Exploring the French Riviera by Train
By Janet Beazley Scraper
The French Riviera, also known as Cote d'Azur, is a “Bucket List” destination for good reason. It offers some of the most beautiful vistas in the world. Along the southeastern coast of France many scenic villages are nestled along the shore and peeking out from the cliffs overlooking a brilliant blue Mediterranean Sea like pearls on a necklace.
In September 2009, I visited the area for the third time, with a plan to explore using a little known “secret”: the TER train (Transport Express Regional). This local train runs along the coast from Frejus in the west to Ventimiglia, Italy to the east. It also goes into the mountains to Grasse from Cannes and to Tende from Nice or Ventimiglia. The TER train provides a fun and convenient way to discover the jewels nestled in the Cote d’Azur, one day trip at a time. If you travel between June 1st to September 30th you can take advantage of “Carte Isabelle” for 14 Euro a day per person (as of 9/13), with unlimited 1st or 2nd class travel. This is a great value if you plan to visit multiple cities in one day. At the train station we learned that the ticket machines do not take American credit cards, as they do not have a smart chip the European cards do. Plan to have enough Euros in cash and a little extra time to stand in line at the ticket booth. Make sure to pick up a pocket sized map of the route so you can plan your return trip.
My husband Steve and I were joined by our close friends Mary & Bob. We chose one of my most favorite cites, Nice, as our home base. Nice is so incredibly beautiful, very lively and perfectly located along the train line serving the Riviera. Historically, Nice was often affiliated with parts of Italy which explains why you will find a strong Italian influence in the cuisine. It was not until 1860 that Nice was definitively ceded to France.
We stayed in a central location a few blocks from both the Promenade de Anglais which runs along the beach and the train station. We were able to visit many of the famous towns along the sea as well as some mountain villages; Cannes, Grasse, Antibes, Eze, Villefranche, Monaco, Ventimiglia and Tende, and to spend some time discovering Old Nice. Each town has its own charm and unique character. We had a very hard time moving on from one to the next as we only had time to scratch the surface in our explorations. We especially enjoyed the old section of each town which seem like time capsules to another century. It is easy to see why artists have always flocked to this area, everywhere you look, you can see a potential painting or photograph.
One of the most fascinating places in almost every town is the daily morning market. Here you will see stall upon stall of the most colorful fresh produce and flowers. All types of olives, tapenade, tomato caviar, olive oil, spices, herbs and a range of delicious cold meats, fresh fish, cheeses, pasta and bakery items. There are also many local crafts, including soaps and sachets in all the scents of Provence.
There are several types of shops you will see around town and should not pass by: la boulangerie (bakery), la patisserie (pastry shop), la chocolaterie (chocolate shop). Plan to stop by at least one of each every day and indulge yourself with a treat for breakfast, lunch and dessert. Even if you don’t buy anything, just looking at all the different creations is an experience not to be missed!
Our first morning, we walked down to the waterfront in Nice and strolled along the magnificent Promenade de Anglais. The world’s best known boulevard runs the entire length of the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) which provides the shoreline of Nice. From Place Massena we took a ride on the Mini Tourist Train for an overview of the old town and a panoramic view of Nice and the coast from Parc de la Chateau, the remains of the old castle on Castle Hill.
We walked home from the Old Town area and spent the evening strolling through the Rue de France which was just around the corner from where we stayed. This is a large pedestrian zone and one of the city’s most popular attractions. Here you will find a flurry of activity: restaurants and small cafes, boutiques, souvenir and other shops, street performers and plenty of places to have a special desert or nightcap to end the day. We would spend most evenings in this area.
Monday morning we set out for Cannes and Grasse.
Cannes – about 45 minute train ride from Nice. Tourist information center is on right as you exit station. Cannes is the "star" of the Cote d'Azur, famous for the International Film Festival and the glitzy hotels, cars, beaches and visitors attracted here. The city of Cannes is centered around the old port, with the central part being quite compact. The closest thing to an "old town" is Le Suquet overlooking the west end of the port. The 12th-century Tour de Mt. Chevalier, ramparts and 12th-16th-century church Notre-Dame-de-l'Espérence give a touch of medieval flavor to the city. The Le Suquet area has narrow streets climbing up and around the hill, with a fine view from the top. Standing on the ancient rampart wall in front of the church, you can see east across the city, the port and the bay to the Cap de la Croisette, and to the west across the Gulf of La Napoule to the Massif de l'Esterel mountains.
