A Rough Guide to the Cinque Terre in Italy: Things to Do in Riomaggiore
When I was in Riomaggiore in the summer high season there was much decoration above us as we walked in the main street.
Almost all of it was white in colour with an occasional pink.
There was your normal bunting and balloons but mainly it was simply household bedsheets or net curtains draped from the balconies.
This was not your normal common or garden washing lines but something particular to today. A festival, a celebration of love.
The human touch
Down below on street level there was a tidy and permanent touch of civic pride. There were little doors clad with coverings of pictures of rocks. These were used to cover the unsightly garbage bins. The people of Riomaggiore are rightly proud of their neighbourhood.
Also nearby, small dishes of water for dogs and cats suggested a consideration for our four-legged friends. The dishes were attached to chains which perhaps also suggests a consideration for petty thievery.
The historical origins of Riomaggiore
The village of Riomaggiore is just west of La Spezia and is the nearest of the Cinque Terre attractions from that larger town. This historic resort has its roots as far back as the 13th century and is named after the Rivus Maior, the river which flows through into the waters of the Gulf of Genoa.
According to legend the village was originally founded by Greek refugees who had escaped persecution in the 8th century. Initially landing by boat at Monterosso and settling inland they eventually occupied the steep ridges around the modern Cinque Terre in the 11th century. The protection of the Genoan Republic assured relative safety from coastal depredations by armed aggressors.
It has since become famous for its vineyards which are gouged out of the rock and produce mostly fine white wines. The indigenous grapes of 'albarola' and 'bosco' are cultivated here as well as the imported 'vermentino' grape which was introduced more recently. Many of the wines are not widespread in foreign markets therefore a visit to the Cinque Terre normally assures a unique tasting experience.
The street art of Silvio Benedetto
A spectacular entrance to the village comes at the train station. Here you will pass a huge mural dedicated to the workers of the Cinque Terre.
This is the dynamic and colourful art of Silvio Benedetto, a 20th century artist born in Argentina but of Italian descent. Described as a 'painter among the people' his work gives vigour and vividness for your introduction to Riomaggiore.
It is a depiction of ordinary Ligurians toiling in the fields or constructing buildings in the village. It won't be the last time you see his work as there are other examples elsewhere in the village and along the Cinque Terre.
The Tower Houses
After the train station we were walking uphill on the main street of via Colombo in the town admiring the surroundings enclosed among the 'Case Torri' or 'Tower Houses'.
This is the name given by the Italians to the tall and thin tenement buildings exemplified by places such as Riomaggiore.
Built in the Genoan style they lean lazily against each other in an idiosyncratic style. Veering slightly from the perpendicular like their famous icon in Pisa they slumbered in a hot afternoon 'pausa' soaking up the rays of the sunshine.
Those walls have witnessed many changes throughout the ages as Riomaggiore has been passed from one overlord to the next. The village was under the jurisdiction of the Genoan Republic for centuries until the French invasion of the late 18th century.
Later it came under Sardinia in the 19th century until the forming of the Italian Republic in 1861. Nowadays the Cinque Terre also lies within a protected National Park as well as being a UNESCO International Heritage Site.
This links in with the coat of arms of the village as it depicts the three peaks of Mount Verugola which overlook the valley. These are the symbols of the area.
Walking along via Colombo
In via Colombo there is the notable 'Oratorio di Santa Maria Assunta' which dates from the 16th century
Inside there is a wooden statue of Mary the Madonna. There is also a triptych tempera depicting the Madonna and Child with the Saints John the Baptist and Dominic.
You can also visit the 'Oratorio di Sant’Antonio Abate' and the 'Oratorio di San Rocco and San Sebastiano' in the village. The latter was built in memoriam to plague victims of 1480.
Upon the western hill is the Church of San Giovanni Battista, or St John the Baptist in English.
It was founded in 1340 with further additions in 1870.
It is designed in a basilica plan with columns and bright white statues decorating the grey exterior walls.
A marvellous Gothic rose window dominates the front entrance.
Entering inside it provided a welcome sanctuary from the heat and the evocative smell of candles permeated the interior.
You will enjoy paintings and sculptures such as a large work by the 17th century artist Fiasella, depicting the teachings of John the Baptist. There is also a large wooden crucifix by Maragliano and several other paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Walking past the Church of San Giovanni Battista we came to the small Town Hall. Appropriately this local seat of power overlooks the village and the valley below.
It has another coveted mural by Benedetto on its facade. This time the fresco is soaked in aquamarine blue and portrays the fishermen of Riomaggiore. Again the scenes are dramatic and powerful which bring the walls to life.
The path of true love
Hopefully on your visit you can enjoy the romance of a walk all the way to Manarola on the famous 'Via dell'amore'. This homage to the heart and the passions was created in the 1920s.
The path is carved into the rockface enveloping you into nature as the waves explode on the rocks below. You can taste the salt in the air and breathe in the sea breezes.
Unfortunately on the day we were there the 'Via dell'amore' was closed for maintenance.
Some are unlucky in love I suppose and it's all about timing. Maybe second time around when we next return.
The brittle coastline needs regular upkeep for safety reasons and therefore an entrance fee is attached for your romantic sojourn.
Along the way there is also much amorous graffiti which leads to mixed emotions among critics and lovers alike.
If you do take the walk remember to bring a colourful padlock with you.
It is customary for couples to attach one to the fencework or wire-mesh to symbolise the seal of their love. But don't worry if you forget to pack one as there is a handy hardware store in the village.
