Culture

Southern France and the Rhone

21 September to 1 October
France

The PTG slogan is “rail and culture” and that is exactly what this tour sets out to achieve, with a combination of modern and historic trains and fascinating towns and scenery, making this one of our most popular tours.

Whether you are in search of culture and antiquity, with fine architecture and interesting places to visit; or you enjoy travelling on scenic railways that climb mountains; or you want to potter around at your leisure – there is something for everyone on this tour which covers the length of France, hops across into Italy via two different Alpine routes, and dives under Monaco!

The tour includes many scenic highlights: the mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees, the Mediterranean coast of France, the hills of Provence and the Cevennes; as well as many places of historical interest including Carcassonne and the Roman amphitheatre in the beautiful city of Nimes.

The railway highlights include a number of routes listed as some finest in Europe (by the European Rail Timetable) such as the Mediterranean coast east of Marseille to the Italian border and the lines heading inland from Nice to Digne-les-Bains and Tende. The tour also includes four steam rides on some lovely heritage railways and a cruise on Cana du Midi at Carcassonne.

Your Tour Manager for this trip is David. Should you have any queries about the itinerary or if you wish to have a chat with him about the trip, please feel free to e-mail him on david@ptg.co.uk.

Highlights

  • Steam trains
  • Rack Railway
  • Our own coach to take our luggage
  • First class train travel
  • Historic towns
  • Canal cruise

Tour Manager: David

Itinerary

Friday 21 September (B) Various flights from UK airports to the very elegant coastal resort of Nice, capital of the famous Côte d’Azur. We arrive in the evening and check in for three nights at a very centrally located hotel. Overland option also available by leaving London St Pancras at 07.19. It is possible to be in Nice in time for dinner with just one change of train at Marseille.

Saturday 22nd September (B,D) Today we will ride a slow train on the line SNCF calls the “Train des Merveilles”, Nice – Tende – Cuneo following the Roya Valley and crossing the Alps into Italy. There are many viaducts and even more tunnels with wild mountain-and-valley scenery. This is an exceptional route and of interest to any railway enthusiast; it includes three spirals and a summit higher than Ben Nevis. For rail fans, we hope to arrange a visit to the museum in Breil-sur-Roya, before continuing to Cuneo. Non-rail enthusiasts should alight in the fascinating mountain town of Tende for some sightseeing and re-join the group on the train down to the coast on the Italian operated line to Ventimiglia, where we change back to a French train for the trip along the coast, passing under Monaco. Alternatively, choose a relaxing day in Nice, walking through the narrow streets and alleyways of the Old City – described as a “Baroque Experience” – then strolling along the Promenade des Anglais seafront to take lunch at the Casino. Note that for the transport enthusiasts there are modern trams in Nice, and a tram stop near our hotel. Tonight, we have our Welcome Dinner in a restaurant near the hotel. (08.45 – 18.00)

Sunday 23rd September (B) Today we ride the long non-electrified metre gauge CF Provence from Nice to Digne, a distance of 151 km in a new 2-car DMU with large windows on a very scenic line, on the “Train des Pignes”. You will have the option of alighting at Puget-Theniers to join the steam train hauled by an ex CP (Portugal) 2-4-6-0T mallet, or alternatively visit the historic village of Entrevaux or remain on the diesel train to the end of the line at Digne-les-Bains high in Alpes Maritimes. We return to Nice in time for dinner. (08.30 – 18.00)

Monday 24th September (B) This morning we travel by train from Nice to Nimes. In the afternoon, we will be joined by a local guide for a guided walk through the historic centre of Nimes. Included in the guided walk are some Roman buildings still standing such as the Amphitheatre “the best preserved in the whole of the Roman Empire” and the Maison Carée, “a remarkably well-preserved square temple built Ch. AD”. We will visit the amphitheatre, which is still in use and regularly hosts concerts. (08.00 – 14.00)

Tuesday 25th September (B) We have a very scenic train trip through the Cévennes from Nimes to La Bastide-St. Laurent. We return to Alés where our coach will be waiting to transfer us to Saint Jean-du-Gard, and the “Train a Vapeur des Cévennes” whose ex SNCF 2-8-0 steam locomotive was only recommissioned in 2011. This is a lovely 13 km train journey along the Gardons valley and we do a return trip. There are some fantastic views of the river valley and the Cévennes scenery. After our visit, we return to Nimes by coach. (07.45 – 18.00)

Wednesday 26th September (B) Today we will travel to Avignon – a walled city next the River Rhone. Attractions include the Papal Palace (the biggest Gothic palace ever built, anywhere). Today the Palace is a place of culture and primarily a tourist attraction. With around 650,000 visitors each year it is regularly among the top ten attractions in France. With its size, architecture and historical significance the Palace regularly serves as an exhibition centre. During your free time, we suggest you visit the famous medieval bridge, the Pont d’Avignon on which one dances as the 15th century song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” says. In the afternoon, we will return to Nimes on our coach via the Pont du Gard – an impressive Roman aqueduct built in the 1st century AD. The Pont du Gard is the highest of all Roman aqueduct bridges and is the best preserved along with the aqueduct of Segovia. Because of its historic importance it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. Today it is one of France’s five top tourist attractions with around 1.4 million visitors each year. (10.15 – 17.00)

