We’re following a shadowy path around the monastery: up steps, down steps, up some more steps (Liguria has more steps than an Escher drawing), when there’s a comically loud snort and the rustling of something large in the undergrowth. Ahead, a stripy piglet trots faster, swerves and gallops up the bank towards its mother’s summoning grunts. I can’t imagine Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton running into wild boars when they holidayed on the Italian Riviera – but then again, maybe they never visited San Fruttuoso. It’s dusk. The bay is empty and silent and the bell tower is black against the navy sky.
This picturebook-romantic Romanesque monastery with a handful of houses attached is tucked between the faded pinks and yellows of laid-back seaside resort Camogli and chi chi Portofino, with its superyachts and Dior boutiques selling €1,000 sandals. There’s a strip of pebbly beach bookended by trattorias – La Giovanni one side and Giorgio the other – a few fishing boats and a population of 25 people (only four year round).
Getting to San Fruttuoso on foot is a couple of hours’ hike from either direction, so the easiest way to get here is by boat – the Golfo Paradiso ferry goes up and down the coast several times a day. This means that honeymooner or historian, backpacker or bon viveur … pretty much everyone is a daytripper. When the last ferry leaves at 5.30pm the cafes are shuttered, the sunloungers stacked, and the bay returned to its geckos, toads and thirsty mosquitoes.
Which is how my friend and I come to find ourselves tripping over wild boar piglets, because – unlike the other tourists – we have the luxury of lingering over our tirimasu at La Giovanni before strolling back to sleep in our own place.
Sitting just where the pale stone of the village gives way to olive, figs and pines, Casa de Mar is the latest property to be acquired by the Landmark Trust, its seventh in Italy.
The tidy fisherman’s cottage has a compact kitchen, bathroom and double bedroom downstairs and another double and small sitting room upstairs – with a thoughtfully put together bookcase (including biographies of the Romantic poets – Shelley drowned up the coast from here). A door opens out onto the terrace, with a table and four cane chairs for eating alfresco, and small strip of garden with a barbecue. On the walls are framed maps of the coastline and 19th-century prints of coffee grinders and different species of fish. Modest in size, the Casa de Mar makes for a cool, peaceful perch from which to look out onto the octagonal bell tower and beyond to the aptly named Golfo Paradiso.
The kitchen is stocked with a few essentials – pasta, tins of tomato and a pot of Genoa’s gift to the world: pesto (originally invented to stop sailors’ getting scurvy, now friend to comfort-eaters everywhere. Although the Genovese blend of pine nuts, basil and Pecorino Sardo occupies a different sensory plane to the jar in my fridge at home). Any other food you have to bring yourself, because there are no supermarkets here. Not only are there no food shops, there are no post offices, no hospitals no public phones.
Sitting at the bottom of a pile of pine clad rock in the Portofino national park, San Fruttuoso is properly remote. If the sea is too rough, the ferries are cancelled, and there’s the appealing possibility of finding yourself stranded – forced to subsist only on the pricey pots of monastery-branded marmalade and biscotti retailed in the gift shop.
I fall into the routine of getting up, making a coffee and taking it upstairs to Casa de Mar’s small terrace; the ideal vantage point to spy on the cove’s comings and goings. The first boats to arrive are small dinghies delivering restaurant supplies. A young woman passes on the path below carrying a freshly baked apricot tart, which I later spot in Giorgio’s restaurant. Around 9am the ferries begin disgorging small groups of elderly tourists who want to look at the monastery, and large parties of Italian schoolchildren who really don’t want to look at the monastery but are being made to before they’re allowed to run screaming into the water.
Built on a fresh water spring in 409, San Fruttuoso has been home to Benedictine monks, Barbary pirates and – at the start of the last century – fishermen, who stored anchovies in its cool corners and built what looks like a pizza oven into one wall. There are tombs and cloisters and bits of earthenware crockery which might have come from the kitchen of the Casa de Mar, rather than being dropped by a butter-fingered monk 700 years ago.
It’s an easy boat ride from here to Santa Marguerita, where Burton and Taylor anchored after bad weather and paparazzi interrupted their vodka Tom Collins in Portofino (Burton writing in his diary that he and Liz “stayed on board all day and read and sunbathed. Sky hot and blue but sea a curious milky green, from the storm I suppose”), and beyond to the Cinqueterre – but it’s Portofino I’ve always wanted to see, so late one afternoon, we decide to take the last boat there, and hike back along the coastal path before nightfall at 10pm.
It’s supposed to be an easy, hour-and-a-half walk but on the boat we sit in summer dresses and sandals watching what seems to be an awful lot of scrubby, mountainous terrain float by. At the harbour we search in vain for signs to the path that will take us back. The cafes are full of sunburnt Americans hailing each other over ice buckets of champagne. The tourist information is closed, as is the police station, so we make enquiries at the chemist’s next door, where a “fully medically trained” pharmacist is disappointed that neither of us require her to diagnose a fatal rash, and directs us rather crossly to the path to San Fruttuoso.
We stop at the harbourside bar La Gritta (where Liz and Richard drank with Rex Harrison and Tennessee Williams) before resolving to set off. The walk is beautiful. We climb past a leafy clearing full of bee hives, then we’re into the woods, scrambling upwards to clifftop views over the shining sea. Birds sing, big yellow butterflies flutter past and there’s wild mint underfoot. Red spots painted on the rocks keep us on the path and just as the light is disappearing we are walking down steep woody slopes back to the beach, where two wild boar are peacefully truffling. We return to La Giovanni to continue our piggery – and leave them to get on with theirs.
• Accommodation was provided by the Casa de Mar (sleeps four, 01628 825925, landmarktrust.org.uk), which costs from £519 for three nights in winter to £1,236 for four nights in July-August. Longer breaks available. From the UK fly into Genoa, Pisa or Milan and hire a car or take a train or taxi to Camogli and the ferry from there