European Train Tour #2 – France

Europe is a wonderful continent. Culturally & geographically diverse and incredibly easy to navigate from the Arctic to the Mediterranean or even the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The best way to explore the region is by train with a vast network of train tracks criss-crossing the continent, connecting amazing cities and countries. Arm yourself with the European rail timetable and salivate over the possibilities!

I have now undertaken over 200 train journeys outside of the UK since 1987 and over the coming weeks I will share some of my favourite train tours……

#2 Avignon to Lyon to Strasbourg to Epernay to Reims to Paris

We refer to this June 2012 trip as the wine tour seeing as we visited Cotes du Rhone, the Alsace Wine Route and Champagne before finishing with kir royales all round in the French capital. Throw in the gastronomic heartland that is Lyon and it is obvious to see why we needed to lose a few kilos when we got home!

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The French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) system is amazing with all major cities served, though often the stations are on the outskirts of town making a bus transfer, car hire or taxis necessary.

It also serves routes outside of France in neighbouring countries and although not quite as quick as some of its Asian counterparts (but still a highly impressive top speed of just below 280kmh), it certainly set the benchmark for high-speed European train travel when it was first introduced in 1981 with the Paris to Lyon route.

We actually arrived in Avignon by rental car having flown to Nice and then driven to Cannes, Grasse, Verdun Gorge, Aix and the villages of  Provence, Arles and the Camargue on the way. You can read about those legs of the journey elsewhere on my blog. This meant our trip lasted sixteen days having spent five days touring before we arrived for our first train journey.

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The papal city of Avignon is a wonderful place dominated by the vast Palace of the Popes. We actually based ourselves in Villeneuve d’Avignon, it’s smaller cousin across the Rhone River. What a delightful spot it was too.

On our first morning we breakfasted on fresh croissant, even fresher cherries and the kind of filter coffee that screams WAKE UP at you. Today was to become one of those instant recall days.

Pierre, our attentive/slightly fussy host, told us that today was market day in town. Our plans to stroll up to the Fort Saint-Andre and the adjoining Jardins de l’Abbaye Saint-Andre, were therefore delayed slightly to take in the one day per week marché.

It was a colourful artisan delight and bargain central at that. Every fruit and vegetable imaginable was available (and artistically arranged), as was a staggering variety of honey, jam, mushrooms, cheese, oil, vinegar, soap & wax creations, as well as incredibly tempting home-made pies, sausages, cakes and biscuits.

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We could easily have bought a banquet’s worth, but satisfied ourselves with some more fresh cherries, together with some plump, juicy peaches. In what I am sure was a cunning plan, Mrs Wilbur then had to buy a very nice straw basket to carry all of our fruit. She rejected my offer to carry said fruit myself without the need for a basket. Funny that!

It didn’t take long to get up high, firstly past the small terraced cottages that crowded around the walled & narrow winding streets and then as the hill flattened and road broadened, the larger piles of really expensive real estate.

We were soon at the large heavy gate that led to our twin objectives, the fort and the monastic residence & gardens. Up the cobbled pathway, we first turned right into the latter of the two must sees.

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The entrance to the gardens was through part of the Benedictine abbey palace that had been built in the 10th Century, a small section of which was open to the public. Sumptuous and stately, but not our real interest of the day. We did linger to look at the weird creations of a local sculptor.

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The bright sunshine spilled in through the open doorway & lead-framed windows to illuminate the distorted depictions of sea life – it was to this sunlight that we were drawn. The courtyard we entered into was picture perfect.

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Multi-coloured wrought-iron garden furniture littered the stony ground, bright pink, orange and red flowers bloomed from well-shaped bushes, the bowed branches of an ancient tree gave respite to the heat of the day, pots of marjoram, rosemary, mint and lavender filled the air with intoxicating aromas, pink water lilies sprouted from a miniature stone fountain that spurted gurgling water into its floral trough, weathered garden statues crouched in their shady nooks carved into the boundary wall, a huge stone urn with carved floral motif stood atop a stone plinth, purple flowers trailing from within, a stone arch draped in ivy led off to somewhere else secretive & exciting.

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The place shouted LINGER and this is what we did. The landscape was a dream, an inspiration for all gardeners to follow if only they could. Maybe it’s an age thing, but we absolutely loved what we saw, breathed, heard and felt. We soon added taste to the sensations through consuming the delicious fresh fruit that we had purchased earlier. The taste bud juices are flowing as I write!

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The fantastic view across the valley to Avignon with the Palace of the Popes jutting from its base just added to the pleasurable spectacle. That was money really well spent.

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We stayed for two and a half hours in all, such was our love for the place. We took plenty of opportunities to just sit amongst the flora and feel the peace washing over us. It is a vision that I have used several times since to de-stress myself at work.

