TABLES 330 and 333: Paris – Nîmes

(Part 5/5)

For the final week of our look at Tables 330 and 333 from Paris to Nîmes, we are looking at the options for day trips from Nîmes by train.

Travelling south-west, the stylish metropolis of Montpellier can be reached in around 25 minutes (Table 355). The city boasts many elegant buildings, artistically decorated tramways, grand mansions (hôtels particuliers) and gorgeous white sandy beaches so there is plenty to occupy the day-tripper. Further along the line is the large fishing port of Sète. Known as the Venice of Languedoc, it is criss-crossed by canals and bridges. Boat trips along the coast are available from the harbour and there are some wonderful seafood restaurants to indulge in. The larger towns of Beziers, Narbonne and Perpignan are also possibilities along the same line with frequent services available from Nîmes, starting from as early as 5.06am for early risers!

Travelling east from Nîmes you could visit the ancient walled city of Avignon. Home to some great museums and beautiful architecture and its most famous landmark, the huge Palais des Papes (Papal Palace). It is also a short hop to Marseille (Tables 351 and 355), France’s busiest port, known for its harbour, sunny climate and beautiful coastline. The city often gets some bad press, but its historic old town and port area are full of treasures if you are prepared to overlook its more unattractive industrial features. The famous Notre Dame de la Garde, which overlooks the city from the top of the hill, is not to be missed.

For a less touristy destination, the walled medieval city of Aigues-Mortes in the Camargue region can be reached in under an hour using frequent regional TER trains (see SNCF for timings).  Fortified into a Mediterranean port in the 12th century, Aigues-Mortes’ massive walls have been wonderfully preserved. With a ticket to the ramparts you can walk around the entire town in around 45 minutes and get some great views of the surrounding red salt marsh lagoons and the mountains of salt produced here.

(Part 4)

Nîmes is one of the most attractive cities in France and is just the right size for exploring on foot. Established by the Romans, and often referred to as the ‘French Rome’ it retains some of the finest Roman remains in the Mediterranean, including its famous amphitheatre, one of the best-preserved in the world. Other Roman sites include the Maison Carrée (Square House), a small, wonderfully preserved Roman temple and the nearby Pont du Gard (approximately 20 kilometres north-east of the city), a very picturesque aqueduct built during the first century AD to supply water to the city.

Apart from its Roman remains, the city has an attractive old town to explore with quaint markets, a wealth of museums and beautiful gardens such as the Jardins de la Fontaine, one of the oldest city parks in France which contains further Roman remains.

Nîmes is also an ideal base for exploring further afield using regional rail connections, such as the Cevennes national park to the north or the renowned wetlands of the Camargue to the south. Its main railway station offers easy connections to the nearby cities of Montpellier, Avignon and Marseille from where you can connect to other scenic rail lines along the coast to the Cote d’Azur or north into Provence.

(Part 3)

We now travel through the beautiful Auvergne region and the most scenic part of the route, through the Gorges de l’Allier.

Firstly the train pootles through the Romanesque towns of Issoire, Brioude and St Georges d’Aurac before we reach Langeac. Here you can choose to leave the modern SNCF train and board the older and slower Cévennes tourist train which runs on selected days throughout the summer months between the towns of Langogne and Langeac. The train follows the famous “Cevenol” railway track, that was originally built to directly link Paris to Marseille. Following the meanders of the river, hugging the rock face, the train offers some unbeatable views of the gorges carved out from the rock as it passes through the many tunnels and crosses several amazing bridges. The tourist train includes a running commentary and takes just over 2 hours 20 mins, compared to the SNCF train which covers the same distance in about 1 hour 40 minutes, so there is plenty of time to appreciate the scenery and take ample photographs. For tickets and timings see their website

Travelling south, the line crosses some of the most impressive viaducts on French railways, such as the edifice at Chapeauroux, the near-semicircle of Chamborigaud Viaduct and Villefort, the highest stone viaduct in France. Along this spectacular stretch long sections of track are built on a masonry ledges high above the River Allier with glorious views along the valley. The highest point of the journey is at La Bastide, where the line crosses the watershed between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, from here the line drops down, passing mostly through tunnels towards our final stop, Nîmes.

