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.
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).
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).
Gare De Lyon (Depart 19:10) – Milan (Arrive 06:00)
You are now in Milan.
Train to La Spezia Centrale – Intercity #35333 Milan (08:10) La Spezia Centrale (11:21)
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.
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.
Stay in La Spezia at Dreams Guest House.
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
Stay in Orta at Hotel Bocciolo
Orta all day
Stay in Orta at Hotel Bocciolo
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
Milan, Private ensuite room at Ostello Bello Grande, check in 14:00, check out 11:30
Milan Centrale (depart 12:23) – Lausanne (arrive 15:42) EuroCity #34
Lausanne Royal Savoy Hotel & Spa. Check in from 15:00. Check out by 12 (train at 12:23)
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
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!
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.