The Easiest Way to Explore the French & Italian Riviera by Train
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The Easiest Way to Explore the French & Italian Riviera by Train

Read our review of InnTravel’s rail adventure along this popular (but charming) route

There’s something very appealing about buying an open train ticket to Europe and following your nose from boulangerie to trattoria and just seeing where you end up. But for the busy, the rigid, the beginner (or the flappy), sticking to a pre-planned itinerary is a great way to get started with a European rail adventure. Rebecca Cox (adventurous but flappy) decides on the latter, reviewing InnTravel’s French to Italian Riviera tour

InnTravel: From The French To The Italian Riviera Review

Things I will never understand: people who drive when they can walk, and people who fly when they can take a train. Luckily for me, the rail renaissance shows no signs of slowing, and as new routes and sleeper services continue to spring up all over Europe, there’s never been a better time to become au fait with the European railways. I am, however, easily overwhelmed with foreign ticketing services, large rail stations and, generally, being in the right place at the right time. Enter InnTravel, who not only arrange your entire trip from start to finish, book your hotels, rail tickets and connections, but pre-print your tickets and itinerary in a helpful folder packed with travel guides and advice for you to carry with you. As long as you remember your passport, you can’t go too wrong. The three stops along the way on this rail tour are Menton, Genoa and Monterosso al Mare, and while the tour itself is limited to travel and hotel bookings, the pre-departure information contains plenty of advice of places to explore and eat in each destination.

Menton

Menton, image courtesy of InnTravel

Days 1-3: Menton, France

A real lollipop of a town: small, sweet, yellow and lemony. I immediately started Googling property prices. InnTravel’s full and action-packed walking tour will ensure you don’t miss a single one of the lush botanical gardens, impressive palaces or historical landmarks. Of course, you could also just stroll along the promenade, wade into the ocean, sample seven ice cream flavours and buy exotic-looking fruits you can’t figure out the translations for and have no intention of eating. I chose the latter, and as a result, day two of the trip was one of my favourites of all time. The area is known for its fruit trees, so sample anything lemon-flavoured and seek out the orange drizzle cake from one of the (obviously outstanding) bakeries in the neat and hilly town. You can walk from end to end of Menton in half an hour or so, but be prepared for the hills, everything is stacked on top of each other in this colourful seaside gem, topped by the iconic yellow clock tower. 

STAY

Hotel Prince de Galles

This Best Western outposting is the only option offered in Menton by InnTravel and while it’s not the most luxurious or interesting accommodation in town, it is nicely positioned, comfortable and friendly. The exterior walls are painted a pretty peach and many of the rooms feature spacious sea-view balconies overlooking the palm-lined Mediterranean promenade. The road separating the hotel from the sea is quite busy though, so the balcony isn’t a peaceful oasis you’ll want to linger on, but no matter: you’ll want to get out and explore this picturesque town rather than staying put in the hotel. Rooms are clean and quiet, and the breakfast buffet is a crowd-pleaser. It’s a pretty 25-minute walk along the seafront to get into town, so if you intend to (/accidentally) do the walk six times in one day, you’ll be grateful for comfortable shoes.

Boccadasse, Genoa

Boccadasse, Genoa, image: Rebecca Cox

Days 3-5: Genoa, Italy

Genoa is the sprawling city between two small and (in theory) sleepy spots on this venture, and its streets are loud and bustling, packed with cruisers from enormous ships, hustlers trying to gain a few coins from them, and locals in a hurry. The old town is a maze of narrow alleyways and steep staircases, with crumbling facades contrasted against stunning carved archways, marble statues popping up between ramshackle buildings when you least expect them: a reminder that in Italy, there is always time for art. Speaking of which, art lovers will delight in the many and varied museums and palaces to explore in the city, from the Galata Museo del Mare to the Palazzo Ducale, in which you could lose hours (or days) at leisure. 

As in Menton, though, it is possible to park cultural pursuits in favour of following your feet (/nose). Mine led me to Boccadasse, a stunning (and famous) ancient fishing village with a small stony beach about 4km from the old town. Reminiscent of the equally famous (and crowded) Polignano a Mare on the opposite side of Italy in Puglia, it’s worth braving the crowds (mostly locals) to catch a glimpse of this beautiful minute bay surrounded by candy-coloured buildings. Grab a slice (read: three slices, minimum) of focaccia and an ice cream (two-scoops or more) and head to the rocks to take it all in in relative peace and quiet. Or have a bite at the charming trattoria playing Italian classics and cooking up hearty food alongside a cute beach bar serving up Aperol Spritzes from its narrow facade by the beach. No researching of property prices here, but there’s plenty for everyone in this city, and since it’s the birthplace of focaccia and pesto, the food alone is enough of a draw. The combination of the two was all too tempting: pesto focaccia for breakfast, lunch and dinner is not a sustainable diet. Time to move on. 

