If you think about Liguria’s coast, the first place that comes to mind is usually the Cinque Terre or, only accidentally, Genoa “The Superbe”. Hardly, however, you would think of Portovenere, also spelled Porto Venere, former seafaring village that, even though far lesser known than its neighbouring VIP resorts, has been enlisted among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1997 alongside the 5 Terre.
Defined by harsh land conditions, Portovenere’s residents are hard-working and industrious, crucial feature to keep up with the production of famous wines and agricultural goods in those otherwise challenging fields forcefully organized in a series of embankments.
Arguably the most scenic views of La Spezia coastline, Portovenere is a protected marine area.
While it is now relying mainly on the tourism industry with an efficient organization of boats to show tourists the little islands around the town and the myriad of caves, one of which named after Lord Byron who apparently was a big fan of the area, not many know that not so long ago what kept this part of Liguria region alive was the presence of hundreds of navy officers training to be deep sea divers.
Among its claims to fame, in fact, is nearby Le Grazie, tiny seafaring village that no one would know if it weren’t for the Varignano, base of the Italian Navy that has been training its deep sea divers for more than 50 years. Generations of retired divers meet at the Varignano every two years for the official gathering where they recall the good old times and complain about the current state of affairs, the loss of values of the society and all other world’s problems.
The Varignano is still operative, and many future divers and Italian “marines” are being trained every year, although the old generation seems to regret things are not like before, in what they call the Varignano’s heyday, when hundreds of divers were learning, practicing, trying different depths and carrying out experiments on different gas blends.
“We were a family!” I heard them say just about all day during the last gathering. “The place was alive, both Le Grazie and Portovenere were lively and crowded, now you see someone only in high season, even locals migrate.”
In a not-so-remote past the Varignano was populated by some 2000 people working on many different tasks, most actually living inside the military complex, others either in Le Grazie or in Portovenere. The Varignano was like a small town itself, comprising of a theater, cinema, shops, even compounds for entire families. Some of the officers married and settled there for good, others were either sent to different regions or left the Navy to join private companies. Whatever their decision was, they still meet every two years to remember their youth and time there.
Some of the marines are 90 or older, and at every reunion they remember and talk about those who couldn’t be present, either for health issues or because they passed away within the two-year gap between gatherings.
Modest towns blessed by stunning views and a mild climate all year round, Le Grazie and Portovenere are inevitably suffering from the seemingly endemic recession that has been hitting Italy for decades despite our political establishment keeps promising we are coming out of it. Many in the area recalls the past time of when the Varignano was a lively hub, even the young people who have only heard about it can describe how it was.
Now there are less marines, less divers, less romance and less sense of family, and sometimes hearing the old memories imbued with nostalgia made me compare the area with an old actress passing over her sunset boulevard.