We had a lovely lunch al fresco in the old town: warm goat cheese salad, pesto pasta and of course some local Rose wine. On our way back to the train station we spent the last hour of our time in Cannes wandering around the Forville Market. Antiques are showcased every Monday, the rest of the week it is a gourmet’s delight, offering all types of local products. Then we took the TER train up to Grasse.
Grasse – a 30 minute train ride from Cannes, take the bus from the train stop into the city center. Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, has been a popular tourist town for several centuries, with the smell of flowers and clear air. The altitude of the town, from 300-400 m, and the hills behind give Grasse a fresher climate than the beach during the heat of the summer. Inaugurated in 1989, the vocation of the Musée International de la Parfumerie is the study and development of one of the most prestigious French industries: the perfume industry. The Museum unveils all the stages of the perfume making process, from the composition of the perfume, the natural raw materials and synthetic processes used, through to the methods of effleurage, distillation and extraction. Your travel through the world of scents and aromas will continue into the showrooms where you can admire an impressive collection of perfume bottles, from antiques to the present day. There is also a “fragrance garden” where plants and flowers that provide scents for perfumes are growing right under the roof of the Museum.
There are some very nice shops featuring local crafts and fragrances along the streets leading from the museum to the old town. The vieille ville (old town) is large, old, and extremely interesting. Tiny streets wind forever between the 17th and 18th century buildings, up and down ancient steps, passing through arched tunnels and sometimes opening out onto large squares. Down in the old village a narrow street comes out onto the Place Godeau, with the 10-11th-century Notre Dame du Puy cathedral (rebuilt in the 17th c.) and its huge 18th century clock tower. Inside the cathedral are three paintings by Rubens and the 1754 painting Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
The next day we headed out for Antibes
Antibes – a 20 minute train ride from Nice. Antibes was one of our favorite towns. We ended up spending all day there, and could have stayed longer.
Antibes was a Greek fortified town named Antipolis in the 5th century BC, and later a Roman town, and always an active port for trading along the Mediterranean. Today it's an attractive and active town, popular with "foreigners" from Paris and the north of France, with non-French, and with the local population.
The natural beauty remains in the vieille ville (old town), with the ramparts along the sea and the long, arched protective wall along the port. Still standing are a couple gates marking entrances to the city dating from the Middle Ages. There are plenty of little streets for exploring, restaurants of all types and prices, and lots of shops, from authentic little hardware/general-stores and tourist gift shops to shops filled with local goods, pastries, soaps, spices and herbs, olive oils, linens, all leading to the market place. The Antibes Provencal market is one of the most famous on the Riviera. It is open every morning (except Mondays in the off season) to bring you on a discovery voyage of the region in a festival of colors and Provencal scents and aromas. The buildings lining the market were what was referred to as “La Bourgade” (the village). On the edge of the sea is the The Château Grimaldi - Musée Picasso, built on the ruins of a 12th century Roman castle, historic churches and many other places of interest.
Eze Village Street
Be_sure to take a stroll along the promenade Amiral de Grasse a magnificent promenade with an incredible panorama over the sea, the Cap d’Antibes and the Alps. As you head towards the port, if you are lucky you can see among the hundreds of yachts, one of the largest yachts in the world, Paul Allen’s (Microsoft) Octopus, which is uses Antibes as its base port.
On Wednesday we visited Eze Village and Villefranche Sur Mer
Eze Village is best reached by a 25 minute bus ride from Nice for 1 Euro. One of the better known 'Perched Villages', located half way between Nice and Monaco, Eze has a population of 3095, of which only 15 or so live in the village all year round. It is now primarily a tourist stop, as the site of an ancient castle village and has been occupied since the Iron Age. In the village the streets are narrow because of the restricted space but also to create shade in the summer. The steps in the village were made wide so that donkeys, which were used to transport all provisions, including water could get up and down.
The summit is dominated by the ruins of the ancient medieval fortress destroyed by the troops of Louis the 14th in 1706 during the War of Succession in Spain. At 429m. in altitude, the sweeping view takes in all of the French Riviera. From east to west you can see from Italy to Saint-Tropez.
There are two four star hotels in Eze, built from former residences, a chapel built in 1306 and a church completed in 1778. The Gardens of Eze were created in the ruins of the château in 1949. By 2004 the municipality had completed a total transformation to create a place of contemplation set amongst exotic species of plants and offering an incredible panoramic view of the Mediterranean.
Among the few residences in the village are many interesting shops with high quality goods and local products and crafts, as well as a few restaurants. It is a truly delightful place to spend several hours.
Villefranche Sur- Mer – You can take the bus from Eze, or the train or bus from Nice.
