Porto Venere and the Madonna Bianca
I’ve visited several of the ports, but Porto Venere - the gateway to the area, never. You drive in from its bigger, more industrial neighbour la Spezia, through Lerici, which has connections with DH Lawrence and Byron, along a narrow road carved from the rocks along the edge of the sea. The town is heavily fortified. Narrow coloured houses rise like giant walls around the bay and the quay-side is lined with small restaurants serving plates of fish just delivered by the boats tied up outside.
Perched dramatically on a rocky promontory at the entrance to the bay there’s a small Romanesque church, built on the site of an ancient Temple of Venus. It was damaged by wars between neighbouring Italian states and parts of it rebuilt in the 12th century. It has beautiful, crumbling bronze doors and vaulted terracotta ceilings. Below it is Byron's grotto, where the poet plunged into the sea to swim across to visit his friend Shelley.
In San Sebastian, the 12th century main church in the centre of the town, there’s an image known as the Madonna Bianca. Legend has it that this small icon, which has early middle eastern influences, was apparently found by a fisherman with other relics in a floating ‘casket’ made from cedar wood whose origins are mysterious but probably flotsam from a shipwreck.
In Europe it would be in a museum under glass but in Italy it is, of course, too modern to merit any special attention. The church is open, anyone can wander in to look at it, photograph it and there’s no fuss.
The sun was setting as we left, lighting up the ochre coloured buildings and turning the sea pink.