The Best of France’s West Coast by Train
France’s west coast may not have global fame among rail travellers. And yet with several easy routes, and some picturesque historical towns and cities to explore, it may perhaps be one of Europe’s hidden gems of a rail route. From the northerly walled town of St. Malo, all the way down to the wine region of Bordeaux, there are dozens of options to explore by train.
My decision to head to France’s Brittany region was a spontaneous one. One weekend morning in Paris I went cycling with some new friends who had lots of suggestions for my upcoming journey.
‘Don’t listen to them,’ said one, cycling up alongside me. ‘You should go to Rennes. It’s the capital of Brittany. Great history, lots of bars, interesting architecture,’ he continued as we peddled alongside a canal on the outskirts of Paris. ‘From there, you have lots of options north or south’.
It was enough to convince me. A few days later I boarded a train from Paris Montparnasse in the French capital and made my way west.
The journey was quick and easy. One of France’s TGV trains took care of the 225 miles ride in a matter of 90 minutes. And though just a short train ride away from Paris, it felt like another world.
Crooked half-timbered houses lined misty streets. Vast, plush parks stretched out across the exterior of the city. The narrow cobbled roads smelt of beer from the night before, and there was a strange sense of anticipation that hung over the small city.
I spent my days walking the city streets and green belt surrounding the Old Town. On one evening I walked past the church and saw two young men hunkered down in the back of a panel van. They had converted its interior to be a camper van of sorts. When I hesitated outside they welcomed me in with thick French accents and a warm beer.
They introduced themselves as uncle and nephew on a cross-country excursion. They’d drive until they got tired, at which point they’d pull over, fold away their beds, and start drinking. We crouched down on the narrow benches in the shadow of the Saint-Melaine Church steeple and spoke in broken English about nothing of particular importance.
I stayed for a second beer and then headed headed off into the city for dinner. Up a narrow staircase on a quiet side road I found a quaint restaurant which served me a traditional crêpes with ham and an almost raw egg. It was delicious, and cost just a handful of Euros. I was immediately grateful to the flippant suggestion to visit the city just a few days earlier.
My Eurail app told me that the easiest city up north to reach by rail was a town called St Malo. Some Googling also revealed it was a historical walled town set against the English Channel.
What I found could easily double as a picture-perfect movie set. Thick granite walls, which felt wide enough to drive a car on, surrounded an idyllic old town. The views from the walls were spectacular. When the clouds cleared I was sure I could see Jersey and Guernsey across the water. The streets below were suitably cobbled and car-free.
I approached the town in the early evening. I watched the sun cycle though various shades of amber, orange and deep purple while the tide swept in over the deserted beach below.
Behind me classic street lights with orange glows flickered on. As I walked the abandoned alleyways and gazed through the small wood-framed windows, I noticed happy couples dining in cosy candlelit restaurants.
I spent most days in St Malo in a similar fashion. It was too cold to swim, but perfect for long walks along the walls and the quiet beach beneath moody skies. Every now and then a large ferry would glide into the harbour and offload dozens of commuters. And on the outskirts, fishermen milled about on their boats. They fixed nets or painted hulls, while others headed out for the day.
I asked Sophie, my AirBnb host, where I should head to next. There are a myriad options in the North Western corner of France, from quaint fishing villages through to the world famous Mont Saint-Michelle. But I had a rough idea that I wanted to head to the Spanish border, and so she suggested something in-between — a coastal city called La Rochelle.
La Rochelle has a rich maritime history. Until the 15th century, it was the largest French harbour on the Atlantic side. I discovered this thanks to my new AirBnb host. She worked day shifts at the local maritime museum and offered me complimentary tickets. I spent much of the first day exploring decommissioned ships moored in the quiet harbour.
The iconic towers that once guarded the harbour stood proud at the entrance. Just outside, a flotilla of junior sailors tacked and then jibed in the light afternoon breeze.
There’s an historical coastal charm to La Rochelle that’s hard not to like. It slows you down and makes you appreciate the sun on your face, the fresh breeze floating in across the Atlantic, and long lazy afternoons spent lounging around in the nearby park, or drinking cold beers on a harbour-side terrace.
French coastal life is pleasant and calming, but I decided to keep moving south. In Bordeaux I found a more bustling, cosmopolitan and diverse population. For the first time in weeks I heard English spoken in the streets.
This intriguing city has apparently undergone vast improvements of late to bring it up to speed with France’s other alluring tourist attractions. And it shows. Though the outskirts were overrun by a kitsch theme park that seemed like a temporary instalment that had failed to pack up and leave, the old town was a pleasant place to walk. And the riverfront with famous reflecting pool and indigenous gardens made for idyllic afternoons.
Trendy bars and good value restaurants line the city streets. It was unsurprisingly easy to find spectacular wines served by the glass, brought in from the nearby vineyards. Though I should’ve been tempted to journey to the wine farms to sample the famous Bordeaux varietal at source, I felt no need. Instead, I spent evenings drinking wine and craft beer at friendly neighbourhood bars, and eating the last French cuisine before I’d board another train and hop across the border to Spain’s Basque Country.
I’d had just a few weeks to get a taste of the region. I knew that I’d just scraped the surface of fascinating part of France, and vowed to return soon on a future Eurail trip to explore those towns I’d might have overlooked.
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