Italian Lakes by Train + Cinque Terre Trains

Food. Community. Warmth.

What else do you need on a trip?

For me, trains.

And so it was that I roped my partner – a gentle and homely soul – into…

An 8-day European train adventure – including Italian lakes by rail and Cinque Terre trains.

I’m not currently employed full time (free for odd-jobs, castings, shoestring adventures), so I don’t like to overspend. Actually I can’t overspend – what the hell was I thinking going on holiday?!

Anyhow, with a new-found super-thrifty outlook, my partner and I made our own itinerary, rather than booking a tour.

If you can’t be arsed to read about what we liked and didn’t – from the creepiest, most mosquito-ridden World Heritage site I’ve ever seen, to an absurdly indulgent stay at the Royal Savoy in Lausanne, Switzerland (really, what WAS I thinking?!) – you can just take a look at the itinerary below. London to Milan by train, trains from Milan to the Cinque Terre, trains from Milan to the Italian Lakes – it’s all here.

Maybe it’ll save you some time when planning your own trip.

The itinerary

Night 1

Clink78 hostel, London. Private double room. (this really is the cheapest comfortable way to stay in London if you don’t mind shared bathrooms and young people loving life at the bar).

Day 2

Eurostar from London St. Pancras International (Depart 11:31) – Paris Gare Du Nord (Arrive 14:17)

TOP TIP: buy Paris Metro tickets in the Eurostar dining car, just ask at the counter.

Get the Paris Metro Gare Du Nord – Gare De Lyon (consult the good old-fashioned Metro map or use Citymapper if anxious about which lines you’re using. The journey takes around half an hour but why not leave an hour just to be safe).

Night 2

Gare De Lyon (Depart 19:10) – Milan (Arrive 06:00)

You are now in Milan.

Day 3

Train to La Spezia Centrale – Intercity #35333 Milan (08:10) La Spezia Centrale (11:21)

Night 3

Stay in La Spezia (Cinque Terre) at Dreams Guest House – booked on booking.com. The owner will recommend taking the bus to Portovenere “#1 in all of Cinque Terre!” while pointing to a painting of it on his wall. Check in 14:30.

Day 4 

All day in Cinque Terre – If you don’t fancy the large Cinque Terre crowds, get a bus to Lerichi, they stop on the street outside the station on the opposite side to the station. From Lerichi, if you want to go even smaller, there’s a bus to pretty Tellaro.

TOP TIP: In Italy, you mostly buy bus tickets from Tabbachi shops BEFORE you board the bus.

Night 3

Stay in La Spezia at Dreams Guest House.

Day 4

Check out of Dreams Guest House 9:00 – 9:30 to get trains from La Spezia Centrale to Orta-Miasino – the station by Lake Orta, one of the smallest (and therefore quietest) of Italy’s lakes.

Orta-Miasino (depart 10:46) – Alessandria (arrive at 12:48) Frecciabianca #35666

(Interchange 57 minutes)

Alessandria (depart at 13:45) – Novara (arrive at 14:53) Regionale #10176

(Interchange 22 minutes)

Train to Orta-Miasino (15:15 – 16:04) Regionale #10256

Night 4

Stay in Orta at Hotel Bocciolo

Day 5 

Orta all day

Night 5

Stay in Orta at Hotel Bocciolo

Day 6  

Orta all day, with the train at 18:54…

Orta-Miasino (depart 18:54) – Novara (arrive 19:43). Regionale #10257

(Interchange 21 minutes)

Novara (depart 20:04) – Milan Centrale (arrive 20:46). Regionale #2029

Night 6

Milan, Private ensuite room at Ostello Bello Grande, check in 14:00, check out 11:30

Day 7

Milan Centrale (depart 12:23) –  Lausanne (arrive 15:42) EuroCity #34 

Night 7

Lausanne Royal Savoy Hotel & Spa. Check in from 15:00. Check out by 12 (train at 12:23)

Day 8

Lausanne (depart 12:23)  – Gare De Lyon (arrive 16:15) TGV Lyria #9268.

