Paradise Lost: Journey to the Italian Coast.

After 4 long years it was time to return to Europe! I had last visited Europe in 2012 when I participated in a summer study abroad at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, I used the time on each end of the trip to do a whirlwind trip starting in Denmark and ending in Spain. Two of my goals for the second half of the trip which were to visit Gotthard Pass in Switzerland and the Ventimeglia-Genoa coastal railway in Italy both which were scheduled to be either closed or downgraded following the construction of base tunnels. However I ended up falling in love with the Swiss narrow gauge lines and my planned day on Gotthard Pass turned into just a few hours. Those few hours though were enough that I knew I needed to see more of Gotthard Pass so I decided to skip my trip to the Italian Coast in favor of more time in Switzerland. I got one more day on Gotthard but between the weather and the rushed nature of the trip it still wasnt enough. Sadly I couldnt spend much more time as my flight out of Barcelona was just a few days away and I had to get through Switzerland and France to make it there. I ended up just barely making it to Spain after coming up with an entirely new plan on the fly but I knew I needed to return to visit both of these lines. Unfortunately life got in the way and I was in no financial shape to visit Europe for the next few years. However in 2016 with the closure dates for both lines set in stone I knew it was now or never so I made the plunge to visit in September when I hoped the weather would be good and prices lower after the end of the summer tourist season.

The primary attraction of the Ventimeglia to Genoa line is the town of Cervo where the railroad passes along the waterfront and infront of the beautiful old town perched upon a hill. After talking to local rail enthusiasts online I found out the only freight train to traverse the line in daylight would run early on Saturday morning. With this information I booked a flight using the Delta Skymiles earned by signing up for their Gold Rewards card to purchase a ticket from Atlanta to Paris with return via Munich. From Paris I booked a TGV to Nice where I reserved a hostel room, from there I would take a local train to Cervo the next morning. What I did not pay attention to was the fact that local train services on this line are reduced on weekends so my planned flight into Paris would mean I would miss the last train to Cervo or the closest connecting point at Ventimeglia meaning I would likely miss the freight train the next day. Unfortunately by this point it was past time to change my tickets for free so I gritted my teeth and paid the $150 change fee and got a new flight via Amsterdam to Lyon for the same price and made new TGV reservations from Lyon to Nice where I would take a local train to Ventimeglia to spend the night. 

Despite having the fastest trains in the world SNCF trains are habitually late and my train would be no exception. I arrived at the station to see the train was an hours late. Not feeling like walking around with my big backpack I decided to wait it out at the station and photograph a few trains while I waited. The only thing worse than SNCF’s timekeeping is its recent choice of paint schemes. The veteran BB22200 locomotives now wear a horrible wrapped purple and blue livery. Meanwhile the attractive blue and silver TGV Atlantique scheme is being slowly replaced by a awful new grey, pink and white scheme, another downward spiral from the original orange TGV livery.

  

Finally over and hour late the train arrived and we sped down the high speed line towards Marseilles arriving as the sun set. One important thing to remember while travelling via TGV is even though it is a premier high speed train there are no wall outlets except in 1st class so charge your phones ahead of time! After leaving Marseilles the train left the high speed alignment and continued onto the relatively slower coastal line to Nice. This would have been a great ride but unfortunately due to the late arrival it was mostly in the darkness. Finally arrived in Nice well after dark and got off to buy my ticket for the local train to Ventimeglia. While buying my ticket I was approached by a man who I was pretty certain was a refugee from the middle east but who spoke excellent English. He asked me how to get to a town I had never heard of and when I looked was in the far north. It seemed that he was desperate to get there that night, no doubt wanting to get out of the south where it would be far more likely he would be caught by the French authorities. I told him there was no way he could get there tonight as ours was the last TGV and the local trains still running would only take him as far as Cannes. There was nothing more I could do to help but it put a human face to the news we are constantly seeing on TV. 

Another 30 minutes later it was time to head for Ventimeglia. The train was a typical ugly bilevel SNCF EMU, covered in graffiti but that was the least of my concerns at that moment. I could see very little in the dark but enough to know that it would have been another nice ride had it been daylight, definitely a line I want to return to in the future. We made a brief stop at the underground station in Monaco allowing me to say I’ve been to the two smallest countries in the world, though in this case under it is more appropriate as Monaco’s entire rail network is in a tunnel. In Ventimeglia the effects of the immigration crisis were also evident as the Italian border police were detaining some refugees to prevent them from entering or leaving the country. I had booked a cheap hotel right across from the station and was thankful I didnt have to walk any further. After checking in and showering I lay down for what I knew would be a very short sleep. 

September 10, 2016

No rest for the wicked as its up at #,## to catch the first train to Diano Marina, the hotel clerk looked rather surprised to see me checking out already and asked “did you sleep at all?”. Between jetlag and the fear of oversleeping my alarm not really…

My train was already waiting on the platform, a typical Italian push pull set with a E464 on the rear. The Italian Railways have standardized on the E464’s for most regional trains and while they are not my favorite locomotives by any stretch of imagination they definitely are better than the hideous EMU’s in France. It was still fully dark out but I was happy to be on the train to my first real destination after a day of “positioning moves”.The line from Ventimeglia was once a scenic coastal railroad but now much of it is in a tunnel, several towns once like San Remo once had nice stations by the sea but instead now have subterranean stations well away from town, the price for high speed and the reason for my travels as soon the line through Cervo would suffer the same fate. 

