Europe’s shores are calling; adventure, culture and a rich tapestry of beautiful scenery awaits. And where better to explore than the delights of Spain and Italy. Whilst perhaps close in their language root, distance between these two European siblings is great.So how is it best to experience these two great nations? How can you best dance between the joys of Spain’s Tapas and Flamenco to Italy’s Gelato and rock villages?
On our travels since March 2016 we have visited both countries and indulged ourselves in their beauty for months at a time. Although the thought of trying to get to each one easefully can be a tricky conundrum for us travellers. Do you go by road or by ferry?
We’ve done both routes and feel that with both experiences under our belt, it’s a good time to share our journeys, the cost comparisons and offer these up to you. Hopefully as a result you can then make your own personal choices.
The Road Route
The road route to and from Spain to Italy is surely a beautiful one. Flirting with the edge of the Pyrenees at one side of the continent, through the southern regions of France’s Riviera and skipping into Italy’s Riviera cousin. With such sights along the route as Carcassonne, the Camargue and Provence’s coastal delights it makes the road-trip an easy temptation. And who could resist the joys of baguettes, the regional Pastis and a croissant or two? Crossing the border into Italy gives you a plethora of seaside resorts to enjoy or the tourist magnet of the Cinque Terre, Portofino and Pisa. And so your Italian adventure can begin.
With that in mind, let’s look at the stats and costs of choosing this route.
It is approx 800 miles from Civitavecchia in Italy to Barcelona in Catalonia.
That’s a rough cost of £140.00 for diesel, based on 0.17p per mile for a 3.5T motorhome.
The Tolls through eastern Italy and France can add up depending on how many diversions you take for sightseeing. Allow around £130 for Tolls depending on the class of vehicle you are driving.
There are potentially two Weighing Station possibilities, both on the France/Italy border and at Perpignan as you head to/from Spain. Whilst we have never been stopped, there are regular stories about campers being taken to the weighing station en route from Spain into France. If you want to avoid this, then the coastal route from Collioure to Roses is an alternative. This will take you an extra hour and an additional 20 miles.
Depending on your travel philosophy and how many hours/miles you are willing to do in a day, it will take between 3-5 days.
Meals/drinks for those days need to be built into the cost analysis together with campsites, Aires or services.
Advantages of the Road Option
It gives you the chance to explore en route if you don’t know the area.
Avoids potentially stormy seas of the ferry crossing.
You can be flexible when you make your journey.
Disadvantages of the Road Option
Much of the most direct route requires Tolls, many of which are nigh on impossible to avoid, can be tricky to navigate and can add to your stress, time and mileage. And the costs do add up.
You need to build in the wear and tear on your vehicle, tyres in particular.
There is a risk of being stopped at the Borders for weight checks.
Places to stay alongside the motorway are limited and not recommended so a diversion into the towns are required, adding further to time, mileage and costs.
If you are travelling in the winter heading from Italy to Spain for some sunshine, then most of the campsites will be shut, so you are reliant on Aires, wild camping and Sostas.
You are at the mercy of bad weather conditions and accidents.
The road quality in the north-west regions of Italy are particularly low quality.
You have the Genoa issue to navigate following the collapse of the bridge in August 2018 that carries the main arterial motorway.
If you are travelling in winter, then weather conditions and potentially snow around the Pyrenees are a factor to consider. Also in Italy, from 15 November, winter tyres are recommended and snow chains are compulsory so, if like us, you only have snow socks for your summer tyres, then the ferry is a strong contender.
Total cost for Road = minimum of £300 excluding campsites, Aire fees and the wear and tear apportionment.
The Ferry Route
From Baracelona to Civitavecchia, just north of Rome is a 20 hour sailing leaving at night between 2000 and 2300 respectively. So for 7 hours of the journey you are asleep. The boats are cruise ship size vessels from Grimaldi Lines and whilst not the quality of a cruise liner, it does what it says on the tin.The boats for summer trips have a swimming pool and sun loungers and for other season, a Well-being centre, restaurants and bars. With plenty of cabins available you have your own private space and toilet/shower facilities. Or you can choose a reclining seat in a private lounge.
Here are the costs for the ferry option;
Based on an April 2017 from Barcelona the cost was £356.00 and a November 2019 sailing from Civitavecchia was £349.00. Both ferries included a cabin and were booked online with Directferries which was a lot cheaper than going direct to Grimaldi Lines.
