Riomaggiore: Old World charm personified

My husband and I had longed to visit Cinque Terre for at least a decade since a friend told us about this little piece of paradise. We prefer to think of ourselves as travellers rather than tourists. Rather than rushing from one location to another, we like to find a place, set up house and get to know the community even for a few days. After spending a week in Riomaggiore, the southern-most town in this little chain of five along the rugged Ligurian coast, we are torn between telling everyone and keeping it to ourselves in the hopes it will remain unaffected any more by tourism.

These five fishing villages are bathed in the Old World charm and the locals seem mildly amused or at least tolerant of backpackers who gush forth from the trains passing through. Here you can find, if you are content to quietly absorb this magical place, old Italian women sitting on a bench gossiping in the morning on their way to and from the alimentari, the little veg and fruit markets. Old Italian men do the same, gossiping in much more forceful manner and smoking, waving their hands about. Once or twice a week, the local fish vendor arrives and the locals will swarm around to get the best octopus, prawns and sea bass. The vendor comes complete with what we dubbed The Fish Dog, a gnarly little nondescript dog who would plant himself entirely in the way, grin with an amazing toothy underbite and wait for someone to scratch his belly. You will find, on any given evening, children playing soccer in the square beneath the imposing cathedral or in the town square built just above Via Colombo. When a good game is on TV, the owners at Bar Centrale haul their 27 inch TV out to the courtyard and the loyal crowd packs in to cheer. The European Cup was on during our visit and we joined the crowd more than once over a few Birra Morretti.

You can climb–everywhere you must climb–up through the fascinating narrow alleyways to the terraced patches of land where old people still have little chicken coops and tend grape vines and garden plots carefully tucked into any available seaside cliffs. Amazingly, this is still Old World Italy with two church bells chiming out the hours and the calls to the faithful for Mass. Together with the sounds of the sea, this metronome of tide and church keeps time with life in Riomaggiore and, we suspect, the other four villages. Within 24 hours, if you are content to become part of the community, you begin to feel a deep sense of loyalty for the place and when loud, anxiety-ridden tourists complain about the Internet being too slow at the train station or that they can’t find the owner of the hotel at 8 a.m. (“This is unbelievable! All businesses open at 8 a.m. What kind of a place is this?), you make a promise to yourself you will never be that demanding, impatient or disrespectful in someone else’s country.

For the fit and adventurous, do the hike from Riomaggiore to Monterosso or the other way around. Don’t let anyone kid you; this is a good workout and actually can be quiet dangerous in places. The easiest walk is the 20 minute hike from Riomaggiore to Manarola; it’s called Via dell’ Amore (the Lover’s Walk) and is beautiful at sunset. This area is a national park, so a 3 Euro charge gets you a ticket to do the entire tramp. The views and strolls through each of the towns along the way are stunning. The toughest part of the trek is from Corneglia on and particularly between the last two towns. Full water bottles and good walking or hiking shoes are essential. You can catch the train or a boat back if you’re not up to repeating the 5 hour walk in the same day.

The trick to a serene Cinque Terre experience is to plan a bit before you go. Allow yourself lots of time to catch trains (visit for great info on times and fares). We landed in Milan and easily purchased our tickets via Genoa. Italian train travel is brilliant, but you have to keep your eyes and ears open. Keep asking if you need to transfer; we sat quietly on a train in Rapallo until a Trenitalia employee told us “Fini!” and pointed to the one we were to transfer to. That wasn’t indicated on the ticket.

For occasions like those, we found our little Italian phrasebooks handy. Keep yours with you and don’t be afraid to try a little Italian. Get one of the books that gives you the phoenetic translation of words and phrases. Everyone we spoke with, even as we tried to string together a few nouns and verbs, to be very patient and helpful and genuinely appreciative of our attempts to speak Italian rather than just expecting them to communicate in English. A lovely woman who owns the Bar Tabbachi in Riomaggiore reached across the bar and patted my shoulders with congratulations when I, probably quite badly, told thank you, no, I don’t require service since my husband was already ordering three kaffes and hot water. (By the way, a trick for those who like the strong Italian coffee just a touch less powerful: ask for acqua caldo and top up your cup. Perfect! Even though some Itallians will look at you and shake their heads.)

Riomaggiore is only an hour and a bit from Pisa and the schedules are such you can go in to the city early in the morning and return in time to watch the sunset in Rio from your terrace. Florence is only 2 and a half hours away. Search for Cinque Terre on a good search engine and you’ll find out lots of good information. We found our accommodation; a wonderful little flat and a terrace we had to climb (there’s that climbing again) to two floors up. We had a stunning view of Riomaggiore’s harbour, the shuttered houses clinging to the cliff directly opposite. We found Mar Mar, the property management company, great to deal with and they answered our emails promptly and fully. Advance reservations are a must, especially during the peak summer months. We spent our week there in mid-June and things were just starting to get busy.

Riomaggiore is a place to settle down and be for awhile. Some of our most memorable encounters with people were on the street. Find yourself a doorway or a bench and people watch. No one moves quickly here, especially the old people who make their way up and down the streets as they pick up their cheese, bread and vegetables at the little markets. You will soon perfect the Italian lean. Get an apartment with a kitchenette and with a terrace or verandah. Get yourself some wonderful local cheese and bread, some pesto (absolutely the freshest, best stuff we’ve ever had), a glass of vino rosso. You might even want to try the locally produced limoncino. Park yourself at the railing and watch life in this little fishing village as it has carried on for generations.

Soak in Cinque Terre. There is no need to rush here. With any luck, it won’t be long when you don’t even care how slow the Internet connection is and you just might start to feel a little sorry for those still in too much of a hurry to nice the setting sun is creating gorgeous hues of yellow, red, orange and green on the buildings overlooking the sea.

Guest Article by Karin Melberg Schwier. Thanks Karin!

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  1. In 2004, I wrote a piece about our stay in Riomaggiore that was posted on your website. As I add yet another email contact to my fat file, I thought you might like to know that I have corresponded with dozens of people around the world who read the article on your site and then got in touch with me. It’s been a wonderful armchair traveling experience for me to return these requests for more information about the Cinque Terre. So many people have commented about your great site and how the articles you have posted are very helpful in their own travel plans.

    Just thought you’d like to know!

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