From ancient times, the Greeks and the Romans came to shelter in the Villefranche bay. This is a busy town in a busy part of the Côte d'Azur. A couple of features that make it attractive to visitors are the seaside, with long sandy beaches, terrace cafés and restaurants, and the very nice old town, vieille ville. This is another one of our favorite towns.
From the main road above, you can look down across the red tile roofs of the old town, with the distinctive church and bell tower in the center. Like the medieval villages of the "back country", the narrow cobblestone and bricked streets slope steeply down (in this case towards the sea) or traverse along the slope, with vaulted passages beneath the houses. There's quite a medieval feeling here, with just the many little restaurants to remind you you're in tourist country. There are also quiet little squares, like the Place Félix Poullan beside the church, and the Place de l'Eglise just below, with a bench circling a beautiful big tree. Follow the narrow winding streets and steps of the town…you are sure to fall in love with the extraordinary colors and soul of the place. Then wander down to the waterfront and dine alfresco at one of the many restaurants lining the port.
Monaco and Monte Carlo – 15 minute train ride from Nice
Situated on the Cote d'Azur, just a few kilometers from the French Riviera, Monaco is one of those magic, glamorous places that have a worldwide reputation. Monaco is a sovereign state, independent and prosperous. The principality rises on the cliffs surrounding a scenic harbor, hosting mega yachts and cruise ships. It is easy to see the famous landmarks in one day, two would be better if you would like a more leisurely look into the sites, museums and gardens. For a quick overview, catch the #1 bus near the harbor and ride the full circuit.
Monaco-Ville is the picturesque village on top of the “Rock”, which can be reached by foot or bus. This is where the Prince’s Palace, the Cathedral, the Oceanographic Museum and gardens are located. There are over 50 diverse shops and restaurants lining the pedestrian streets. You can spend an entire afternoon just exploring the Oceanographic Museum, easily one of the most spectacular public aquaria displays in the world. Founded in 1899, by Prince Albert 1 and constructed of white limestone and marble, the museum itself appears to have erupted out of the surrounding cliffs.
The Princes Palace is another popular tour. Founded in 1191 as a Genoese fortress, it is the official residence of the Prince of Monaco and rich in history. Large crowds gather in the Place du Palais at 11:55 am each day for the changing of the guards. There are several other museums of interest in the Monaco Ville as well as the Cathedral where Princess Grace and Prince Rainier were married. If you want a Monaco stamp in your passport, the only place you can get one is at the Post Office in the Ville.
Perhaps the most famous landmark in Monaco is the Casino of Monte Carlo, located on the opposite side of the harbor from Monaco Ville. The gaming rooms open at 2pm; to enter you must be dressed properly (jackets for men), pay 10 euro and present your passport. You can tour the lobby area free of charge. If you want to gamble, it would be wise to watch for a while first, as the rules may be different and all conversation is in French.
Ventimiglia, Italy and Tende, France
On Friday, we took the train to the east end of the line, Ventimiglia, Italy, famous for its Friday Market. Vendor booths lined both sides of the road running along the shore in this charming Italian coastal town. Locals were buying fresh food, clothing, shoes and electronics, while tourists were looking at handbags, beautiful linens and scarves.
After buying all we could carry, we pulled ourselves away from the market and took the train north into the French Alps to Tende, on the eastern edge of Mercantour National Parc. Tende is a very medieval village, built out of the surrounding mountains. It was established as a valuable salt trade route between Italy and France and has belonged to both many times over the centuries. Springing up in the middle of town is the colorful 15th-century church and clock-tower Collégiale Notre-Dame de l'Assomption. Below the old village, the town is undergoing some refurbishment. There is a boulevard with a few shops and restaurants and a town square with colorful flower baskets adorning antique lamp posts. This area is near the National Park and is very popular with hikers and campers. Tende is very different from the other towns we visited, both in geography, age and architecture, which made it a very special experience for us.
On Saturday we spent the morning exploring “Vieux Nice” (Old Nice) starting with the Cours Saleya and the daily morning market, the centre of life in the Old Town. Old Nice's original architecture dates back to medieval times and its narrow streets, cozy squares, baroque churches and remarkable buildings recall Nice's eventful history. Here you will find many specialty shops and galleries with a fine selection of gifts to take home. At night this trendy area is hopping with bars and nightclubs and live music fills the air. After shopping and lunch we went down to the beach to watch the people and enjoy the incredible views of the sea.
Our final thought as we enjoyed a farewell dinner along the Rue de France, was we could easily spend a month or two in Nice and realized we had just begun our exploration of southern France.
Contact Arrow Discovery Travel to help you find the experience best suited for your party.
Janet Beazley Scraper, ECC, CTP
Seller of Travel Numbers