This time we are heading to western France travelling from Paris to Bordeaux, exploring some of the towns of the pretty Loir-et-Cher region and Loire Valley, famous for its vineyards and fairytale castles. The original high-speed route between Paris and St Pierre des Corps was extended to Bordeaux in 2017 meaning you can now travel between the French capital and Bordeaux non-stop in just over two hours, a considerable improvement on the previous 3½ hours.
We begin our journey at Paris-Montparnasse located in the southwestern part of Paris, a station well known for a major rail accident in 1895 when a train crashed through the buffers ending up nose-down in the street below. It is the Paris terminus for TGV trains to the west and south-west of France and it also has a metro station, Montparnasse-Bienvenüe. Reaching and navigating Montparnasse can be difficult and the metro station is a very long underground walk from the mainline station platforms. Also, many of the TGV services can be 20 carriages long, so it can be a long walk to your seat! Therefore, please make sure you allow plenty of time to arrive before your scheduled departure time.
The first stop, just 50 minutes from Paris is Vendôme-Villiers, a transport hub allowing easy access to the Loir-et-Cher region. Nearby is the picturesque town of Vendome which has various monuments, a historical abbey, and several parks. The town is overlooked by the remains of a ruined 12th-century castle which gives lovely panoramic views over the town below which is divided by the river Loir into islands connected by waterways. Not far from Vendome there is a tourist train which takes a leisurely return route through the Loir Valley from Thoré la Rochette to Trôo aboard a 1950s railcar.
From Vendôme-Villiers it’s a short hop to St Pierre des Corps, a major station on the outskirts of Tours from where frequent shuttle services operate to the city’s central station. Often referred to as the capital of the Loire Valley, Tours has a lovely historical quarter which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are narrow cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and the grand medieval Saint-Gatien Cathedral to explore as well as attractive parks and gardens. The city is famous for its chocolate production and the wonderful indoor market offers a variety of other tempting delicacies from around the Loire region including cheeses and wines. Flat-bottomed sailboats, known as “toues”, ferry passengers along the Loire and Cher for sightseeing trips and even dinner cruises, or you could hire bikes and follow the well-marked Loire à Vélo cycle trail.
The Loire is famous for its many beautiful Châteaux and there are many to visit in the surrounding area which can be reached with a short bus or train ride. From Tours, it is a short journey to Blois (Table 296) with its magnificent former Royal Château towering over the town and the nearby Maison de la Magie which is a museum dedicated to magic and the art of illusion. Below the castle is a lively old town with narrow streets, traditional restaurants, and ancient buildings. The largest castle in the Loire region and one of the most recognisable is Château de Chambord not far from Blois. Bus services are available from the railway station during the summer months or excursions can be arranged in the town.
Further along the same line is Orléans, which can be reached from Tours in just over an hour. The city is one of the oldest in France having been liberated by Joan of Arc. Scenes from her life are depicted in the windows of the Gothic Cathedral and statues of her can be found around the city’s main squares.
Other worthwhile day trips from Tours include Le Mans (Table 271), most famous for its 24-hour racing spectacle every June but also boasts a fantastic old town. Angers is another easy day trip (Table 289), an attractive wine-producing town dominated by the massive and ancient Château d’Angers with its 500 metres of ramparts and 17 towers.
The next stop is the quiet market town of Châtellerault on the River Vienne followed by a station for the popular futuristic theme park: Parc du Futuroscope, which is based on multimedia and virtual-reality. The next major stop is the historic city of Poitiers. The station is in a valley to the west of the old town which is built on a hill, with narrow roads winding down into the valley. The city centre is quite small and very easy to navigate thanks to the red, blue and yellow lines painted on the pavement for visitors and the signposts along the way. The lines all start outside the Romanesque Notre Dame church and guide you around the city’s historical sites and museums as well as to Blossac Park with its pretty gardens and a small zoo. Regular rail services run from Poitiers to Limoges (Table 309) arriving in the city’s grand art deco Gare des Bénédictins which is worth a visit in itself. The city is famous for its production of excellent porcelain which is displayed in the many museums in its historic centre and makes an ideal day trip from Poitiers.
Table 300 shows services from Poitiers to picturesque La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast which can be reached in around 1 hour 20 minutes. Once one of France’s foremost seaports, the historic port has been beautifully preserved and is dominated by three 14th and 15th-century towers, whilst the old town has arcaded walkways, half-timbered houses, and boutique shops. There are some interesting maritime museums as well as one of the largest aquariums in Europe. Just off the coast of La Rochelle are three picturesque islands: Ile de Ré is connected to the mainland by a toll bridge whilst Ile d’Oléron and Ile d’Aix can both be reached by boat. All three have lovely sandy beaches and pretty scenery to explore as well as some impressive lighthouses.
We depart Poitiers for the final leg of the journey and the first stop is Angoulême, a fortified hilltop city on a plateau overlooking a meander of the Charente River. Around the beautiful historic centre, many of the city’s ramparts remain intact and once a year are used as the circuit for a classic car race. The International Comic Strip Festival is also held here every January and the city has murals of comics and illustrations on buildings in almost every neighborhood around the city, as well as decorated buses and post boxes.
The next stop is the small winemaking town of Libourne, a medieval bastide town on the Dordogne which has several Château and wine estates to explore in the area as well as a huge open-air market in the town square. Then it’s on to our final destination, vibrant and elegant Bordeaux, the world’s largest urban World Heritage Site. The city’s top attractions are La Cité du Vin, a futuristic cultural centre dedicated to the living heritage of wine and the spectacular
‘water mirror’ at La Place de la Bourse. It is the largest reflecting pool in the world and alternates between the effects of fog, mirror, and pool which reflects the beautiful buildings that surround it. Most of the main sites are within walking distance from the station but there is also a high-tech tram network. If you want to explore some of the great wineries in the area, bus tours are available as well as a local rail service to Le Verdon (Table 307) which stops at some of the main vineyards.
There are plenty of beautiful locations around Bordeaux that can be explored by train. The seaside resort town of Arcachon is one of the most popular summer destinations in the southwest of France and is just 55 minutes by local train
(Table 306). Further afield the elegant seaside resort of Biarritz can be reached in around 2 hours (Table 305). Located along France’s Basque coast, Biarritz is famous for its long, sandy beaches, surf, casinos, glitzy atmosphere, and its cuisine.