We had an early start for our day trip to Cinque Terre, catching the bus from Le Grazie for the 3km trip to Porto Venere. The winding, narrow road made for an interesting ride, one of the reasons we opted to leave the car behind. We alighted at the Grand Hotel, a majestic building from the 1600s that has seen many incarnations since. The original monastery became the Hospital of the Marine Military in the 1800s and then the headquarters of the Municipality of Porto Venere. A hotel was established in 1975 but closed in the 2000s before being refurbished and re-opened in 2014 as the luxury boutique hotel it is today.
The tall, narrow houses seemed to defy gravity, as though they were being pushed toward the water by the cliffs behind.
We followed the road along the harbour to the headland, spying a perfect spot for breakfast. Unfortunately, Le Bocche was closed and thoughts of food would have to wait.
Climbing the steps to investigate the church at the top of the cliff
we found much more to explore. Part of the ancient stone fortifications are still standing,
a plaque above a doorway announced Byron’s Grotto through which steep stone steps led to the bay below.
English poet, Lord Byron, would swim in these waters and even crossed the bay to visit his friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in Lerici. Hence, the stretch of water is known as Golfo dei Poeti, the Gulf of Poets. The legendary swim is commemorated each year with the Byron Cup swimming race across the 7.5km from Porto Venere to San Terenzo. We were content to remain on dry land and savour the spectacular scenery.
High above the sea caves, the remains of Doria Castle dominate the ridge. Built by the Genoese in 1161 for the wealthy Doria family, the military stronghold has undergone major restoration and is now open to the public.
On the opposite side of the cove, the remains of an ancient defensive post balance on a tumble of rocks
and the views across the gulf are mesmerising.
I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Just beyond the steps to the grotto, the serene figure of a rather buxom lady sits gazing out to sea. The bronze sculpture, Mater Naturae, is the work of Lello Scorzelli but there is no indication as to how long she has sat here. Her thoughts are summed up beautifully in a wonderful piece of prose, The custodian of Portovenere by Francesca Lavezzoli.
We spied the octagonal domes of the 11th century Chiesa di San Lorenzo, in the centre of the village, arising from the terraced hillside
before we retraced our steps to explore Chiesa di San Pietro.
Dating back to ancient Roman times, the town was called Portus Veneris and a pagan temple, dedicated to the goddess Venus, occupied this site. An early Christian basilica replaced the temple in the 5th century and was consecrated in 1198. The black and white bands were added in the 13th century by the Genoese, though the belltower retains the original stonework.
Sculptor Lello Scorzelli created the magnificent bronze portals depicting the handing over of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven by Jesus to St. Peter.
When the doors are closed Jesus, dressed in the robes of a poor man, offers the keys to Peter who reaches up to accept them
while intricate figures representing the apostles bear witness to the ceremony.
Morning light streamed into the central apse, the striking vaulted ceiling seemed impossibly supported by black and white marble.
A small pipe organ fills an alcove and a statue of St. Peter resides in an adjacent niche.
We savoured yet more spectacular coastal views from the sheltered loggia
before returning to the town in search of breakfast. Via Giovanni Capellini is the main shopping thoroughfare, stone steps connecting it to the harbour.
The street was quiet at this hour, shops were just opening
and thoughts of food amplified in our heads.
Replenished with coffee and pastries, we made our way to the harbour to meet up with friends, Deb & Jim, to board the boat for Cinque Terre.
As we rounded the promontory, we could appreciate a different perspective of Chiesa di San Pietro and Doria Castle clinging precariously to their rocky foundations.