Metro (hope you kept the tickets bought on the Eurostar at the beginning of the trip safe!): Gare De Lyon – Gare Du Nord (takes around half an hour but why not leave an hour just to be safe)

Gare Du Nord (depart 20:10 – remember that check-in closes 30 minutes prior to departure) – St. Pancras (arrive 21:39)

A word of advice

 

  • I pretty much always book European train travel with Loco2. I’ve met Kate, one of the founders, a couple of times. I love that her and her brother Jamie built the company because they believe in travelling more sustainably – not just because they wanted to get rich (nobody sensible starts a company the latter way)
  • For the sleeper train Paris to Milan, I booked the Thello with TrenItalia. I was anxious I’d booked the wrong thing because I don’t speak Italian. It would have been less stressful to book it with Loco2, rather than tweeting Mark Smith of Man in Seat 61 in a panic later (he assured me I was fine)
  • I usually book the London to Paris Eurostar (or the London to Amsterdam Eurostar, or the London to Brussels Eurostar) through Eurostar directly, because I like the app. I’m not saying this is logical
  • I wish we’d had a day or two more in La Spezia

Highlights?

 

Travelling on the Eurostar together was fab – it’s a great first train trip for couples or friends because it has a dash of glamour about it and you’re transported from London to Paris/Brussels/ Amsterdam so quickly.

Despite my partner not getting the best night’s sleep on the Thello train, we most enjoyed watching pre-downloaded episodes of The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan on my iPad while sipping our complimentary Prosecco

There’s a lovely man who makes decent pizza at Pizzeria La Scorza a short walk from La Spezia train station.

La Spezia is a great choice for those travelling around the Cinque Terre because it’s a nice city, there are numerous accommodation options, it’s not full of tourists and it has buses to Lerichi and Portovenere.

We travelled at the very end of summer, when the temperature is a bit cooler (although not a lot cooler). This meant that Cinque Terre was less busy than at the height of summer. We took a couple of day trips to in Lerichi and Tellaro. We only took the train to Manarola from La Spezia for sunset from the Nessun Dorma bar (highly recommended and totally worth the queue, which was about the same as the queue for Dishoom in King’s Cross London but with the most incredible queue view you’ve seen.

To visit Cinque Terre in its entirety, we’d probably go in November or another chilly time when there wouldn’t be too many people there.

Highlights of Lake Orta included the beautiful and peaceful Isola San Giulio (although we couldn’t find the dragon backbone in the church) as well as the lake itself, which you can swim in.

Hotel Bocciolo had rooms with terraces and a good restaurant that we ate at each evening. It was ideally situated for the train station and getting to the lovely the main square, where ferries go regularly to Isola San Giulio and back again.

We also took the market-day ferry to the other end of the lake to visit the Alessi factory.

Because of where Ostello Bello is situated, 5 minutes from Milano Centrale station, we used the side entrance/exit rather than the front entrance/exit. This gives a completely different introduction to Milan, somewhere I’ve previously avoided because it didn’t feel safe. The side entrance/exit leads to the taxi rank. In future I’ll always use the side exit! The hostel itself was one of the best I’ve ever stayed at. There was a live swing band, free dinner buffet and a free drink. We had a gorgeous private room with an ensuite bathroom. Thumbs up for Ostello Bello and for Kash Budget Traveller for recommending it.

After the Milan stopover, we headed to Lausanne for our big blow-out stay at the Royal Savoy Hotel and Spa. We spent as many hours as possible in the spa, before dinner in the bar. In the morning I had an incredible massage (it was a special offer listed on the hotel newsletter in the room).

After that it was a lovely trip to Paris, where we had lunch at Parisii by the wonderful food market. I took my market-bought chanterelles and smoked fish with us on the Eurostar home and had a drink to a successful very well planned trip!

Lowlights?

We wished we’d brought picnic food for dinner on the overnight Thello train Paris to Milan as the restaurant car was rammed.

