Transport on the French Riviera : a practical guide to getting around by train, bus and car

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Monaco’s spectacular railway station

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.

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On the golden trail of the mimosa trees in Tanneron: an early spring hike in the Var

Tanneron (C) K. Hin

At the start of every year, from December to March, the sunny hills on the western side of the Alpes Maritimes spring alive in a golden explosion, thanks to the blooming of the mimosa trees, with their bright yellow flowers. The tiny village of Tanneron in the Var department is the hub of this “mimosa trail”. Having had a brief walk around there in 2004, I decided to go on a proper hike in the area and see this golden vision for myself…

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Day trip to Saint Paul de Vence, Vence and Saint Jeannet: a taste of Provence just a stone’s throw away from Nice

St Paul Ramparts (C) K. Hin

The legendary ancient Provençal village of Saint Paul de Vence is an ideal destination for a day trip away from the coastline of the French Riviera, especially if you are feeling in an arty mood and want to discover a different side of the area without having to travel too far. Saint Paul ticks all the boxes of Provence stereotypes, as depicted in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence – old men playing pétanque, beautiful views over the hills, manicured gardens, communal laundry troughs, squares with brown stone fountains, small alleyways and expensive art galleries – but does it all in incomparable style. In the following itinerary, I combine the fairytale beauty of Saint Paul with the more down to earth charm of nearby Vence, both easily accessible by public transport from Nice, but if you are travelling by car, I’ve added an extension to the surprising village of Saint Jeannet.

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Hiking opportunities on the French Riviera – a practical guide

Vioew from the Col de Tende on the French-Italian border

View from the Col de Tende on the French-Italian border with peaks at over 3000m

When I moved back permanently to Monaco in 2002, one of the first things I did was to take advantage of the fabulous weather all-year round (which, as a Londoner, I’ll never take for granted!) and start exploring the beautiful mountains and villages located behind the coastal strip of the Riviera that had always fascinated me as a child but had never had the opportunity to visit.

The wonderful Mediterranean climate of the Côte d’Azur provides plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the great outdoors and to partake in activities such as canoeing, canyoning, rock climbing, rafting, mountain biking, skiing and hiking – since I love the great outdoors but hate sports that require equipment and effort, I’ll concentrate on the latter in this article! Over a decade after I started hiking, there are still hundreds of trails that still remain for me to discover, so you will never get bored or run out of things to do.

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A typical Christmas on the French Riviera: the village of Lucéram and its 450 nativity crèches

One of the best places to enjoy Xmas on the Riviera - the medieval village of Lucéram

One of the best places to enjoy Xmas on the Riviera – the medieval village of Lucéram

I’ll be brutally honest… Ever since my first Xmas here in 1985, I’ve always found that the festive end of the year season was best spent away from the glitz and glamour of the Riviera: having grown up in Britain, the blue skies, mild temperatures and ersatz festive atmosphere don’t really work for me. At this time of the year, I much prefer bitingly cold weather, grey skies, mince pies, proper decorations on Oxford Street, Christmas pudding with brandy sauce, Christmas crackers and the Queen’s Speech on TV – it’s lucky I don’t live in Australia!

However, the Riviera does at least make an effort to get into the atmosphere and this year was no exception, despite some particularly mild weather, with an average of 15°C on the coastline this week. Place Massena in Nice hosts a large Christmas market with the now ubiquitous giant ferris wheel as does the harbour of Monaco, and the Casino Square in Monte-Carlo is always decorated in a grandiose fashion.

But if you happen to be in the area over Christmas and to really experience some true atmosphere, I would advise to go slightly off the beaten track and to pay a visit the small village of Lucéram, only 30 minutes drive north of Nice in the Paillon valley. I’d heard about this village since my hotel days but had never had the opportunity to go, which is why I decided to sacrifice the traditional Christmas morning lie-in and to head up there pretty early whilst the streets in Monaco were still deserted.

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Inland to the Mercantour National Park: visit of the Vésubie valley and the Alpha Loup Wolf Park

The countryside behind Nice is a world full of hidden treasures, especially for nature lovers: these include hiking trails, beautiful villages, mountain peaks, pristine streams, wild mountain animals and great restaurants full of natural products. I recently decided to combine most of these on a day trip into the beautiful Vésubie valley, the main aim being to head to the Boréon lake to visit the Alpha Loup wolf park, where wild wolf packs are kept in their natural habitat at an altitude of 1500m.

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Gorbio and Sainte-Agnès: the perched villages in the mountains behind Menton

Europe’s highest coastal village, beautiful Sainte-Agnès at an altitude of 800 metres, dominating the Mediterranean Sea

The further east you head along the coast of the Riviera towards Italy, the more spectacular the scenery becomes, especially once you hit the beautiful border town of Menton. The mountains just blend in with the Mediterranean Sea and the hills behind the town contain some spectacular treasures, in particular the gorgeous medieval villages of Gorbia and Sainte Agnes. Both of these are easily accessible from Menton, Monaco or Nice but a car is more than advisable to enjoy the scenery with maximum freedom – and I’d definitely advise you to visit them in this order. Also, both villages are ideal to be visited all year round as they are rarely snowed in during the winter and they offer a cooler alternative to the coastline in the summer, although some restaurants may be shut out of season.

