the gulf of La Spezia, around 7kms, to Lerici to visit Shelley in 1822, not a mean feat!
We explore the main street being tempted by local specialities, like pesto which is out of this world as I have bought it before, and peer through the pasta curtain into the local bakery! Quaint doorways, cute shops, and narrow stairways are tucked in between multi coloured tower houses.
Slowly we climb the winding steps that lead past the Sanctuary of the White Madonna with the San Lorenzo church up to the austere Dorian Castle.
The Castle and its walls that surround the historic centre were built by Genoa in the 12th century to protect the town against invasions as it was an important outpost for the Republic of Genoa and the white flag with the red cross of the Republica are still flying throughout the place.
But we were still in search of our Venus and make our way back down to the Church of St Peter, only to find instead ‘Mother Nature’ a rather plump bronze statue of a woman in a petticoat staring out to sea. A rather melancholy gaze across Byron’s bay. Locals believe she depicts, not Mother Nature, but a woman who lost her husband, a fisherman at sea, and waits undeterred for his return.
We may not have found Venus but we have explored another magical place in Liguria and only a few hours hike away from the Cinque Terre, or ferry or train and bus ride. Whichever way Portovenere is definitely worth a visit.