Sunday, July 3, 2011

All Aboard: Let's Go to Liguria

I've had a few questions via private message on Trip Advisor about how I planned my day trips in Liguria using Genoa (Genova) as my home base and I thought that others might benefit from my answers. Thus, this post.

To start, yes. I think Genova is an excellent home base for the region, all four provinces of Liguria (Genova, Imperia, La Spezia, Savona). Most of the places that tourists want to visit are along the coast and are well serviced by train, bus, boat, or some combination thereof, either from Genova or using other towns in the region as your starting point.

As a travel photographer, much of my day trip planning from any home base begins at my computer. Guidebooks, photo tomes, travel shows and mags or movies are a nice resource, but I find that simply spending some time online with Google Maps, Flickr, and other sites is a great source of information and discovery when it comes to deciding where I want to go. Beaten path destinations are easy enough to research, but it's the un- or lesser touristed towns that I'm more interested in identifying and visiting, and to find them I have to get a little more creative than Rick Steves' Europe and the like.

Using the method described above, I generally start on Google Maps at my home base (e.g., Genova) and surf down or around the map for interesting-sounding city names. I pick a city and look it up on Google Images and Flickr or elsewhere and if it looks like a place I might enjoy spending a few hours, I delve deeper, searching for train, bus, or boat schedules to determine if it's a feasible day trip.

This approach works for me, and works for pretty much anywhere you'd like to go and trip by day from. Especially in Europe where public transportation is generally pretty fantastic.

For Liguria specifically, I settled on the following towns as my day trip destinations from Genova: Alassio, Albenga, Albisola, Boccadasse, Bogliasco, Bonassola, Camogli, Campo Ligure, Celle Ligure, Cervo, Cinque Terre, Cogoleto, Finalborgo, Laiguelia, Lerici, Nervi, Noli, Pieve Ligure, Portofino, Portovenere, San Terenzo, Santa Margherita Ligure, Sarzana, Sestri Levante, Sori, Tellaro, and Varazze.

Once I had a list of places I wanted to visit, I organized them into manageable chunks. I listed them out in order of their distance from Genova and worked backwards with train, bus, and boat schedules to figure out how many I could reasonably and leisurely enjoy in a day. The furthest I was willing to travel was three hours, so I figured out which far-lying cities fit within that max, chose a few, and worked backwards. The daily plan was to go from Genova to the furthest point, and make stops along the route home. That makes the most sense to me because who wants to have a three-hour schlep home at the end of a long day when you're tired and just want to be in bed already?

After I'd sorted those details I looked at how many travel days I had total, and began cutting. The list of cities two paragraphs above comprises my final cut. In the end, I didn't make it to all because I fell wildly ill with a lovely cold on the second week of my two-week trip. But had I been healthy all 13 travel days, I likely would have made it to every stop on the list.

In the olden days before my iPod touch, I would use MS Word to type up all my custom travel details. These days, I create a document in Google Docs and access it on the fly - sans WiFi, even - with the gogo Docs app. Couldn't be more convenient. I also rely on my iPod touch to make changes to my plans on the fly by going online with Safari to check bus, train, and boat schedules (with WiFi access). Because I was staying at a B&B where WiFi was included, it was always available in the mornings or afternoons before I wanted to head out. It was perfect. Further, I could also make changes to my plans on the fly, on the fly (sans WiFi). For example, if I thought I might like to stay for a longer or shorter duration of time somewhere, I could simply pull out my iPod and take a quick pic of bus, train, or boat schedules and consult them as I needed. Awesome, right?

Screenshots from portions of my Genoa 2011 Google Docs custom guide:

With a little work (or a lot, in the end) I had a document that best prepared me to focus on enjoying the trip and not scrambling each day to figure out where I should begin, end, what the timing of transportation between towns was like, how many towns I could reasonably see in a day, etc. I did not, I repeat - I did (and do not) - plan my trip down to the minute. I just got the minutia out of the way so that I could get from A to B smoothly and get to enjoying B already before moving on to C, carefree. See? Much more enjoyable vacationing, that way. It's easy to get flustered in a foreign country and planning like this puts me at ease and minimizes that sort of stress.

I used the following sites and apps for this trip, both in pre-travel planning and in Genova:

il Borgo di Genova
I can't recommend this place highly enough. Alessandra and Giovanni are the best. And I don't say that lightly. They truly tops!

ATC La Spezia
Province of La Spezia bus information.

Commissione di Garanzia e Sciopero
Commission of Strikes.

Consorzio Marittimo Turistico 5 Terre
Golf of Poets and Cinque Terre boats.

Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane
Italian State Railways' official site.

Google Translate
Both the website and the iPod app.

Italy Strikes
One of several sources to track strikes.

Rail Europe
Gives some idea of schedules and prices, but not exhaustive.

Regione Liguria Transport Timetable
Bookmark this site. It will be your best friend in planning and on the once you're on the ground in Liguria. An invaluable source for train and bus timetables and options between all towns throughout the region of Liguria, in all four provinces (Genova, Imperia, La Spezia, Savona).

Strikes in Italy
One of several sources to track strikes.

The Italian railway system's official site.

Another helpful Trenitalia site.

Better maps for Europe than Google.

An idea of ticket prices:

Bus tickets were from 1,50 to 3,00 each way from various towns. I took the bus from the train station at La Spezia to Lerici (and back), from Lerici to Tellaro, from Genova to Nervi, and from Sarzana to La Spezia (to the train station).

