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French Countryside by Train

Hi fellow wanderers!!

So I’m a solo traveler and love to wander off the beaten path, see a place through local eyes, and generally get lost roaming around new places. While I have traveled a lot through Europe with ease I am having a hard time pulling together an itinerary for South of France. In part this is a due to some intimidation as I do not speak French so feel the need to have a bit of structure to my itinerary rather than winging it. I would strongly prefer not to rent a car so hoping for a few great bases so I can day trip on train to other great spots nearby. My initial itinerary mid May is: Amboise-Sarlat-Arles-Collioure or on to Barcelona. My time is flexible but I am thinking 2-3 weeks. I do not want to be rushed and enjoy having time to just absorb a place and relax a bit between wine tastings, amazing food, and chateau visits. The train travel between these spots is 7-9 hours. Wondering if these are the best places to base for day trips? If not any alternatives? Also any suggestions for day trips is welcome!! Merci!

Posted by
27351 posts

It sort of depends on what places you want to day-trip to. Check train and bus availability before locking in a stay in a small town--which definitely includes Sarlat and Collioure; I have never been to Amboise. You probably don't want to stay somewhere that requires you to start every desired day-trip with a journey to a nearby large town and a transfer to a different train or bus.

I can't say for sure that Sarlat would be inconvenient, because during my trip to the area last summer, the rail link to Sarlat was out of commission, which complicated matters. In an effort to get a good look at the area, I stayed in a lot of small cities (large towns?) east of Bordeaux because no single one or two of them gave me access to enough reasonable day-trips. Basically, I needed a different base for just about every day-trip I took. The bases I chose were Agen, Brive-la-Gaillarde, Bergerac, Perigueux and Cahors. Those were all nice places to visit even though they aren't tiny villages.

If you just plan to spend about 5 nights in the area, you many have enough reasonable options near Sarlat, but I just don't know what the transportation schedules look like now. I can tell you that the nearest bus stop to Rocamadour is a very, very long walk away along a highway with basically non-existent shoulders. I don't recommend that trip without a car.

I think there's a company that does a couple of different bus tours out of Sarlat. That might be an option for you. However, having done the public-transporation bit myself, I can assure you that visiting the Dordogne--and the Lot--will be a lot easier if you rent a car.

Posted by
4132 posts

Hello Sal,

You certainly should not want to be rushed if you are planning to navigate SW France by rail. Travel will take up a good deal of your day. And, unless you rent or hire something with wheels, your experience of the French countryside will be limited.

In the south, I think that Provence and Languedoc will be easier and more rewarding by rail, than the Dordogne. There are excellent rail connections to the Rhone Valley area of Provence, with two interesting cities and Avignon connected by rail to each other in a triangle just 25 minutes apart, and a decent bust network to get a little further out.

There are also decent rail connections to the towns along the coast into Languedoc, and to Carcassone.

The German rail site can help you explore transit possibilities.

Posted by
4 posts

Hi Adam!
Brilliant! Thank you for this. Love the idea of shifting to Provence/Languedoc as base after Amboise and skipping Dordogne. Really simplifies things and allows me to daytrip along coast and countryside more easily. Many Thanks!
Sally

Posted by
7391 posts

Wanderingsal, sending you a PM. I loved my solo trip to France last year! Hubby joined me for the third week.

Posted by
1194 posts

Hi from Wisconsin,

In France unlike England, renting a car and driving it is a pure pleasure. England has more cars than roads. France has vast empty miles of roads. Rent a a car in a small city so it is easy to get out of the city easily. Seeing the country side from the train is really limited.

The South of France covers a huge area. The Basque region is beautiful. Bordeaux is a great city, with an airport outside of the city where Europecar operates a rental center. An easy place to pick up a car. South of Bordeaux about 70 miles or so ( south of Pau) is some of the most beautiful hillsides I have ever seen and the villages are classic. Impossible to really see without a car.

Or you could try a car pick up at Toulouse airport. East from Toulouse is again some very nice countryside and small places.

I have found French car rentals to be quite inexpensive. The cars get good gas mileage.

We generally train to a place spend a few days and then pick up a car.

Driving in France is quite simple with a good map or a GPS to guide you. Don't speed. Stay in the right lane except when passing. Stop at stop signs, no drifting through. Use your turning signals. In other words be a good driver, they are except for a propensity to tail gate.

wayne INWI

Posted by
395 posts

From Collioure we trained back to Perpignan then by replacement bus (train is now back operating) to the small walled village of Villefranche de Conflent.
From Villefranche de Conflent we took the Little Yellow Train (open top carriage) to Latour de Carol. From there we picked up a train to Toulouse which had come from Barcelona.

