On the right tracks
In Nice, it is the dramatic colours and aromas that captivate; along the Cote d’Azur it is the light that has inspired artists for generations; in Lyon, the culinary capital, it is food and wine that is the city’s muse. Winsor Dobbin reports.
France has a vibrant palette of shades and flavours, offering a different experience each day. And those many aspects of one country are best enjoyed at ground level. More than any country I can think of, France is best explored by rail. Sometimes it is best contemplated on a slow local train and at other times a TGV can whisk you from one region to another in a wink.
The spacious high-speed trains of
France link major centres in just a couple of hours and slower regional trains can take you directly to gourmet destinations such as Beaune in Burgundy and Epernay in Champagne.
In summer you can travel from St Pancras in London direct to Avignon in Provence in under six hours on Eurostar. And if you are travelling as a couple, rather than in a group on a bus, going by rail can be extremely convenient.
Take a bike with you on the train, hire a car for a day or two when you arrive or simply join an organised tour. Given the stress of driving on the other side of the road in busy cities like Paris and Bordeaux – allied to the extreme cost of using toll roads between city destinations – exploring by rail makes an awful lot of sense.
Spread your wings and there is a very different France waiting to be discovered; a France in which the menus are not printed in six languages and the daily markets are not overrun by busloads of tourists.
Exploring regional France takes a bit more time and effort but there are some amazing travel delights to be savoured, as we discovered on a recent rail trip that started in Nice and took in Lyon, the Auvergne, Vichy, the Loire and Nantes and finished in the charming Breton town of Vannes.
Highlights included Nice, in the sunniest part of France, where the morning street market in the heart of the old town features local specialties of olives, tomatoes and lavender.
Check out St Paul de Vence, a beautiful fortified hilltop village favoured by artists, and Villeneuve-Loubet with its culinary museum and statue of Escoffier, the father of French cuisine. Alternatively, take the Painter’s Trail through Juan les Pins and follow in the footsteps of Picasso and Matisse.
Lyon is encircled by vineyards, with Beaujolais to the north and the Cotes du Rhone to the south. Among the best sights here are Roman ruins on the hillside near the Fourviere Basilica; St John Cathedral with elements from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries; Old Lyon, the mediaeval and renaissance quarter, with its quaint cobbled streets, shops, and the majestic Place Bellecour, one of the largest town squares in Europe and a great spot for people watching.
Also make sure you visit one of the small, friendly restaurants serving traditional local dishes and wines, which are known as bouchons.
There are plenty of gourmet attractions near Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne, including the Bellonte farm, where visitors are invited to watch all aspects of Saint-Nectaire cheese production. The Bellonte family has been making cheese here since 1663.
Also try to visit the spa town of Vichy, a little past its prime but full of history – and you can still enjoy a treatment in the healing mineral waters.
To Tours with its famous cathedral and then on a slower local train to the delightful Loire Valley village of Amboise with its famous Chateau d’Amboise and the nearby Chateau du Clos Lucé where Leonardo da Vinci spent the final years of his life. It is now a museum with delightful gardens.
Pop into Maison Bigot for artisan chocolates and then head for the Caveau des Vignerons d’Amboise to sample local wines.
Next up Nantes, where the venerable La Cigale is one of France’s most atmospheric – and historic – seafood restaurants. Also check out the Comedie des Vins wine bar, ideal for trying local wines by the glass in a congenial setting.
Finally, the delightful pre-Roman Breton town of Vannes where laneways with half-timbered houses and shops built in mediaeval times contrast with the lively marina quarter with cafes and bars overlooking the water. Vannes and nearby Quimper are among many undiscovered French treasures waiting to be unearthed. •
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