I have always believed that one the greatest wishes that all frequent global travellers such as myself have is the ability to teleport in order to avoid the hassle of getting from A to B and just enjoying the stay in B instead of wasting time getting bored in some random means of transport without a decent wi-fi connection… Unfortunately at the time of writing, this is somewhat impossible (perhaps it won’t be the case in a few decades or so), so the best one can do is to try to optimise travel times and make the journey as smooth as possible!
The French Riviera is no exception: the destinations listed on my blog may be in a pretty small geographical area, but getting from, for example, Cannes to Monaco at the height of the summer might be a rather sweaty, crowded, time-consuming and unpleasant experience if you don’t play your cards right.
In this short practical guide, I would like to share my experience and tips on how to get around the French Riviera with as little hassle as possible (and even perhaps squeeze out just a tiny bit of enjoyment!) so that you can enjoy your time in the actual destinations that I describe elsewhere. I will cover the three major means of transport, which are the train, bus and car, but will leave out the snazzy methods such as water taxi, limousine and helicopter, which are reserved for the elite. The same applies for taxis which are a rip-off and therefore also an elite mode of transport unless there is no other choice.
Getting around by train
The regional train lines, also known as the Trains Express Régionaux (TER), operated by the French state-run monopoly SNCF, are probably the most frequent, fastest and practical way of getting around the Riviera depending on where you want to go, at least when they are working properly. They are definitely very practical if you wish to travel along the coast between Cannes and Ventimiglia via Antibes, Nice, Monaco and Menton – the whole stretch will probably take around 2 hours. The downside is that the trains are frequently on strike, crowded with tourists and/or commuters during peak periods, not always very punctual and can be quite dirty and vandalised. Then again, French trains are nowhere near as bad as what certain British commuters have to endure on the way to work every morning and the scenery is, from a neutral point of view, quite stunning!
A/ General introduction
As I mentioned, there are three main lines that will be of interest to you:
1/ The coastal line that runs from Cannes to Ventimiglia in about 2 hours: this line continues east towards Italy (Sanremo, Genoa, Milan and the Cinqueterre) and west towards St Raphael and Marseille (and then Lyon, Barcelona or Paris). From Cannes, a small spur line diverts inland towards Grasse. The views from this line over the coastline and mountains are quite stunning, especially on the stretch between Nice and Ventimiglia (bear in mind that trains “drive on the left” so plan accordingly to get the best seats).
2/ The inland line (also known as the “Train des Merveilles”) that heads north-east from Nice or north of Ventimiglia towards Breil sur Roya and the beautiful villages of the Roya Valley (such as Tende or La Brigue, which will be covered in a subsequent article). Those with a lot of time on their hands can trundle on north to the Piemonte region of Italy and its capital Turin. This line is also a great engineering feat, constructed through some very spectacular mountain scenery with helicoidal tunnels, but make sure you take it quickly if you can as there is talk of it closing down due to chrinic underfinancing from both the French and Italian governments.
3/ The “Train des Pignes” that heads north-west from Nice and travels along the remote Var river valley, through various medieval villages such as Entrevaux, Saint André des Alpes and Annot and eventually gets to the town of Digne in the mountainous part of Provence (about 3 hours from Nice).
This line can also provide a pleasant day trip and is not actually run by SNCF but by the Chemins de Fer de Provence, you can find full information on their website.
Here’s a full network map in the Alpes Maritimes region courtesy of SNCF (not including the Train des Pignes)
You can find rather old-fashioned paper timetables in the stations for some of these lines (the main coastal line is timetable number 4) that require some experience to understand but are then pretty straightforward. Do make sure that you read the footnotes as some trains only run on weekends or Sundays or the opposite.
The easiest way not to make any potentially costly strategic mistakes is to either consult the website or download the SNCF app that gives real time information but can sometimes be error prone especially on the last trains of the day.
Speaking of which, sometimes the last trains from A to B are at midnight but other times they are at 10pm or even earlier due to engineering works so be careful not to be caught out as taxis are expensive!
Finally, if you are planning to head to Italy anywhere past Ventimiglia, for example to San Remo, Genoa, the Cinqueterre or Florence, you will in most cases (unless if heading directly to Milan on the new Thello intercity line) be required to change in Ventimiglia: I would strongly advise to buy your onward train journey into Italy from there and not from the French side as the prices are likely to be a bit cheaper than if purchasing them in Nice.
B/ Getting your tickets
As these train lines are all local and the travel times are relatively short, there is no point booking anything in advance just as there is no point getting a first class ticket unless you prefer a red seat to a blue one.
