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Review: London to the Italian Riviera by Train

Escorted Tour - Rail

The sophistication of Portofino, the rustic charms of Cinque Terre and the urbanity of Genoa - that's the Italian Riviera

  • By SilverTraveller peterlynch

    33 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon

  • April 2015
  • Colleague(s)

75 people found this review helpful

There are so many rail routes across Europe and there are so many ways to travel them – first class, second class, pricey and fast, cheap and slow or sleep the miles away instead of watching the sights roll passed the window.

Italy by Train
With high speed Eurostar and TGV routes, Italy is now an easy rail trip from London. I opted for a daytime sightseeing route so took the 09.17 departure from London’s St Pancras station, which swiftly burrows under East London before crossing a dreary Essex landscape. After diving under the Thames it races at 186mph across the beautiful Kent countryside of little fields, orchards and rolling hills to the south coast.

It only takes 20 minutes to pass through the Channel Tunnel and then it’s the wide open fields of northern France. If you have Standard Premier seats a snack and drink will be delivered to your seat, if not then a stroll to the cafe carriage may be in order. A good tip is to buy Paris Metro tickets at the cafe bar and save the hassle of the automated ticket machines in Paris.

Changing Trains and Crossing Paris
To catch an onwards train to Italy or Spain it’s necessary to cross Paris from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon. A taxi costs around 20 euro, providing you don’t get stuck in traffic, or the metro costs 1.80 euro. If you’re two or three people and have lots of luggage a taxi might be the best bet, otherwise the metro is simple enough.

Follow signs for the RER (an alternative express suburban metro) line D travelling towards Melun/Malesherbes, this is better then the standard metro which will require you to change trains half way there. The RER is a six minute ride and you arrive inside Gare de Lyon.

Best Station Eating in Paris
With an hour spare I visited what has to be the most celebrated railway station restaurant in the world – Train Bleu (www.le-train-bleu.com). Opened in 1900 it has a sumptuous art nouveau style which is too special to pass up; anyone who’s anyone has eaten there. If eating is too pricey, which it is, it’s still worth stopping for a drink in their bar.

Train Journey to Italy
Our bullet nosed TGV slid quietly out of the station at 14.40 (France is +1 hour GMT) and was soon racing across fields of bright yellow oil seed rape, wheat and grape vines. The high speed TGV route is relatively new so it doesn’t pass through major French towns like the older Regional network.

Woods and pretty villages flash passed in the distance and the train makes a couple of brief stops that seem to be in the middle of nowhere, but people do get on and off. After a few hours the route veers east towards the French Alps and the landscape becomes more dramatic. Passing down the Rhone valley modest Alpine mountains tower above the train on both sides. Initially they’re covered with trees but as they get taller and craggier snow appears on their peaks.

There’s a brief stop at Chambery, the gateway to the Alps especially for skiers and hikers. Modane is the final stop in France before crossing into Italy via the 8.5 mile Mont Cénis tunnel through the Alps to Bardonècchia in Italy.

The train rolled into Turin Porta Susa station at 20.15; quite a long day but relaxing, full of interest and some great sightseeing across the length of France.

Turin
What a beautiful city, so much more than the setting for the iconic film The Italian Job. The city is famous as the home of the Turin Shroud, which is traditionally only on display once every 25 years, but it was on display whilst we were there, in preparation for a visit by the Pope. Predictably the crowds were far too large for us to get a peek.

Italy’s first capital and the seat of the Italian royal family give it an elegant and aristocratic atmosphere with old world sophisticated shops and galleries, arcades, grand boulevards, palaces, museums and plenty of open spaces. It’s Baroque architecture and glittering cafes make it a great place to stroll and linger.

Local Trains
The following morning a Regional train took us through the Apennine Mountains to the Ligurian coast – the Italian Riviera, stretching in an arc from the south of France to Tuscany. The area oozes old-fashioned glamour and has an appealing allure, with chic resort towns and colourful coastal villages clinging to the rocky shores of the Ligurian Sea. The area has been a haven for artists, writers, celebrities, and royalty since the 1800s, and continues to draw visitors throughout the year due to its exceptionally mild climate in the lee of the Apennines.

