Italy is a sumptuous country well known for its great food, wonderful countryside and stunningly good wines, but what about the snorkeling? Well, we can tell you that combining all these wonderful attributes with snorkeling the marine reserves around Portofino makes for a great trip. Great news, on top of this, is that there are a host of cheap flights to Pisa and Genoa, the latter being the closest. There is also the realistic possibility of making this a road trip and driving there, with several other snorkeling possibilities along the way. This option could make this trip particularly worthwhile, especially if you want to make a few leisurely stops along the way across France, picking up wine and snorkeling Etang de Tau and the Cote d’Azure. For this trip, we flew with Ryanair from Liverpool to Pisa and picked up a hire car (using the helpful services of Rhino Car Hire) at the airport. We arrived at our hotel well after the sun had gone down and so would have to wait until morning to get a real feel for our home for the next few days.
The first leg of this trip was to be based in Rapallo, situated on Italy’s Ligurian coast, very close to the Portofino Natural Marine Reserve, which has been in existence since 1999. The whole area features a coastline that sees dramatic cliffs descending into steep walls underneath the (usually) clear water. As a result of this protection against harmful fishing practices for more than 15 years, these walls are now covered in life. As you descend along the sloping walls, the boulders and rock formations are covered in sea-grass and algae, with small fish chasing each other around the nooks and crannies. As you start to go deeper, the green gives way to a riot of colour: red, orange and yellow gorgionians cover every available vertical space. Nudibranchs of all shapes and sizes can be found here, along with huge grouper, morays tucked away while being cleaned by striped shrimp, and schools of fish that soar from depth up towards the shallows. As part of the marine reserve, each dive
As part of the marine reserve, each dive site has its own mooring buoy and so anchor damage is prevented too. The dive sites we visited were all tucked into small bays within a scenic, 15-20 minute boat ride from Rapallo Harbour. For those that want to go deeper, there is plenty of opportunity on the walls as well, as there are more than ten wrecks that lie in the 40-100m range. We stayed shallower than that, but still also got a great wreck dive on the Mohawk Deer, a Canadian cargo ship, which lies in 18-40m. It sank while being towed to be scrapped. A storm picked up in ferocity and she broke her tow line, hit rocks and broke into two pieces before sinking, conveniently for the snorkeling fraternity, close to the cliffs. The bow lies nearest to the shore and in the shallowest water. While she did break in two back in 1967, she is still
“Our tour had us walking around the cool ancient cellars, where the wine is aged before being bottled, visiting the private collection of wines dating back to before the war, and then the
best bit: tasting some of the wines” relatively intact and makes a great dive. Another rather unusual dive site, which we were keen to visit, is Christ of the Abyss – a statue of Christ that was erected underneath the water in the 1950s to protect all seagoing folk. It stands, arms outstretched towards the surface, much like the iconic statue that dominated the World Cup final, with a lightly encrusted layer of marine life, and the occasional fish grazing on the growth and cleaning it up. We got up early to ensure that we were the only two divers on the site, which can get a little busy with divers, snorkellers and boat traffic.
Our dive centre was very helpful and asked staff to come in early to run a boat just for us to do this site before the rest of the divers arrived for the day. We were pleasantly surprised with our five dives over three days in the area and would happily go back! We dived with Abyss Divers in Rapallo, who run an excellent set-up for both recreational and technical divers. Several of their staff have been involved in world record free snorkeling attempts as support divers waiting and watching at serious depths, in case of incident.
Everything is run at really civilised times, with no early starts, and the boat coming back into port for the surface interval and to allow time to grab a spot of lunch at one of the seafront restaurants. The centre offers plenty of space to gear-up, lockers to keep your essentials safe while you are out snorkeling, very
good rental gear as well as showers and an outside drying area. Heavy gear is taken down to the harbour using a scooter pick-up, with divers following on foot for the easy five-minute walk to the boat. In the evening, after your snorkeling day is finished there are amazing bars, restaurants and
enotecas (a sort of wine bar where you can also taste delicacies with your refreshments). It is a lovely town to grab a cold beer after a dive or two, or try a glass of local wine, that is always served with complimentary local meats, cheeses and other nibbles to keep you satisfied.
As we surfaced from our Christ of the Abyss dive, in glorious sunshine, we knew that our snorkeling was over for this trip and that we needed to load up our gear into our hire car and set off to our next destination. As this was a Wining & snorkeling tour, we had to drag ourselves away from the snorkeling and head just a couple of hours north to one of the most-famous wine regions in Italy – Barolo. The countryside is spectacular, with amazing views as you drive between the tunnels cut out of marble, and wind up quieter roads towards the mountains. Barolo is a small village with narrow roads, ancient stone buildings and terracotta roofs intermingled with newer homes built in a similar style. After our sat nav managed to get us wedged in a tiny road from where our hosts had to guide us out, we stayed in a wonderful B&B in the heart of the village (La Giolitta) where we could abandon the car and walk to the local vineyards and restaurants.
It was an opportunity to take time out to relax a bit after a busy few snorkeling days, and so we walked around the village in the sunshine and visited just one vineyard on our first day, the oldest of the Barolo vineyards, Marchesi de Barolo. Our tour had us walking around the cool ancient cellars, where the wine is aged before being bottled, visiting the private collection of wines dating back to before the war, and then the best bit: tasting some of the wines, along with some great cheese. We also got a surprise visit from one of the owners, who is herself a diver! We had three vineyards on our ‘to do’ list, ranging from the very traditional to the more modern approach. All three gave us a sample of the wonderful wines that this region produces. The most famous of the local wines is Barolo, and this really is a special wine in the hands of the right people. The best ones are quite expensive, but the Nebbiolo and Barbera from the top producers are stunning and affordable. The Barolo wine takes the name of the village, with several other variations of the Nebbiolo grape available, such as the two just mentioned. The growers are passionate about their wines and so visits and tastings are well worth it. Eating in Italy is always a joy too, especially so in a beautiful setting renowned for its food and drink – this is a perfect place to relax away from all things snorkeling.