Southern France and the Pyrenees
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 and breadth of France, hops across into Italy via two different Alpine routes, and dives under Monaco!
Using a combination of first class travel on Eurostar and TGV, tour passengers stay overnight in Lille, before being whisked down to the beautiful Cote D’Azur at speeds up to 200 mph, arriving in Nice in the evening.
The tour includes many scenic highlights: the mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees, the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of France, the hills of Provence and the Cevennes; as well as many places of historical interest from the medieval walled city of Carcassonne to 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 famous Petit Train Jaune (Little Yellow Train), the Mediterranean coast east of Marseille to the Italian border, and the line from La Tour De Carol through the high Pyrenean mountains to Toulouse. The tour also includes the equally stunning rack railway to La Rhune overlooking the Atlantic coast, as well as a number of steam rides on some lovely heritage railways.
Tour Manager: David
Thursday 21st September (LS) Leaving London St Pancras after lunch, we travel by Eurostar to Lille for our overnight stay. Light snack served en-route. Alternatively, fly out tomorrow from various UK airports.
Friday 22nd September (B) Late morning we join the TGV service that will take us through to the very elegant coastal resort of Nice, capital of the famous Côte d’Azur. We arrive in early evening and check in for three nights at a very centrally located hotel.
Saturday 23rd 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 through 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 24th 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. 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 25th 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 c.5 AD”. We will visit the amphitheatre, which is still in use and regularly hosts concerts. (08.00 – 14.00)
Tuesday 26th September (B) This morning we catch the train from Nimes inland on the line towards La Bastide-St. Laurent, a very pretty ride through the Cévennes. 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 27th 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). The Palace is today 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 28th September (B,L) We take the morning train from Nimes to Rivesaltes near Perpignan where we join our own private train on the very scenic “Le Train Rouge”. Leaving Rivesaltes on a heritage diesel unit, we stop at a restaurant for lunch along the way and re-join our train as far as St Paul de Fenouillet. Here we may change to a diesel loco hauled train, with open air carriages if the weather permits, which will take us right to the end of the line.
Friday 29th September (B) Little Yellow Train option: We will travel from Perpignan to Villefranche-Vernet where we pick up our Little Yellow Train, one of the great railway journeys of the world – a historic metre-gauge electric railway in the French Pyrenees, opened in 1909, and still going strong. The line rises through dramatic scenery from an altitude of 427 metres at its lower terminus at Villefranche de Conflent, to a summit at Bolquère Eyne, France’s highest railway station, lying at an altitude of 1592 metres (5226 ft.) above sea level. It then drops down to a high Pyrenean valley, to its terminus at Latour de Carol. On arriving at Latour de Carol, we immediately join our standard gauge train direct to Toulouse, arriving late afternoon. Carcassonne option: We catch 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. Remain here for the day, or join the optional canal cruise in the afternoon. At the end of the afternoon we continue by rail to Toulouse.
Saturday 30th 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 905 metres, 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 pretty seaside border town of Hendaye. Overnight in Hendaye. (09:50 – 18:30)
Sunday 1st October (B) Spain is our destination today, and in particular the Basque Railway Museum at Azpeitia. Here we find a huge collection of metre 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 have a return trip on the 5 km metre gauge running line; steam-hauled and possibly with an ex CP 2-4-6-0T mallet in use. Non-rail fans may wish to have a free day in Hendaye or the stunning Basque coastal resort of San Sebastian.
Monday 2nd October (B, LS) We catch the morning TGV from Hendaye to Paris and after crossing Paris by coach, board our Eurostar train back to London. Flights available from local airports back to the UK.
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.