There is also a route from Genoa and Savona to Barcelona obviously depending which part of Italy you are travelling from or to and they are slightly cheaper by about £50. So it might make more sense to take this ferry if you are in the northern regions of Italy than to drive down to Civitavecchia.
Prices are based on the size of your vehicle <6m and from 6m-9m.
Allow for Breakfast, Lunch and refreshments whilst on board, prices of which average £17pp for the trip.
You can reserve a reclining seat for £5 or a cabin for £80. Bear in mind that if you pay for a cabin when onboard, it will cost you £10 more than if you reserve it on line.
Advantages of the Ferry
It is much quicker than the 3-5 days it takes to drive. With the overnight boat, 2/3rds of your journey is done by the time morning arrives.
It saves on the wear and tear of your vehicle. The 800 miles direct route by road accounts for around 5% of your tyres’ lifespan. So this does need to be built in, mentally at least.
With a night time schedule, no accommodation the night before is required, so you can travel directly to the ferry, ensuring you check in 120 minutes before the sailing.
If you order a cabin you can have unlimited showers with piping hot water!
Dogs are allowed on the ferry, with either Kennels or Pet Friendly cabins.
Disadvantages of the Ferry
The weather is unpredictable, so stormy seas are a factor https://www.instagram.com/ especially during the winter, causing potential sea-sickness if you are prone.
The food quality is not great and is expensive.
If it is busy then embarkation and disembarkation can take time.
The schedule is always open to disruption from operational issues. Although unless it is cancelled you are still across the Mediterranean within 24 hours.
It’s never a great quality sleep on a boat.
On exiting the ferry, a wrong turn could have you in Barcelona’s Low Emission Zone, which without a sticker could be an expensive fine. Although sticking to the outer ring road is not in the city zone.
If you time your crossing over a half-term, there is a risk of school children crossing to or returning from a trip to Rome or Barcelona. This happened to us on our first crossing in March 2017 and it was not pleasant given their teachers were all sitting in the bar having a fine old time.
Total cost for the ferry = £385.00 with no additional extras
A significant part of our decision about the ferry versus the road is about time rather than costs. As you can see there’s not a huge amount in it, once you factor in the Road Option’s hidden and unexpected costs. For us the speed and efficiency of the ferry far outweighs the road. We all know that travel is tiring and to cut off potentially 3 days travel time is worth doing, in our book. Although of course it is a personal choice based on your individual circumstances and also where your start or end point is in Italy.
If you have no time constraints and the seasons are in your favour, then the road has some huge sightseeing benefits. For autumn and winter, then the ferry is far more appealing. The choice is yours!
We hope that this has been helpful in working through the options for you with some stats and facts.
Anticipation filled the autumn air as we looked ahead to Italy’s Cinque Terre.
The Famous Five; a coastal stretch of Italy’s Riviera that is home to five quaint fishing villages, pastel coloured houses that perch precariously on the rock-face where residents live life on the edge, almost literally. How would our day fare? Would we be left disappointed or delighted?
Our Italian love/hate relationship
Our feelings about Italy over the last couple of years have been tinged with what can only be described as a love, hate relationship. Sometimes we adore its romantic canvas and then we take to the road and the love affair comes to an abrupt end as we navigate the highways and bi-ways with their crazy drivers.
Portovenere poster matches its claim
We had a similar connection with Cinque Terre (CT) when we visited last year, after stumbling upon Portovenere just along the peninsular from La Spezia. We loved this wonderful town and as a working port has somehow held onto its authentic roots despite growing tourism. And yet Portovenere is NOT on THE LIST, which perhaps accounts for its serene vibe and distinct lack of visitors. At the other end of the coast you find Monterosso; a surprisingly grey town cut in half, discourteously by the railway line, seemingly severing its once beautiful sanctuary. We were so disappointed by our initial introduction to CT that we decided to pass on by.
So this year, late September we were travelling with friends who had the Land of Five on their list and felt we wanted to give it a second chance. Travel is, after all about exploring beyond the magazine cover and seeking real life within the beating heart of the streets. Perhaps this trip would re-ignite the love we so wanted to feel for CT.
