Thursday 22 June 2023

Exploring The French Riviera, Monaco and the Rhône Valley by Train, part 1

Great Rail Journeys Tour and Cruise in the South of France: Nice, Monaco and Cannes

When we briefly visited the French Riviera a few years ago we had a list of things for which we wished to return in due course. I was leafing through a Great Rail Journeys catalogue last year when I spotted and escorted tour by rail which covered a good number of those ("ticked most of the boxes") and included a cruise on the Rhône as well. We did not hesitate to book, including the upgrade to First Class rail travel. Fortunately we had several other tours of various sorts to occupy ourselves so the wait for this exciting rail tour was quite bearable!

The blindness of pure chance, the Casino at Monte Carlo

We packed our cases and then on a Saturday afternoon walked down to Stamford railway station to take the first of the trains of our rail adventure to France. It was a very hot and sunny day and so we were quite warm in the clothes we had kept back for travel, but it was a short downhill walk and we knew that the trains would be air-conditioned. Unfortunately our train from Stamford was running late, late enough to risk not making the connection we were intending to make in Peterborough for the next stage to London - we were in no particular hurry, and our international tour tickets were valid on any train, but I had chosen trains that I thought would be most comfortable and least crowded.

As it happened, though, the train to London was even more delayed. I did look into reserving seats on one that departed earlier than ours would, but no reservable seats were left and we decided it would be likely to be too crowded to be comfortable, so we waited for the train which we had first reserved and found that very few people had waited for it, so there was plenty of space, plenty of refreshments available, and the First Class hostess had plenty of time to serve us. A light meal from LNER's "Deli" First Class menu was served and we were soon in London where we checked in for a night at the Premier Inn in Euston Road which has been our "launch pad" for many a continental rail tour.

Our train to Paris was due to depart from London St Pancras International at 08:01 on the Sunday morning - hence the need to travel to London the day before - so with Eurostar check-in now being from 90 to 60 minutes before departure we were up early to meet our Tour Manager Kevin at the Great Rail Journeys office at the station at about 06:40. Down at the international departures area we went through the familiar routine of scanning out tickets, having our luggage scanned and showing our passport to both UK and French border police (now preceded by the familiar well-controlled queuing system which ensures that everyone gets through in a smooth and unhurried way without crushing at the barriers. The queue is partly a "Brexit benefit" owing to the longer time it takes to pass through French passport control but also arises from the sheer size of Eurostar trains which means that hundreds of people all want to arrive about the same time. As usual we had breakfast while waiting for the train, but this time I only needed to buy coffee as we still had pastries left over from the evening meal on LNER.

In Paris the tour group was gathered together and we had the usual Great Rail Journeys routine of walking to a coach which took us through the streets to Gare de Lyon for the next stage of the journey, the 14:08 TGV to Nice. There was time to eat a takeaway lunch from Monoprix outside the station before the group reconvened to go through the ticket barrier together and join the TGV: our seats were on the upper deck of this duplex train, a pair of side-by-side "airline" seats, comfortable enough for the five-hour run down to Nice. As usual on French trains, no refreshments were included in the fare but there was a decent buffet car and we were able at intervals to buy wine and snacks during the journey. It was possible to order for at-seat service but the bar was only two coaches away and it was nice to have a stroll and speak to a real human being to buy our refreshments.

A coach met us in Nice to take us to the hotel, the Malmaison Nice, a pleasant hotel with some art deco features, although we'd have been happy to walk this distance if we'd have been travelling independently. We went for a stroll looking for a light supper but on this Sunday evening we found nothing really suitable and returned to our room for the apples we had brought with us - I really did not miss having a meal: perhaps I had overdone the snacking on the train, but at least we did get a good night's sleep ready for the first full day in Nice.

Our bedroom at the Malmaison

The first day in Nice included a walking tour in the morning and an excellent local guide met us at the hotel and showed us around the city, which is divided by a large linear park along the course of a torrent - a stream which takes run-off from the mountains and hills overlooking the city - the original old city with its narrow streets and the markets, and the new city above with its tree-lined boulevards and expensive shops.  Both sides are very pleasant places to be, as is the park which separates them: we had enjoyed our previous visit here but this time we also learnt the history of the place and why it is the shade it is. From the Promenade des Anglais we were taken to a bus stop where a coach had been provided to take us to visit Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a charming village in the hills just below the town of Vence, which is the twin town of our home town of Stamford. Now that we have tracked down Vence's location we may have to see about visiting it on a future adventure, but we did not have the opportunity this time. Several of the party took the chance of a game of Pétanques at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, but I opted simply to explore the village and take in the views, having played it quite lot in the past.