Corsa Semplice train tickets were 6,60 for 90km; 3,00 for 30 km; and 2,40 for 20km rides.

Genova Brignole to Camogli was 20km and 2,40 for a Classe 2 treno ordinario seat.

Genova Brignole to Campo Ligure was 33km and 3,50 for a Classe 2
treno ordinario seat.

Genova Brignole to Sori was 15km and 2,10 for a Classe 2
treno ordinario seat.

Genova Brignole to La Spezia Centrale was 13,50 for a Classe 2 Eurostar seat.

Genova Brignole to La Spezia Central was 87km and 6,60 for a Classe 2
treno ordinario seat.

Genova Brignole to Manarola (one of the Cinque Terre towns) was 79km and 6,00 for a Classe 2
treno ordinario seat.

La Spezia Centrale to Sarzana was 16km and 2,40 for a Classe 2 treno ordinario seat.

Monterosso to Genova Brignole was 71km and 6,00 for a Classe 2
treno ordinario seat.

Riomaggiore to Genova Brignole was 80 and also 6,00 for a Classe 2
treno ordinario seat.

Note that you have six - yes, 6 - hours from the time of validation (you must validate your train ticket before boarding the train, otherwise you face a fine if caught) to get from A (partenza) to B (arrivo) as printed on your ticket. If you plan well, you can see several towns on a single one-way train ticket, en route from A to B. This is where all that pre-travel planning can really pay off to save you precious time and money.

Do you have any questions for me? If not, how about a question for you: What are some of your favorite day trips from Genoa or elsewhere in Liguria by train, bus, or boat?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Get off the Couch [or the Computer] and Go!

Question: Why are some people happy to venture afar sans a fellow traveler in tow, while other would-be adventurers pass precious time at home (when they could be away) waiting for family, friends, or partners to find either the time, money, desire, or some combination thereof, to get out and about abroad?

Answer: Sheer fear. Of the unknown. Of potential loneliness. Of who knows what. I can't tell you the number of times a friend has said something like, "Oh, you're so brave to travel by yourself." Or, "I've always wanted to go to _______. But I don't like traveling alone and can't find anyone to go with me." And when I ask if they've ever actually tried solo travel, the answer is invariably, "No."

I can understand the hesitation. The idea of roaming alone used to freak me out, too. And I still can't cotton to the idea of things like remote solo hikes or driving across the country by my lonesome. Too many real life horror stories spring to mind! But anyway. It wasn't until a friend invited me along on a trip to Europe that I finally got to Europe. Had I not had someone to hold my hand on that maiden voyage, I may well still be sitting at home dreaming of gondola rides down the Grand Canal, staring up at the actual Eiffel Tower (rather than that half-pint knockoff in Vegas), partaking of bona fide French pastries - hot out of a French oven, in France, and a million other priceless, cherished experiences, nuanced and not.

Europe in particular - I can say having been now, many times alone - is a joy to navigate without crutches. I mean, travel companions. There's so much to see and do, whether for a fee or for free, getting bored is hardly an option. And though the big, looming-L (loneliness) is a constant possibility, it's not to be feared. Feeling lonely is just a natural facet of being, after all. It's a mood that can strike anyone, anywhere, and at any time. Whether one is actually alone or not.

How often have we felt lonely at a party or among friends and family or with a romantic partner? It happens. C'est la vie, from time to time. And we get through it somehow, don't we? So don't let something lame like the mere possibility of a little loneliness, so commonplace and insignificant - in the grand scheme of things - stop you from taking a trip by yourself. Plus, when you're traveling alone, it's nearly impossible to avoid striking up a conversation of some kind with strangers. You'll meet people. Really, you will. Unless you go out of your way not to interact with anyone, that is! And yes, you can meet people and have a conversation, even if all you speak is English. How do you suppose someone from say, China and someone from Portugal are going to communicate with each other, beyond gestures? Why in English, of course.

Whether it's asking for directions, shop hours, how to find the nearest metro, or any number of queries one might expect from an out-of-towner, you're going to have myriad opportunities to make a buddy. Even if it's just a temporary connection.

And speaking of connections, have you not seen Before Sunrise or Before Sunset? What about Bread and Tulips? Lost in Translation? L'Auberge Espagnole? Surely you got sucked into the Eat, Pray, Love blitz or were at least vaguely aware of the basic storyline.

Where ever it is you've always dreamed of going, chances are it's a trip that you can safely take alone (provided you use common sense). If the destination is a bit more daring, you may have to organize a spot with a tour group or take a class of some kind, but hey - instant travel companions, right? You have only to be open to a different kind of trip, when traveling alone. Take the plunge without expectations and just enjoy it. You never know who you might meet or the kind of time you may have. Essentially, if you have the means and the free time, it boils down to Nike and De Niro - Just do it (Nike). If you don't go, you'll never know (Robert De Niro). And that - not going, never knowing - would truly be a senseless tragedy.

8/24/2011: Celebrate senior solo travel! Solo travel sites and tips for the mature traveler

What is holding you back from a solo adventure afar? If you used to be afraid or hesitant to travel alone, what finally got you to go? How did the trip turn out? For those who love solo travel as I do, what movies, books, blogs, or other media would you recommend to those who are still a bit timid when it comes to this kind of travel?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Woulda Coulda Shoulda

I gotta study abroad. It's never too late, methinks. Even if it's à la Christine on an extended work/stay/study afar, après college (or well after, in my case). Thanks for the inspiration, Anne.


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