(Part 2)

The next stop on this route is the town of Vichy in the Auvergne region, most famous for its historic spa facilities. The pedestrianised town centre offers no shortage of heritage and architectural attractions to attract passing tourists, plus a choice of pretty parks and gardens, covered walkways and attractive shopping streets. Architectural sights of interest include the art-nouveau Opera house, the casino and the Hall des Sources where you can sample the naturally fizzy healing waters.

After a brief stop at Riom – Châtel-Guyon, we continue to Clermont Ferrand where a change of train is necessary. The capital of the Auvergne region has exceptional surroundings, between the Puys Mountain Range and its chain of volcanoes, it is the starting point for several scenic rail journeys. The city is overlooked by the imposing, dormant Puy de Dôme. Visitors can ascend the mountain via a rack railway, at the top there is a restaurant, paragliding, hiking and lovely views along the Parc des Volcans.

The city was originally two towns, Clermont and Montferrand, and still retains two distinct historic centres: Clermont contains the key historic sights and Montferrand is one of the best historically preserved towns in France. Take in the religious architecture and buildings built from elegant grey lava stone, such as the city’s most imposing landmark, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption with its black spires visible from almost every part of the town. The global tyre company Michelin established their corporate headquarters here more than 100 years ago in the city. The history of the company is displayed in the modern Aventure Michelin museum, one of several interesting museums in the city.

From here we follow “La Ligne des Cévennes” to Nimes but there are other scenic long distance options across the Massif Central. “La Ligne des Causses” which is frequently plagued by rumours of closure, follows a 394 kilometer route across the top of the mountain plateaux through Neussargues to Béziers (Table 332) and there is more beautiful scenery on the Arvant – Aurillac – Figeac line (Tables 331/317)

(Part 1)

It’s a new month and a new area of the timetable to focus on. This time we are looking at one of our editorial favourites from the list of many scenic rail routes that we list in the timetable (see page 42 of the timetable). We have chosen a route in Central France, starting at the capital city Paris, travelling to the beautiful Clermont Ferrand (Table 330) then onwards through one of Europe’s finest stretches of railway, to the vibrant city of Nimes (Table 333)

The journey begins in the heart of Paris at the unattractive Gare de Paris-Bercy, a relief station for the nearby Gare de Lyon. Unusually, the station features an area for loading cars and scooters onto trains used for overnight long distance services for passengers wishing to travel with their vehicle to destinations such as Avignon, Marseille, Nice, St Raphaël and Toulon. It is possible to complete the 723 km journey to Nimes on this route in around 9 hours, but with an abundance of fine scenery including mountains, gorges and rivers we recommend breaking your journey at some of the interesting towns along the way.

The two hour journey to the first stop, Nevers follows one of the more interesting routes radiating out of Paris and one that has only been electrified since the mid-1990s. The line weaves its way through forests, hugging the river and affording some lovely views over the famous vineyards of the Loire Valley. The picturesque town of Nevers on a hill on the bank of the river Loire has a varied and interesting history and is renowned for its high quality porcelain which can be purchased in many shops around the town. There are several interesting buildings to explore in the town centre, of which the 15th-century Ducal Palace (now occupied by the courts of justice and an important ceramic museum) and the Cathedral of Saint-Cyr and Sainte-Julitte are the most important. Nevers is also internationally renowned as the burial place of Saint Bernadette and thousands of pilgrims come each year to meditate before her body which is displayed at the Chapel of her name. The train then continues on through the pretty Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region stopping at the smaller towns of Moulins sur Allier and Saint-Germain-des-Fossés.

TABLE 18: London/Paris – Amsterdam

(Part 4/4)

After Antwerp the line travels through the southern Netherlands, stopping at Breda, a popular destination due to its rich history. In the city centre you’ll find lots of interesting architecture and cultural delights but Breda is also a fun-loving town with many cafés, terraces and excellent restaurants as well as a range of specialty shops and boutiques.

The next stop is the modern Centraal station with its striking slanted roof, in the maritime city of Rotterdam. The Netherlands second biggest city is famed for its futuristic architecture and has a wealth of top-class museums and galleries. Split by the vast Nieuwe Maas shipping channel, Rotterdam is crossed by a series of tunnels and bridges, notably the dramatic Erasmusbrug – the swooping white cable-stayed bridge dubbed de Zwaan (the Swan). Many day trips are possible from Rotterdam either using the frequent trains and buses or by following one of the well-marked cycle routes. Historic and scenic Delft is nearby, home of the world famous ceramics, its an unspoilt traditional town with pretty canals. Bicycles can be hired from the railway station and are the ideal way to explore.

