JOURNAL

Trains, Buses and Campsites Around the Provence Alpes Côte D’azur

ALONG THE COAST.

We arrived in Nice on the 2nd May and stayed to explore the city for a few days before packing up our bags and getting on the first train we could find along the coast. We did not have a particular plan in mind, just a desire to see beaches, towns, and mountains, to travel using just public transport and stay in campsites along the way.

5th and 6th May – Nice, Biot, and Antibes

The station in Nice – Gare Nice Ville – was full of people when we arrived. It was disorientating at first, trying to find out how to buy a ticket and who – and how- to ask for help. It turns out the staff are very helpful if presented with a first, stuttering try at French. The ticket machines are easy to use and translate into English and we found them useful for entering details to find out the times and prices of the trains. The cost is surprisingly cheap. Our first journey took us towards Antibes, just fifteen minutes away from Nice.  One stop before this is Gare de Biot, where a number of campsites are in close proximity to each other. Alighting here, we walked 2 km to La Vieille Ferme, a friendly campsite with good pitches separated by hedges. A relatively small site , it was peaceful, but big enough to house a swimming pool and a general room with shelter and power points.

Antibes was easy enough to get to – a short hop on the train or a 4 km walk from the campsite. The Fort Carré monument could be seen from quite a distance, and once reached the marina came into view, nestled in the bay and filled with seemingly hundreds of masts. On a Sunday, the town had a relaxed vibe, with a colourful market and band playing in the main square. We tried Socca for the first time, a pancake-like flatbread made from chickpea flour.

Journey details:
From: Nice Gare Ville     To: Gare de Biot (near Antibes)
Train cost: 4 euros each
Campsite: La Vieille Ferme – 2km walk from the station
Nearest supermarket: a walk through the nearby park, about 2 km
Campsite cost: 17.50 euros for a night, for a tent
Antibes: one train stop or 4 km walk

7th and 8th May – Biot to La Garde, and Le Pradet

From Biot station, our journey continued along the track passing Antibes and Toulon, and eventually to La Garde. We passed the large yachts anchored near Cannes and St Tropez, and watched as the scenery became more green and tree-filled, more rural as we moved further inland and away from the coastline. We were trying to get as close as we could to Le Pradet and the promise of sandy beaches. As we arrived at La Garde, the heavens opened, and we started the walk towards the campsite. We did not chose as wisely with this one – the campsite was a good hours walk away from the station and was disappointing. At this time in the season it was not ready, and poorly tended. It was made worse by the rain which kept on falling, and the fact we were too far away from anything. The supermarket was 2 – 3 km away and the nearest beaches 4 – 5 km away.

Despite the down-sides, the sun came out for a little while and we grabbed the chance to visit a couple of the beaches near Le Pradet – Bonnettes and Oursinieres. Both were tranquil and not too busy at this time of the year, with  local families enjoying the small coves, pebbled beaches and calm water.

Journey details:
From: Gare de Biot     To: La Garde (near Le Pradet)
Train cost: 24 euros each
Campsite: Beau Veze – 5 km walk from the station
Nearest supermarket: 3 – 4 km
Campsite cost: 21 euros for a night, for a tent
Le Pradet: 3.5 km walk and beaches 4 – 5 km walk

9th, 10th and 11th May – La Garde to Bandol

We got up early, packed up and left Beau Veze to head to the local bus stop (about 1 km walk away). Our first experience of using buses, the No.24 took us to the bus station in Toulon for only 1.40 euros each. Once there, we were lucky to find another bus to take us to Bandol (No. 8805). We weren’t quite sure where to stop at Bandol with regards to the location of the campsite we had found, but we ended up near the train station. This left us with just under 4 km to walk, all upwards in the heat. It was well worth the walk however, as the campsite was amazing – lovely pitches, quiet, up high with views over trees, a golf course and a peek of the sea. It also had a small restaurant, shop, TV room and swimming pool. For the next couple of days, we chilled, planned our next move, and explored Bandol. We liked this pretty seaside town with a large marina at its centre. It is busy, but off the tourist track, with shops and restaurants lining the promenade and families enjoying the small local beaches. The friendly staff in the Office de Tourisme helped us book ahead to our next destination of Sisteron and find the local bus routes to continue our journey around the region.

