Nice to Rome by Rail
Author: The Railbooker
I have visited Nice before, always in the summer months when the city is full of tourists, the days are extremely hot and the beaches crammed. So this time it was a nice change of pace to experience the city in the low season.
We were lucky that the winter weather decided to hold out for us and in mid November we were still walking around in the sunshine without the need for any winter layers. It was amazing to be able to walk down the promenade and not have to dodge people the whole way, or visit a café and know that there were locals around you. The city was quiet, peaceful and beautiful. Even this late in the year it provided everything I expected, warm weather, long, relaxing days, great service and fabulous food and wine. We only stayed in Nice a short time, at the Windsor Hotel, before we began our journey into Italy.
Within a few short hours of leaving Nice you can reach a number of beautiful areas of the Italian Riviera – Ventimiglia, Savona, Bogliasco among many others. The rail journey itself through this area is absolutely stunning. Much of the railway runs close to the shore line so out one side of the carriage you will have wide, spanning oceans and on the other lush green landscapes and beautifully unique villages. We had sunshine through the whole trip which made it even more special, however according to the locals, you’ll be getting that most of the year round. We decided to continue through to the small town of Santa Margherita Ligure. It was dark by the time we arrived and we took a short taxi ride to our hotel, the Grand Hotel Miramare.
The hotel itself radiates elegance and charm and you automatically feel like you are on holiday the second you walk through the door. We were shown to our room which was nice, though we weren’t aware of how amazing it was until the next morning. It was getting late and we decided to head out for dinner, as it is a small town midweek we were unsure of what we would find. However just a few short minutes away, just off the main road heading back towards town, we found Ristorante La Paranza. We were in Italy for another week after this and never once found food to match the quality that we received from this small local kitchen. Amazing food, great staff, convenient location – and possibly the best pesto I’ll ever have! I could not recommend them highly enough.
Full of delicious Italian food and wine we turned in for the night. Every room in the hotel faces onto either the sea front or the garden behind the hotel. We were lucky enough to have a sea front room and when we woke the next morning we were greeted by the most spectacular view. The sun was rising over the ocean, around the hills that led to the water and on to the enchanting village of Santa Margherita Ligure. I sat on our balcony, watching the sun rise and the boats head out to sea, the most peaceful moment of my year- it was amazing! However, if sea front isn’t to your liking, there is also a large garden area to the rear of the hotel with small walks that will take you up a small hill to give you views over the garden, the ocean and the large pool area.
We continued our journey up the Italian Riviera toward Cinque Terre to another number of small villages and cities, stopping off along the way at Sestri Levante and then on to Levanto. Much of this area of the country is easily accessible by rail. Travel between each of these destinations took no more than 30 minutes. If I had more time, I would have taken the opportunity to base myself in one of these villages and take day trips to the surrounding areas. Levanto for example, has sixteen villages near by. You can see a number of them from within Levanto and you can hear the church bells from more of them throughout the day. The train journey between each of these towns is stunning, either travelling beside the ocean or through lush green landscapes, even though they are short journeys, they are beautiful.
After spending time in the small coastal cities it was time to discover the larger cities. First stop was Florence. Italy itself has some incredible history and the architecture that you find through the country is incredible and Florence is definitely no exception to this. Florence is very rich in culture and thoroughly enjoys boasting its notable residents, whether local or not, from Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Galileo to Guccio Gucci and Robert Browning. The city is covered in statues to mark their favourite works of art and those that created them, including Michelangelo’s David – as well as the original which can be found in the Accademia di Belle Arti, you will find a number of replicas throughout the city.
Florence has a fantastic mix of history and culture. There are many museums for those who are interested or you can simply stroll along the River Arno and through the streets and get lost in some of their many markets filled with everything from fruit to antiques and souvenirs. There are a large number of public squares that seem to constantly feature ever changing displays and festivals. You never have to walk far to find a good local restaurant, where you can join locals in appreciating some fine cuisine and there is a gelato store on every corner. Still one of my favourite cities in the world.
It was then onto our final stop in Rome. We caught the Eurostar Italia which got us there in just over an hour and a half. A very comfortable journey but much of the scenery in this area of Italy was flat and there was a lot of farming land. Still pleasant enough, but not a journey you would take purely for the scenery. The speed of the trip was fantastic and I was in first class so was given a drink and snack en route which helped to pass the time. For those with laptops, this leg of the journey had power sockets at every seat and Wi-Fi on the train.
This was not my first time in Rome, so this time I got to focus on a few of the sights that were left out last time. We stayed at the Hotel Modigliani, which location wise was brilliant, however if I were going to be here for more than a day or two I would definitely go for an upgrade to either the nearby Mascagni or to the Dei Mellini, which is close to the Vatican.
During my travels I have not always been the biggest fan of guided tours, however after taking a walking tour in Berlin and another in the Vatican, I think if you are in a city where there is a lot of culture and history to take in and you do not have a lot of time, you can’t go past a walking tour. We had a small Roman lady leading our tour of the Vatican. The cost of your tour includes your guided tour in English and the ability to skip the entrance lines into the Vatican museums – in high season, you could otherwise be expected to wait hours to get to the front of the line; the extra euros are well worth it. Entrance fees are payable locally.
Our guide, the little Roman lady, had been carrying out tours of the Vatican for years and it showed. Her knowledge of the Vatican was very impressive. The tour lasted around 3 and half hours, during which she covered the history, politics and art of many different aspects of the city, museums and church. We went through a number of the Vatican museums, the Sistine Chapel and ended in St Peter’s Basilica. While the tour does not leave a lot of time for wandering through the museums, which have one of the largest collections in the world, for those with a small time frame, it’s the only way to go. I was fortunate enough to be visiting in the low season, so crowds were much smaller than usual. This allowed for a little more detail in our tour and meant there was enough time for us to visit the Raphael rooms – they are stunning! Not on the same level as the Sistine Chapel, which is absolutely breathtaking, but well worth a visit if you get the chance. Having a guide to take you through the chapel and basilica is especially helpful. There are so many stories and intricate details that most would miss out on if you wandered through alone.
After an intense but fantastic tour of the Vatican, we headed into the centre of the city to eat one of our last Italian meals and take a last stroll alongside the forum, down to the Pantheon. The sense of awe that comes from standing in a functioning building that is centuries and centuries old is incredible.
Our Italian adventure had come to an end. We had seen and eaten a lot and travelled a whole lot more. If I was to do it all again, I would spend more time going through the Riviera – very peaceful and relaxing and well worth the trip. Even in winter there was sunshine nearly everyday and we left there feeling very relaxed and ready for the rest of our journey.