#TalesOnRail is an ongoing series in which Rail Europe staff share stories and tips from their travels through Europe. Jackie, the Marketing & Community Manager for Rail Europe, has shared stories of train travel through Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, and France — and now she’s back to share her experiences traveling from Paris to Provence this past month. Rough life!
You would think that as someone who talks about European trains all day at work, I’d choose to go somewhere completely different for a week of work-free vacation time. Nope! Earlier this month I found myself back in France, one of my favorite countries on earth, for a bit of R&R exploring one of my favorite cities — Paris — and a region of France that was completely new to me — Provence.
When I was planning this trip, I knew I wanted to start in Paris but then venture off to somewhere I’d never seen before, so I started looking for easy train rides out of the city. Aix-en-Provence is only about 3.5 hours from Paris on the high-speed TGV train, so that immediately seemed like a great option to me.
I’d also spent a good deal of time on Pinterest looking up the little towns of the Luberon in the Provence area, and I’d heard that the lavender was supposed to be in full bloom during the time I’d be visiting. And if I got tired of beautiful hillside towns and fields of purple as far as the eye could see, I’d be close enough to Marseille to escape to the beaches there for an afternoon. Perfect!
Paris to Provence by Train
Aix-en-Provence is a great starting point for the Provence region because so many trains pass through. There are two train stations: one in the city center of Aix, and one about 15 minutes (by taxi) outside the city center. The one outside of the city center is the TGV station, and that’s where I ended up. There are several taxis waiting at the station when you arrive, and there is also a shuttle that takes travelers into the city center of Aix.
I traveled with a first class France Rail Pass (4 days in 1 month). I booked my seat reservations in advance, online, and I chose the Print at the Station option for delivery (with French seat reservations, you often have the option for paper reservations that are mailed to you, electronic reservations that you can print out at the train station, or print at home reservations that you can print from your computer before you leave).
(PS: At the time of this post’s publication, the France Rail Pass is on sale! Check it out.)
I like the convenience of Print at the Station tickets because I don’t have to worry about losing any paper tickets I’m carrying with me, and the machines at the station are very easy to use. You just plug in your name and the PNR code on your reservation, and your reservations print from the kiosk.
Also, the terms and conditions of my reservations stated that they would be refundable right up until the train’s departure, meaning that if I wanted to change my trip around before then, I would be able to do so without losing that money. Not all reservations are like this (for example, some of the lower fares are non-refundable) so make sure to check yours out before purchasing them.
I took the TGV Duplex into Provence. I rode first class, meaning the seats were larger and the cars were roomier, and they were also very quiet! Some people like noisier train cars where they can listen to the conversations of the locals or chat with friends, but I prefer quieter surroundings, so first class is my jam.
The bar car on the train served sandwiches, sodas, water, beer and wine, coffee, and a few sweeter snacks. I sampled most of these things. I ate a lot on this train.
Provence: What To See
In Provence I had three priorities: Luberon, lavender, and beach. I managed to accomplish all three, plus a stop by Gorges du Verdon!
Luberon Villages. These little villages built into the sides of the Luberon hills are the stuff of postcard dreams. They are also the villages that inspired Peter Mayle to write his famous A Year in Provence, and one of these villages is where he still lives today!
A few of the most popular stops are Lourmarin, Bonnieux, Gordes, and Roussillon.
Getting to the Luberon: As of this Spring, Rail Europe now offers a ton of new sightseeing tours, museum passes, city tours, etc — and so many of them look like so much fun! I actually wish I had done one for the Luberon villages, because driving through them on my own was somewhat stressful. There are a few tours that will take you through the Luberon villages I just mentioned, and this one in particular looks great: you get to see everything, from abbeys to canals to quaint little streets and open air markets, to lavender fields as far as the eye can see. And speaking of lavender…
Lavender. Can we talk about this view for a second? The fields are in full bloom early to mid-July, and then they begin to trim all of the lavender for festivals and harvesting. For this activity, I’d also recommend booking a tour. The tour will take you directly to where the best lavender is, and you won’t have to worry about navigating those winding French roads on your own. There are several tours that offer lavender excursions — some are just a morning or afternoon, others last all day, so there is something to fit everyone’s schedule. The prices are comparable to the cost of renting a car, and the tour makes everything easy for you.
Beaches of Marseille. Marseille is just a 15 minute train ride from Aix! I had no idea they were so close to each other. You can either take a train from the TGV station (although you’ll need a seat reservation if you have a rail pass), or you can hop on a regional train from the city center station in Aix (for these trains, all you need is your rail pass, no reservation. And just a heads up — the regional trains take a little longer, closer to 35-40 minutes).
I wanted to stay in Marseille for longer than just an afternoon, so I booked a hotel for a night, and my hotel reserved a part of the beach for its guests, complete with umbrellas and beach chairs. This was fantastic and I felt very fancy. If you just want to pop in for a day or you don’t have a hotel reservation, however, you’ve got a whole coastline full of beaches to choose from. I took the bus from my hotel to the beach, and pretty much everyone on that bus was headed to the beach for the day, locals and tourists alike. It’s the place to be in that city in the summertime!
Traveler tip: By the way, let me just say this: getting to Marseille by train is by far the best way to do it, and this is not just me being biased. The streets are so narrow and the car traffic is really bad, so I imagine that driving in this city would be an absolute nightmare. Save yourself the stress and just take the train in — it drops you off at the station, which is fairly central, and the metro system in the city is really great. If you prefer cabs, there are a ton of them navigating those narrow little roads.
So that was my trip! As you can see, popping down from Paris to Provence by train is pretty simple, and those views don’t disappoint. I’m a city girl at heart, but it’s such a relief to get out of the craziness and the noise for a bit and actually experience a bit of the countryside – especially when you get to eat a ton of pain aux chocolats on the way.