Portofino: A Starry History

Both a haven for Hollywood’s jet set and a timeless Ligurian jewel, Portofino effortlessly combines glamour and tradition. Uncover the history of Portofino as told by Michela Nicosia, Hotel Manager of Splendido Mare, A Belmond Hotel.

After an extensive and sensitive renovation, Splendido Mare is gearing up to welcome guests back to paradise. Situated in the heart of Portofino harbour, the history of this little guesthouse is tied to that of the village itself. “Over the years, the area evolved to become a bustling fisherman village,” explains Michela Nicosia. “Little charming houses, decorated with the traditional trompe l’oeil brickwork, were built around the port.” Whimsical and colourful, Portofino’s buildings are just one of the reasons it is one of the most picturesque spots on the Italian Riviera.

Michela has lived in Portofino for decades, having worked at Splendido Mare and its sister hotel, Splendido, since 1991. She’s well acquainted with this beautiful town and its rich stories and history. Although this tiny town remains untarnished, that’s not to say its beauty was ever a secret. For centuries, Portofino has been a tourist hotspot. “In 1800, Portofino was a favourite holiday destination for the rich Genoese,” Michela explains. “Walking down the alleys today, it’s not difficult to imagine the echoes of their carriages moving around the Piazzetta.” The history isn’t just spiritually palpable—it’s physically intact. Michela reveals: “In 1930, Portofino became a protected area. Nothing has been built ever since, making it a truly timeless Ligurian gem.”

It isn’t just Italians who flocked to Portofino to enjoy its cobbled streets, divine seafood and effortless mix of glamour and simplicity. “Its golden age was, no doubt, during the 1950s,” Michela confides. “Portofino became the centre of the dazzling holiday life of the international jetset. Walking around the Piazzetta in the 50s meant being at the very heart of la dolce vita. People coming from the yachts in the harbour would stop at the Mare for an aperitivo, or even just a nap.”

Just a smattering of the Hollywood stars who found sanctuary in Portofino are Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Humphrey Bogart. It was in Portofino, Italy that Richard Burton proposed to Elizabeth Taylor, on the wisteria-lined balcony of Splendido Mare’s sister hotel, Splendido. “Ava Gardner, to whom we dedicated our most beautiful suite, used to call our little guesthouse her home,” Michela proudly reveals.

The re-design of Splendido Mare was not an effort to modernize, but to tastefully embody the history of Portofino through a chic mix of old and new. “The village’s nautical spirit was harnessed in the new interiors.” Studio Festen channelled this within their bespoke and antique interior designs. “Now, every guest can feel like Ava Gardner,” Michela says proudly. “This is a mythic place that feels like home. A home where guests want to return to, over and over again.”

Narrow view between two town houses of a vespa driver beside Portofino harbour


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