Been aching to find out what the creepiest World Heritage site is? After a glimpse of the Cinque Terre, we headed to Orta-Miasino. The Sacro Monte di Orta is a hill with 20 chapels on it. This sounds delightful, until you enter any of them. Inside each are lifelike statues of religious scenes with many of the characters painted in a way that makes it seem they are staring at you. It’s more the kind of place I’d feature on my other blog, traveldarkly.com. The amount of blood loss suffered from the vampyric mosquito population up there didn’t help

The downside of the trip to the Alessi factory was that it was very difficult to find the bus that supposedly goes from close to the ferry terminal to close to the factory. We walked in the heat. My partner is much better suited to cool climates and I don’t think I’ll be able to persuade him to go on any 30 degree hikes any time soon…

You’ll see we took the Paris to Milan sleeper train on the way out but travelled back via Switzerland, stopping overnight at a hotel. While I’m a big fan of sleeper trains – even if you’re in third class in India – my partner found the lower berth too uncomfortable. I’d suggest that the taller person of two travelling together sleeps on the top berth for this reason, head at the window end of the bed. Next time we travel by train together, my partner and I will take day trains. (I’ll do all my exciting sleeper train adventures solo).

I wish we’d had a day or two extra to have time to visit Portovenere.

Eurostar Paris Business lounge – elegant update

Travelling Business Class

Seeing the Eurostar Paris Business lounge means travelling Eurostar Business Premier. Which is a treat.

Breakfast on board

There is a pre-breakfast of croissants, rolls, yoghurt and juice, followed by breakfast breakfast…

The frittata’s flavours are delectable – the addition of leek beautiful.Tasty enough that when I (spoiler alert) meet Raymond Blanc later on, all I can do is congratulate him on my breakfast.

The Eurostar Paris Business lounge

In Paris, travellers can now enjoy the new Eurostar Paris Business lounge…

On the top floor of the original 19th century building and designed by architecture and design studio, Softroom, the lounge evokes the “spirit of a Parisian apartment.” The light-filled space has high ceilings and original fireplaces yet feels very contemporary. The booths (above) are gorgeous and with an enviable view of the Gare Du Nord. The main light fixture is reminiscent of Alexander Calder’s mobiles…

The contemporary artwork throughout the Eurostar Paris Business lounge has been curated by the Hospital Club.

Exclusive Eurostar cocktails

There are three cocktails designed by London Cocktail Club exclusively for Eurostar. The signature is the Angelique, which is comprised of Eurostar’s own Toujors 21 gin – with its lavender notes, lemon juice, chartreuse, chardonnay and Cointreau. It is delicious.

A menu created by Raymond Blanc

Raymond Blanc has created everything from beautiful canapes to a scrumptious chocolate cake (“It’s gluten free!”) the Michelin-applauded chef is also a lover of sustainability, which complements the more eco-friendly option of travelling by train nicely.

“Business travellers are looking for flexibility and a variety of food options when they are on the go. The new lounge features a selection of dishes which we hope will satisfy all appetites. All made with high quality sustainable produce.” Raymond Blanc says.

Travelling Eurostar Business Premier London to Paris one way is £245. It is possible to travel one way in Standard from £29 if you book far enough in advance. Thanks to Eurostar for inviting me to see the Paris Eurostar Business lounge.

A Room With a View, #WheninParis for Eurostar

I’m a big fan of Eurostar, so it was a pleasure to help them launch their new #WheninParis campaign by taking a mini excursion to the city.

Eurostar sent me to Paris with a mission. To capture stories in Paris. My Paris.

Ten years ago, a coach took me to see the surprisingly tiny Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and Kandinsky in the Pompidou Centre.

Kandinsky at the Pompidou

Kandinsky at the Pompidou

It was a school art trip that saw my friends and I snickering on the Metro to the red light district, visiting sex shops and Le Chat Noir. By day we visited the Notre Dame. We raced each other down the hill from the Sacre Coeur. We ascended the Eiffel Tower and braved the fierce winds that howled at our faces.