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The perfume industry on the French Riviera and visit of Parfumerie Galimard in Eze Village

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The Riviera’s world-famous perfume industry attracts visitors from all over the globe – I recently learned a lot more about it, thanks to a visit to the Parfumerie Galimard in Eze, here’s some of the information I gleaned.

The perfume industry on the French Riviera dates from the 18th century, when Grasse, an inland town in the western part of the Alpes-Maritimes, became known as the perfume capital of the world. This was due to the splendid micro-climate that encouraged the culture of the flowers and aromatic plants like lavender and jasmine, among others, enabling the creation of top quality perfumes.

Nowadays, the industry is still thriving, and is a great draw for visitors to the Riviera – for example, there are almost 14.000 hectares of aromatic plants in the region. The main perfume producers, Galimard, Fragonard and Molinard, have large plants in Grasse which organise tours, giving the expression “smelling like a perfume factory” a new meaning when the tourists emerge from there! Another interesting and slightly more accessible centre for those based on the coastline and interested in perfume is Eze Village, already covered in a separate article.

I recently had the opportunity to explore this first hand when I visited the Galimard perfumery in Eze and created my own perfume, whilst having all the different steps explained to me by one of the master-perfumers.

Different notes of the perfume I was creating in three levels

I was brought to a room dedicated to the creation of perfumes and sat behind a desk with hundreds of small bottled full of extremely concentrated essential oils arranged in three rows. Each row corresponded to different notes: first, the base notes at the bottom, then the middle notes and finally the top notes, which provide the first impression when the fragrance is applied. After two hours of patiently sniffing and blending the various concoctions in three different steps thanks to the assistance of the master perfumer who guided my choices according to my preferences, I ended up being presented with my own nice-smelling personalised bottle of perfume and certificate.

Legend of the different types of scents

Legend of the different types of scents

Perfume

The final outcome after my 2 hours of hard work!

So it’s a very instructive experience which I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in doing anything a bit different on the Riviera. The package I took was the “Blissful Initiation” package lasting just over two hours, book in advance at +33 4 93 41 10 70. The Galimard perfumery is located at the foot of Eze Village, just across from the main car park. Free guided tours of the site are also available.

What about the mountains?

The Alps lurking just behind Cap Ferrat and Cap d'Ail, a great view thanks to British Airways!

What most visitors do not realise, especially in the summer months, is that the “Alpes Maritimes” area where the Riviera is based is named that way for a reason: basically because, just behind the coastal strip, lie the Alps in all their glory (actually, they’re quite visible on any flights heading towards Northern Europe).

The mountains, which go up to over 3000m in the Alpes Maritimes, cover almost 90% of the department, which makes for great hiking in the summer and skiing/other snow sports in the winter for those that way inclined. This is the main reason that Nice spent loads of money on an ultimately unsuccessful bid a couple of years ago to host the 2018 Winter Olympics: I thought it made sense, at least on paper and was a good idea to get away from the general stereotypes of the Côte d’Azur.

In this respect (and actually many others), the French Riviera is a bit like California: in April for example, you can go skiing in the morning and have enough time to get back to the coast and spend the afternoon lying in the sunshine on the beach, given that some of the ski resorts are only 90 minutes’ drive from Nice

The most easily accessible resorts from Nice are Auron and Isola 2000, with other resorts such as Gréolières-Neige, Valberg and Limone Piemonte (in Italy) also within easy access for a day trip.

Winter wonderland: the mountains just outside the ski resort of Valberg, about 90 minutes north of Nice

Limone Piemonte is my personal favourite, even though I’m not a great fan of skiing, mainly because of the culture shock you get crossing the border into the Piemonte area of Italy. It is located north of the Roya Valley just across the border, passing through the Col de Tende and its historical but rather dodgy and ancient tunnel. Access is possible by car (2 hours from Nice, 90 minutes from Monaco) or by a beautiful train journey from Nice, again through Ventimiglia – that takes slightly longer. The skiing is reportedly good (altitude of 1000m) but the main draw for me (you see where I’m getting!) is the quaint little village with excellent restaurants serving mountain-influenced Italian food: plenty of game, polenta and great pizzas at reasonable prices.

The mountain village of Limone-Piemonte

Naturally all these places are fully and more easily accessible during the summer and are wonderful for hiking, which I love, and all sorts of other “adventure sports”, which I don’t, as they generally involve dangling from great heights from a rather thin rope or getting very wet!

The hinterlands are generally separated in different valleys, the main ones being from west to east: the Var, the Tinée, the Vésubie and the Roya Valleys (my personal favourite, straddling the border between France and Italy), plus on the Italian side the gorgeous Val Nervia. I’ll write in a bit more detail about the individual valleys in due course.