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Updated post: 17/4/20 | April 2020
Do you have one week in Provence but no car? Fear not. It is easy to explore Provence by rail.
To help you plan a perfect train itinerary, and to inspire you to put together your own tour of the South of France, here are some tips on how to do it, based on a 7-day trip that I did as a solo traveller.
Why visit Provence?
There is something for everyone in Provence.
Its architectural wonders, such as the Palais des Papes in Avignon, are a lasting legacy of its rich history. These are equalled by its natural wonders, like the famous Calanques near Marseilles or its acres of lavender fields. Provence also has a wonderful climate, charming towns, an idyllic coastline and the region is a foodie’s playground.
What is the best time of year to visit Provence?
This is a bit of a trade-off. Visit Provence in the summer to view the lavender and sunflower fields in full bloom.
However, this region is not exactly a well-kept secret and the South of France will be very busy, especially in August. Hotels will be more expensive and restaurants will be rammed.
I travelled to Provence in May. Whilst it was too early to visit the lavender and sunflower fields, I had good weather and it wasn’t too busy or expensive.
Where is the best base for visiting Provence by rail?
If you only have seven days in Provence and are without a car, it doesn’t make much sense to change accommodation every day. Therefore, I suggest that you pick one or two places that have good rail links and use them as bases to visit the region.
I used Avignon and Cassis as my hubs, but you could also consider Aix-En-Provence, Arles, Nimes and Marseilles. More about this later.
One week in Provence: Map of my train itinerary
To help you picture my train tour of Provence, here’s a map of the places I visited during my week’s visit.
Tips for travelling around Provence by train
Check out this guide on how to travel around France by train.
From my experience:
- Check train timetables in advance
Don’t just rock up at the train station, expecting to board a train in the next 15 minutes. Even from a major hub like Avignon, trains to neighbouring towns did not run very frequently and I was surprised at the gaps in the services.
- Be aware that some trains may require compulsory reservations
- Train travel in France is not cheap.
For example, the 18-minute journey between Avignon and Arles will set you back €10
Visiting Provence by rail: A 7-day itinerary
Let’s now get into the nitty-gritty, and look at my Provence itinerary day-by-day.
Day 1: Avignon
London to Avignon by direct train – 5h 44minutes.
The direct train departs London St. Pancras early in the morning, arriving in Avignon just after lunch. An indirect train, changing stations in Paris from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon, takes around 6 hours 15 minutes.
Note that there are two stations in Avignon: Avignon TGV (where the high-speed trains, including Eurostar, stop) and Gare d’Avignon-Centre. A shuttle train – La Virgule – will whisk you between the two stations in six minutes.
Founded by the Romans, the centrepiece of Avignon is the UNESCO world heritage site of Palais des Papes. Built in the 14th Century for popes fleeing Rome, this largest Gothic palace in the world is a great place to start your tour of the city.
After your visit here, take a leisurely stroll through the old town to before heading out to Pont Saint-Bénézet, Avignon’s famous Pont D’Avignon. Much of this bridge was washed away in the 17th Century, stranding its remains in the middle of the Rhône River. Today, only four of its original 22 stone arches remain.
Where to stay in Avignon
I stayed at the Avignon Grand Hotel, a lovely 4-star hotel just outside the city walls, and five-minutes’ walk from the train station. A perfect location, both for day trips around Provence by rail and for exploring Avignon.
Where to eat in Avignon
Le 46, 46 rue de la Balance
A fantastic bistro near the Palais des Papes.
L’epicerie, 10 place St. Pierre
A traditional Provençal restaurant complete with checked tablecloths.
Day 2: Arles
Avignon to Arles by train – 18 minutes
Arles, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981, was my favourite town of this trip and, in my view, a must-see on a 7-day Provence itinerary.
Its Roman ruins, pastel-hewn houses and cobblestone streets lend it an almost palpable charm. Taking pride of place is Arles’ Roman amphitheatre. Built in the 1st Century BC for an audience of 20,000 to gawp at gladiators and cheer chariot racers, it now hosts cultural events.
Arles is also where Vincent Van Gogh famously chopped off an ear, and a free self-guided walking tour will take you around sites associated with the artist.
Day 3: Orange & Pont du Gard
Avignon to Orange by train – from 14 minutes
Get an early start and visit Orange in the morning.
