Jardins de la Fontaine, Nîmes

A stopover in Nîmes: slow travel in the South of France.

It’s the first day of spring, although the Jardins de la Fontaine smell more like early summer. Half the population of Nîmes is sitting on the lawns of the 17th century park, like the Uber Eats cyclist taking a break, and the other half are in the outdoor cafes of the old town. I walk up the balustraded stairways and look down at the fat orange fish in the ornamental ponds until my eyes are drawn to vivid purple amongst the green.

A path leads up through the pine woods to the highest point in Nîmes and the oldest of the Roman sites, the Tour Magne. From the top of the tower the line of the Via Domitia, built by the Romans to link the Alps with the Pyrenees, still carves through the city.

From up here you gain a true perspective of the Arènes de Nîmes – a gigantic bowl of a Roman amphitheatre with 34 rows of seats that rise up and outwards.

As I leave the Tour Magne, four police officers amble up to it. France is on alert with the Gilets Jaunes demos, but these four act more like curious tourists than law enforcers. I see them again and again that afternoon, wandering round and smiling, looking at things rather than people.

Crossing the road back into the pedestrianised old town, it’s a surprise to come face to face with one of the best preserved temples from the Roman world, right here in the middle of Nîmes.  The Maison Carrée has been a centrepoint of the city for almost 2,000 years.

It’s 6pm and still hot so I go into the Amorino ice cream shop where they carve my scoops into flower petals and politely check that I understand that lime basilic comes with basil as well as lime. As I step out of the shop I almost collide with a very elderly man in violently patterned shorts. He barks at me in a strangulated voice, in a language that could be English.

Darkness falls and it’s time to join everyone else eating outdoors. I choose a table opposite a narrow alley with a view through to the massive grey stones of the amphitheatre.  16 euros to sit here under the still-swollen moon, with a duck burger du Perigord and a small pichet of white wine; a bargain.

Taking the Eurostar from London to Avignon? Nîmes is just an hour or so by frequent train service from Avignon central. See Loco2 for times and tickets.

All of the Roman sites can be visited. Read more about visiting Nîmes here.

Slow travel to the Pyrenees

How to travel overland to the Pyrenees: some ideas

Ok, so it’s not on a par with travelling overland to Asia, but today many of us are conscious of our environmental footprint and looking for ways to travel without flying (there’s some academic discussion on the Flying Less Movement here)

I recently chatted with a guy who owns a holiday home in Carcassonne, and he was full of enthusiasm about the low cost of the flights he was able to take from Scotland.  Sometimes he paid as little as £10 – £20 each way, which meant he could afford to go on holiday every few weeks.  When I explained that I much preferred to go by train to the Pyrenees, he looked aghast – ‘What about the cost?’

Of course it’s more expensive to travel around Europe by train compared with the low-cost airlines, and it’s hard to imagine that many people will make the switch while the price difference is so huge.  Yet for me, travelling overland helps me to really feel that I’ve arrived somewhere, following the route from the ground rather than dropping down from the clouds. Being a digital nomad I can work from anywhere, and it’s much easier when sitting on a train compared with when I’m wedged into a budget airline cattle-truck.

Best of all is that travelling overland gives the option to break the journey with a stopover somewhere new each time.  And unlike the Ryanair frequent flyers, I don’t go every few weeks, but instead I have fewer trips with longer stays, so the cost evens up a bit.  Booking well in advance and outside the weekends can also make a huge difference to the price of the ticket.

In this first article I’ll talk about some of the travel options I’ve used.

It’s now possible to step from a damp and grey St Pancras onto the Eurostar and emerge less than six hours later into the heat and sun of Provence.   Eurostar runs a service that takes you straight from London to Lyon, Avignon and Marseille.  I’ve paid as little as £49 each way, which compares really favourably with the budget airlines.  From Avignon TGV station it’s just a few minutes on a local train into Avignon Centre, from where you have the option of connections or an evening’s stopover.

Le pont d'Avignon
Whiling away an hour in Avignon before the train back to London – it beats any airport!

From Avignon I usually take a local train going west via Nimes, Beziers, Sète, Montpellier and Narbonne to Carcassonne, the latter being my gateway to the Pyrenees, from where I hire a car to get me into the mountains.  All of these places offer scope for appealing stopovers, and I’ll be writing about some of them in the next articles.

It’s also easy to get to lots of destinations via Eurostar by changing in Paris.  Last year I did just that, taking a high speed TGV that shot me from the capital to Bordeaux in a few hours.  That allowed me a long evening to look around the city and a not-too-early start for the train that took me via Toulouse to Carcassonne.

Bordeaux
An evening stopover in Bordeaux

Planning and booking train travel in Europe is easy these days.  I find the Loco2 system very user-friendly and I’ve used it for train travel all over Europe.  The site connects to many national rail services and they don’t charge booking fees.  Some tickets can be printed at home, whereas others need to be picked up at the station machines.

If you’re not yet aware of the wonderfully comprehensive website The Man in Seat 61 then take a look at it and bookmark it for future reference. It covers everything from an overview of a country’s trains and services, to individual route suggestions between major cities.

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