The sun shifted, and out of the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean you could see the outstretched arms of Christ 20 feet below, protecting the entrance to the harbour at San Fruttuoso. Sent down to the briny depths in 1954 to commemorate inventor Dario Gonzatti, the pioneer of scuba diving, today it is a magnate for divers, tourists and locals alike, including Great Rail Journeys customers as they travel through the Italian Riviera.
A morning departure from Great Rail Journey's dedicated departure office at St Pancras and a day spent on the high-speed TGV relaxing enjoying the scenery of France and northern Italy brought us to Turin for the first stop of our tour. After a morning of exploration its onwards to the Italian Riviera and the Grand Hotel Villa Balbi in Sestri Levante, which serves as our base of exploration. One of a number of villages along the coastline, Sestri Levante offers up a myriad of opportunities to wander its narrow back streets or relax on waterside sun lounger and soak up some early or late season sun (Great Rail Journeys only tour this part of Italy in May, June and September when the weather is cooler and critically, the crowds that flock here in the summer months are yet to arrive or have already departed).
If, like me, you sadly lack the millions required to own a luxury yacht, then train and boat are the best way of exploring this part of Italy. Trains get you around easily, straight into the heart of the towns of the Cinque Terre, and private charter boats allow you to get those views of the mountain-side villas along the seashore, as well as to make the trip into San Fruttuoso and Portofino. A bathing suit and a good snorkel mask are however required if you want to meet Christ of the Abyss, who sits sunken on the seabed.
While in Sestri Lavante you do have some time at leisure and I would recommend a night-time trip to the nearby town of Moneglia, taking dinner at the Assirto Restaurant. This hidden treasure sits off the main street, but the food is wonderful and the proprietor Luca and his wife make it a memorable evening. There's no menu constricting your choices, just the starters and mains they have prepared that day - it all costs the same and the food is most definitely authentic, rustic Italian (not a pizza or spaghetti Bolognese in sight!) Whilst getting settled and supping on your first glass of glorious red, you are bound to be offered Luca's signature dish of roast pork and you shouldn't refuse, it's so good it was even awarded 'dish of the year' by the Forbes Magazine. One last piece of advice however, be sure to book, the restaurant is small and popular - a combination that makes for a wonderful atmosphere, but also a long wait if you don't' plan ahead.
Two of the Italian Riviera's 'must sees' are the picturesque villages of the Cinqui Terre and the boutique ambience of the fishing village of Portofino. For the latter we visit via private boat (the public boats have over 300 people on them and are very busy) and we get the chance to explore not just Portofino, but also the Abbey at San Fruttuoso. Great weather and a beautiful coast line dotted with unspoilt villages await…
In Portofino stroll up to the local church for a stunning view of the town, or even walk out to the lighthouse and grab a drink overlooking the Mediterranean. Alternatively, if you are feeling really spontaneous, take the shuttle bus up to the Hotel Splendido and enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine on the terrace of one the world's most exclusive hotels. Just a word of warning though, the property is eye-wateringly expensive and the port itself has many much more reasonable places to stop by for a drink or ice cream; on the day we visit lunch is provided in one of the harbour side restaurants.
The Cinque Terre is the name given to a 10km stretch of coast nestled just below Sestri Levante and which, unsurprisingly, is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site. The villages (there are five in all, cinque is Italian for five) hang precariously from the cliff side, and are famous for the beautiful colour of their houses, each one glinting a different, vibrant colour in the afternoon sun. The main rail line linking Rome and Genoa passes through, announcing itself with a blast of its horn, and a local train service allows you to get off and on, visiting each in turn, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
All of the villages are slightly different, although with its beautiful harbour and mountain backdrop my personal favourite was Manarola. And while the Cinque Terre do have some shops and restaurants, they're limited and can get busy so it's best to bring some water and food along with you - there are certainly worst places to have lunch than sitting on a pebble beach overlooking the water with a multi-coloured cascade of authentic houses to your back. What is made abundantly clear to us when we visit, is that the train is the way to reach them. Originally built in the 19th century, the rail line has been updated and modified via a series of tunnels that hug the Riviera's coastline, affording fantastic views as we go and as well as delivering you right into the centre of the villages from which coaches are most definitely banned, if the hairpin journey along the precarious cliff tops weren't enough to put them off.
Sadly, my stay had to be cut short, but with if you travel with Great Rail Journeys you also get the opportunity to visit Pisa, Lucca and Camogli, making for an all-encompassing ten-day stay in the area, and Sestri Levante the perfect place to be based to see and do it all.