And then couple of years ago I went to house sit for a family friend in Noisy-le-Sec, on the outskirts of Paris, which has a large North African and Algerian community. The station was also where many soldiers left from to serve in the Great War from 1914 – 1918 and a plaque there commemorates this.

Great War memorial at Noisy-le-Sec station

Great War memorial at Noisy-le-Sec station

The English friend in Noisy-le-Sec had lived mainly around that area for 30 years. Her flat was up a curling French staircase and was cosy and colourful. This somewhat grittier version of Paris, with many main roads and flyovers to tackle on foot, involved negotiating RER trains to get into the centre, where I visited Père Lachaise Cemetery (Cimetière du Père Lachaise) twice, as well as Montmartre. Friends took me on a film tour of Montmartre, that included the vegetable shop and cafe from the film Amelie.

The vegetable shop from the film Amelie

The vegetable shop from the film Amelie

The following summer I returned again, on my way to Palermo, Sicily, by train from London. I stopped over and stayed at a friend’s apartment in central Paris and visited the Catacombs.

Bone and skulls in the Paris Catacombs

Bones and skulls in the Paris Catacombs

He took me out to Nouille on 1 rue Faidherbe, where they make their own noodles and then to drink margaritas in a Spanish bar called Candelaria.

Candelaria bar, Paris

Candelaria bar, Paris

This time, with Eurostar #WheninParis, I wanted to filter these experiences into what a typical visit might be for me. I was put up at the Mercure Terminus Nord right opposite Gard du Nord. The room was on the fifth floor and had quite simply, the best view I’ve had from a hotel.

Mercure Terminus Nord

Mercure Terminus Nord

Gare du Nord daytime

Gare du Nord by day

Gare du Nord by night

Gare du Nord by night

I arranged to see both friends I had previously stayed with and to revisit the Notre Dame and Père Lachaise.

The first evening, I met the family friend and she took me to La Paella, not far from Gare du Nord, where we ordered tapas.

I found the French Hunter S. Thompson…

Man in La Paella by Gare du Nord

Man in La Paella by Gare du Nord

I went back to the hotel via Gare du Nord…

The lights Gare du Nord

The lights Gare du Nord

And after a good sleep, I was up early to visit Père Lachaise…

Jim Morrison's tree

Jim Morrison’s tree

Afterwards, I met the friend who’d once shown me the noodle bar and we walked beside the Seine, from where the river comes out of the ground, to a wonderful French Bistro called Chez Prune.

A man enjoying lunch at Chez Prune

A man enjoying lunch at Chez Prune

I ordered a steak with potatoes dauphinoise and a glass of organic wine. My friend had the fish parcels. After lunch I took the Metro to the Notre Dame and photographed people on their way to wherever they were going.

The Metro system Paris

The Metro system Paris

One girl posed for me and smiled…

On the Metro

On the Metro

When I arrived at the Notre Dame it was raining and there was a queue. Two elderly tourists had bright umbrellas that blew upwards in the wind. I took their photograph.

Tourists by the Notre Dame

Tourists by the Notre Dame

I went inside. Tourists filed around the cathedral rustling and clicking. And I left following an epiphany of sorts. The story was no longer in the landmarks for me, it was in the people. And when I thought about, this was probably true of most places, for me. I vowed to visit the people before the obvious landmarks in future.

I passed a man making Nutella crepes and bought one before scuttling back on to the Metro to take photographs and returning to the Gare du Nord to catch the train back to London.

 


French Booking Agents Capitainetrain.com Beat the English Train Sites

We live in a World where we don’t need to learn a language to get what we want from a foreign service. We live in a world with Google translate. Worth it for French booking agents in this case. Aside from the hilarious possibilities this affords during sporting events such as #Euro2012 (see @kathviner‘s tweets in Swedish ), we can now translate pages of booking websites. This means that if France has a fab new site called capitainetrain.com I can see it in all it’s glory in English (I did German at school).

It’s still in Beta, so you have to be invited, but once you’re in it’s wonderful. You can even use it to book the Eurostar from London to Paris. And the site can hold the fare for you! (See my post about holding fares). No English site that I have found can do that. The only way to hold fares is to book via a travel agent such as International Rail.

