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San Fruttuoso
San Fruttuoso

On Saturday, more or less at the same time as the government announced new Covid-19 measures, I found myself on a ferryboat from Camogli to San Fruttuoso. The sea was pretty rough and the few passengers who used the FAI's Open Monument Day had to shield themselves from unexpected showers pouring down.

The day had started badly with heavy thunderstorms and to be honest, the whole excursion looked a bit shaky, but the weather gods were kind to us and the warm sunshine meant we could peel off our layered clothes one at the time. Of course we were unaware of the fact that this would probably be the last time until next year to see anything or go anywhere.


Camogli is a pretty place but because we were a bit late, we had to run across the long quay missing all the colorful tall houses and the nice stores which the town is well known for. The boat departed from a landing right on the other end of the harbor. About ten passengers had booked the same trip with a visit to the abbey of San Fruttuoso.

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The Abbazia di Fruttuoso is located on the peninsula of Portofino and is not accessible by car, you have the choice between walking or taking the boat (weather permitting). Apparently, this didn't seem important in the 8th century when San Fruttuoso discovered the bay when he was looking for a shelter to avoid persecution in Spain by the Moors. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, Benedictine monks built a church and monastery here. It seems strange now that they chose such a remote place, but you have to imagine that in those days most of the coast looked like this and they didn't have to think about cars back then. People at the time who would have happened upon a spring nearby the abbey, making it a first-class piece of real estate with the perspective of that era.

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The Doria's decided it to be a strategic place, as they built the towers next to it in the 16th century, only a ruin remains of the other tower on the opposite hill, they used the church as their private cemetery. If you've ever been to Liguria you've undoubtedly come across the name. The Doria's were such a prominent family that even married family members were allowed to carry the name. Numerous branches of the family carry a double name added to Doria, like the Doria Pamphilii in Rome, the Spinola-Doria branch, the Doria d'Angri branch and the Colonna Doria's, a branch with marquises in Spain and even in Brazil where they still play an important political role.

Not much is known about the background of the family. The story goes that a noble young lady from Genoa named Auria or Oria della Volta fell in love with a young man leaving on a crusade, usually departing from the port of Genoa. There is not much more that we know about him, besides that, he was probably far below her status. They had several children who were allowed to bear the mother's name, d'Oria. In 1110, Martino and Genuardo appear on the scene as prominent rulers in Liguria, they were called filii Auriae (the sons of Oria). From the 12th century onwards, the family gradually became more powerful and large landowners with relatives in Dolceacqua, Oneglia and Portofino. One of the sons married the daughter of the king of Sardinia in the 13th century, earning vast fortunes, and the family was associated with many a noble family in the rest of Europe. The Doria's were not only warlords but also important merchants, bankers and financiers of many start-ups in the Middle Ages. They traded with North Africa and the Middle East, sons born in the family were often named after Arab rulers or foreign kings, a handy trick to gain their trust.

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The Doria family was also one of the moneylenders for Christoforo Columbo's expeditions and they were not averse to some slave trading either. The most famous Doria is Admiral Andrea Doria, probably better known to us for the great passenger ship named after him, which sank catastrophically off the coast of Massachusetts in 1956.

The abbey

But let's get back to the bay of San Fruttuoso, where the early Benedictine monks built their first church and monastery in the 10th century.  The abbey consisted of three different buildings that were built over and through each other in the following centuries, but the intimate atmosphere has remained. If you are used to the beautiful majestic abbeys on the mainland, then this is very cozy place. As we walked around we came across a covered gallery hardly larger than a living room, two above each other, small courtyards where a large turtle had made his home. The all important fresh water source behind the abbey was carefully guarded in the past and eventually a tower was built over it to protect it, which unfortunately cannot be visited at this time. The church with the round bell tower is located at the back of the abbey. 

From the middle of the 13th century the Doria's took over the village and they built a new church with a beautiful loggia in which three-part windows were placed overlooking the bay, a feature that makes the building characteristic, besides it being one of the most charming elements of the building as we see it today. Deceased Doria's were buried in sarcophagi in the church, using the typical black and white stripe that you see in many other Ligurian churches. Over the centuries, the village itself has changed hands many times, changing from fishing village to pirate's nest and back again.
In 1983, the Doria family transferred the abbey to the FAI who now maintains and restores the building. There is a small museum in the abbey dedicated to the history of San Fruttuoso.

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