Focacceria in Genoa

Proof of just how much focaccia we had to eat. Image: Rebecca Cox

STAY

Grand Hotel Savoia

The roof terrace of this central hotel is its biggest draw, with gorgeous views and two jacuzzis in the absence of a pool, though the hot tubs were often occupied by a loud child during my visit. Since he belonged to me, however, I was unable to lodge a complaint, but I can imagine a sunset dip with a romantic partner would be absolutely glorious. If the bar is open, here you can enjoy a sun-downer (opt for a Ligurian wine) and nibbles and watch as the moon takes the place of the sun, high above the hills of peach and orange buildings and ship funnels beyond. 

Rooms are individually styled with Italian charm and a touch of pizazz, heavy embroidered curtains and colourful sheer drapes, antique wooden chairs and tapestry headboards. Staff are friendly and welcoming (and great with noisy children), with a breakfast as stupendous as the dining room in which it’s taken, featuring pretty frescoed ceilings where goldfish swim and cranes take flight. No flights for us, however, and it was just a three-minute walk to the train station and on to the next stop. 

View of Monterosso from Hotel Porto Roca

View of Monterosso al Mare from Hotel Porto Roca. Image: Rebecca Cox

Days 5-7 (or 8): Monterosso al Mare, Italy

This is the perfect jumping off point from which to explore Cinque Terre, one of Italy’s most stunning stretches of coast, famous for its rugged cliffs topped with too-pretty-to-be-real (but real none-the-less) candy coloured buildings sloping steeply toward the topaz water below. By this point in the trip I was ready to take things easy and decided on the train (which takes under 1.5 hours) that if the hotel room had a nice balcony (as promised in the itinerary) we would take things slowly for the remainder of the trip. Alas, though the terrace – gloriously quiet and with a view no photograph could do justice – was heavenly, the urge to explore the Cinque Terre was irresistible. So out we went. Hop between villages by train, or take a break from the railway and buy a ferry ticket and take them in by sea. Spotting dolphins jumping out of the water in our boat’s slipstream and watching local children cliff-diving satisfied opposite ends of the thrill-spectrum, but both were unforgettable. I won’t waste your time listing off which villages you should spend time in: all are beautiful, bustling with boat and rail traffic and bursting at the seams with pretty shops, pesto-pasta pit-stops and plenty of gelatarias. Monterosso itself hosts the region’s best beaches, long and with stony and sandy stretches to choose from. Your hotel stay includes a spot on the beach under a chic green and orange umbrella in front of the (incredibly photogenic) old town, but it’s also worth walking through the underpass to the new town to grab a cone of fried anchovies, a local favourite, and to check out Il Gigante, where the ruins of a colossal Neptune overlook the beach below. Because how does one know one is in Italy if not within touching distance of a work of art?

Il Gigante, Monterosso

Il Gigante. Image: Rebecca Cox

STAY

Hotel Porto Roca

As locations go, they don’t come better than Hotel Porto Roca, perched on a cliff at the very edge of Monterosso al Mare, overlooking the smaller of the town’s beaches, on the old-town side of the tunnel. Reaching it with luggage, however, is no holiday. A steep, narrow driveway leads to the property, with seemingly only one taxi driver mad enough to make the trip to transport arriving and departing guests. Hikers leap out of the way as he revs impatiently and rides the clutch to the mechanical brink, the wheels inches from the cliff edge (and my nerves already over it). Since there’s the possibility of meeting said taxi half-way up if you choose to pull your luggage yourself, however, it’s better to be inside it. Once safely checked in, rooms are basic but clean and bright, though small upgrades (glasses to replace plastic cups, china in place of disposable paper) would enhance both the luxury and the eco-credentials of the property. No time for putting the kettle on though, since rooms feature stunning sea views from balconies or spacious terraces, and with a gorgeous beach below and an enticing panoramic pool to enjoy, there’s little to hang around inside for. The rest of the hotel features charming decor with colourful rugs, chic velvet sofas and nautical treasures throughout. The pool and hot tub facilities are top notch, with a superb pool bar that stays open until midnight. Book an extra night here if you can, and enjoy a full day of laying out by the pool for a bonus taste of the fly-and-flop (/rail-and-exhale?) holiday life.  

Monterosso al Mare

Monterosso al Mare. Image: Rebecca Cox

THE FINAL WORD

A postcard-perfect view every-which-way you look, including through the window of the train between stops. If you see yourself as something of an intrepid explorer, but your brow starts to bead after five minutes of navigating a foreign public transport website (let alone tackling the thing unaided in person), this InnTravel Riviera rail tour is the perfect way to keep you flap-free and on-track, as you travel along one of Europe’s most beautiful coastlines. 

BOOK

Inntravel (inntravel.co.uk  01653 617000) offers From the French to the Italian Riviera – A Touring Holiday by Rail from £1,155pp based on 2 sharing, including 6 nights’ B&B in two 4-star and one 5-star hotels, rail tickets between hotels,  notes for walking tours of Menton & Genoa, and cultural notes. Available 2 April – 31 October.