Journey details
From: La Garde (near Le Pradet)     To: Bandol
Bus: No. 23 from Pradot (stop outside La Diligence, Avenue Ganzin) to Toulon – cost 1.40 euros each
Bus: No 8805 from Toulon bus station to Bandol – cost 3 euros each
Campsite: Clos ste Therese – 3 – 4 km from Bandol Train Station
Nearest supermarket: 2 km
Campsite Cost: 23 euros per night
Bandol:  4km away

INTO THE MOUNTAINS

12th, 13th, 14th and 15th May – Bandol to Sisteron

After packing up at the campsite, we walked down to Bandol station and used the ticket machine to buy our tickets to Sisteron. The train was busy, and we found what appeared to be the last two seats. As we travelled on in the direction of Marseille, the train filled and filled. In the end In the end people were standing in the aisles and others were left on the platforms unable to get on, watching as the train continued on without them.

Marseille was busy, people rushing in all directions. We quickly realised that we needed to get a TGV train (faster trains, with booked seats) to our next stop on the journey – Aix-en -Provence. We missed this when buying tickets at the machine in Bandol and thought we had bought tickets to cover all parts of the journey. It turns out that we had only bought the parts covered by the TER service. With time against us to buy a ticket for the TGV, we missed the connection and ran instead for a slow train to take us to AIx-en-Provence. This meant however, that we would miss our next train (actually a replacement bus) to get us to Sisteron. And it was the last one of the day.

As the train chugged towards Aix, we had forty minutes to work out what to do. We found a bus service that ran from the bus station to Sisteron – the LER (Lignes Express Régionale) No. 29. It was leaving 13 minutes after our train was due to arrive in Aix and the walk to the bus station was also 13 minutes.

We ran for it, found the Gare Routiere (bus station) and had just minutes to spare to buy tickets and find the correct bus stop. At last, and by default, we had found the bus service that would get us all the way back to Nice. At last, we were going up into the mountains. The bus climbed steadily over the next couple of hours, stopping eventually at Sisteron. As we walked towards the campsite, we passed along the winding roads of the old town,  with the majestic citadel above us.

Over the next few days, we explored more of this historical town, located on the Route Napoleon between Gap and Digne.  The jewel is the citadel which sits high on a rocky ridge, overlooking the river Durance, and the rooftops of the old and new town below. The citadel has forever been a fortress, a mixture of works from various ages that have been changed, repaired and been added over time. It has a Game of Thrones feel, with a keep, watch-paths, layers of walls, and a northern side referred to as ‘winter’. The keep was once the prison of the Prince of Poland, where he was kept in a small square cell perched at the top.

The old town of Sisteron consists of tall buildings, set along narrow streets, with some covered passageways (Andrones) that have you walking under the houses. There are old doors, hidden boulangeries and interesting artwork, to be found amongst this maze, which can all be uncovered by following the vieille vieux walk.

Journey details:
Train From: Bandol    To: Sisteron
Train cost: 34 euros each (although we didn’t account for the TGV and had to buy a bus ticket to cover the journey from Aix to Sisteron)
Bus: From Aix    To: Sisteron LER 29, from bus stop 15 at the Gare Routiere in Aix
Bus cost: 16.80 euros each
Campsite: Les Pres Hauts – 3 km from the bus station
Nearest supermarket: 2 – 3 km
Sisteron: 2 – 3 km
Campsite cost: 16 euros per night

16th and 17th May – Sisteron to Digne-les-Bains

Sisteron was a favourite on this trip. We had taken to drinking coffee in the same place every morning (L ‘Horage Ka’fe), and buying bread and pastries from the local boulangers. We carried out this routine for the last time on the morning that we left. We walked to the bus station to catch our next bus to Digne-les-Bains. The drive took us through small villages and down tree-lined roads, as we wound our way to Digne. As we got closer, the roads became larger, straighter, and the buildings more functional – cinemas, industrial units, supermarkets, colleges, shops and bars.