Liguria – the Italian Riviera
Our Riviera base was Sestri Levante, a beautiful small beach-side town, perfectly situated for day trips to the regions highlights of Genoa, Portofino and Cinque Terre. Hotel Villa Balbi has a great location on the sea front with its own private beach. Great if you are staying in the hotel but a rather annoying feature of many Italian beaches if you are just visiting.

Portofino
The jewel of the Italian Riviera is the sumptuous fishing village of Portofino, west of Sestri Levante. Amazingly little has changed from the Sixties when it was a superstar holiday hideout. It sits on a rocky promontory, best reached by ferry from Santa Margarita , its cluster of ochre and pink buildings precariously backing up the pine, palm, azalea and cypress covered hillside. High up among the greenery are the multimillion dollar villas of today’s super rich.

The pretty harbour is the hub of village life, summer yachts and local fishing boats float serenely, surrounded by busy cafes and restaurants. But despite Portofino’s small size there is some nice strolling and plenty of little shops but the essence of Portofino is sitting by the harbour with a drink and soaking up the ambience.

Eating Liguria
The cuisine in Liguria is exceptionally good, typically seafood, porcini and pasta; and of course dry white wine from Cinque Terre (the wine takes the same name), and perhaps best of all, pesto from Genoa. The Genoese devised this heavenly blend to prevent scurvy among sailors.
Pesto is not just the green sauce made from crushed basil leaves, pine nuts, pecorino cheese and olive oil but also red and ‘white’ varieties respectively made with sun-dried tomatoes or artichokes. Pasta specialists sell slabs of takeaway lasagne doused in pesto for a couple of euros.

Cinque Terre
There is no need for a hire car as local trains run along most of the coast and a 30 minute ride east from Sestri Levante is the ruggedly beautiful Cinque Terre (Five Lands). This stretch of astonishingly serrated coastline is home to the five cliff-side villages renown for their isolation and fabulous wine grown on improbably high terraces.

Built on sheer cliffs above turquoise waters, the clutches of brightly coloured houses are minor miracles of ancient engineering and building dexterity, with the steep landscape stunningly etched into terraces of vineyards and tiny fields. For centuries this area was extremely isolated – the railway line, completed in 1874, provided the first motorised land connection between Cinque Terre and the outside world. Today it is conserved as a national park, with the five villages linked by a regular train service and so remains largely traffic-free. A Cinque Terre daily rail pass is a good option, which allows visitors to travel from one village to the next.

Even in April there are quite a few visitors but for intrepid hikers prepared to climb some of the terraced pathways you are quickly rewarded with an empty landscape and spectacular views across the villages.

Although relatively small the Italian Riviera captures the essence of Italy with the sophistication of Portofino, the rustic charms of Cinque Terre and the urbanity of the seriously underrated city of Genoa.

Fact Box

Great Rail Journeys or tel: 01904 527180 and Rail Discoveries or tel: 01904 734812 offer escorted group holidays to the Italian Riviera starting from £1,095, including hotels, rail, selected meals and excursions. For those who prefer to tailor make their holiday and travel independently to Liguria speak to a Tour Advisor at GRJ Independent (tel: 1904 527181).

For more information about the Italian Riviera – www.turismoinliguria.it and www.parconazionale5terre.it/

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Other Members' Thoughts - 6 Comment(s)

  • peterlynch
    almost 5 years ago
    Yes, you should go for it, Sept & Oct are good times to go as it's not so busy.
    An alternative route I've written about on the website is London to Venice, going via Switzerland - even more spectacular scenary. This route stops in Milan where you can change trains for just about anywhere in Italy. But don't rush, stop over in Switzerland and Milan and enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
  • earlyfrost
    almost 5 years ago
    Thanks so much for such a comprehensive review. Me and my wife have been considering Italy by train for some time, but haven't quite taken the plunge. The web links that you have included are most helpful.
  • Adventurer
    about 5 years ago
    Absolutely beautiful. Love the photos
  • peterlynch
    about 5 years ago
    One of the aspects I really like about European rail travel is that it feels like your holiday starts in the UK, not after hours of uncomfortable flying hassle in your final destination.
  • DRSask
    about 5 years ago
    Looks like a very interesting option. Great photos!
  • huggybear
    about 5 years ago
    is interesting to read train holiday reviews as its something i never used to consider but having seen potyillo and the like on telly it has grown in appeal, thank you