In the spring when I travelled down to Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre area of Liguria, Italy, I wanted to do a kind of Grand Tour of Europe, see as much as possible of countries I might not have the chance to visit. I began, after arriving in London from Cardiff by coach, with a rail/cruise option from Harwich to the Netherlands. I had done this once before on Stena Lines’ Rail and Sail and highly recommend it. From London’s Liverpool Station you take the train to Harwich and board a large, modern ferry, sleep very cheaply (30 pounds a night) in a fresh, comfortable cabin and land next morning in The Netherlands, where you can catch a train to any city you choose. I was in Amsterdam by 10 a.m.
Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities, if not my favourite. I had only been there once before and had the day to explore more of it before boarding an overnight train to Zurich, Switzerland. The weather was rainy and grey, but my plans were to visit the Verzetsmuseum, the war resistance museum, and then wander through the Waterlooplein flea market (not that great — go to Albert Cuypmarkt, it’s wonderful).
Amsterdam’s Oosterdok, or Eastern Dock, as seen from the free viewing area on the rooftop of NEMO, the science museum
My sleeper train to Zurich left in the early evening. The year before I had tried a sleeper train for the first time out of Munich and had a miserable night. I was hoping that with that experience behind me I could try a sleeper again and get a good night’s sleep. I slept with my head by the door rather than the window this time, which seemed to help, and did sleep fairly soundly. In the morning, still a little worse for wear, in the same clothes as the day before, I boarded the train for the scenic Alpine route through the Gotthard Pass from Zurich to Genoa, Italy.
While planning rail trips through Europe I can’t do without Mark Smith’s amazing site The Man in Seat 61. It is thorough and comprehensive, meticulously including everything you want to know and quite a bit that you don’t realize you need to know. As he explains, it is not always possible to choose your seats on some trains. On this scenic train from Zurich down into Italy I either forgot, or wasn’t able, to choose my seat and so ended up sitting on the aisle when a window seat would have been desirable.
However, an advantage to sitting on the aisle is that you can actually get a decent view out of both the windows on your right and on your left!
As I boarded the Zurich train and was struggling to lift my luggage over my head into the rack, an efficient, nattily dressed woman about my age motioned for me to place it on the floor, between the seats. My first impression was that she was a ‘stewardess’ of some kind, but quickly realized that she was a fellow passenger, very familiar with the trains, sitting across the aisle from me. This floor feature, wherein the seats on the trains are back-to-back and form an “A” space for luggage to slide into is wonderful, but not available everywhere. I have since found it on many Italian trains, but not on French trains.
The ride throught the Swiss Alps is all you would expect it to be. It is a constant stream of picture-perfect old villages nestled in valleys and small, quaint churches raising their spires to the heavens at high points. Switzerland does look like one postcard after another. The lady across from me is native Swiss and switches easily and precisely between English and Italian, charming the Italian conductor with the lilt of her language skills. She is taking the two-to-three hour train ride to her family vineyards in Italy. We get along well and chat easily. When she is gone, waving from the platform in the Italian Alps, I realize pathetically that we have not exchanged names or email addresses. What a shame. A friend made and then gone.
I take a local train from Genoa to Riomaggiore and this hugs the Mediterranean coastline. It is slow, in that it stops every five minutes, but it is a lovely, scenic ride.
After my four days in the Cinque Terre I headed by train to Turin (Torino) where I was to spend an afternoon before catching a train from Turin up through France to Paris.
Scenes from Turin, or as they say in Italy — Torino
Excellent Hotel Roma, only half a block from the Porta Nuova (the old, main train staion)
The Porta Susa, the newer train station in Turin, about a 20-minute walk from the Porta Nuova.
Inside the Porta Susa, waiting for a train to Paris
The train from Turin to Paris took me through the Italian and French Alps and up through central France. This passage revealed mountains that were starker and more wild than those in Switzerland. After several hours in the mountains, the scenery gave way to spring-green fields and flowering trees that reminded me of Van Gogh’s landscapes of Provence — my favourite of his paintings. It is difficult to get good photos through train windows though, unless, you do as Mark Smith (Man in Seat 61) suggests, and go to an open window between cars. That isn’t really desirable in most situations. I apologize for the reflections in the following photographs.
The Italian or French Alps
Train stop at the border of Italy and France
I was on the train for most of the day, just relaxing from days of climbing in the Cinque Terre and enjoying the countryside as it flashed by, trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to get decent photos. When I arrived in Paris at the southern station of Gare de Lyon I had to make the trip to the north of the city to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar back to London. I had a couple of hours, but for the Eurostar you must go through Immigration and security and have to be there about 45 minutes before departure. So this left me with about an hour to get from one station to the other in Paris. I could have taken the Metro (subway), but hadn’t done that before and was intimidated by it. I had been in both neighbourhoods of Paris before on foot and felt, if I didn’t get lost, that I could walk it in time. I was nervous however as it was a tight timeline.
As soon as I was off the train at Gare de Lyon I went to the information office and, thankfully, they had a free map of the city. I had a Google map which wasn’t really sufficient. For these old cities you need detailed maps as the roads change name and direction without you realizing it. It was just a glorious, sunny, very warm April 1. April in Paris!!!! I couldn’t spend my hour there underground!
My route was fairly straightforward with only a couple of turns and for the next forty-five minutes I didn’t stop. But I felt the warm sun and was in the middle of hundreds of Parisians soaking up the promise of spring. The cafes were bursting and everywhere, as only in Paris, decadent desserts and cheeses beckoned from every other shop. It was a heady, deliriously delightful trek … and I arrived at the Gare du Nord just on time.
Just the final two-hour leg back to London. The ride between London and Paris always seems too short to me, but that is also its convenience and attraction … and wonder. It was an excellent Grand Tour and excellent rail adventure!