An interesting question was posed to me earlier this year… is it possible to take a no-fly family holiday in the south of France?
Answering the question became this year’s summer family holiday.
The children and I discussed the question over supper late one evening in May; whether we jump in the car, or sit back and let the boat or train take the proverbial strain. And at this stage, I’ll be honest with you, I have taken many road trips through France and love exploring the country by road, but the thought of driving 9 hours to the south of France this summer – even with an overnight stop – didn’t thrill me.
So here was the challenge, could we catch the train? How long would it take? Where would we arrive? How much would it cost?
Some research later, our journey was laid out in front of us, London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, taxi transfer to Paris Gare de Lyon and 3 and a half hours later, we’d arrive in Aix-en-Provence.
With both rail journeys booked with Voyages-sncf.com, return via Lille instead of Paris, we set out to plan the rest of our holiday.
Passengers for the 09.30am Eurostar were being called to proceed to check-in when we arrived at St Pancras, spending 10 minutes through security and passport control, left us with enough time to grab a coffee and croissants before boarding. For those of you who have yet to experience the Eurostar, boarding is by a set of escalators that take you up and on to the platform, tickets are always sold with seat reservations so it’s just a case of finding your coach and seats.
My only suggestion to Eurostar would be to find a way to inform passengers on how and where to store their luggage when boarding. I found too many people trying to wedge their cases within the racks at the entrance to the coach, including us, only to find there is more luggage space within the carriage.
My two; my 12 year-old daughter and 10 year-old son, had come prepared with magazines, iPad, phones and headphones and were quite happily passing the time on the train. I had my own passé-temps and quite happy to read. So far so good.
Feeling hungry as we arrived at a busy Paris Nord station at lunchtime, we decided to get a taxi to Gare de Lyon and eat there. Tip: Always ensure you pick up an official taxi from the taxi rank outside the station (turn right as you hit the main concourse from the platform) and ignore the often heard ‘taxi?’. The trip across the city via taxi to the Gare de Lyon is around 20 minutes and costs around 13€. With time to spare we had lunch.
Our TGV from platform thirteen left at 14.19h, a majestic double-decker train with a final destination of Marseille. A smooth ride that left us in Aix-en-Provence at 17.45h – we had arrived in Provence – and just in time to pick up our rental car.
We stayed the night in Aix, a historically important city dating back to Roman times, famous for its natural hot springs and home town of Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola.
We dined that evening in the centre, amongst the Aixois dancing in the streets, sipping pastis or a local rosé before heading off to one of the many restaurants that adorn the Cours Mirabeau.
Our base for our 9-day holiday was the area around the picturesque hilltop village of Fayence, just north of Fréjus. We had booked ourselves a two-storey holiday home within the Domaine de Fayence holiday village run by Lagrange Holidays.
First impressions were of a clean, well-organised, pretty village with multi-coloured houses typical of the area. First stop… the pool, just before they closed for the evening at 8pm. A large pool, perfect for adults and children, swimmers and non-swimmers and lined with palm trees.
Our home slept 6, in 2 bedrooms and a sofa bed in the main lounge. A small kitchen and dining area enabled self-catering and a well-sized terrace allowed us to dine alfresco. With cars parked outside the main village centre, it was quiet and we had no problem sleeping after our day of exploring.
The French Riviera stretches from the border with Italy near Monaco to St Tropez/Hyeres in the west, and it was this area that I wanted my two children to explore and get to know.
During our stay we had lunch in St Tropez, a former 1960-70s ‘jet set’ destination, picked fruit and vegetables to bring home with us from the market in Fréjus; took an evening stroll amongst the lights of St Raphael and discovered Monte-Carlo – the luxurious district of Monaco.
We ventured further into the mountains on a few occasions, taking a dip in the warm aqua blue waters of the Gorges du Verdon and discovered the magnificent medieval village of Chateaudouble. On the one day it rained, we drove to Grasse, famed for its creation of perfumes and visited the workshop of its oldest creator, Fragonard. The workshop is free to enter and a guide explains the process they take to extract oils from plants from the region and around the world to create their famous scents. Did you know there are only 50 ‘noses’ in the world?
Our last full day was saved for Cannes, a personal favourite of mine and it didn’t disappoint. Boulevard de la Croisette looking as beautiful as I remember and the beaches and sea inviting us in – every wave that came in almost apologising for spoiling the tranquility. Driving in, parking and out again does take time, so prepare this time into your day, but it is well worth it.
We had an early start to our departure home, leaving our home in Domaine de Fayence at 7.30am, and catching the TGV from Aix at 9.30 bound for Brussels. This leg of our journey home, from Aix-en-Provence to Lille, was 5 hours in duration and gave me an opportunity to speak to some of our fellow passengers and particularly why they decided to take the train. Amongst many families, we met a Belgian family who live in Los Angeles and who had spent their holidays in the south of France. They were returning to Belgium before flying back to LA. They decided to take the train as a relaxing way for them all to see more of France. We also met a lady on her way home from a yoga retreat who had decided to make the trip by train to extend her relaxation break. A theme was beginning to take hold.
Accommodation: Domaine de Fayence from Lagrange Holidays or call their reservations team on 020 7371 6111. For guidance, prices started from £289/house/week, based on accommodation-only this summer (August 2016).
Book your train journey with Voyages-sncf.com The golden rule with booking rail travel is that the earlier you book, the lower priced the tickets will be. London to Aix en Provence starts from £121 return for adults and from £108 for children under 12 years of age. 12-24 year olds are classed as youths and their lead fare is from £118 return.
Fragonard Workshops: https://www.fragonard.com/en/factories