A jewel of the Italian riviera, Portofino radiates a timeless beauty. In this former fishing harbour, pastel buildings meet the clear Ligurian sea, fr
A jewel of the Italian riviera, Portofino radiates a timeless beauty. In this former fishing harbour, pastel buildings meet the clear Ligurian sea, framed by lush green hills. The port town, with an off-season population of just 355, has come to epitomise Mediterranean glamour, becoming a sanctum for the rich and famous.
It was here that Richard Burton proposed to Elizabeth Taylor, and where Sophia Loren, Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra came to escape the crowds.
Today, Rolex, Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana shopfronts line the narrow cobbled lanes, alongside expensive restaurants, pretty cafes and high-end bars where a cognac can cost up to £350.
At breakfast time, impeccably dressed visitors idle along the main street, eyeing up designer handbags, while wealthy locals exchange pleasantries in the famed Piazza Martiri dell’Olivetta.
Super-yachts bob in the marina, where each of the 14 coveted berths costs more than £3,000 a day.
This tiny paradise is Italy at its best. But, as the Mail discovered on a visit this week, the morning’s tranquillity is fleeting.
For on the horizon sit two colossal cruise ships, black smoke billowing from their funnels. Together, they carry more than 4,000 passengers from the United States, Britain and several European countries.
And, thanks to a local law allowing these behemoths to anchor as close as 600 metres from the protected bay, a swarm of visitors can hop on tenders from the mothership to reach Portofino in just minutes.
Several mornings a week, the cruise-ship hordes descend on the town — just as other tourists are alighting from packed ferries from the neighbouring coastal towns of Rapallo and Santa Margherita.
But the visitors do not just arrive by sea. By 10am, the main public car park has already reached its 250-vehicle capacity. Motorists are being turned away as buses from Genoa, 22 miles away, bring their own crowds. Cruise ships, ferries and day-trippers: by 11am, this tiny village is under siege. Hundreds of tourists are approaching from every direction.
Portofino now finds itself caught in a battle between those wanting to protect its charm and those who argue that anyone has a right to visit it whenever they choose.
As the throngs arrive, the residents are forced to retreat from the mayhem, while luxury holidaymakers withdraw to their yachts and five-star hotels.
An American couple, regulars for two decades at the Splendido Mare Hotel, where rooms can cost £3,000 a night, tell me they are confined to the premises, unable to leave because of the volume of tourists.
The couple, in their 60s, say they fell in love exploring the romantic village together. Today, they were too afraid to venture into the throngs, particularly because the gentleman suffers from a health condition.
He said: ‘After more than 15 years of coming here, we were shocked to, at times, not even be able to leave our hotel and enjoy the village. The place where we found our romance has become a place of destruction. Who has allowed this and why? We are shocked and leaving with sadness.’
An experienced manager who works within the hospitality industry in Portofino said: ‘We of course want people to see Portofino. It’s an iconic place and everyone is welcome. But for safety reasons, in terms of crowds and preserving the village, we should look at attracting smaller ships as it’s a small place.’
By now, the cobbles are barely visible under the sandals and trainers of ‘hit and run’ tourists, as the locals call them.
Holidaymakers wielding selfie sticks ignore signs warning they risk a £240 fine if caught lingering in ‘no waiting’ and ‘red zones’. The town’s mayor, Matteo Viacava, introduced the policy earlier this year to prevent what he called the ‘anarchic chaos’ caused by tourists blocking the narrow streets when they stop to take pictures for Instagram or film videos for TikTok. The decree states it is necessary to prevent ‘serious obstacles and potential danger’ — not least on the quay which has no safety barriers. I watch as two teenage girls film a TikTok video in which they hop to an imaginary beat, forcing pedestrians to dodge them. No fines are issued.
‘I’ve never seen anyone hand out a fine. It’s unstoppable,’ says a young man who works in the marina. Scores of tourists also brazenly ignore the village’s dress-code guidelines which forbid them from walking bare-chested, barefoot or in bikinis.
The rules were introduced to protect Portofino’s reputation for elegance and sophistication. So why don’t the authorities take firmer steps to deter the tourists?
The truth is that the municipality also has an interest in keeping up tourist numbers — it benefits from a £5 tax for every visiting cruise passenger.
‘We don’t like limiting numbers,’ the mayor has told the local press. ‘Portofino belongs to everyone and everyone must enjoy it.
‘Like all jewels, however, it must be respected and treated with care.’
The mayor has not responded to our request for an interview.
Certainly, there has been no let-up in the number of cruises visiting Portofino — since April about 85 have disembarked here.
And with 20 more expected over the next few months, the total for this year will exceed last year’s record of 98.
You might expect local shops to welcome so many potential customers. But many of the high-end stores close their doors to the crowds and implement strict one-in, one-out policies.
An assistant in the women’s store 100%Capri, where crisp white linen outfits retail from £860, tells me: ‘It’s nice that people want to come here. But some of the cruise-ship passengers have no decorum. They will just sit outside the shop on the floor and start having picnics.
‘We have had to put up signs stopping people from sitting outside our store, it’s not a nice thing to do but we have no choice. This is a space for customers.’