The main attraction in Orange is the Théàtre Antique, its spectacular Roman theatre. This UNESCO World Heritage site has its original stage wall intact. I’ve visited many Ancient Roman sites over the years and this ranks amongst the best.
Pont du Gard
Avignon to Pont du Gard by bus – 50 minutes
Take bus number A15 from Avignon’s bus station. There are five buses a day. The last returning bus leaves Pont du Gard shortly before 7 pm. Check the timetable before you leave.
Another sensational piece of architecture the Romans left behind, this is also a must-see during your week in Provence. Towering almost 50 m above the Gard river, the Pont du Gard is the tallest aqueduct bridge of the Roman world. Featuring 35 arches – there were originally 47 – this was an essential part of an aqueduct that supplied water to the city of Nîmes.
Day 4: Cassis
Avignon to Cassis by train – Approximately 1h 30m. Change trains at Marseilles.
Cassis is the quintessential Provençal portside town. Overlooked by towering cliffs and the Château de Cassis, and blessed with beautiful beaches, it is a relaxing and picturesque base for travelling around Provence by rail.
It is small enough to get to know in a short space of time and boasts some great restaurants. Soak up the sun at the beach, stroll through the old town, walk along its pier and treat yourself to a local lavender ice-cream.
Don’t miss visiting the Calanques, limestone cliffs rising out of the sea. I took a boat trip from Cassis to visit the Calanques and was blown away by their scale. Several companies offer regular departures from the port.
Where to stay in Cassis
I stayed at the Sure Hotel Couer de Cassis, a simple hotel tucked in one of the streets leading up from the port.
Where to eat in Cassis
Le Chaudron, 4 rue Adolphe Thiers
Family-run bistro with great food and attentive service. So good that I went there for dinner for my entire stay in Cassis.
Day 5: Marseille
Cassis to Marseille by train – 17 minutes
Marseille is France’s oldest city and third-largest urban region. Initially put off by its reputation as a gritty city – for this reason, I didn’t use Marseille as a base for visiting Provence – I was delighted to have my preconceptions overturned.
Stroll around the Vieux Port, or Old Port, and then make your way to Le Panier, the oldest part of Marseille. Then, head to Notre-Dame de la Garde for the best views of the port.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the MuCEM, Marseille’s Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. The poster child of the city’s reign as the European Capital of Culture, this building is extraordinary. Cube-like in shape, its skin of ornamental filigreed concrete throws intricate patterns on its floors and corridors as the sun streams in. Cross a footbridge to visit the Fort St-Jean for further fantastic harbourside views.
Day 6: Aix-en-Provence
Cassis to Aix-en-Provence by train – from 1 hour. Change trains at Marseille.
Cards on the table; I was a little underwhelmed by Aix-en-Provence. The problem is I can’t put my finger on why that was.
The city’s multitude of splashing and gurgling fountains tell of Aix’s origins as a Roman spa town, known in Roman times as Aquae Sextiae (The Waters of Sextius). Home to Cézanne and Zola and an inspiration for other artists including Monet and Renoir, it is a Provençal town straight out of casting central.
Picture cobblestoned lanes, sun-drenched squares, local markets and the low hum of chatter emanating from café terraces. Perhaps I felt that it was just a little too perfect?
Day 7: Travel from Cassis to London via Marseille
Cassis to London – Approximately 7 hours. Change trains at Marseille. You will need to alight the train for immigration checks at Lille.
One week in Provence by rail: Final thoughts
First things first. In an ideal world, you would tour Provence by car, especially if you wish to explore more remote villages and the region’s dramatic landscapes. Although you could visit the lavender and sunflower fields as a day trip – I found some operating out of Nice for example – having a car at your disposal will be far more convenient.
Also, bear in mind that Provence is vast and you can’t do it all in one week. Pick an area and stick with it.
Avignon and Cassis worked well as bases to visit Provence. However, given the choice again, I might be tempted to ditch Cassis for Marseille as the latter is a major transportation hub.
Above all, whichever way you decide to travel and wherever you base yourself, enjoy your week in Provence. It’s an enormously seductive region of France, steeped in history with some of the best food and wine I’ve had anywhere. Better still, it’s a great destination for a solo traveller!
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