We agreed to give the fort a miss. We had walked a fair distance in thirty-six degree heat and were feeling zapped despite all of the rest breaks. Maybe this meant we would definitely return one day.

After an hour’s recuperation back at the ranch, we took the short bus ride into big brother Avignon itself.

We alighted outside one of the city’s historic gates housed in the impressive walls that are still almost wholly intact, encircling the entire settlement. As soon as we passed through into the city’s thoroughfares, we were drawn upwards, first of all coming to the main town square fronted as ever in all French settlements, large or small, by the Hôtel de Ville.

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The city is most famous for the vast Palace of the Popes, built in the 14th Century, when a succession of Pontiffs were Gallic (Benedict XII in 1334, Clement VI in 1342, Innocent VI in 1352, Urban V in 1362, Gregory XI in 1370 and Antipope Benedict XIII in 1394)

We arrived mid afternoon and satisfied ourselves with an external view, figuring that we did not have time to do the interior justice – you guessed it, saved for another trip.

The palace sits atop a hill, looking down upon the rest of the walled city. I suppose this was symbolic of the great religious leaders looking down upon their subjects, but would also have been for defensive purposes. It has a definite castle look to it in places with turrets and arrow slits, a sign of the turbulent crusader period during which it was constructed, when religious wars were frequent.

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The structure is huge, requiring several photographs to capture the aspect of its entire facade. It looms over a pleasant square filled with the touristic eateries and shops that you would expect of such a place.

After a couple of hours, we completed our familiarisation tour of Avignon, vowing to return one day to do the place justice.

We then spent a couple of days visiting some fabulous places by car, such as Orange & Chateauneuf du Pape.

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Orange Amphitheatre

So fantastic was our time in Provence & Avignon that we had one of those holiday conversations, “do you think we could ever buy a place in the region,” before coming to our senses and carrying on with our journey north.

This entailed navigating the satnav free car to the TGV station (not any easy task for me!) and waving a sad goodbye to our 500 at the Hertz car rental on site.

Rather than head straight for Strasbourg we decided to stop off en route for lunch in Lyon, said to be the gastronomic capital of France and also a UNESCO World Heritage site in its own right, and with good reason. Dissected by the Rivers Rhône & Saône, Lyon is an architectural delight.

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We took the funicular up to the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière that dominated the skyline above us, for stupendous views across the city and beyond.

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The basilica itself was pretty impressive, with it’s carved stone exterior, four steeples and prominent cupola.

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The interior too was opulent, especially its striking gilded roof, set off by stunning art work.

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We then did what any self-respecting French person does after midday, we lunched. This took up just about all the rest of our time in Lyon. It would have been rude not to do the gastronomic experience justice here of all places.

The train sped the 500KM to Strasbourg in around three and a half hours via Mulhouse. We arrived after nightfall, so took a taxi the short distance to our hotel. Been there and done that far too often in the past for Rania to trust me to find our destination in the dark on foot!

 

We soon became the latest members of the Strasbourg fan club. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that we were not in Germany (accents, cuisine, gifts/tat) or Bruges (architecture, canals, bridges).

The buildings were predominantly of the half-timbered variety and a riot of different colours, adorned by baskets and tubs overflowing with flowers. It really was delightful, albeit a little on the twee side.

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We decided to take the canal boat trip, a decision that we were not to regret. It was indeed very Brugesque, but superior for the old artisan quarter and it’s locks that we navigated on two occasions.

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We also took in the modern European Parliament and the Court of Human Rights, filled with bureaucrats & diplomats and funded by the likes of you and I. Our boat even took part in some light booing, to mark the high esteem in which the Union is held!

Ninety-minutes well spent, we then took in the mammoth cathedral that dominates the entire cobbled Old Town. A Gothic masterpiece with its huge round leaded windows, beautiful stained glass, fairy-tale towers, grotesque gargoyles, Sagrada Familiar like columns, enormous wooden entrance door and multitude of ornate statues carved into the exterior, the most amazing of which flanked the main entrance.

Apparently the bell tower is really something truly to behold. Saved for next time!

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We spent the rest of the day eating huge slabs of quiche, drinking sweet Alsace red and walking around the canal district.

The Alsace Wine Route was to be the undisputed highlight of our time in the region.

We first had to wait for our dusty, bird stained Peugeot to be cleaned at Rania’s insistence. Quite right too!

It didn’t take long to leave the city behind and swap the main road for the backwaters of the Wine Route.

First stop was Molsheim, the home of the Bugatti motor car. It was a pleasant village with large square, where we sat for morning coffee, flanked by typical Alsace half-timbered buildings of many colours.