It is telling that Dolce & Gabbana’s popular cafe — where visitors sip cappuccinos from china emblazoned with the fashion house’s famous logo — is closed on Mondays, the busiest day for cruises.
A woman running a shop selling cashmere goods stresses that more cruise ships do not mean more customers.
‘Often the bigger the ship, the less the passengers spend. We rely on the yachts for most of our business,’ she says.
Most of these cruise passengers are on costly all-inclusive packages and, with their vessel just 20 minutes away, they don’t want to spend as much in Portofino as independent travellers — particularly on food.
Eating here is not cheap. An appetiser in one of the restaurants is rarely less than £25, while a main can cost anywhere between £40 and £125. As one waiter tells me: ‘The other day a group from the ships took up a table for four and spent a long time sharing one or two starters. In the end they spent 87 euros (£75) between them in the middle of the lunch rush, when the average person would normally spend more than that alone.’
A British husband and wife tell me they took a seat in DAV Mare — one of the harbour’s most exclusive restaurants — only to be frightened off by the prices.
Rather than face the embarrassment of leaving, they grudgingly ordered coffees before moving to a restaurant within their budget. ‘We didn’t realise it had Michelin-starred chefs so we had a cappuccino — and even that was expensive,’ they complained.
Some bars and restaurants have resorted to banning people from sitting at their tables unless they order lunch, rather than coffee.
A British woman, one of nearly 3,000 passengers to arrive from the mammoth £1 billion Celebrity Edge cruise liner moored beyond the town, confesses that she is heading back on board to eat. ‘I’m saving my money, I’ll have lunch when we stop in Florence instead,’ she says as she rushes to catch the next tender back.
Fellow passenger Esther Ferrer, 26, from Barcelona, is on holiday with her family. Since each of them is paying £1,200 for the cruise, she admits they won’t be dining in Portofino either.
‘We are going to explore and visit Castello Brown [the 16th-century castle] but will go back on the ship for lunch. It’s all-inclusive so we don’t need to pay more,’ she says.
Others concede that while they are happy to shop and try out the local restaurants, they have been put off by the crowds.
John McNab, from New Jersey, says he is heading back on to the ship because of the throng. ‘It’s just too crowded now, there’s no seats and nowhere to get a table. I realise we are probably part of the problem,’ he admits.
Some of the visitors line up at the bakery and ice-cream shops, but with only a handful of benches in the main square, they end up sitting on the ground while they consume their purchases — to the dismay of the Italians. One jeweller told me: ‘It does get pretty busy. We want people to enjoy Portofino but some of the cruise passengers have no respect.’
On top of all this is the issue of the ‘facilities’.
One store owner explains: ‘We only have two lots of public toilets here and there is always a queue. You get people trying to come into the shops.’ Staff are under strict instructions to stop non-customers from using their bathrooms.
A worker at the Splendido Mare says: ‘We are a very high-end hotel so the ships don’t impact us so much. But we do have to close our doors as when it gets busy people try to use our toilet.’
Then there is the logistical pressure of so many tender boats, with about ten arriving and leaving each hour. Gabrielle, who has worked in the local boat-hire business since he was a child, says the marina is becoming overcrowded.
‘It’s an accident waiting to happen,’ he says. ‘There are lots of near-misses. Some of the tenders are not well-driven. One of the boats damaged the pier this morning because of how they parked,’ he adds, explaining that a piece of wood was dislodged.
In the heat of the afternoon, those trying to get back to the cruise ships are often left queuing for hours in 37c heat as stewards hand out cold water and wet towels.
‘When it’s at its busiest, the wait can be for three hours with passengers standing in the direct sun. Some are elderly or very young,’ Gabrielle says, adding that the problem could be eased with better planning. ‘The ships shouldn’t dock all at once and the flow of tourists should be staggered.’
Gabrielle, like many, fears that Portofino is under serious threat.
More than 700 locals have now signed a petition calling for Portofino to follow the example of Venice, which banned cruise ships from its lagoon in 2021.
Francesco Gastaldi, associate professor of Urban Planning at the Iuav University of Venice, warns that the ocean around Portofino has ‘become like a motorway’. He adds: ‘Portofino is like little Venice. There is of course the right to have a vacation but for the standard family it is now impossible to live there.’ He says the town’s population was once more than 1,000 strong, but that its 355 residents fall to as little as 200 in the winter.
‘People are running away, normal life is impossible due to the purchasing-power of tourists and the lack of services.’
When 6pm comes, the last of the cruise-ship tenders and ferries set off from the marina. Calm returns.
In the cooler evening air, overflowing bins are emptied, the tables reset to welcome locals and well-heeled travellers from the yachts and hotels, and chatter and clinking glasses replaces the cacophony of crowds.
Yet there is already chatter among the locals about the next incursion — three mammoth ships carrying some 10,000 people are already heading their way. The liners, all from Celebrity Cruises, will land on Monday morning — two in Portofino and a third in nearby Santa Magherita.
Portofino’s fight to preserve its tranquil sophistication is far from over.