Our Cinque Terre adventure
Strangely, despite our previous experience, we woke with anticipation and excitement. With the sun reigning supreme, we set off on what felt like a proper adventure. A bus from Portovenere into La Spezia, a walk to the train station, purchase of an ‘All Day Cinque Terre Ticket’, a quick coffee from McDonalds and on the train within minutes. It felt like a scene out of an Enid Blyton novel, where four friends accompanied by their dog, a packed lunch and fully-charged cameras, set off in search of exploration.
Given that we had only one day and had already visited Monterosso, we decided to start our exploration at the next most westerly point, Vernazza; and within a twelve minute train ride, we had arrived. Yet within seconds of stepping off the platform, we were stripped of our excitement as we were met by a throng of Tour Groups and wall-to-wall tourists resembling something out of Piped Piper. We followed like sheep, assuming that they were all heading towards something spectacular. We passed by one souvenir shop after another and selfie-taking enthusiasts, and hoped that if we darted around them, we would find our slice of tranquility.
They say that ‘First Impressions Count’ and although I’m not a great believer in this quote, I have to say that today, it felt true. Above the shop facades, four storey buildings rise above your head, framed by uniform green shutters. Residents look down upon the bustling crowd below with a mixture of amusement and annoyance it seemed to me. Washing hangs from their lofty windows, despite the camera-clicking posse on the streets beneath them and houses, dearly in need of some love, line the streets blocking out the sun.
At the end of the main street you are presented with a plaza and harbour, which since the October 2011 floods has certainly regained its structure. Like bees to a honey pot, people are buzzing and flocking – to where, we were unsure, although the harbour seems to be the place to hang out. And for sure the sight looking back from the breakwater was pretty, although nothing that, at this point, made us go ‘wow’. Regular ferry boats pull up to the docking pier for yet more visitors to disembark and descend upon this tiny fishing village. Despite being one of those visitors, I felt sad for Venazza and the invasion of so many tourists. The bygone days of earning a crust from the sea is now replaced by souvenir shops selling pasta and scented lemon sacks.
Cinque Terre ferry
In our attempt to seek something special, we spied a lofty spot at the castle tower; here surely we would see the beauty? Steadily clambering up the steep steps, we arrive at the castle gates, only to be greeted by a €1.50 entrance fee that our Day Pass didn’t cover. So two of us climbed the tower, whilst on principle, the other two stayed below. The view was lovely although it just didn’t quite do it for me. Perhaps the next village would do this iconic region justice.
So our starter for 10 – Porto Venere 1, Cinque Terre 0.
383 steps to Corniglia
Back on the train we travel east towards Corniglia, which can only be visited by train or car as it is positioned high up on a rocky crag, making it impossible for ferry tourists to access. From the train station you have the opportunity, with your All Day ticket to take the Shuttle Bus to the village centre, although with hoards surrounding the bus as though a celebrity was inside, we decide that the hike up the zig-zag pathway would do us good. After climbing 383 steps to the top, we smile at the Pharmacy at the path’s entrance, inviting you to take something for your excessively beating heart?
Corniglia was village number two that left us speechless. After staggering up the steps, we dashed from one potential viewing spot to another desperately searching that x-factor. Yet scruffy buildings with broken windows, dark, narrow streets with people competing for air and a couple of vistas promising a view to die for and delivering something very underwhelming, was our prize. Were we missing something? Perhaps because of our travels we have just experienced too many wows in our memory bank that have to compete for our affections – is this is danger of our travelling lifestyle? And yet, not less than two days previously we found a ‘wow’ at Portovenere, so we knew it couldn’t just be a laissez-faire mindset and we so wanted to feel the love.
For the moment though it was Portovenere 2 CT 0.
Such was our disappointment and tiredness, if we’re honest, we decided to miss Manarola. We heard a less than positive review from a lady who was staying there, so would Riomaggiore be our final saving grace? It’s true that this most easterly village had a certain charm as its roads rose steeply into the mountain bedrock above it and its streets swooped down to the sea below. Some buildings had been newly painted, creating something similar to the magazine images, although we still felt there was something missing. You need to be fit to wander the streets of this village, as in your pursuit to explore the real village and not just the high street geared for tourists, you will need to climb towards the gods – and the stairways are unforgiving.