Posted by
395 posts

Villefranche de Conflent is a delightful place. It has a fortress on the hill above town which can be reached via the "1000 steps" through tunnels. It has some well known caves nearby. Great coutryside.
The Little Yellow Train is a good fun way to travel up into the Pyrenees. It is slow but very scenic. From Latour de Carol you can simply head to either Barcelona or Toulouse. The train trip to Toulouse was very scenic too.

Posted by
27351 posts

Another vote for the Yellow Train. Do expect Villefranche-de-Conflent to be awash in visitors, though.

Posted by
395 posts

acraven. We didn't think it to be too crowded when we were there mid July over a weekend. Certainly not undiscovered but it presented no issue. By late afternoon the streets were all but empty. One restaurant was booked out one night but the others were quiet. We had the 1000 steps largely to ourselves and Fort Liberia had a small tour group and maybe 30 others. We did the guided cave tour with a small group. The self guided cave was quite crowded though. There were only 2 other couples wandering the ramparts with us. Only a handful in the church Certainly plenty of folk poking around in the shops. Out in the rugged hills near town I didn't see another human.
The Little Yellow Train's open carriage was full until about half way. Didn't matter as everyone was loving the ride.
Collioure was very crowded and congested around the shops and eateries. Those back streets are narrow. Oddly enough the beach wasn't crazy crowded. We lost the tourists by the time we reached the ancient windmill. Fort St Elme was uncrowded. Some amazing views along that trail. If you are up early you can watch the sunrise directly across the med. Postcard perfect. I had all of the beaches to myself at sunrise.
In V de C we had one night at a wonderful B & B. Best one we have stayed at in Europe. It is the old post office. It was at the top of our very low accom. budget so we spent the other nights at the rough and ready Cedars outside the wall. A great building needing love.
Collioure we stayed at the Templiers annexe. More than adequate for our unfussy needs. That meant brekky each morning at the famous Templiers bar with its dozens of amazing paintings.
.

Posted by
1161 posts

Driving in France is quite simple with a good map or a GPS to guide
you. Don't speed. Stay in the right lane except when passing. Stop at
stop signs, no drifting through. Use your turning signals. In other
words be a good driver, they are except for a propensity to tail gate.

This. Except that someone tailgating you usually means you are going to slow, or being indecisive. I love European drivers, and wish people in the States drove like this.

Posted by
4132 posts

Sal, don't get me wrong, the Dordogne is a wonderful wonderful place. Just tough without wheels.

Go there sometime if you can.

Posted by
4 posts

Oh my gosh all of these replies are fantastic and inspiring!! Only problem is each fantastic suggestion tempts me to add and tweak the itinerary. :-)

Funny the driving was mentioned. When I drove in Ireland it took me a whole day to figure out why other drivers flashed me. Typically driving fast enough is not an issue for me! I am sure you all are correct that to truly experience the countryside one should drive. I think I would sacrifice some of this scenery for the benefit of lower stress transport via train. Plus it can be fun to meet people on trains. What I may do is rent a car for the day in Amboise and drive around. Seems everyone likes Europecar

Any great BnB’s or hotels in Amboise?

Posted by
27351 posts

I was thinking about Villefranche-de-Conflent during day-tripping hours. I happened to take the trip (from south to north) on a Saturday (at the end of July 2016), which I'm sure made it worse. I got the feeling most of my fellow visitors were French.

Posted by
2916 posts

someone tailgating you usually means you are going to slow

No, it usually means the person behind you is going too fast, or is impatient; or both.

Posted by
427 posts

someone tailgating you usually means you are going to slow

I would add that it also means they're French. Tailgating is one of the national pastimes.

Don't let them intimidate you -- they'll pass when it's legal (and sometimes when it's not).

The new turret-style radars being installed around France should help cut down on tailgating. One of their capabilities is to detect and photograph tailgaters for ticketing, and being mounted well above ground level (unlike previous generation photo-radar) they're less susceptible (but not immune) to vandalism.

As someone who got their French driver's license by passing the written and driving test in France rather than exchanging their foreign license for a French one, I'm pretty familiar with French driving rules. Don't speed. Don't run red lights. Familiarize yourself with French traffic rules and speed limit conventions.

I've been driving in France almost daily for over six years and haven't received one ticket or fine. It's easy. Just understand and follow the rules. Let the morons tailgating you and speeding to pass get the tickets.

Posted by
169 posts

We did Amboise a while ago. Took the train to Tours and picked up a car ( I think Sixt next to the station) and based ourselves in Amboise. Had a great time wandering and finding the chateau. So much so - DH wants to go back again (that next to never happens). After our 3 nights - dropped it back in Tours and headed on to the next city- by train.
As others have said - Driving is easy in France. Especially when you start in the smaller towns and have GPS that is getting better each day.