Exploring France by Train, Bus & Car: Public Transport in Provence

 

Lisa has been a co-owner in International Property Shares’ Le Muguet “castle” in Vers-Pont-du-Gard (or simply Vers) since 2010. She travels alone and with family or friends. Here, Lisa shares her thoughts on enjoying Europe without a car and using public transport in Provence.

Paris Metro sign

Public transit is romantic. This is not a popular opinion, but it’s true for me. Having grown up in a northern California suburb where trains and buses were nonexistent, before driving age we walked, rode bicycles, or begged rides from family and friends. The morning of my sixteenth birthday found me at the Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain that much anticipated license. I figured that was a rite of passage for teens everywhere. How little I knew!

Public Transport: The European Way to Go

During my college Junior Year Abroad in Grenoble, France, I lived with a family of five who shared one vehicle. Young people routinely took buses to school and my French family taught me the network of transport for accessing the university, downtown shopping/movies, and the train station – where the country was ours to explore for an inexpensive ticket. I found myself surrounded by the language I studied and locals who fascinated me. While people watching, I realized Europeans from all walks of life take public transit – not only those who can’t afford a car. I considered this exposure a blessing, returning with numerous stories about happenings, interactions, and overheard conversations: what a poorer experience if I’d seen France from the inside of an automobile!

After that year, I returned home to the car-dominated lifestyle of the United States. But I’d eventually move to large cities – San Francisco, Boston, and back again – partly because I enjoyed the bus and train options. “Romantic” is the last word San Franciscans would use to describe MUNI, the city’s local public transit system. But it took me back to nostalgic memories of the freedom and adventure I’d experienced while in Grenoble. And I’ve been in love ever since.

France's TGV train

Airports for the South of France

Over the years, I’ve developed airport preferences for accessing Le Muguet based on transportation. Paris Charles de Gaulle, coupled with the high-speed train (TGV), is most desirable if you want to visit The City of Light. Otherwise, Marseilles works well with public transit and is less stressful due to its size and proximity. Montpellier is smaller still – and closer to Vers if renting a car (although their transit connections could be improved). Nimes also has a small airport served by budget airline Ryanair, and an Edgard shuttle bus that takes you into Nimes town centre from there in just 20 minutes.

Luckily, I’m a light packer, which bodes well for a smooth transit experience. I’ve been known to mail home a box of souvenirs. The justification: if I’m saving $50 per day by not renting a car, what’s 40 Euro in postage to lighten my trip? Now that airlines charge for a second suitcase, it’s a simple decision.

When should you use public transport in Provence?

“Personal transit,” a term coined by American marketers just after the invention of the automobile, has its place in everyday life and travel. The most convenient scenario is to use both personal and public. Depending on trip plans, my traveling companion and I either rent a car, ride transit, or do both based on a number of criteria:

Car rental if:

o We’re visiting the countryside, especially with far-flung appointments like winery visits.
o We’re arriving late, leaving early, or have only a few days in a region.
o There are more than two of us vacationing together.

Public transit if:

o I’m traveling by myself or don’t plan to visit a new site every day.
o We’ve never been to the area before and want a flavor of the main attractions.
o We’re visiting larger cities.

European train and bus stations are in the middle of town, right where you want to start exploring. Subways whisk you around the city in no time at all.

Pros and Cons: Personal vs Public Transit

We have experienced the downsides of all transportation forms. Journeys have been altered by transit strikes, accident delays, or miscommunication. Taxi drivers have ripped us off – or tried to. We’ve been stuck in automobile traffic on the expressway and have had a flat tire on a rental car. We’ve received parking tickets because we didn’t understand the restrictions. But any of these can happen in our own country too, all part of the adventure!

Public transit can be better for your health because you’ll walk more. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for your wallet. And it often gets you to your destination more quickly than a car. Ultimately, though, I choose it for another reason; it’s the most relaxing way to get from Point A to Point B. We can gaze at the world while sipping a glass of local wine on a train, chat with a fellow rider, read a book, study the map, sleep, or visit the dining car. Ferry excursions rank among our favorite travel memories.

As long as you board on time, the stresses of getting there belong to someone else. There are no gas stations to find, no parking or toll hassles, no concerns about driving on the “other side” of the road or navigating roundabouts, no worries about signage or speed limits or aggressive local drivers. There’s no chance of getting your rental car dinged in a fender bender or scraping its finish while on a skinny historic street. You don’t worry about returning to a parking ticket, a wheel boot, a broken window, stolen possessions, or – heaven forbid – a missing auto.

Edgard bus service

Before purchasing a share of Le Muguet, I researched transit. The high speed TGV train, run by national train operator SNCF, from Paris to Avignon was a plus, but I wanted to make sure the regional Edgard bus network also functioned as advertised. A village without a train has its advantages; it’s quiet and promises fewer tourists. But neither did I want to regularly rent a car for a full month to get around the Uzège area. So I tried their system and was thrilled.

Bus routes in Le Gard region

There are two routes that go through Vers: an east/west bus (A15) that travels, among other cities, between Avignon and Uzès plus a north/south option (B21) that’s of interest mostly for Nîmes. They’ve proven to be reliable. I’ve seen more along the way than a person usually notices in a car. And I feel closer to the community for the social interactions public transit affords. Edgard drivers are friendly, helpful, recognize you over time, and early taught me the correct pronunciation of our village: Vers, with a strong “s” at the end, to distinguish it from the French word for “towards.”

More BANG for your Buck

Bang card le gard bus

The icing on the cake: a single ticket, no matter how far you travel, is currently 1.50 Euro. When you take your first bus the driver will issued you with a little plastic chargeable card called BANG, so if you charge it up in advance you won’t need to worry about having the right change for your journey. You can also use this on the Nimes airport shuttle bus.

The E52 bus takes you from Nimes to Uzès in 40 minutes, with regular daily departures from early in the morning (around 6.30am) to around 7pm in the evening. It’s especially useful for our new owners in the Uzès St Etienne townhouse, as the bus stop on Uzès Esplanade is an easy 2 minute walk from this urban abode.

There’s also a business card in my wallet for our kind Vers taxi driver, Gérald, in case of an emergency. But Edgard hasn’t let me down yet.

The Charms of Vers Pont du Gard

While staying at Le Muguet, I often work at my computer during the week. Soaking in the atmosphere of our beautiful stone village for several days in a row is magical. A market with farm-fresh veggies and fruits, grocery store, pâtisserie, tabac, pharmacie, post office… everything a person needs is right in town so why go elsewhere? The local boules players provide distraction, most afternoons, right outside our window in the Place de la Fontaine.

The number of cultural activities, for a village the size of Vers, is impressive. I’ve started to make local friends with whom I can enjoy a coffee, glass of wine, or meal. There are inter-village walking paths if you need a change of scenery – and I never tire of a stroll or jog to the world-famous Pont du Gard aqueduct, only two miles away. Every few days, I’ll jump on a bus for a shopping excursion, movie, or other exploration.

France continues to expand public transit infrastructure. Near Vers, this includes an Avignon tram slated to debut in 2016. I see us attending an Arles-Avignon football game, approaching the stadium in a tram car with scores of other crazy fans. Sure, we could take a rental car. But it just wouldn’t be as much fun!

How about you, what have you learnt about using public transport in Provence and beyond? Would you recommend the experience?

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