Seeing the French Riviera by Rail
The wagon fondly rocks me to the sounds of clicking wheels against the rail. Outside the dusty window lies the stunning French coast, like an enchanted jigsaw-puzzle picture. I see glimmering turquoise water, rocky luscious nature, and secluded beaches–all drenched in sunlight. The French Riviera is, as expected, magical. Yet the trembling movements of the train enhance it, as does the thoughtful state of admiration I am in.
There is no doubt Nice itself is an amazing place, and it really needs no further introduction. It might be tourist-filled and crowded, but somehow the old French charm has kept its grip on the city. The buildings, the vendors, and the lifestyle remind me more of a warm Mediterranean mixture of Spain and Italy, than typical chic and posh Paris. The busy tiny alleyways of Vieux Nice with its local deli shops, fresh food, and charming cafés, lead down to beautiful Promenade de Anglais, where the views of the ocean, the palm trees, and the antique buildings gives you a vibe of an early 1900s movie.
The French Riviera is, as expected, magical. Yet the trembling movements of the train enhance it, as does the thoughtful state of admiration I am in.
Nice is a city worth an article of itself, but here I’ll focus on the surrounding areas and their hidden beauty. Rather cheap train tickets can be purchased at Gare de Nice-Ville (or Nice Gareville), the central station, leaving the entire coast open for exploration. Be sure to buy return tickets as some smaller stations do not have ticket-purchasing opportunities.
Only 25 minutes by train from Nice Gareville, lies Monaco. The tiny nation based on luxury, yachts, and Formula 1, is an obvious stop on our exploration of the coast. The station of Monaco is, compared to Nice, just like the country itself: spacious, clean, and simply glamorous.
Walking from the station we can either turn to go see the green botanic garden, Jardin Exotique, or continue downtown to the harbor. We spot luxurious yachts and a few limousines before heading to the streets. Make no mistake–it’s not cheap, but a lunch in Monaco is inevitable as it makes you feel somewhat pampered. Leaving this little haven for Nice is almost like coming back into the familiar reality again; it’s a rough but relieving change.
Continuing past Monaco for an additional 30 minutes takes you to northern Italy, and more specifically: the small town of Ventimiglia. It’s a calm Monday when we walk from the station to the town, where little liquor stores, grocery shops, and cafés line the streets. We reach the older residential area, which is just as traditionally charming as it was 60 years ago. The steep narrow roads are more walking paths than streets, and from the open windows you can smell homemade cooking. Once we’ve climbed the alleys and reached a higher viewpoint, we are stunned by what we see. Blue ocean, a picturesque neighborhood, and fantastic green mountains in hilly nature surround the little town. On the way back, it feels like we are stepping out of an old European romantic drama with Italian sounds but no English subtitles.
On the opposite direction from Monaco, the city of Antibes is found. Jumping on the train towards Cannes, we get off after 30 minutes to discover the fabulous harbor town.
To make up for the stony beaches of Nice, Antibes has soft sand in addition to the turquoise sea. The downtown part reminds me almost a bit of Vieux Nice with old buildings, quaint cafés, and a relaxed way of living. We see the museum of Picasso, walk around in the harbor looking at boats that are just as large and expensive as they are in Monaco, and before heading home, we get some slightly overpriced drinks to rehydrate in the sun.
The French Riviera might be well known for its luxury and glamour, but there is still another side to it, where traditional adventure replaces modern comfort. Surely, the freedom of having your own car or boat is indescribable, but don’t underestimate the railways. You don’t actually have to spend millions to travel around the area; the train is not only cheap, but also a refreshing and exciting transportation mode. You’re able to pass by all the small little villages, get a larger look at the surroundings, and grasp and reflect on all of it at once. Truthfully, it’s great to be able to enjoy the view without having to focus on not driving off the road.
Despite moments that involve desperately running along platforms to make the departure and then worrying whether you caught the right train, I still highly recommend seeing the coast by rail. The beauty of Europe lies in its limitlessness and closeness, making it possible to jump on a 45-minute train into another country. To not take advantage of that, as an exploring traveller, would be crazy, especially seeing as classical adventure and boundless freedom are undeniably important ingredients to nourish wanderlust.
Top Photo By Christian Teillas