Back at Nice that evening we went to the old part of the city to find a restaurant that offered salad Nicoise, ending up, rather curiously, at Carpe Diem an Italian restaurant, run by Italian staff but among other things offering this local salad. Ordering in French, Italian and English led to a few misunderstandings but we got it all sorted out in the end and thoroughly enjoyed the salad, the wine and, in my case, a crème brulée. Although we would look around for other local dishes the following day, we kept Carpe Diem in mind since there was more on the menu that would be worth a try.

Tuesday  was a free day with nothing arranged by Great Rail Journeys except the hotel breakfast, and we had determined in advance that we would use this day to revisit Cannes and perhaps spend a little time on the beach. Our Great Rail Journeys tour manager suggested we might like to visit Antibes as well while we were out that way, so we kept in mind the possibility of stopping off there on the way back to Nice that afternoon or evening.

We were unsure about what rail tickets we might need to accomplish such a trip, needing some flexibility in ticket validity, and just as I reached the front of the short queue for the local ticket machines at Nice station and was staring at the screen working out where to start a member of the station staff came over and asked (in English - am I that obvious?) what we wanted. When we had told her, she said, "You need a pass," and poked a few buttons on the screen, invited me to present my credit card and then handed me the ticket which the machine had duly printed. "This is for both of you, all day, for two zones on the network," she said, smiling. How helpful it is to have enough staff at stations, I thought, the context of Britain's various disputes over staffing pinging into sharp focus in my mind! Strangers, especially foreigners, need help; we cannot know the ticket validity rules of every rail network across the world, or even across the UK with its fragmented system.

We looked at the departure boards and went to the platform for the next local train to Cannes and started our day out. We had never done this route on a stopping train before and, of course, we saw much more of the coastal scenery than we ever had on a fast train.

We walked straight down to the seafront at Cannes and walked along in what was fairly dull, although warm weather. Some rain was forecast, but predicting the weather is especially difficult here so we were prepared for anything. We each bought a souvenir t-shirt at the tourist office in Cannes and enjoyed a drink at a café we had visited on our previous visit, now trading with a new name. We explored the narrow old streets of Cannes and visited the market - we were seeking a traditional local food, socca, like a pancake but made with chickpea flour, but the only example we could find was at the market and that was soon closing but we were not yet hungry. We went to the public beach and walked along the shoreline as we so often do, and then decided we would move on and visit Antibes to see what we could find there. We found a pleasant seaside town with some nice shopping streets, and after a cool drink of beer at a pavement café began to explore. On our way to the sea some light rain began and we deployed our lightweight waterproof hooded jackets which we had bought for this eventuality before leaving home. The rain became heavier and there was lightning and thunder so most people around were sheltering under shop awnings or archways in the harbour wall and some, unafraid of electrocution, were using umbrellas. Never imagine that rain and thunder only affects UK holidays! We walked back to the station through varying degrees of rain and waited in the rain for a train back to Nice; it was by now the evening peak travel time and there were rather more frequent trains so even though there were some delays our journey was not really affected. We even had space on the train to spread out our jackets to dry!

Back at Nice we went to Carpe Diem again for supper, practising our English/French/Italian ordering skills ...

The following day, our last full day in Nice, included an excursion to the principality of Monaco, a country with no countryside and whose citizens are crammed into a space about 3km by 0.6km and yet who still seem to need cars priced in six figures... Much of the work in Monaco is done by people commuting in daily from France and Italy - these people may well live in houses, but almost every citizen of Monaco lives in an apartment: very, very few have a garden, although the public gardens and the streets are very beautiful. Our excursion included an opportunity to watch the changing of the guard at the royal palace and a quick visit to the casino at Monte Carlo - which doubles up as a museum in the daytime and whose first two rooms can be seen free of charge. in our free time we explored the narrow streets of the Monaco does have a rail station but for this trip we were taken by road coach with a local guide who taught us a lot about the way this miniature nation works.

After Monaco our coach took us to Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild with its nine gardens. The villa was a gift to France from Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild (1864–1934) who was an avid collector and now her collection is available for all to see. For us the gardens were the most interesting feature, and the views over the sea from the house's prominent location on an isthmus.

Dinner that evening was at a local restaurant, Le Clocher, we had (finally) discovered in Nice we had the chickpea pancakes, with salad, that we had been looking for since our arrival there!

After our last night at the Malmaison Nice we packed and waited for a coach which was to take us to the station along with the rest of the party, but the coach did not turn up and our tour manager Kevin has the wisdom to set us off walking while there was till time too walk to the station. Travelling alone I'd have walked anyway, even with luggage, for it was not very far, but for a group the coach transfer does help to keep everyone together  and not all of the party found luggage as easy to handle as I did.

Our train from Nice was a regional express and took us to Marseille St Charles, with the usual brilliant views of the Mediterranean coast. At Marseille we changed to a TGV which took us to Lyon for the next exciting stage in our exploration of the south of France.

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