As our experience came to an end and we reflected on our day out in the Famous Five, what would our honest appraisal be in influencing future visitors? I would love to report that this is a ’must’ on your Italy tour, although with all integrity I cannot. Clearly all experiences are coloured by our own conditioning and the truth is that you must make up your own mind. I’m really glad we went and we did have a fabulous day together – travel after all is not a Utopian experience – you must experience all sides of a place to truly be enriched. Although these are the factors that influenced our experience; the villages are over-run with expensive ferry arrivals and tour groups. The villages seem to have lost their souls, selling them to the Tourism devil and it felt to us that they had sacrificed their authenticity for the sake of the crowds, of which we were part, of course. The buildings look tired, unloved and shabby and fishing boats had been replaced by motorboats looking for their next experience-hungry customer. The marketing of the area creates an expectation that, in reality didn’t match up for us. We hoped for so much more.
Photoshop certainly gives us an illusion of Cinque Terre at its best and if you are looking for a genuine insight into the villagers’ way of life back in the day, you may be left sadly disappointed. You can of course say that you have ticked off Cinque Terre, although unless you are wiling to stay in each village for a short period during November to March then I’m not sure you will feel its real heart-beat. Our advice is visit Portovenere as this is what encompasses our expectation of the Cinque Terre and it was the ‘wow’ that we were looking for.
Final verdict? Portovenere 4, Cinque Terre 1
Travel Tips for Cinque Terre
You can buy a One Day Cinque Terre ticket for €16pp and this gives you access to the walking paths, the Shuttle Buses, the Hop On, Hop Off Train and the toilets that are normally charged at €1 per wee! We bought our tickets from La Spezia Train station.
Tickets must be validated at the Green Machines before getting on the train.
You can go by Ferry, which depart regularly from Portovenere, Lerici and Levanto. From Portovenere it costs €33 per person and is subject to weather conditions. Please remember that the Ferry does not stop at Corniglia. From people we spoke to, the ferry is a tiring option, only because linking up to departure times can cause a lot of hanging around and the transfer from one village to another is a lot longer than the trains, which generally go every 30 minutes.
If taking the train, you can buy a single ticket for €4 one-way, although this will only take you to one village. You must then buy another €4 ticket for each separate journey you wish to take. So if you only want to do a couple of villages each day, then this could be a cheaper option than buying separate Day Tickets.
The tower at Vernazza castle costs €1.50 to enter and you really only spend five minutes up there. You will need to be fit to climb the steps that leads to the Ticket Office, so be aware of this and the costs before you make the climb.
You can take a small dog on the train and boat for free. You will need either a dog carrier for the train or carry the dog and take a muzzle. For a larger dog, check before you travel and make sure you have your dog passport.
If you take the train, take note of the departure schedule so you can manage how long you spend in each village. This way you don’t waste valuable time waiting for a train’s arrival. They are not always on time.
Visiting all five villages in one day by train is doable, although it is a tough schedule that doesn’t really allow for any chilling or lunch/refreshment breaks. We did three villages in our day trip over about four hours and with the walks to and from the station, it makes for a long day. Ideally to enjoy the villages take two days.
You can hike between the villages if you are keen walkers, although some of the paths are still damaged by the 2011 storms, so please enquire before deciding to walk. http://www.cinqueterre.it
To visit Cinque Terre, you must have a reasonable level of fitness due to the steepness of the alleyways, towers and paths to and from the train stations. The villages are not all Pram or Wheelchair friendly, so please consider this in your plans and get advice before travelling.
Of course you can travel by car to each of the villages, although this will add a significant amount of time to your visit as there are no direct coastal roads that link each village. So the mountain roads will need to be navigated to reach each one.
You can reach Portovenere by car or bus. The yellow bus leaves La Spezia from Via Garibaldi and it takes about 20 minutes to arrive at the town and costs €5 return.
Along the coastline from Cinque Terre on Italy’s riviera coastline lies Porto Venere, just west of La Spezia. One of our favourite spots along that particular coast, it’s cozy, has charm and is a delight to go and visit.
We are now in…..
Hi, Karen & Myles, The Motoroamers here. We are a fun-loving couple travelling full-time around Europe in Scoobie our trusty camper. We're driven to deliver seriously entertaining travel through our blogs, photography and humorous videos. We hope to inspire you too to travel.