from Genoa to Ventimiglia, Italy – a line of cinematic brilliance

Nature has its ways of derailing travel plans. An August 2023 landslide in the French Alps blocked the main railway line 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 even sleeker Italian Frecciarossa trains that competed on the lucrative route from Milan to the French capital were brought to a standstill. Many passengers heading from Italy to Paris and London passed through Switzerland, while others devised creative routes through the Riviera, taking advantage of the historic railway line running west from Genoa, which became one of the first two routes in 1872 who crossed the border from Italy to France. The Mont Cenis route has still not reopened, so since I have to travel from Trieste to France, I opt for a dose of Ligurian sun and take the train via Genoa, from there along the coast west to France.

There are rock roses, heather trees, myrtle and broom drenched in yellow flowers and the salty taste of the sea

This is a stretch of coast that my partner and I know well. Of the highway or the railway, the landscape seems quite tame. Up close we see how challenging the terrain can be. Get lost from a footpath to the macchia, and soon you encounter a tangle of thorny bushes and wild ravines. There are rock roses, heather trees, myrtle and broom drenched in yellow flowers and the salty taste of the sea. Head inland from the coast and there are the scents of Liguria: lavender, sage and wild garlic which, together with pesto, Focaccia and green shutters make the Riviera di Ponente (the coast west of Genoa) so fascinating.

West of Genoa

None of the romance of Liguria is even remotely visible on a busy Monday morning in Piazza Principe in Genoa. The station’s elaborate neoclassical facade features a beautiful coat of arms of St. George, a reminder that Genoa paid tribute long before England claimed the dragon slayer as its patron. The striking entrance hall of the station combines modern Italian chic with retro nods to history. I push my way through the morning crowd of commuters and look for the train to Ventimiglia, looking forward to the approximately 90-mile journey ahead.

Soon we are on our way, slipping and crumbling palazzi and through the borderlands of Genoa. We cross the Polcevera River, passing quays and a beautiful parade of cranes. On the left you have a view of a cruise ship in the distance through a gorge with containers. We have only just left Genoa, but there is already an announcement with detailed instructions on how to file a complaint if everything on this trip is not quite to your liking. I see no reason to complain. There is a nice view of the ArcelorMittal steel mill on the left, and a pause at a signal gives us time to imagine the possible route of the Liberian-registered crude oil tanker moored nearby.

This is another world from the Liguria of the 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 to promote industrial development of coastal communities. The latter interests won, but the trains also brought visitors to the region. The decision to run the railway directly along the coast benefited those who wanted to develop ports and ports, but irritated tourist promoters who were keen to see grand boulevards, palm-lined avenues and fine hotels that could 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 feel, but later there are beautiful glimpses of rocky capes, wild coastlines, remote hilltop villages and some very prominent tourist resorts.

From Savona westwards to the French border the original railway line broadly followed the line of the ancient Roman Via Julia Augusta. But in recent decades the line has been almost completely rebuilt, with long stretches diverted to tunnels, some of which are well inland. The center of the beautiful seaside resort of Sanremo, with its feast of Belle Époque architecture, was for a long time separated from the sea by the railway line. The trains were then routed far inland through a long tunnel, with a new underground station serving Sanremo.

The large-scale reconstruction of the railway may sound contrary to the interests of train passengers who want to see the Ligurian landscape, but in fact it brings a new drama to the route. During the last sixty kilometers of the journey, from Alassio to Ventimiglia, there are many tunnels, six of which are two kilometers or more long. But there are also dozens of short tunnels along the entire route, from which our train emerges into the bright sun with a view of the sea and the mountains. I try to chart our progress, but before I manage to register exactly where we are, we find ourselves in darkness again for a few seconds as the train dives into another tunnel. This journey is notable for its moments of stroboscopic wonder with countless fractured, but extremely intriguing glimpses of the Ligurian coast and hinterland.

After more tunnels we are back in daylight and drift slowly past beach bars, swimming pools and palm-lined gardens

At Diano we take a break at a station that covers a very short open-air section between two tunnels. Later we stop at Imperia, where the platforms stretch over a river that separated the communities of Oneglia and Porto Maurizio, once bitter rivals, which were forcibly merged by Mussolini a hundred years ago to create Imperia. Then, after more tunnels, we’re back in daylight, drifting slowly past beach bars, pools and palm-lined gardens. There are places where the railway has not quite left the coast, and here the route to Ventimiglia is as dramatic as the coastline through Dawlish in Devon.

The main beneficiaries of the decision to push the railway inland and into tunnels are walkers and cyclists. For a long stretch there is now a beautiful cycle path along the coast, the Pissa ciclabile del Ponente Ligure. Sanremo’s rebuilt promenade, no longer obstructed by the railway line, reflects the vision of the resort’s first initiators. My journey to Ventimiglia only took two hours, but the visual snapshots I encountered along the way will last for many years. This is a wonderful journey.

Travel Facts

Trains to Ventimiglia leave Genova Piazza Principe every hour on weekdays and slightly less frequently on weekends. The journey takes between 1 hour and 55 minutes and 2 hours and 45 minutes. On regional trains the fare is always €17.10 (£14.56), while for the faster Intercity trains the fare varies depending on demand. Buy in British Pounds from Rail Europe, which no longer charges for tickets paid for in Pounds. From Ventimiglia there are regular trains to Menton (20 minutes), Nice (55 minutes) 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, you can order your copy of the 17th edition from Delivery charges may apply

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