On 1st May this year Eurostar launched a direct no-train-change service to Lyon, Avignon and Marseille from London. France will become even more accessible by high speed trains with out the changes at Lille or Paris. Even without the new service France was already very accessible by train using both the TGV and more regional SNCF trains.
The mountains, the coasts, the chateaux, the wine producing areas, the WW1 battlefields and the cities are all connected by train. In this post I look at six cities served by trains that I have visited. There are of course more and over the time I will cover more cities easily reached by train.
We’ll start with my top French city.
They say that if Paris is the heart of France then Lyon is its stomach. It certainly is a gastronomic destination and you cannot visit Lyon without sampling some of its many restaurants from the simple fayre served good in the bouchons to the Michelin starred restaurants.
Wandering around Old Lyon exploring the hidden passages or traboules is a great way to spend an afternoon. There are numerous murals right across Lyon and searching them out is a great way to explore the city. Lyon surprises; it has plenty of wide open squares and parkland and a thriving cultural scene, both classic and contemporary. It is a destination in its own right and not just a stop on the route south.
Heading south from Lyon on the TGV and we eventually reach the Cote d’Azur
Swanky classic hotels to stay in, the Promenade des Anglais to wander and be seen and great places to eat are all part of the stereotypical image of Nice. Always popular with artists Nice has museums devoted to Matisse, Marc Chagall and modern and contemporary art. For those wanting to explore a little more Vieux Nice is the place to wander. Wandering up to the chateau, and area of parkland and ruins noted for its extensive views, takes you through narrow cobbled streets with great little cafes, boutiques and shops and restaurants serving and selling the olives that bear the city’s name. The Flower Market is one of the best known in France and is best visited early in the morning when the flowers are at their best and most numerous.
Still on the eastern side of France is…
Strasbourg is well-known for being the headquarters of a number of European institutions, most notably the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights. It is also famous for its historic centre on the Grande Île with the half timbered houses typical of Alsace region of France and its towering cathedral. The district known as Petite France is home to some of the prettiest and most photogenic narrow cobbled streets especially from spring onwards when the half-timbered houses are bedecked with flowers. A great deal of Strasbourg is pedestrianised and is easily explored on foot or by bike.
In the south-west of France there are more cities to visit. First up is a city known more for its wine than anything else.
The region around Bordeaux is famous for its wines and indeed the port on the River Garonne grew rich on the wine trade. Much of the city’s architecture reflects this. The Grand Theatre du Bordeaux is an indication that the arts found wealthy patrons. The ornate and magnificent Fontaine des Girondins is also an indication of the wealth enjoyed by Bordeaux. There are several wide open squares and sweeping boulevards to explore as well as smaller older streets with unique boutiques and shops.
Bordeaux may have made its name on the back of the wine trade but the port also traded in other goods, mostly from the Americas and the Caribbean. Cocoa was imported in large quantities and as a result confectioners began making chocolate. Bordeaux is a chocoholics paradise with more chocolatiers per square kilometre than anywhere else in France. The three best are within a short walk of each other.
Not far south of Bordeaux is the elegant resort of…
The resort of Biarritz was a favourite with the royal families of Europe at the end of the 19th century. Napoleon built a palace here for his wife Eugenie which is now the grand Hotel du Palais. Biarritz is at the southern end of France’s long Atlantic coast where the Pyrenees begin to dip their feet into the sea. Its many beaches, casinos and the bracing sea air are what attracted the nobility a century ago and still appeal today. The clientele may have changed but Biarritz still offers the feel of elegance by-the-sea and is much more laid back alternative to the Mediterranean cities currently in vogue.
Among the places to visit is the wonderful chocolate museum. Not only does it chart the history of chocolate and its introduction to French soil in nearby Bayonne by expelled Spanish Jews but also displays numerous chocolate sculptures. On the subject of chocolate it is worth sampling the chocolate drink Empress Eugenie loved; a slightly spicy thick hot chocolate served in the sumptuous surrounds of the lounge in the Hotel du Palais.
Head west from Paris and you will travel along the Loire Valley. The next city is the gateway to Chateaux country.
Tours is often seen as the gateway to the chateaux of the Loire Valley and most visitors pass quickly through. It is a city worth visiting in its own right. The city has a well preserved historic centre with half-timbered houses on the Place Plumereau with plenty of cafes to relax and soak up the atmosphere. Also in the centre are the cathedral, the Basilica and Tours own 11th Century chateaux. There are a number of gardens to visit including the Botanical Gardens and among the many summer markets on the banks of the Loire is a flower market. A couple of museums worth visiting are the unique Museum of Journeymen and the Musee des Beaux-Arts.
These are just a few of the cities readily accessible by train in France and with Eurostar now connecting the UK to both northern and southern France these and other cities have become accessible in just a few hours from London or Paris. Over time I will be looking at other train-accessible cities of France.
Have you travelled by train in France? What were your experiences? Do share them in the comments below.
Rail tickets to all the above can be purchased from Voyages Sncf UK (£).