The best way to buy one is to use one of the blue ticket machines that have a rather archaic track ball system to navigate but are pretty straightforward once you get the knack of them. There are however two major drawbacks: they do not accept foreign credit cards (at least those with a magnetic strip, chip and PIN cards generally work) and if you want to pay cash, they only take coins, not bank notes. Until this is fixed and the machines are renovated, you will either need to get some change somewhere to buy your ticket or else have to queue up for a while at one of the counters – in some of the larger stations like Nice or Cannes, there tend to be rather long queues in the summer so plan accordingly.
Make sure that you get the tickets stamped before getting onto the train using some of the yellow machines (composteurs) pictured below.
Careful, if the tickets are not stamped, they are not valid and you will need to pay a fine. Also, even though there are no barriers inside the stations like in the UK, there are now frequent checks on the trains so it’s not really worth running the risk of getting caught.
Prices on local trains are flat and vary according to the distance, a return ticket is with double the single price. For example, at the time of writing, a single between Monaco and Nice or Ventimiglia (25 minutes) will set you back just a bit less than 5 euros, a single from Monaco to Cannes (around 1 hour 30 minutes) is around 10 euros. Double that for a return and for a family this can get pretty steep.
C/ Avoiding inconvenience: rush hour, strikes and other forms of nuisance…
So I mentioned that trains were relatively fast, efficient and comfortable when they worked well. But now let’s talk about the drawbacks to be avoided, in other words when they are NOT working well…
Unless you want to be reminded of your daily commute back home (which is probably not the case during your holidays), make sure you never travel in the direction of Monaco during the morning weekday rush hour (7 to 9am) or away from Monaco towards Nice during the evening rush hour (5 to 7pm) as the trains are packed with grumpy commuters and frequently late.
Also, strikes seem to be the favourite pastime for the heavily unionised French train workers (at least a cynical minority of them who hold the most influence). They can be organised for several reasons: either during a convenient period to take time off work (like the week between Xmas or the New Year), or when they have some form of grieviance with the government that wants to push through any form of minor reform against their advantages or in general to protest against the global economic situation and the power of capitalism, given that most of them have only “studied” the teachings of a certain Mr Marx (not Groucho or his brothers). So do not be surprised if you experience significant inconvenience during your stay during these wildcat strikes which can also happen at peak times such as the Monaco Grand Prix in order to cause maximum disruption for visitors to the Riviera and pain to the local economy.
The only way to adapt to these strikes is to plan around them: generally trains are not cancelled altogether (there’s a ratio of between 30% and 50%) but SNCF management communicates a list of those that are running. Be careful of the fact that it is the generally the earlier and later trains that are cancelled (normal, why would the strikers stay up for a night shift?), and the last train can be as early as 8pm, so make sure you don’t get stranded in Monaco if you are staying in Nice.
Getting around by regional bus
In this section, I’m going to focus on the intercity buses for example between Nice and Cannes as opposed to the intra-city buses needed to get for example from Place Massena to Cimiez in Nice. I’ll also focus on the Alpes Maritimes department where most French Riviera destinations are located, because if you travelling outside, it’s much better to take the train or the car.
Most buses in the Alpes Maritimes function on the same principle: there is a very cheap flat rate of 1.50€ per single journey regardless of the distance and with a tolerable transit time, payable to the driver on the bus. If you really want to save some money and are spending several days in the area, you can also buy a pre-paid 10-journey card that will bring the unit cost down to 1 euro – who said the French Riviera was expensive? Just compare it to the Oyster card in London or the average bus ride in any major city in Europe, America or even Asia… All of this means that technically you can get from Menton to Cannes with a short change in Nice for that price – but and it’s a big but, you need to have quite a lot of time to kill!
Therein lies the rub – most bus lines in the area, due to the fact that they are so cheap (thanks to local government subsidies as they are managed by the Alpes Maritimes department as opposed to the trains that are managed by the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region, based in Marseilles) are very crowded especially at rush hour and also tend to suffer from the regional traffic given that the roads are generally too narrow to accommodate dedicated bus lanes.
The articulated buses used are generally quite modern and practical but their large size does not necessarily mean that they have plenty of seated spaces.
