Each Italian village, town and city has its own patron saint and dedicated religious festivities. These celebrations are a point of pride and tradition for locals and you’ll see both the young and old participating. For more details on local holidays and celebrations, check out my previous post here. On August 17th you can witness one of my absolute favorites: Portovenere’s Festa della Madonna Bianca (White Madonna celebration). The procession winds through the historical center of the village and finishes up at the beautiful black-and-white-striped Chiesa di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Church), which is perched on a promontory overlooking the village and sea. For those watching from afar, it’s obvious when the procession reaches the church as a super bright white light beams out and applause erupts from the crowd of spectators.
Seeing the festivities on land is beautiful but seeing them from the water is breathtaking. The outcropping of rock on which the church sits glows with the flames of innumerable lit torches, most of which are only visible from the sea.
How to get there
Portovenere (located just south of the Cinque Terre) is not connected to the railway lines, which makes it a little trickier to reach. While it’s possible to arrive to the village by car or bus I highly discourage it on the evening of the celebration as there’s just one road in and out of Portovenere and gridlock will ensue. So how do I recommend getting there? Special chartered ferries will be running from Levanto, Monterosso, La Spezia, Lerici and Marina di Carrara on the evening of August 17th. It’s a beautiful and relaxing way to take in the sights. You’ll find departure times and prices listed below:
The ferry will take you to Portovenere, drop you off there for a few hours (the actual amount of time on land will depend on the ferry you catch) and then pick you back up for the return trip. Last year we caught a ferry from La Spezia and even though it was out of the way, the ferry circled around the promontory to allow us to see the church and cliffs aglow.
Heads up: If you are picking up the ferry in Monterosso, expect to be back at midnight. If you are catching the ferry in Levanto, expect to arrive back at 12:20am. Return ferries for those that departed from La Spezia will be running from 10:30pm to midnight (it’s about a half hour ride from Portovenere to La Spezia).
A few things to keep in mind…
- This celebration is a local favorite and people travel from far and wide to see it. Expect it to be super busy in Portovenere.
- Unfortunately, pickpockets follow the crowds (usually these petty thieves aren’t so much of an issue in Portovenere but the night of the White Madonna is an exception). Bring just the necessities with you and be aware of your personal belongings.
- Even if it seems hot during the day, bring an extra layer or light jacket for the ferry ride (especially for the return trip as it can feel brisk on the water after the sun goes down).
- The ferry won’t wait for you. Make sure you are punctual for your departure time or you risk being stranded in Portovenere.
Enjoy it! I’ll never forget my first time watching the procession and the goosebumps that I felt. It was magical!