Onwards through the largely urban landscape the next stop is the administrative capital Den Haag (The Hague) home of the Dutch parliament and the royal family. The Hague offers a unique mix of small lively beach resorts and a historical city centre. Many of the attractions such as the royal palaces and eye catching buildings around ‘The Plein’ are within walking distance of the station. Rather than having canals like other Dutch cities, The Hague has wide streets and avenues and plenty of areas of green space, giving the city a more continental feel.

After a stop at Schiphol airport the final destination on this route is reached, the vibrant capital city of Amsterdam. Amsterdam Centraal Station is the primary station, providing quick access to the city centre. This terminus not only offers train services in all directions but is also directly connected to local bus, tram, metro and ferry services. The city centre is very easy to navigate and compact enough to be walkable or canal cruises are a popular way to get a different perspective. If you’re planning to head out into the Amsterdam Area during your trip to Amsterdam, it makes sense to use the Amsterdam & Region Travel Ticket – a special public transport pass valid on bus, tram, metro and train in Amsterdam and the entire region. The ticket is valid for 1, 2 or 3 days and comes with a useful public transport guide for the Amsterdam area filled with sightseeing tips.

(Part 3)

Following on from Brussels the next station is Mechelen which lies approximately 25 kilometres between Brussels and Antwerp. This picturesque city is one of Flanders’ prominent cities of historical art and has some wonderful museums and hundreds of listed monuments, churches and renaissance buildings. The imposing Catholic church in the centre of the town is visible from nearly everywhere so is a great compass point from which to explore. Its unusually shaped Rumbold’s Tower is a wonder to behold and a spectacular view can be reached by climbing its 514 steps. Also not to miss is the newly renovated majestic renaissance palace that houses the Museum Hof van Busleyden with its impressive collection of artworks.

Onwards now to Antwerpen Centraal, widely regarded as one of the finest examples of railway architecture in Europe. There are three levels of tracks and a shopping centre which includes a diamond gallery with more than thirty diamond shops. The station is conveniently located within walking distance to the historic city centre where there is plenty to see for lovers of art, architecture or fashion. Belgium’s second biggest city has two museums showcasing the best of avant-garde fashion as well as plenty of shopping in the surrounding fashion district. The city also displays plenty of references to its most famous resident, the 17th century painter Rubens. The artist’s palatial home Wapper Rubenshuis is a must see, together with the Royal Museum of Fine Art, displaying works from masters such as Magritte and Van Dyck. To experience renaissance works in a spectacular environment visit the iconic cathedral which towers over the skyline. The city has plenty of options for eating and drinking with trendy restaurants and bars where you may sample the local speciality Antwerpse Handjes, little biscuits or chocolates in the shape of a hand.

(Part 2)

We are going to begin in Brussels, easily and quickly reached from either capital city. Brussels has enough art, culture and cuisine to keep even the most ambitious explorer busy for days. Combining French, Dutch and Flemish traditions the city has a mixture of old world grand and art nouveau buildings alongside modern skyscrapers.

The Grand Place (Grote Markt in Dutch) is the hub to which all visitors to Brussels inevitably flock. The busy World Heritage listed square is arguably one of the most beautiful in the world, with architecture from all eras. The focal point is the spired 15th-century city hall, but there are many interesting buildings and elaborate statues. A short walk away you will find Brussels most famous statue, the Manneken Pis (Peeing boy!) embraced by the people of Brussels the statue often has a different outfit for every occasion.  Another statue worth a visit is the space-age Atomium. Towering over north Brussels’ suburbia the 9 glittering spheres are topped with a panorama-level restaurant with some great views of the surrounding area and ‘mini Europe’ below where you can see models of famous sites such as Big Ben and the Berlin Wall.

Apart from its famous chocolates and beers, there are almost 90 museums, extravagant shopping arcades, stunning churches, beautiful parks, and wonderful cafes and restaurants to explore. Most of the museums are within the city centre or easily reached by public transport. Apart from the usual arts and scientific museums, there are quirky ones like theToy Museum, Belgium Chocolate Village and also Train World, a modern attraction displaying an impressive collection of old and new locomotives. Due to its excellent rail links there are many day trips possible if using Brussels as your base. Liège or Bruges (Table 400) can both be reached in under an hour and a little further afield you can reach Lille on the French/Belgium border.

