Rail route of the month: from Genoa to Ventimiglia, Italy – a line of cinematic brilliance

Rail route of the month: from Genoa to Ventimiglia, Italy – a line of cinematic brilliance

Nature has its way of derailing travel plans. A landslide in August 2023 in the French Alps blocked the main railway just west of the Mont Cenis tunnel. This route is used by all trains from Italy to Lyon and Paris. The sleek French TGVs and the even sleeker Italian Frecciarossa trains competing on the lucrative link from Milan to the French capital were stopped in their tracks. Many passengers bound for Paris and London from Italy rerouted through Switzerland, while others devised creative itineraries via the Riviera, using the historic railway running west from Genoa which, in 1872, became one of the first two routes crossing the frontier from Italy into France. The Mont Cenis route still hasn’t reopened so, needing to travel from Trieste to France, I opt for a dose of Ligurian sunshine and take the train via Genoa, following the coast west from there into France.

This is a stretch of coast my partner and I know well. From the autostrade or the railway, the landscape seems quite tame. Up close, we see just how challenging the terrain can be. Stray off a footpath into the macchia, and you quickly encounter a tangle of thorny shrub and fierce ravines. There are rock roses, tree heathers, myrtle and broom drenched in yellow flowers and the salty tang of the sea. Move inland from the coast, and there are the scents of Liguria: lavender, sage and wild garlic which, along with pesto, focaccia and green window shutters, make the Riviera di Ponente (the coast west of Genoa) so captivating.

West from Genoa

The route flows around headlands at points, following the shape of the coast. Photograph: Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH/Alamy

None of the romance of Liguria is remotely evident on a busy Monday morning at Genoa Piazza Principe. The station’s elaborate neoclassical facade sports a fine crest of Saint George, a reminder that Genoa was paying homage long before England claimed the dragon slayer as its patron. The station’s striking entrance hall combines modern Italian chic with retro nods to history. I make my way through morning commuter crowds and locate the train to Ventimiglia, looking forward to the journey of about 90 miles (145km) that lies ahead.

Soon we are on our way, slipping by crumbling palazzi and out through the edgelands of Genoa. We cross the Polcevera River, passing quaysides and a fine parade of cranes. To the left, there’s a view through a canyon of containers to a distant cruise ship. We have barely left Genoa, but already an announcement has relayed detailed instructions on how to file a complaint if everything on this journey is not perfectly to our liking. I see no grounds for complaining. There is a fine view of the ArcelorMittal steelworks to the left, and a pause at a signal givies us time to imagine the possible itinerary of the Liberian-registered crude oil tanker moored nearby.

Genoa’s Piazza Principe railway station with the port beyond. Photograph: Craig Hastings/Getty Images

This is another world from the Liguria of tourist brochures – not pretty, but endlessly interesting. When this railway was built, there were fierce debates over whether its main purpose was to encourage tourism or promote the industrial development of coastal communities. The latter interests won, but the trains helped bring visitors to the region too. The decision to route the railway right along the coast served those intent on developing ports and harbours, but annoyed tourism promoters keen to see grand seafront promenades, avenues of palms and fine hotels to rival the French Riviera.

Tourism versus industry

The story of this two-hour journey along the Ligurian coast revolves around these competing interests. The first half hour from Genoa west to Savona has an industrial demeanour, but later there are gorgeous glimpses of rocky promontories, wild coastlines, distant hilltop villages and some very distinguished tourist resorts.

From Savona west to the French border, the original railway broadly followed the line of the ancient Roman Via Julia Augusta. But in recent decades the line has been almost entirely rebuilt, with long sections diverted into tunnels, some of them quite a way inland. The centre of the lovely resort of Sanremo, with its feast of belle époque architecture, was long separated from the sea by the railway. Then the trains were routed far inland via a long tunnel, with a new subterranean station serving Sanremo.

The train line runs just behind the port of Alassio as it nears Ventimiglia. Photograph: Matteo Marcehesini/Alamy

The wholesale rebuilding of the railway may sound antithetical to the interests of train travellers wanting to see Ligurian landscape, but in fact brings a new drama to the route. Over the last 40 miles of the journey, from Alassio to Ventimiglia, there are many tunnels, six of them two miles or more long. But along the entire route there are also dozens of short tunnels, from each of which our train emerges into bright sunshine with views of sea and mountains. I try to map our progress, but before I manage to register quite where we are, we are back in darkness for a few seconds as the train dives into another tunnel. This journey is remarkable for its moments of stroboscopic wonder with myriad fractured, but utterly intriguing, glimpses of the Ligurian coast and its hinterland.

At Diano, we pause at a station that occupies a very short open-air stretch between two tunnels. Later we stop at Imperia, where the station platforms straddle a river dividing the communities of Oneglia and Porto Maurizio, once bitter rivals, which a hundred years ago were forcibly conjoined by Mussolini to create Imperia. Then, after more tunnels, we are back in daylight, slowly drifting by beachfront bars, swimming pools and palm-fringed gardens. There are places where the railway has not entirely forsaken the coast, and here the route to Ventimiglia is every bit as dramatic as the seaside line through Dawlish in Devon.

Sanremo. Photograph: Lara_Uhryn/Getty Images

The principal beneficiaries of the decision to nudge the railway inland and into tunnels have been walkers and cyclists. For one long stretch, there’s now a wonderful coastal cycleway, the Pista ciclabile del Ponente Ligure. Sanremo’s rebuilt seaside promenade, no longer encumbered by the railway, reflects the vision of the resort’s early promoters. My journey to Ventimiglia took just two hours, but the visual snapshots glimpsed along the way will last for many years. This is a brilliant journey.

Travel facts

Trains to Ventimiglia leave Genova Piazza Principe hourly on weekdays and slightly less frequently at weekends. The journey takes between 1hr 55mins and 2hrs 45mins. On regional trains the fare is always €17.10 (£14.56), while for the faster Intercity trains the fare varies according to demand . Purchase in sterling on Rail Europe, which no longer charges fees for tickets paid for in pounds. From Ventimiglia, there are regular onward trains running to Menton (20 mins), Nice (55 mins) and beyond.

Nicky Gardner lives in Berlin. She is co-author of Europe by Rail: the Definitive Guide (Hidden Europe, £18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy of the 17th edition from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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