Paris and the Riviera, by rail with Byway

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Sarah Baxter

5 min read

Paris and the Riviera, by rail, in autumn – what could be finer than that? Simple, unhurried pleasures. Comfy seats with a view. Characterful rooms at reasonable prices. Fall colours and palm trees. Locals with time to talk. No queues at the museums. No bun-fights for a patch of sand… As summers scorch and over-tourism escalates, peak months are losing their appeal – off-season is the new ‘on’. And going by train, choosing sustainability over speed, allows these iconic destinations to properly sink in. So, taking advantage of Sawday’s new partnership with Byway – a fellow B-Corp company and the first 100% flight-free package holiday specialist – I was off to France on a slow rail adventure.

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London to Paris

The fact the French capital is only 2.5 hours by train removes the stress. I’ll likely return to, or pass through, again and again – there will always be Paris! – so felt no pressure to make a frenzied, list-ticking dash. Better to pick a neighbourhood, relax into the back streets and boulangeries, follow my nose.

On my first night, I decided to follow the literary greats. Smart little Hôtel Sainte-Beuve, in the 6th arrondissement, was mere minutes from Le Select, a cafe once frequented by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso. On a mild October night, it was quiet and warm enough to grab a table outside and raise a rosé to them all.

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Paris to Nice

No dash to the airport required. Rather, a relaxed petit déjeuner. And then a leisurely walk to the Gare de Lyon, beneath the Jardin du Luxembourg’s autumn-crisp horse chestnuts and along the sun-sparkled Seine.

Trains have left for the Riviera from this station since the mid-19th century. Now, in just 5.5 hours, I’d be whisked to Nice. I took my seat, unpacked my book (set on the Riviera, to get me in the mood) and watched France unspool outside… It was a graceful shift from north to south. Crops fields melted into a ripple of hills, then dramatic ridges; oak and beech gradually out-numbered by cypresses, aloes and olive trees

By the time I stepped out of the Gare de Nice Ville, I was in a fully Mediterranean world: the colours, the heat, the light. I headed straight for Hôtel Windsor, only ten minutes’ walk from the station, even less to the sea. Indeed, the next day, before sunrise, it took no time to run from my room to the waterfront Promenade des Anglais. This walkway was built in the 1820s by British hivernants – ‘overwinterers’ – who came seeking off-season sunshine and wanted a place to stroll. There were already plenty of strollers today, as I jogged alongside the palms, around Castle Hill and past the smart yachts in the port.

I was heading for Coco Beach – well, less a beach, more a rocky peninsula; Gaetan, a local I’d met the day before, said it was a good spot for a swim. He wasn’t wrong. I stripped to my cossie and waded in, bracing myself… But, no need. The beautiful blue-green water was still well above 20°C. I paddled on my own, while the bay blossomed dusky pink. By the time I was back eating breakfast in Hôtel Windsor’s jungle-like garden of bamboo and rubber trees, I already felt sunk into Riviera life.

Of course, there was much more to see. Over a few lazy days, I took in the sweeping views from Castle Hill and wandered into Vieux Nice, browsing the autumn squashes at Cours Saleya Market and the stands selling pan bagnat – a Niçoise salad in a roll, a local classic. I ate at Type 55, where chef Armand Crespo puts a contemporary spin on pizzas, and at family-run Acchiardo, which feels more like a warm hug than just a restaurant.

I also walked up to the dazzling museums dedicated to Chagall and Matisse – both celebrating big anniversaries in 2023 – and I explored further afield. Using train, bus or feet, it’s easy to get to idyllic spots like Villefranche or Beaulieu-sur-Mer. From the latter I walked right around the Cap Ferrat peninsula, and felt overwhelmed by the outrageous beauty. Diamonds seemed to scatter the waves as the sun shone, the rays also kissing the craggy limestone, the billionaires’ villas, the exotic trees and trailing bougainvillea. I found a private cove to dip in and felt, briefly, like a billionaire myself.

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Nice to Cannes

It’s just 35 minutes by train from Nice to Cannes, a town of even greater glitz. And I leant into the starry theme with René Pierre. He used to work in the arts and movie industry; now he’s a Cannes ‘Greeter’, one of a group of locals who love where they live, and want to share it with visitors – for free. René Pierre was taking me on a ‘Painted Wall Walk’.

The Cannes Film Festival has been running for 76 years, he told me, and being around when it’s on is not a good idea. But in the lower season we could amble between the city’s 17 movie-themed outdoor works and soak up the artsy ambience in relative peace.

We started below the city’s medieval hill-top town of Le Suquet, in front of the Cinéma Cannes mural, which features famous couples, from Jane and Tarzan to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. (“I’ve met Leo,” René Pierre confided. “Very tall.”) Plotting a route between the murals – Keaton, Chaplin, Monroe, more – is a good way to orientate yourself in the city; there are a couple at the far end of La Croisette too, a good excuse to walk the city’s iconic boulevard, lined with beach clubs and grand hotels.

There was another mural – Le 7e Art, devoted to Palme d’Or winners – close to my own hotel, the Cavendish. After a last day exploring, taking the year-round ferry to idyllic Île Sainte-Marguerite and eating mussels outside at Astoux & Brun, right by the quay, I was happy to retire to this classy base. I rode the ‘old lady’ – the hotel’s antique lift – to my room and took a last look from my balcony, Cannes glittering below.

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Cannes to Paris

It was time to return; to swap the palms for Paris once more. I bought a pan bagnat for the train and bid au revoir to Jean-Paul Belmondo – his mural peered right into the station. Then I hopped aboard; my seat, on the opposite side this time, provided a different view.

By late-afternoon I was back in Paris, plenty of day left. My colourful, cosy room at Hôtel Saint-Paul Rive Gauche was perfectly placed for more cultural exploration. I caught the Musée du Luxembourg’s Stein & Picasso exhibition, then a movie at Le Champo, a cool arthouse spot long frequented by luminaries of French cinema history. Tomorrow, home. But no rush. Still time for a good breakfast, a walk in the park, one last visit to the boulangerie for one last train picnic…

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Sarah Baxter

Sarah Baxter is a journalist and writer who has travelled the world for work and pleasure. Among other influential roles, she is best known as the former editor of The Sunday Times.
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