Capitainetrain is beautifully simple. It also notes your age when you log in, so you don’t even need to select a youth fare if you are a youth.

Going to have fun with this one.

Sophie Collard on Google+

How to Keep Cheap Eurostar Tickets

I’m in the middle of booking a holiday to Sicily at the moment. Naturally I want to get cheap Eurostar tickets for the first bit of the journey. The journey will go from London to Paris then Paris to Milan, Milan to Naples and Naples to Palermo – as discovered initially with the help of Loco2’s excellent Engine Room, where the team will answer questions about train journeys all over the place, with a wealth of knowledge and information.

I’ve got an InterRail pass, courtesy of Rail Europe which will cover many of the local trains in France and Italy – but for the high speed trains and overnight trains, bookings will have to be made at a reduced pass holder rate. This is fine by me, as it’s still pretty cheap this way – the most expensive train will be the sleeper from Naples to Palermo and that’s only £29 with a youth global pass.

Frustration only entered the booking process when – as I was trying to work out which trains needed to be reserved in Europe – the Eurostar fare from London to Paris went up in front of my eyes, from £38 to £56. This was a blow because the price of the train fare was edging closer to the price of the EasyJet flight from London to Palermo. And I didn’t want that. I wanted trains to win.

On looking up the price of the flight I was happy to discover that even with the increase in the Eurostar fare, it would still be about £80 more expensive to fly. But I was still distressed by the fare increase. So I tweeted about it.

At that point my lovely friends at International Rail, asked if I’d like them to search the fares and reservations I’d need, as well as finding the best available Eurostar fare. I was filled with feelings of warmth towards them, and said yes.

Not only did they find all the trains I’d need to book in Europe, BUT told me they could hold the Eurostar fare at £53. And they could hold it for a week. So even if the fares went up mine would not.

While I’d always advocate booking as far in advance as possible (see my post on the Caledonian Sleeper) this is a great option when you need a few hours, or days, to sort out other bookings.

And so, in the future – when I see a great Eurostar fare I’m not quite ready to book – I’ll be straight on Skype to International Rail asking them to hold the cheap fare for me. And then I will win. And you can win too.

Sophie Collard on Google+

Cheap Paris, the Best Paris

Last year I stayed in a friend’s apartment in Noisy-le-Sec, which is in the suburbs. It seems some people working in the metro ticket offices hadn’t even heard of it.

Millions of men were sent out from the station in Noisy-le-Sec, during the Great War. This plaque outside commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war.

Having someone’s flat to look after is a great way of keeping holiday costs down – and you don’t have to have a friend to do it (although that does make it free, which is lovely). There are a few companies such as housetrip, that offer the same opportunity. There are currently apartments available on their site for a Valentine’s Day break at as little as £103 for three nights.

From Noisy-le-Sec the RER double decker train runs to Magenta (which is actually Gard du Nord too) in ten minutes. From there, everywhere is easily accessible. So wherever you stay in the city or suburbs, the trains and metro system are so good, anywhere comfortable is fine.

Staying in an apartment has the bonus of helping you feel you’re really living in the place for a bit. For me, this meant doing things I’d not done before at my own pace. I visited Pere Lachaise cemetery…

and the flea market…

and returned to the Pompidou Centre, to look at my favourite piece…

And I met up with lovely bloggers and great conversationalists Marlys and Michael, who live in Montmartre

Marlys baked an amazing cake…

…then she and Michael pointed out a couple of the places in Montmartre where the wonderful film Amelie was shot. The cafe…

and the vegetable shop…

 Marlys and Michael have an apartment in Montmartre you can rent and they take their guests on movie walks of the area. Michael even wrote a book, ‘Paris Movie Walks‘.

There are some helpful posts about Paris on the Eurostar blog and you can see a post I wrote about my stay on my friend Abigail King’s blog. @Chocoralie also recently wrote about the most delicious place in Paris to have lunch.