Initially, Digne was a culture shock compared to Sisteron. It is grittier, without any airs or graces. It has a bustling main street, with everything you need, and is not immediately pretty. There is more to it though, the people are friendly, there are mountains and pine trees all around, with walking trails, and a Via Ferrata.

On our second day, we completed the three chapel walk. A steep incline upwards through the pines took us to the Chapelle notre-dame de Lourdes. My favourite of the three, it is precariously balanced on the mountainside, crumbling inside and out. The ceiling just about hangs on and gives an insight into the original colour and beauty. Up further, was the Chapelle Saint-Vincent, and finally the Chapelle la Croix. The last was a simple building, with a cross fashioned from wood set on a pile of stones. The walk offered sweeping views over the valley and surrounding area.

Journey details:
From: Sisteron    To: Digne-les-Bains
Bus: LER No.33
Cost: 11.40 euros each
Campsite: Camping Du Bourg
Nearest supermarket: 3 km
Digne: 2 km
Campsite cost: 17 euros per night

18th, 19th, and 20th May – Digne to Castellane

From Digne, our journey continued to Castellane. The scenery changed again, the mountains around us were higher, with lush greenery from the pine trees. Hairpin bends and winding roads took us alongside a river and parallel to other train tracks for a while, until we arrived at the bus stop in the centre of Castellane. Beside us was the town square, surrounded by shuttered buildings, shops and restaurants. A pretty town, with a river running through the middle that attracts rafters heading along the Verdon Gorge. It brought another cultural change from our stop in Digne. We liked Castellane, but not as much as Sisteron, most likely because it felt more like a tourist destination.

Highlights included exploring the back streets of the old town which were quieter, and walking up to the Notre-Dame du Roc chapel that sits high above the town. We also discovered Fougasses from the boulangerie in the centre of town which regularly had queues coming out of the door. The campsite was one of the best, with a large cooking and seating area and a sheltered television room. This came in handy when we were hiding from the rain which fell every afternoon and drowned us out of our tiny tent.

Journey details:
From: Digne-les-Bains     To: Castellane
Bus: LER No. 31
Cost: 16 euros each
Campsite: La Ferme de Castellane
Nearest supermarket: 3.5 km
Castellane: 3 km
Campsite cost: 13 euros per night

May 21st – Castellane to Nice

The last leg of our trip took us from Castellane and back to Nice. We had more winding roads, but less hairpins this time, as we drove through valleys and mountains and passed small towns and villages. Just an hour in, we could make out the coastline in the distance and gained a glimpse of the sea. It hid again as we stopped at Grasse, known for its perfumeries. We considered stopping here for a night, but the continued rain and a long walk to the campsite, made us think otherwise. Closer to Nice, we could see the coast again and the roads got wider, and busier as the bus neared. We were soon unmistakably back in the city – large buildings, densely packed together, lots of people, and aeroplanes taking off from the airport.

We were dropped at the Gare Routiere (Vauban), slightly outside of Nice and walked to the hotel. Being back at the Hotel Star, we were glad of the bed and shelter for our last couple of days before heading home. The city however, was even busier than when we left it just a couple of weeks ago. It was a bank holiday in France and the city was heaving. We spent some time in the old town again before finding some quieter streets and cafes to retreat to close to the hotel.

A couple of days later, we were on a plane and homeward bound.

Journey details:
From: Castellane       To: Nice
Bus: LER No. 31
Cost: 34 euros each
Hotel: Hotel Star in Nice
Cost: 65 euros per night

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