Thursday 27th September (B) We take the morning service train to the medieval walled city of Carcassonne where you will have free time to explore the narrow streets and the castle. The walled city is one of France’s “must see” attractions, yet in the 19th century, the government decided to demolish it. Fortunately, it won a reprieve, and is still here today. This afternoon we will have a cruise on the UNESCO World Heritage Canal du Midi, from where we will have views of the walled city. At the end of the afternoon we continue by rail to Toulouse.

Friday 28th September (B) In the morning we travel on the 500-mm narrow gauge Chemin de Fer Touristique du Tarn where we have a steam-hauled charter over the whole line, including a visit to their workshops and the museum. The line is very pretty and steeply graded against outward-bound trains. At the far end of the line there are some beautiful gardens and non-rail fans may wish to pay a quick visit to them.  We return to Toulouse for a free afternoon to explore this city, known as the “pink city” due to the unique architecture made of pinkish terracotta bricks. Note to transport enthusiasts: as well as the new tram line, there is also a metro in Toulouse.

Saturday 29th September (B) This morning we take the SNCF Lunéa service train westwards to Bayonne from where our coach brings us to the nearby CF Rhune rack railway. This line still uses the original varnished wood-bodied electric locos and carriages supplied for the opening of the line. The most recently added stock was built in 1924! At the top, at a height of almost 3,000 feet, you look out over France in one direction, and Spain in the other. After returning to the bottom, our coach takes us directly to our hotel in Basque capital, Bilbao. Overnight in Bilbao.

Sunday 30th September (B) Rail option: In the morning we travel by coach to the Basque Rail Museum at Azpeitia. Here we find a wonderful collection of narrow gauge locomotives, carriages, trams and even an ex London Transport trolleybus. There is also a steam crane which is still operational, and a tram which they can run along a very short section of track. We will have our final steam-hauled train today, along the museum’s 5 km stretch of track. After our visit, we return to Bilbao, with the option of returning by rail. Culture option: Alternatively, spend the day in Bilbao. No longer the grey, industrial city it was in the 1970s, Bilbao boasts a plethora of things to see and do. Most famous of all is the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry and considered as one of the most important structures of contemporary architecture, the building being wrapped in titanium panels. Also visit the colourful Old Town, known as the “Seven Streets”, as they were the seven streets that formed the medieval town. For transport fans, a trip on the futuristic metro system, designed by Sir Norman Foster (the station entrances are known locally as “fosteritos”) is a must. Be sure to visit the UNESCO listed Viscaya Bridge, the world-famous transporter bridge, where people and vehicles cross the river in a suspended gondola.

Monday 1st October (B) Our coach takes us to Bilbao Airport for our flights home.

A generally relatively easy tour as we have our own coach following us to carry our bags and for transfers between the hotel and the station when it is more than a few minutes’ walk. There are two optional walking tours, one of which has a 15-minute walk from the station to the historic centre. Some railway stations do not have lifts or escalators.

Hotels

Mercure Nice Centre Notre Dame, Nice (3 nights)
Novotel Nimes Centre Atria, Nimes (3 nights)
Mercure Toulouse Wilson, Toulouse (2 nights)
Hotel Ercilla, Bilbao (2 nights)

Outward Overland Option

EST9084  07.19 from London St Pancras to Marseille-St-Charles (arr 14.47)
TER17479 16.52 Marseille-St-Charles to Nice (arr 19.40) 

Flights

BA354 14.30 London Heathrow to Nice (arr 17.40)
BA467 12.20 Bilbao to London Heathrow (arr 13.15)

BA2624 13.25 London Gatwick to Nice (arr 16.30)
VY7292 18.20 Bilbao to London Gatwick (arr 19.10)

EZY3103 07.00 London Stansted to Nice (arr 10.05) or 19.20 flight with Ryanair arriving Nice 22.20
EZY3226 11.00 Bilbao to London Stansted (arr 11.50)

J2-833 07.45 Manchester to Nice (arr 11.05) or 12.50 from Liverpool with Easyjet arriving Nice 16.05
EZY1878 15.20 Bilboa to Manchester (arr 16.20)

Place(s) available
Holiday prices per person
  • Full 11 day holiday including flight from Gatwick: £1,950
  • Full 11 day holiday from Nice to Bilbao: £1,850
  • Full 11 day holiday overland from St Pancras: £2,150

Options

  • Single room Supplement: £395

Deposit

  • Travelling by air: £500
  • Travelling by land: £750
  • Own travel: £300
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