Sometimes you just get lucky.
Sitting at dinner at the soon-to-be famous Old School restaurant and bar in Riomagiorre, one of the five communities in Italy’s Cinque Terre National Park, I noticed people spreading flowers on the steps of the San Giovanni Battista (St.John the Baptist ) church and placing candles along the wall overlooking the lower section of town.
But no bride arrived. No groom. Instead, a bevy of acolytes, cross bearers, and torch bearers started to collect in the square. A woman who appeared to be the mayor, wearing a red, green and white sash, huddled with a group of police officers.
“Hey,Siri,” I ventured, “who’s the patron saint of Riomagiorre?”
“St. John the Baptist,” Siri said, matter-of-factly.
I suppose today is his feast day? Yes.
Well, it looks we had hit the ecumenical jackpot. A feast day. The feast day of a town’s patron saint in Italy (and other places where traditional ways still hold fast) means beautiful music in the church, a procession through town, and food.
I would like to say we had planned to arrive in Riomagiorre, on the on the feast day of its patron saint. But, alas, it was just blind luck.
The faithful gathered in the church, which celebrated its first mass in 1340, the priest offered blessings, and there was — as expected — beautiful music.
Meanwhile, in the square in front of the church, locals and a few tourists like us milled about. Acolytes took smoke breaks, torchbearers lit their lanterns, and the unfortunate cross bearer left the 10 foot crucifix leaning against a wall where it promptly crashed to the ground. The wooden Jesus was separated from his arm and the cross had to be rushed back to the sacristy.
The cross bearer returned a few minutes later with a bare cross.
At 9 p.m., the priest led the congregation to the square and recited a prayer. After working out some technical difficulties with the loud speaker system, the procession of the small statue of John the Baptist under a beautifully embellished white canopy began.
The ecclesiastical staff and volunteers, the Saint and his attendants, the city dignitaries, the police, the children carrying paper lanterns, the rest of the congregation, and finally the rest of those gathered in the square fell into line. We tagged along toward the back of the line, snapping a few pictures and trying to be respectfully fascinated.
Slowly, the group moved down Via Telemaco Signorini, past city hall, past houses and apartments, along the cliff top walk 80 feet above the crashing waves. The priest continued to offer blessings and prayers.
A brief shower of heavy rain plops thinned the crowd. Next to the elevator that brings one up from the train station, the procession turned around and retraced their steps back to the church praying and receiving blessings along the way.
Back in the square, the procession fizzled. The priest said a final prayer and the last of the faithful went home.
Sadly, we hadn’t had time to make friends enough to be invited home for a celebratory meal, but we heard dishes and glasses clinking well into the night.
Whether you’re religious or not, the celebration of a community’s saint is a beautiful and fascinating event. Perhaps even worth a check of the ecclesiastical calendar when making plans.