Here are some of the main lines that you will be using to visit the major attractions, you can find all updated timetables on the Alpes Maritimes department website:
- Line 100: the coastal route that runs between the port of Nice and Menton via Monaco (taking around 90 minutes, more during the rush hour). This route runs parallel to the train line down the Basse Corniche coastal road and therefore acts as a plan B, stopping in attractive towns covered in my other articles such as Villefranche, Beaulieu, Eze seaside, Cap d’Ail and Roquebrune-Cap Martin. The scenery is absolutely stunning on the whole line, more so than on the train (which passes through more tunnels), but it’s longer so this all depends where your priorities lie. I would suggest if you have some time, to at least follow the whole route from Menton to Nice at least once as it really is one of the most beautiful coastal strips in the world in my humble opinion. As I mentioned above for the trains, make sure you avoid the morning and evening rush hours traveling respectively to and from Monaco which is one of the major employment poles of the area and therefore brings in plenty of daily commuters. Forget being able to get a seat if you are not getting on in Nice or Monaco during that time – if you are heading from Eze to Nice at 6pm, you may need to wait for 2 or 3 full buses to drive past before finding one with space in it.
- Line 200: Nice to Cannes, allow around 2 hours if there isn’t much traffic but you are much better off travelling by train unless you are allergic to the railways.
- Line 400: Nice to Vence via St Paul, pretty convenient if you don’t have a car, allow around 90 minutes to get to Vence.
- Line 81: Nice to St Jean Cap Ferrat via Villefranche and Beaulieu sur Mer
- Line 82: Nice to Eze Village using the Moyenne Corniche road (see below), therefore affording some great views over the coastline.
The bus is also an option to visit some of the mountain villages (again, visit the Alpes Maritimes transport website) but the trips are time-consuming and the busers themselves few and far betweeen so this required plenty of forward-planning… A car is much more convenient.
Getting around by car
If you are lucky enough to have your own car or to have hired a rental car on the Riviera, this is obviously one of the most convenient ways of getting around and absolutely essential if you wish to optimise your time visiting the mountain villages in the hinterlands or the Italian side of the border.
Here I am going to focus mainly on how to get around the coastal strip, where using a car is still very convenient and offers much more flexibility than the train or the bus especially if you’re moving around late.
The four main throughfares that run along the coastline are the A8 motorway and the three “Corniches”, balcony roads that are carved into the mountainside between Nice and Italy, here are some extra details:
- The A8 motorway crosses the whole French Riviera region (as part of the link between France and Italy) and is fast but rather expensive with tolls linked to the number of tunnels and viaducts, especially east of Nice – it costs just under 8€ each way to get from Monaco to Cannes or 4€ from Monaco to Nice airport for example. Between Cannes and Nice, the motorway stays relatively close to the coastline but after Nice airport, it swings inland and then east through the mountains so is not really convenient to head down to the coast.
- The D6007 main road (toll free, also formerly known as N7) also links France to Italy and runs more or less parallel to the A8. The section that is carved into the mountainside between Nice and Monaco is also known as the Moyenne Corniche and is very spectacular, providing wonderful views from around 300m above sea level over Villefranche, Cap Ferrat and passing straight through Eze Village and has very few traffic lights so is definitely worth using to tour around the eastern Riviera as it’ds one of the legendary mountain roads of the Côte d’Azur. On the other hand, the section west of Nice is rather dull with lots of traffic and I would advise to take the motorway instead to travel in that direction.
- The Basse Corniche coastal road runs from the port of Nice to the Italian border and follows both the train line and bus route 100: there are stunning views but it can get very congested due to the number of traffic lights and rather silly speed limits (only 30km/h whilst passing through Eze). Use this road to get from Nice or Monaco to Cap d’Ail, Eze sur Mer, Beaulieu, Cap Ferrat and Villefranche sur Mer.
- Finally, the Grande Corniche is probably the most spectacular of the three coastal roads, winding its way at an average height of 500m between Nice and Roquebrune Village, just before Menton, passing notably through the village of La Turbie. This road is often used in films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief or in the James Bond film Goldeneye to showcase the spectacular scenery so even if you don’t have an Aston Martin, it’s a good way to enjoy some stunning views and to just drive around if you’re just wanting to enjoy the journey. Just don’t go if you are afraid of heights as some of the drops can be a bit scary and the road can be quite narrow sometimes, which is normal when you think of the location.
So basically, my advice is if you are travelling around the western part of the Rioviera or are in a hurry to get from A to B, take the motorway, but if you are touring along the area east of Nice, take the Moyenne Corniche.
This concludes this short but hopefully rather complete practical guide to getting around the French Riviera and that it will have given you some insights about how to optimise your trip – if you have any questions or additional tips that you may want to share, please post some comments, I’ll be happy to help, as always!