Due to the weekend schedule there would not be a train halting at Cervo station until after 9 AM so I got off at Diano Marina, a larger station 2 miles east and planned to walk the 2 miles to Cervo as I did not know how to arrange for a taxi at this early hour.

I had booked a hotel room at the Hotel Villa San Giuseppe which was in between the two stations and after a mile of walking was thankful to find there was someone at the reception. I dropped off my big bag of clothes and continued the 1 mile into Cervo at a much brisker pace thanks to shedding all that weight. I arrived just in time to witness the RZD sleeper train from Moscow, Russia to Nice pass through behind a venerable E656 class locomotive, the dawn had just started to break and there was barely enough light to pull off a shot

I decided to walk a little bit east of town to photograph the freight as I knew there was a nice open spot right along the ocean. I arrived just as the sun rose above the water and was happy to see there were no clouds on the horizon and it looked like it would be a beautiful sunny day in Italy. The first train was the daily express IC 35005 to Rome led by the regular E402 modern electric followed by the morning parade of suburban trains. The suburban trains are all operated push pull style powered by E464 electrics exclusively with cab cars facing east. This meant that all but the freight and intercity trains would be cab car first at this spot but there were atleast a good variety of different coach styles. 

Then right after the shadows had receded the freight train unexpectedly showed up behind a clean FS E632 class, my decision to switch my tickets had paid off immensely as the train was far earlier than expected and I would have definitely missed it had I stuck to the original plan. Not bad for a $150 shot! 

Shortly after the freight train passed I was unexpectedly joined by an Italian rail videographer Nicola Biana who spoke good English, he like me was here to document the last days of the line and was collecting footage for a YouTube documentary. As we prepared for the second intercity train of the day, EC 139 we were joined by yet another railfan from Germany whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. The intercity trains other than the early morning express to Rome are all hauled by venerable E444 electrics, built from 1960-1975 and modernized in the late 1990’s. During my visit they were still relatively common but since then Trenitalia (FS) has started to retire these aging electrics. 

After EC 139 passed the German railfan suggested we move to Capo Mimosa as the Ventimeglia bound EC 142 was running late so we would have time to walk down there if we moved quickly. Capo Mimosa is a popular RV and camping spot and is reached down a long zigzag private road, the guard however was happy to let us go knowing that we wanted to capture the last days of the railway. German railfans are probably the most motivated and adventurous in the world but his determination paid off as we reached Capo Mimosa just in time to photograph EC 142. We decided to stay here for the two following regional trains as we were unable to figure out how to reach the classic shot atop the bluff for the EC train. 

 

After photographing these two trains we attempted to get back to Cervo proper in time for IC 745 but the train rushed past before we even reached the main road. The German railfan gave me a ride in his car back to Cervo before he headed off to photograph some of the other less commonly photographed spots. He was spending a week there so would have plenty of time to capture the iconic shot at Cervo but given that I only had two days I needed to get it today incase the weather was not as nice tomorrow. Starving I grabbed some pizza in the town before walking to the beach. After walking out onto the jetty to get in position for the next train I was again surprised to find even more railfans, two Italian fans, who did not speak much English but we tried our best to communicate. I have kept in touch with one of them, Federico Lumecisi and his photos can be found here. At 13:00 Intercity 660 showed up running 1 hour late, this would be my favorite shot at this iconic location, the E444 with a matched set of Trenitalia coaches is about the best one can hope for nowadays in Italy. 

After nailing the classic shot I up along the road and photographed trains at another popular spot as they skirt the water before passing under the road in a short tunnel. 

In the late afternoon the clouds started to roll in so I decided to try some different shots like the Cervo station and a small brick arch bridge with the town in the background. 

After that I decided to head for the hotel as I was dead tired after the continuous travelling and walking, tomorrow I would have a chance to get whatever shots I missed today and hopefully the weather would be just as nice! 

 

Reviews:

Hotel Giuseppi, Ventimeglia, Italy: 

A spartan hotel but very convenient if arriving by train. The hotel is located across the street from the train station and has a 24hr reception which is useful if arriving late like me, there are several restaurants close to the hotel and some of these are open late into the evening. Room was basic but had good shower and bed was comfortable enough, as is typical in Italy there was no air conditioning but the fan kept the room cool. A twin room was € 70 with tax but was a late booking, there are several less expensive hotels further into town but for sheer convenience this is the place to go.

Book here via Booking.com

Hotel Villa San Giuseppe

A very nice hotel in a great location, located along the main road between Diano Marina and Cervo this hotel sits close to the water and has its own private beach. The hotel has its own restaurant which serves a multicourse meal but there are less expensive options nearby. The rooms are comfortable and clean, again no air conditioning but with fan and open windows it is quite pleasant. The hotel is about a 20 minute walk or 5 minute walk from the main town of Cervo, with no train service bus is the only public transportation option here. The staff were very helpful and allowed me to store my bag there before checkin and arranged for a car to drop me off at Diano Marina. The rate during my stay was €60 per night, the best price I could find in Cervo since it was the end of the tourist season in Italy.

Book here via Booking.com

 

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