By Dave Binder @davidpaulbinder
At some point a few months ago, I thought it would be a good idea to research how far I could travel from London in a day using trains only. Why? Because I like trains; not in a mouldy green anorak and notepad sort of way, I’ve just always found train journeys enjoyable. Hence, a significant proportion of what follows will be a review of my journey down to Nice as well as my thoughts on the city itself. However, for reasons that will become clear, the journey was as much a memorable event as my stay in Nice itself.
Stage 1: Larcom Street – London St Pancras International
It all began when my alarm went off at 4:45am on Saturday morning, and despite my wholesale dislike for early mornings I woke up feeling a bit like James Bond on a mission (believe me, any similarities between Mr Bond and I end there). I was excited and focused on my aim for the day – to travel from my Walworth abode to the studio flat I’d purchased for the night in the old town part of Nice, some 860 miles away. I got dressed, put on my jacket and headed out the door with intent.
The first challenge I was dealt was the London buses. As legendary as the red buses are in the British capital, they are considerably less regular at 5am on a Saturday than 9am on a Monday. No matter, I eventually got one heading to St Pancras International or thereabouts. Stage one of the journey was underway.
Getting to St Pancras was a relatively straightforward affair, and as opposed to some airports, check-in at this time of the morning was a doddle. No getting undressed and emptying the entire contents of your bag, trousers, shoes etc. into a tray, just the bag through the scanner and I was through the other side heading for stage two of my trek, London St Pancras to Paris Gare de Nord. A potential set back came in the form of a tannoy announcement informing us that there may be delays of around 20 minutes due to overhead power line problems between Calais and Lille (for once, the problems were with French infrastructure and not British). This did nothing to dampen my spirits, however, and I strode on toward the 06:20 Eurostar train in positive spirits.
Stage 2: London St Pancras – Paris Gare de Nord
When booking my train ticket, it turned out cheaper to buy a first class ticket than a standard one. Correspondingly, I headed toward the ‘Standard Premier’ section of Eurostar seating, was greeted by some smart looking Eurostar staff and promptly found my seat. In sharp contrast to budget airlines, I had been given a single aisle seat with ample legroom and no fight to the death for luggage space. So far, so relaxed.
What is more, included with my ticket was a simple but generous continental breakfast of a croissant, bread roll, orange juice, butter, jam, a weird yoghurty fruity rice thing which I didn’t like and regular helpings of tea throughout the journey. As promised though, there was a delay of around 25 minutes getting into Gare de Nord. No matter, as I’d allowed about an hour to transit from here to the next leg of my trip – Gare de Lyon to Nice Ville, and to make the transition even smoother I’d bought my Paris Metro ticket onboard the Eurostar. Stage two of my journey was complete.
Stage 3: Paris Gare de Nord – Paris Gare de Lyon
Despite having little to no working French, I managed to make my way through Gare de Nord station to the Green metro line. The metro ride itself was uneventful, and my short two stop journey was soon complete. But where was my metro ticket?! Frantically searching through my various pockets, it was nowhere to be seen! Would I be thwarted before reaching the most major part of my adventure? After pacing around the Gare de Lyon metro platform like a bemused rhino, increasingly aware of how tight things were getting to make my TGV connection, I spotted a red ‘help’ button and after pleading my British ignorance,was very graciously let through by the French guards. Crisis averted! Top tip: don’t lose your metro ticket.
Stage 4: Paris Gare de Lyon – Nice Ville
Having made it to the right TGV, I embarked the train in search for my first class seat. It quickly became obvious that the train was going to be crowded, and after finding a British couple both occupying my seat, I politely yet firmly made it clear that this was my seat. They willingly departed, and it soon became clear that there had been an unannounced strike that day (apparently these things are common in France) meaning the train before mine had been cancelled altogether, hence the crowding seen here. Still, everything seemed fine – the passengers were in jovial mood (more so than on London trains), typified by a conversation I had throughout the train ride with a nice lady next to me.
The journey itself was a pleasure.My single aisle purple armchair seat was comfortable and it was particularly interesting to see the landscape change from green countryside to a more Mediterranean vista as we progressed southwards. And herein lies the point: on a train as silky as the TGV, the journey changes from something to be endured (as it might be the case on a budget airline) to an experience to be viewed as an intrinsic and fun part of the break.
Thus, despite a five hour plus journey from Gare de Lyon to Nice Ville, and a very early start, I felt relatively perky alighting from the train at the end of stage four, a few minutes earlier than scheduled. I had made it from Walworth to Nice without getting lost (ish..), missing a connection or ending up in the wrong place. Having disembarked, I navigated (not altogether successfully) my way to my dwelling for the night. Mission complete! M would be proud of me.
A nice city
In a nutshell, Nice is a nice city (I had to say that at least once) whereby you can experience it by ambling around it at your own pace. That is, you don’t necessarily have to visit countless art galleries, museums, memorials etc. to get a sense of what it’s about, although such attractions are available and won’t necessarily detract from any stay.
This is due in no small part is due to a) Nice’s relatively walkable size, b) it’s architectural attractiveness, especially the Old Town, c) the unseasonably warm weather whilst I was there, and d) the glamorous ‘café culture’ atmosphere.
I should say though that in relation to d), Nice’s glamour wasn’t ostentatious or vulgar.Rather, it is subtle, accessible and down to earth. One certainly felt you didn’t have to be draped in Ralph Lauren in order to be accepted from the locals, far from it. In fact, throughout my stay I noticed Nice’s diversity, filled with people from various backgrounds and cultures, which I feel adds to its general appeal. Everyone I interacted with was friendly, polite and helpful. Amusingly, a quirk of at least one restaurant I visited was that the staff understood English without too much problem, but insisted on answering everything in French, as seems to be the way in France I guess.
Other highlights included the Promenade des Anglias, a long, picturesque beachfront boulevard stretching for a number of miles along the Cote de-Azur filled with joggers, dog walkers, cyclists and the odd roller-skater; the Old Town, with its array of pretty narrow alleyways and Mediterranean coloured townhouses which you could spend many an hour moseying around in (the streets, not people’s homes…) and La Chateau, a ‘castle’ which you can climb and from the top enjoy great views over the whole city. The Harbour (see above) wasn’t too shabby either.
As you can probably tell, I had a good time walking around without an agenda of things to see as such, and it seemed to me that this is an ideal way to enjoy the city and its atmosphere. On the minus side, it’s quite an expensive place, although you may not notice this if (like me) you live in London.
As far as the food was concerned, I had a creamy, cheesy gnocchi dish which I was told was authentic Nice cuisine, unsurprising given its proximity to the Italian border. It was very tasty indeed, and rather filling. While on the way to an evangelical church on Sunday I also saw a jolly man on the street playing an accordion.
All in all, I’d very much recommend a weekend visit to Nice by train. The journey down was a fun adventure, and whilst itslonger and pricier than a plane journey, the experience more than made up for that. Nice itself meanwhile was also a pleasure, and whilst it might not offer the ‘thrills and spills’ of other European destinations, it’s relaxed, pretty and chilled vibe was right up my street. Worth a weekend visit? Absolutely.