I came to Riomaggiore late in my Italian travel life. It was in 2001, during an extended residency in Florence to write my first book Tuscan Echoes: A Season in Italy, that I took a three day trip to the Cinque Terre.
When I stepped off the train from La Spezia and walked through town to the sea, the beauty of this part of Italy completely overwhelmed me. Fishing boats rested on the cobble-stoned streets, narrow lanes enticed with cooling shadows, and always there murmured the sound of the persistent sea lapping the harbor breakwater. From my room in a small centrally-located B&B, I enjoyed easy access to the village streets as well as the trails that crisscross the hills above.
Inhabitants of Riomaggiore can be traced to the 8th Century A.D. Those early settlers from a nearby valley discovered the rich volcanic soil in the hills along the coast plus the abundant fishing. Vineyards were planted and lives were created from the sea's bounty. Over the centuries, the political feuds that embroiled most of Italy also brough change to Riomaggiore and the other coastal villages. Genoa, Milan and Pisa all vied for control of these easily defensible hills.
What brings visitors today is the ineffable beauty. In 1999, the Italian Government designated the Cinque Terre (five lands) a national park. The goal was to protect this stretch of coastline and limit further development.
What I most enjoy when visiting this area are the narrow lanes. When strolling along the Via Antonio Gramsci precipitously descending to the sea, or along the Via Giacomo gently tracing the harbor, I gain a sense of unchanged and uncluttered time. There is a special set of locals with a unique spirit who make this a place where unforgettable memories are created.
What more appropriate name could the pathway between Riomaggiore and Monterosso have than Via Dell' Amore or Street of Love? Relatively flat and easy to traverse, this is the most traveled section of a long hiking trail that connects all five of the fishing villages along the Cinque Terre like a string of pearls. From sculptures conveying an artist's vision of love to the padlocks that lovers attach on a fish net just before flinging the keys into the sea, this is a seriously amorous coast.
If you are visiting during the summer months, expect this section of the hiking trail to be very crowded. Also, make sure you purchase a Cinque Terre Card, your access ticket to the hiking paths. This part of Italy in general has become quite popular in the summer. So, standing room only on trains, packed restaurants and full hotels are the norm from June to September. If you wish for a more peaceful experience, I recommend late April to late May or October. The off-season weather can be unpredictable, but the lack of crowds compensates.
Mark Gordon Smith is a tour guide and travel author who has written three books about Italy. He speaks Italian, French, German and English. Learn about his small group tours at http://www.private-italy.com/tours/venice-and-tuscany.