The information boards around Riomaggiore were mostly only in Italian. Perhaps just as well as an attempt in English proclaimed that "If the whether is bad, lift can be out of order"
The castle on top of the hill
There is no directions needed for the modest castle as it is on top of the headland. Easy to find it is just a couple of minutes walk past the Church of San Giovanni Battista. It is really no more than a small fort consisting of a mixture of modern brickwork on top with natural-looking rocks beneath.
Obviously with the emplacement of brickwork in places it has been heavily restored.
It was originally built in 1280 by the Marquis Turcotti, who was the owner of the land in that era.
It was then completed later in that century by the Genoans when they ruled over the Ligurian Coast.
Its primary use was for defence against attacks by the Barbarians
This ancient vantage point also affords fine views and a chance for a shaded break as there are seats nearby underneath the trees overlooking the water
As is the case with most of the Cinque Terre the land is farmed on the steep slopes of this coastal area. "The very nature of the land has forced farmers to adopt an architectural kind of order" as explained by the 20th century Calabrian writer Corrado Alvaro.
The fields have been shaped into a horticultural facsimile of the rock strata below at the shoreline. As if the old Ligurians had taken inspiration from the natural order of volcanic millenia.
Gazing upon the rooftops
At first glance I saw the incongruous sight of what seemed to be apartments on the hillside opposite. But the passing of a car in front placed the buildings in proper perspective. They were actually smaller than I had first perceived as they were really an upright concrete cemetery. Unless it was a huge car.
What I thought were windows were actually the small tombs of the departed who eternally look down upon the village. There was also once a cemetery within the castle but much of it was removed for alterations.
Gazing down over the houses of Riomaggiore it struck me as unusual that there was not more verdure and floral colour. The people do not seem to indulge in decorating their terraces with plants or bright flowers as is the norm elsewhere in many Italian towns.
The scene is quite plain and devoid of colour looking down from above. No pergolata, no bougainvillea or summertime petals of different hues to enliven the rooftop scenery.
The village of art
Nevertheless the village was picturesque enough to inspire the 19th century Florentine painter Telemaco Signorini. He belonged to the Macchiaioli school of art based on the French Impressionists love of natural light, shade and colour. He used the narrow streets and alleyways of Riomaggiore to great effect in his work
The facades of the buildings are a nice mixture of the natural and the fake. The former is the crumbling plasterwork indicating the age of the structures and giving that weathered and wizened look so beloved of historical buildings.
The latter is the marvellous and colourful paintwork depicting imitation pilasters and capitals that look genuine and three-dimensional from even a moderate distance.
The alleys in the valley
The construction material of the buildings comes from the surrounding land with local stones for the masonry and slate for the roofs. The plaster facades are painted in bright colours such as yellow, pink or cream in the vernacular style.
The older houses actually have two entrances with one on the front at street level and the other at the back further up the slope. These rear entrances provided an escape route in case of attack by the Saracens of the 18th century.
We descended back down to the village along one of these routes. It was a very narrow alleyway which was paved with oversized steps.
Until you find some kind of rhythm it makes for an awkward stride and not the ideal means of escape in a hurry as I thought to myself.
Not surprisingly there was a sign asking for silence after 11pm and I can certainly imagine anything more than a whisper would echo off the walls.
Cuisine in the scene
We stopped at the 'Mamma Mia' takeaway named after the famous movie based on the music of ABBA of course.
This was filmed in Greece of course but we entered into the spirit with some fast-food seafood of little fish and chips Ligurian-style.
I was also curious about the 'Bar O'Notte' thinking it would be one of the multitude of Irish theme bars around the world. But nothing of the sort as it was just an Italian play on words.
Aside from Abba-esque takeaway morsels you should really try the delicious and tradition fare of Riomaggiore. Not unique to the village necessarily as it is typical of the whole Cinque Terre region.
There is 'Turta de risu' which is especially prevalent during the feast of St. John the Baptist. At that time you may see the streets paved with flower petals for the parade. So the people of Riomaggiore are not averse to some floral decoration after all.
Another main dish indicative of the area, particularly in the cold and windswept winter months, is 'Menestra de cyan' which is a soup seasoned with olive oil and made with potatoes and wild herbs.
Other typical dishes include the famous Italian staple of 'Ravioli' which is eaten for 3 consecutive days during the carnival. Presumably left alone for a while after this festive satiation and when the taste buds are ready again.
Among the most popular seafood are 'stuchefisu' or stockfish, salted anchovies called 'anciüe' and 'musculi cin' which are stuffed muscles .
Down to the shore
Don't forget to take the short walk down to the shoreline if you are in Riomaggiore.
The previously mentioned volcanic rock is particularly distinctive.
Its shape beliies the general and oft broken rule that there are no straight lines in nature.
The Riomaggiore rocks contain a marina and its clear waters are also popular with scuba divers.
There is a long established and well-equipped diving centre.
For the less active there is a sheltered cove only 2 minutes walk east of the village.
Here there is 'Fossola' a public beach consisting of pebbles and rocks.
It is normally fairly quiet even in high season as it is usually only locals who go there. Tourists are more likely to be passing through Riomaggiore on a short day visit as part of their overall Cinque Terre experience.
But if you decide to join them then don't hurry through on your way. As you have read there is much to see and do in Riomaggiore. The photogenic surroundings will enhance your holiday album and the local food and drink will please the palate. Bon appetito!