With a day to spend on the northwestern coast of Italy, we decided to visit Portofino, not realizing how lucky we were in terms of the timing of our trip! Here’s a lesson we learned (and we accept that we got really lucky here!): before you embark on a trip to a new town or area, Google where you are going and see if there are any news events that alert you to travel disruptions or big festivals that could affect your plans!
While we were spending a weekend in Genoa (see the entry, “The Port City of Genoa”), we decided to take a side trip to Portofino before heading back to Milan. This entailed taking a train from Genoa to a small port town called Santa Margherita Ligure, and then taking either a bus or a ferry to Portofino. We left our luggage in Genoa and headed to Santa Margherita for what we thought would be a routine trip to Portofino by bus. From the train station, the second stop of the bus was down by the port, and the bus quickly filled to standing-room-only capacity (including little dogs being held in arms) with rowdy, happy travelers from other parts of Italy. It felt like we were on the bus full of runners at the end of a fun run- lots of laughing, loud expressions and happiness all around, even if we couldn’t understand what was being said.
After another 10 minutes, our bus stopped on the side of the road and most of the passengers disembarked. Then the bus driver got out. We decided to get off as well, and we saw a large barricade across the road, folks milling around, policeman standing about, and others walking down the road along the coast. We took a few steps down the road, whereupon we decided that we needed to understand where we were and how often this bus would be returning to the train station because we needed to get back to Genoa to catch our train to Milan later that afternoon. Brave Kevin approached the bus driver and asked (in Italian) the relevant questions. Having ascertained that the bus circled back and forth about every hour, we decided to walk on the road that everyone else was walking down. After a few minutes and around a corner, we found most of the same folks who were on the bus hanging out and waiting at a bus stop for what we assumed was a bus to get to Portofino. The sign indicated that the bus would not arrive for another 15 minutes and our online map showed that the walk was 30 minutes to Portofino, so we decided to walk. It’s a good thing we did, because the ‘bus’ was about 1/3 the size of the previous bus we had arrived on, so not everyone would have been able to take that bus even if folks were standing.
The walk along the coast along the road was beautiful- the water was crystal clear and we saw scuba divers, sunbathers, kayakers and fishermen at every turn. The only users of the road were bicyclists, walkers like us, an occasional Vespa type bike, and these public small buses. No cars.
We arrived shortly before noon at the top of a hill by a church and walked a narrow path down towards the water’s edge which opened up to the small town of Portofino. The church bells rung at noon and we felt like we were in heaven.
The town was colorful, with restaurants and small shops around the water. We selected a restaurant and enjoyed yet another pesto dish with a cold glass of white wine, feeling thankful that we were in this paradise.
A ferry arrived and a number of people disembarked, so I walked to the dock and saw when the next ferry would arrive. We decided to return to Santa Margherita by ferry rather than taking the bus back, which was a good call. After lunch we walked around a bit before the ferry returned, and off we went by boat back to Santa Margherita. What a beautiful ride!
Once we got back on the train towards Genoa, we searched online to see what had happened to the road to Portofino. Last fall of 2018, at the end of October, northern Italy was hit with an unusual amount of rainfall from coast to coast. Venice flooded, small northern towns near rivers and along valleys were flooded, and the road to Portofino was washed out by all the river water running below it into the sea. From the end of October to now, the Italians have been working tirelessly to get the road reopened. No cars have been able to travel back and forth during this time, so Portofino was practically cut off, except by boat! First to come was a walkway over the collapsed road area, followed by extensive work to rebuild the road. Below this area, we could see piles of cement rubble, but we had no idea that it was from a recent road collapse. People had to be helicoptered out and rescued during this awful period.
The Ligurian workers are trying to complete the roadwork by Easter, which marks the beginning of the tourist season. At that time hotels will reopen. Most have been closed since the road closure, which thankfully only amounted to a week or two of unexpected closures for them, as most of the hotels close during the winter months. But imagine the people of the area, and the other sources of commerce that have been effected. Restaurants, shops, and people needing to go back and forth from Portofino! We reviewed footage of the road collapse and the work that has been done to get the road back in working order. There’s one youtube video that shows this road under normal summer weekend circumstances, which is practically crawling with 2 way traffic, and people parking on the cliff’s edge to then cross the road like a ‘frogger’ video game, to enjoy the beautiful seaside below. We feel so fortunate that we were able to experience the view and the walk unimpeded by cars. There’s no possibility to walk this stretch when cars are allowed on it. We experienced this on one of the few weekends when it was open to walkers but not yet to cars. By mid-April at least one lane of traffic is scheduled to be open. We often take for granted the hard work of people who work night and day to make roads passable and safe.
Upon our return to Santa Margherita, we walked around, enjoying the statues and churches, as usual, and ultimately arrived at the train station atop the town, for yet another little trip back towards our ultimate destination of home. We passed through a number of other small towns that we are told are hikers’ dreams- Cinque Terre is not the only destination of beauty along this coast for people up for adventure! We will return and visit more of these charming towns, and we look forward to having the luxury of doing this ‘off-season’!