(Part 1)

We have a new Table for July, this time we will be taking a look in detail at Table 18 from our International section. This table covers the popular route from London/Paris to Amsterdam via Brussels.

There is a now a choice of three train connections between Brussels and Amsterdam – The fast Thalys and new Eurostar connections or the slower (and cheaper) InterCity service that runs every hour during the day time. Thalys operate high speed trains running every one or two hours and make intermediate stops only at Schiphol Airport, Rotterdam and Antwerpen, making the journey in under 2 hours. The slower IC service goes via Den Haag and other local stops and does not allow seat reservation, which means greater flexibility (tickets are valid all day so you can hop on and off at will) but trains can be full during peak periods. Tickets for Eurostar and Thalys must be pre-booked and offer different classes of travel. Thalys offer Standard, Comfort or Premium class, with Premium tickets including food and drink as well as access to Thalys lounges. If you’re traveling with a Eurail Pass, you won’t need to buy a ticket but you will pay a seat reservation fee.

The slower IC route takes us through the cities of Antwerp, Den Haag and Rotterdam as well as serving both Schiphol Airport and Brussels National Airport. An extra stop at Breda was added in April 2018. Using the slower service, the entire journey can be taken in just 3 and half hours meaning it can make an interesting day trip particularly if you stop off along the way.

The Brussels Capital-Region has three main train stations, Noord/Nord is best for connections to Liège or Luxembourg, Centraal/Central for the city centre and the busiest station where the majority of international trains and Eurostar services arrive is Midi/Zuid (Brussels South Station) where there are numerous connections to Gent and Brugge as well as Lille, Paris and London. Due to Brussels-Capital being bilingual, both the French and Dutch names of the station are official, hence the Midi/Zuid shorthand used in the ERT.

Route No. 14: “From Flanders to the Rhine”

ROUTE OF THE WEEK

As a continuing feature we will be highlighting a selected route from our guidebook ‘Europe by Rail’ written by Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries, every week.  Below is an extract from the book. To find out more, the guidebook can be purchased through our website for £15.99.

This week we are looking at: Route No. 14: “From Flanders to the Rhine” which begins in Lille, passing through Brussels and Liège, ending in Cologne. The Thalys and Deutsche Bahn trains from Brussels to Cologne all follow the same route. They dash across the flatlands of Brabant to reach Liège (Luik in Dutch and Lüttich in German), an industrial city that sprawls along the west bank of the River Meuse.

In Liège, all trains stop at Guillemins railway station, a stunning piece of design by Santiago Calatrava. The building is best appreciated from the road outside rather than from the platforms, but on a sunny day the play of light and shade on the platforms is quite seductive. Part of the station is shown on the front cover of this book. The station is a reminder that Liège is a city which has always had strong railway connections

A new high-speed line from Liège to Aachen opened in 2009, thus marking the end of a slow dawdle through the hill country of eastern Belgium to reach the Germany border. Nowadays, the fast trains dive through tunnels and miss the best of the scenery. Of course, you can if you wish still follow the old line via Verviers to Aachen. There are hourly trains on this route, all requiring a change of train at Welkenraedt (ERT 400 & 438).

Route No. 2: “Burgundy and the Rhône Valley”

As a continuing feature we will be highlighting a selected route from our guidebook ‘Europe by Rail’ written by Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries, every week.  Below is an extract from the book. To find out more, the guidebook can be purchased through our website for £15.99.

This week we are looking at: Route No. 2: “Burgundy and the Rhône Valley” which begins in Paris, running through Dijon and Lyon before arriving in Marseille.

As you move south along the PLM line, the scenery on this route becomes ever more compelling, and the journey culminates in a magnificent ride south through the Rhône Valley to the Mediterranean. You can easily complete this journey in a single day. It requires just a single change of train at Lyon Part Dieu station. The trains upon which this journey relies are TER services: these are regional trains where there’s no need to pre-book and there are no supplements for holders of rail passes.

Marseille is an earthy Mediterranean city and hectically vibrant, with a great music scene and superb fish-based cuisine. The busiest port in France, it’s a melting pot of French and North African cultures. Marseille’s grubby, rough-and-ready character appeals to some, while others will want to move on swiftly – though watch this space, because big regeneration schemes are changing the city, especially in the northern dock areas. There’s a good métro and bus system, and three tram lines.