Staff Review

The South of France by Rail

by The Kirker Team

Departing at 07:14 from St Pancras Eurostar terminal, it seemed freakishly busy for a Saturday morning. The last of the summer’s direct Eurostar trains to Avignon was ready to wind its way through a grey and damp Kent, towards a much more pleasing forecast for the South of France. We were lucky enough to be travelling Standard Premier for this 6 hour journey, meaning breakfast and lunch were delivered to our seats as the views of Lille and Lyon vanished into the endless fields of Provence.'First stop of the weekend was Avignon. Proud to be the temporary home to 13 popes and home to an impressive Popes Palace, Avignon has rightly been attracting Kirker clients for years. The hotel La Mirande was originally one of the cardinal’s homes. Set in the shadow of the Popes Palace walls, and a 2 minute walk from the main square of Place de l’Horloge, it is a deceptively peaceful property beautifully refurbished and with a traditional Provencal garden. In a more vibrant location is the hotel De l’Horloge: as the name suggests overlooking the Place de l’Horloge - perfect for people-watching amongst the al fresco diners. 'The great thing with exploring this area is the ease of local train travel. Leaving Avignon, I headed towards Lyon. Only an hour away, Lyon is rightly proud of being a food-lover’s heaven. With a multitude of Michelin-star restaurants, an intriguing old town (where all buildings were at one point owned by the church), it really is worth a stop to break up any rail journey through France. Our hotels in the old town are the beautiful Cour des Loges, a mix of 14th – 17th century townhouses nestled in the cobbled streets that surround the cathedral, and the Villa Florentine, a 16th century convent converted into a comfortable hotel with beautiful views over the city… Any gastronomic over-indulgence can be worked off navigating the plethora of steps that lead from the heart of the old town to the Villa Florentine.'For me, Lyon was an all too brief stop en route to Aix-en-Provence – a town, nestling in countryside, which has been influencing artists for years. The drive into town from the TGV station conjures images of Cezanne paintings, and at the heart of the old town new generations of artists are re-discovering the land and light around the city. I stayed at the hotel Le Pigonnet, a tranquil property 15 minute walk from the bustling heart of the Cour Mirabeau. The calmness of the gardens provides a perfect retreat after a day’s wandering through the cobbled streets of Aix. For those seeking a quiet city-centre option, the Villa Gallici is a beautiful Relais & Chateaux hotel in a residential quarter, with country views and gardens.'My trip was to end in Marseille, the European City of Culture and a bustling port town. Although historically the city has had, for want of a better word, a “reputation”, the regeneration of the Vieux Port should really make you reconsider a visit. There is plenty to fill a couple of days here, and with regular direct flights back to the UK, it makes a great alternative to Nice. Aix-en-Provence is only a 20 minute train ride from Marseille and the sea breeze here is a welcome distraction after the heat of the countryside (weather conditions can be requested, but not guaranteed….). For views and location, I would highly recommend the Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port. Set a short walk above the port, superior rooms offer views over the port and out towards the sea, with all the newly revamped area has to offer on the doorstep.

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