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Train or rental car to explore two regions: Normandy and Provence

This will be our second excursion to France. The first time we traveled from Calais to Paris by train for an all too short taste of the city of lights. 30 years later, we are "going slow" and looking forward to languishing, first based in Honfleur where we plan to explore Normandy, Mt St Michel, St Malo and Giverny. Later, our travels will lead us to Provence.
So, our inquiry is really two separate considerations, unique to each area. We prefer train travel without the uncertainties of driving in new landscapes hampered with our ignorance of rules of the road and local driving culture along with the challenges of negotiating language for efficient directions.
In Provence and the Cote d'Azur, we would consider some slow boat travel, simple rather than luxurious. We are not interested in tours.
I hope we have introduced our preferences and travel style enough to receive recommendations and guidance.
Thank you for taking time to share your experience, contributing to the quality of the journey possible in each of the two regions. We seek the local, moderate in price, B&B/agritourimo travel and exploration.

Posted by
6088 posts

In the main, the trip you describe lends itself better to car travel than to train travel. But rather than one or the other exclusively, it's best done as a combination of the two. Just as an example, during a month long trip to France I used rental cars twice (in Provence and Alsace/Normandy/Brittany) and also used the wonderful train system in France (from and to Paris and between bases in the other areas). Provence is explored best with a car, especially if you want to stay in smaller out of the way places rather than the bigger cities. The same goes for Normandy. Although Normandy can be explored by train easier than Provence, some of the places you mention are easier to get to and less time consuming done by car.

Posted by
4125 posts

The kind of travel you are describing, qualitatively, argues for a car, as do the (very wonderful) regions you wish to explore. (*At least, that is true for Provence and Normandy.)

But really I should say 2 cars. Because you will want to use the great and fast trains to travel between north and south. Unless you have a boatload of time and the idea of and old-fashioned (as in, slow paced) road trip appeals.

Q: Can you rent cars separately in 2 places? A: Of course!

Provence has some some good options for the non-automotive traveler, with a triangle of frequent rail service between Avigon, Nimes, and Arles and less frequent buses beyond. However, I would argue that you'd be missing a lot, and spending a good but of time fussing with timetables, to take this approach for more than a few days.

And if you are based on Honfleur, visiting those sights and perhaps others becomes onerous without wheels.

You might be able to manage the Cote with trains and buses, though.

Posted by
5718 posts

Any time in the largely rural regions where you want to visit small towns and abbeys and such calls for a car. Train travel tends to be spoke and hub from Paris and not easy in the boondocks. And bus travel is largely designed for working locals and school kids and often not very convenient for tourists. I would not do Normandy, Burgundy, the Dordogne or Provence without a car unless I had a very clear plan involving mostly larger cities. I can easily imagine a nice trip to Bayeux where one would join guided tours of the beaches and then a minivan tour to Mont St. Michel for example that could be done without a car, but we also visited Honfleur and Etretat on our short Normandy visit and I don't think that is easy without a car. You could easily visit Aix or Avignon without a car, but not wander the smaller towns and grand scenery of Provence without a car. (unless of course you are doing a bicycle tour)

Posted by
17089 posts

You'll do better with a little rental-car time, especially in Provence. I was in Provence less than 2 weeks ago. I did not see Gordes, Roussillon, Bonnieux, etc., because there was no bus transportation or limited bus transportation. My options were bus tours (of which there are many in high season, but not a lot of variation in content). I opted to see what was accessible (Arles, Avignon, Isle sur la Sorgue; Nines also works) and then move on.

Buses are most frequent in July and August, but standing around outdoors waiting for the next bus will give you up-close-and-personal time with the summer heat. When are you planning to travel?

As far as the World War II sites in Normandy are concerned, my trip there is in the future, but I find the folks very convincing who say that you'll get much more out of that area if you take a good van tour rather than just driving around by yourself. How helpful a car will be otherwise depends on exactly where you want to go and how tight your schedule is.

Posted by
11743 posts

I'd want a car in Normandie.

Giverny makes sense as a stop on the train between Paris and Honfleur. If starting in Paris, you might train to Rouen after Giverny, pick up a car and drive to Honfleur. I love Brittany. Without taking too much extra time to loop the whole peninsula, Dinan and Vannes are good stops.

I haven't been to Provence yet, I'm planning to visit this September.