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Next stop was Obernai, where we stopped for a slab of quiche and a little rocket. Another picturesque little place, alive with flowers and houses draped in vines.

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After lunch, we headed along the scenic route to the red roofs of Mittelbergheim. It was here that we purchased some sweet Alsace white at Domaine Gilg. The vintner was very friendly there and allowed us to taste several varieties, before we purchased our horde of three bottles.

Nearby Dambach-la-Ville, also made for a delightful stop off, the colours and floral tributes seemingly getting more bold and vivid the further we traversed the route.

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We then detoured off the main route and up to Haut Koeningsbourg to visit the 900 year-old turreted chateau, built castle style high up above the vineyards. The view from on high of Vosges River and the Black Forest was well worth the effort.

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Time was running now so we scooted through the striking villages of Bergheim, Ribeauville and Hunawihr, getting our first glimpses of storks in flight as we ourselves glided by.

Our final stop of the day was definitely a case of saving the best until last. The village of Riquewihr has the kind of buildings that you are tempted to lick to taste their candy exteriors. The place looked like something that Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson had dreamt up.

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We were Hansel and Gretel, but happily no wicked witches were flying around, their place taken by the far more pleasant storks that frequent the whole area.

We entered the the cobbled main pedestrianised thoroughfare through the arch at the centre of the hotel de ville building. Once inside we feasted upon the delightful looking shops, wineries and eateries, each of whom displayed their wares in a creative & colourful way.

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As we ate our quiche and salad, we spied a huge stork’s nest right above us. Empty when we first sat, mother and sibling soon arrived to fill the huge pile of twigs and straw.

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We continued our window shopping, avoiding any temptation to buy a life-size cuddly stork, before heading back along the scenic Wine Route as the sun was setting. A picture perfect ending to a picture perfect day.

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You can read about our Metz and Verdun experiences here.

We decided upon Epernay as our Champagne base on account of it being smaller than the Champagne capital. There are two champagne routes to choose from and we had time to do one of them, taking in the lower Marne version.

Whilst in the region, a visit to one of the grand champagne houses is a must. Despite the obvious allure of Moët & Chandon, we had plumped for the Mercier tour, where we were to learn that the bubbly created there is France’s favourite, with only 10% of production exported.

The tour started with an explanation of the absolutely huge barrel that dominated the reception area. It had been built for the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1889. Stats were recounted – lots of wood, lots of craftsmanship and lots of money. Quite a feat to get the giant structure from Épernay to the capital.

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It seemed Monsieur Mercier was a bit of a showman and the exhibition was to put his champagne firmly on the drinks menu throughout France.

 

We traversed the web of tunnels and learned all there is to know about the bubbly liquid, most of which I instantly forgot.

After thirty-minutes, we rose back up to the bar area, cleverly positioned next to the shop.

Light headed tourers shopped with their guard down and like us bought far more booze than it was easy to carry.

 

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From there it is just a 23 minute train hop to Reims. We only had time to spend a few hours there, but having sampled a champagne tour already, it was plenty of time to explore the fabulous cathedral and have a leisurely lunch in the old town.

Despite a national strike we managed to get a train to Paris, fifty minutes away. However we arrived into a gridlocked capital in baking sunshine as people took to the roads due to there being no Metro in operation. This saw us stuck in a taxi for ninety minutes.

The driver then could not find the hotel and when we eventually arrived hot & bothered, it transpired that the apartment I had booked on-line bore no resemblance to the elegant pictures I had viewed on my computer screen.

It was an absolute hole, dirty, hot and full of flies. We had prepaid, but the decision was taken. There was no way we were staying there!

The owner got very agitated when we said we were leaving, refused any sort of refund and warned us against hurting his hotel rating on Trip Advisor, forcibly stating there would be repercussions if we did. A charming chap!

We were saved by a lovely little hotel near Opera and happily obtained a full refund from our booking agents thanks to the photos of the room that Mrs Wilbur thoughtfully took to prove the grittiness of the place, combined with a fair amount of persistence on my part.

I won’t go into our Paris stay in detail seeing as I have been there so often. We decided that the French capital was best visited outside summer though.

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You can build any tour of France that you care to imagine, though having to hire a car at some stage is pretty inevitable if you want to get into the countryside.

I am thinking of a Burgundy to Bordeaux tour one day, taking in the likes of Nîmes, Pont du Gard, Marseille, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Montpelier, Toulon etc on the way. Still plenty to see!

There are a multitude of possibilities in France, all with their own distinct flavours and culture. You can read about other places we have visited by clicking ‘France‘ on the Wilburs Travels home page.

Coming next Norway.

One comment

  1. Interesting and entertaining. Excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

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