Portofino has never interested me. Lots of cars, even more people, and a bay. Always someone trying to sell beach towels. Bad and expensive food. Flashy, but not glamorous. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had style. In their stories, Portofino is still exactly as it never was. Today, 50 Cent comes and wears Hawaiian shirts.
The Hotel Splendido has always been there. It looks terracotta-colored over the bay and blends into the landscape instead of destroying it. Everything on the hillside is protected – every flower, every tree, the timelessness. Torching and rebuilding, as elsewhere, is not possible in Portofino. As if people agreed, even the wicked, to preserve this little paradise on earth.
Today, the Splendido is a Belmond Hotel. There are luxury hotels, and then there are Belmond hotels. But between the two, there is sometimes nothing for a long time. You can measure the value of a hotel quite simply by the ballpoint letters and toilet paper, by the greetings, by the way the concierge says that something has unfortunately now closed – little things that make a big difference. It is a house that stands very much for this place, concentrates it within itself, and makes its history still accessible today. Of course, this has its price and of course the prices protect against the exploitation of this feeling and no one can deny that this is beautiful. What is expensive and what is not is particular to everyone, only that expensive does not reflect quality is generally true. At Splendido, for the price, you can expect that all you have to do by yourself is to shit.
Let me give you an example: I’m on the train to Portofino and I’m out of colour films. There were none in Nice and none in Ventimiglia, although people sell all sorts of things on the streets there. We drive along the beach and soon we reach Latte and the plain between Albenga and Loano and then Luca. The concierge from the Splendido, calls me and asks how the journey is going and if he can be of any help. He calls us, simple mortal people – no Oscar winners – just like that. I said, Luca, we’re just driving on this narrow stretch between the Alps and the sea and it’s wonderful and I’ve forgotten my colour films. He asked where exactly I was and I said, we just passed a great church. Ah, that must have been Sant’Ampelio, he says. Wonderful, no problem, in San Remo, someone will meet you at the railway track to provide you with color films, so you’re ready for the stretch through the plain and Imperia. See you at the Hotel.“
We arrived in the late afternoon. In the rain. Maybe Portofino deserved us in a better shape and not after St. Jean Cap-Ferrat and before Turin, but we continue with love anyway, welcomed by the former hotel manager. In the only golden light of a passing day. A very young old man, with a classy sense of humour that skipped all the drivel of getting to know each other. As if we had been sitting together at the bar for years, attending the same weddings and funerals. He showed us all the famous people hanging on the walls in black and white pictures and I said that unfortunately I had brought our photo in colour. He laughed and said ‘Well, next time’ and I said ‘That’s what we always do, we arrive when it’s raining and then we have to come again when it’s sunny.’
Behind the bar stands Paolo, a kind Italian man with soft hands and much patience. Mother from Milan, father from Naples, raised in Rome, something like that, or was it Daniele? Anyway, you sit at the bar and let your gaze wander over the Piazzetta while Paolo talks about old women who peel oranges for the liqueur he likes to use. You listen, but you don’t have to. You can simply sit there with yourself, and think, much like in the books I like to read. All of this comes after having already prepared a sea bream with Davide in the kitchen today – a fish you catch yourself and carry across the square. This happened in the 21st century, when getting a half portion or tomatoes instead of onions is no longer feasible. Nor is paying for a flight with cash – the system doesn’t allow it. Or to use first names in hotels, that’s just not a trend anymore.
Davide had cooked in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bergamo before coming here. He has a friendly face and strong arms and carries the right weight for a chef you want to believe in. Paolo continues to narrate his stories with a calm that can only come from worldly experiences. You’re only brought back into reality when he explains the difference between a Martini and a Martini cocktail and how one has nothing to do with the other. A proper Martini cocktail, he says, is the balance of opposites: sour and sweet, bitter and… according to the dictionary, there’s no opposite. On the first evening, each of us had four of them. I have no idea how she managed that. We were already fired up, but without having to paying the price the next day, thank to Paolo’s orange liqueur.
Our souls in the following days were like the weather—up and down, with occasional bursts of sunshine. How could I drag her here in April? The sea hardly turns blue, the sky is so grey. Well, Portofino in the rain means no crowds. It’s like going to a racetrack when there’s no racing, or visiting a seafood restaurant on a Monday. Alright, point taken. Maybe we didn’t meet our expectations or allowed the bad weather to get to us this time. Actually, the bad weather didn’t bother us much, except that it got to us a bit this time. The first evening was fine; we were too exhausted to argue. Besides, the food was so good, the wine so free-flowing, and the waiters so nice.
We gossiped a bit about the other couples, although I’m trying to stop doing that. I don’t want to judge people based on a single situation anymore. It puts too much pressure on me. And here we go. She didn’t mean it that way at all, and I can get really terrible when someone says they didn’t mean something the way they said it. She believed you could see it in people’s faces, whether they sit in front of each other in love or hate, just not with this indifference. We managed to get through it once, but we could see it coming. You always see it coming and wonder how it could have come so far and, from experience, it’s better to take two room keys with you, no matter how harmonious it was when you left the room.
The beauty of Portofino is that it remains beautiful even in the rain, when viewed through Splendid windows, and it’s not a bad place for arguing. You can argue up at the Chiesa del Divo Martino until one of you leaves, and the other can watch from above where they’re headed. There are only three streets in Portofino, and you can see them all, along with the square. Until she descends the slope below, you can angrily watch the roiling sea. The narrow strip between the sea and the bay is only as wide as a small church square. You don’t have to jump. Once, we hiked together to the lighthouse, passing many dark fashion villas that kept their secrets with dead Dolce & Gabbana eyes.
It’s quite foolish to be sad in such a beautiful place. We had everything—wonderful days behind us and ahead of us, drank good wines, and ate with Davide to avoid arguing during meals. But we had read Richard Burton’s diary and didn’t feel that bad at all; we felt like we were following the right role models. For me, the most beautiful memory from Portofino has always been when we sat by the water, didn’t say a word, and paid 21 euros for an expresso. The water is a good place to gaze thoughtlessly when you don’t know what to say, and such moments always gain special value in retrospect.
In the end, of course, we loved each other again. Faced with the imminent farewell, every hardened feeling lost its argument. We went back to the bar with a few staff members who had the time, and we got along splendidly. Unfortunately, Lucca couldn’t come because he had to organize the usual planes and boats, but he won’t forget about the color films. The waiters asked why they couldn’t have more guests like us, with whom they could sit and chat. We replied, “Well, if you had them, you wouldn’t say that, and people like us don’t usually come here.” An older waiter said, “Back then, they did.”
This is an excerpt of the story ‘Portofino’ by Konstantin Arnold.
Original story written in German. English translation reviewed by Joseph Hildula.