The route along the Mediterranean coast from Barcelona to Marseille and Nice is very popular especially amongst Interrailers. Since the direct high speed services (TGV and AVE trains) from Barcelona to France require quite high reservation fees I always recommend travellers on a budget to travel on the old line along the coast using regional trains only. Although this will take a few hours longer you do not need to buy any reservation and get to see the beautiful landscapes along the coast. If you don't want to sit the whole day on trains there are also many beautiful cities along the way where you can break your journey: Perpignan, Montpellier, Nîmes or Avignon come to mind. On my last Interrail trip back in July I travelled from Barcelona to Nice using regional trains only. Since I was coming from Lisbon I couldn't do the trip in one day and had to stay overnight in Perpignan - however in the following blog post I will show you how to travel from Barcelona to Nice within just one day and without any reservation fees.
Barcelona - Portbou - Cerbere
The first part of the route runs from Barcelona to the French border in Cerbere. You will find direct trains across the border to Cerbere about every two hours. These trains are regional trains and do not require a seat reservation. Trains leave from Barcelona Sants and Passeig de Gracia stations in the city centre and take about 2h30 to get to Cerbere. Interesting intermediate stops are Girona and Figueres, as well as the Spanish border station of Portbou. Here, you can walk to a small beach just a few hundred metres away from the station before continuing across the border to Cerbere.
The journey is not particularly scenic, only on the last few kilometres before you reach Portbou the train runs close to the sea and you can catch some glimpses of the rocky coast of Costa Brava. The stations of Portbou and Cerbere still give a feeling of the former importance of these border crossings, where Iberian broad gauge and European standard gauge trains meet. However their days of glory are long gone nowadays, as long distance trains take the new normal gauge high-speed line. If you have time and are travelling with small luggage you could also hike from Portbou to Cerbere and cross the border on foot. The steep hike along the road will reward you with fantastic views of the surroundings.
Cerbere - Perpignan - Montpellier - Avignon - Marseille
The second leg takes you along the French coast to Marseille. From Cerbere long-distance TER (regional trains) run via Perpignan - Narbonne - Montpellier - Nimes - Avignon to Marseille about every one to two hours. There you have onward connections to Nice. Depending on the time of day you might need to change trains at an intermediate station on the way (see schedule below). Again, no reservation is needed so you can take any train and just grab a seat. Be sure to sit on the right hand side to catch the best views of the Mediterranean.
The first part of the journey takes you along the beautiful Cote Vermeille from Cerbere to Perpignan. Perpignan is a lovely small city and worth a visit - I had to make a stopover here on my journey from Lisbon to Nice. From Perpignan you can also reach the Petit Train Jaune - if you have time, travel from Barcelona to Latour de Carol instead of travelling along the coast and take the Petit Train Jaune down to Villefranche. There you have connections to Perpignan from where you can continue along the coast towards Marseille and Nice.
From Perpignan the line continues inland for a little while before probably the most beautiful part of the whole trip begins: the journey through the lagoons to Narbonne. The large and shallow lakes are a famous surf spot as the region is notorious for strong winds. Here you will find nice views on both sides of the train. About half an hour later we reach Narbonne, where there are connections to Carcassonne, Toulouse and Bordeaux. After Narbonne the trains stop at a number of interesting cities such as Beziers, Montpellier and Nîmes - all of which are useful for an intermediate stop if you want to make a break.
A last highlight on this part of the route is the stretch running in between the sea and another set of lagoons just before and after the city of Sète. Finally the train arrives in Avignon where you have connections to TER trains along the Rhone valley from Lyon to Marseille - I have already written a short blog about this connection. These TER run through the Camargue with stops in Arles and Miramas - change here if you want to make a stop at the Cote Bleue. Some trains do not call at Avignon however and travel directly from Nimes to Marseille - you can see an example in the schedule below.
Marseille - Nice
On the line from Marseille to Nice you find a handful of long distance regional trains. There are several connections in the morning and afternoon/evening, while during the day there is only one train around midday. Other trains running here (TGV and Intercités) would require a reservation but are not considerably faster so make sure to catch one of the TER trains.
On the way to Toulon the line runs more or less close to the sea, then turns inland until St Raphael, from where it follows the coast until Nice. Again the reminder to sit on the right hand side of the train to enjoy the best views. My favourite part of line is along the stunningly red rocks of the Esterel Massif between St Raphael and Cannes.
Finally the train arrives at Nice Ville station, a beautiful 19th century building. From here you have connections along the Cote d'Azur to the Italian border at Ventimiglia and on to Genoa, Milan and Rome as well as to the fantastic Tenda line through the Alps to Turin.
|Monday - Friday||Saturday - Sunday|
|Barcelona Passeig de Gracia||07:20||08:50|
|Montpellier Saint Roch||13:14||15:10||16:33|
|Marseille St Charles||16:43||17:32||18:29||20:22|
|Les Arcs Draguignan||18:56||21:51|
|St Raphael Valescure||19:16||22:09|
These are example timetables and show the best connections if you want to cover the whole route within one day using trains without compulsory reservation. For the full schedule, use a schedule planner or the Rail Planner App. Faster connections are available using high speed trains from Barcelona to different stations in France, however these would require a reservation whichs costs between about 10-25€ depending on the distance covered.
|Daily||Monday - Friday||Saturday - Sunday|
|St Raphael Valescure||09:49|
|Les Arcs Draguignan||10:10|
|Marseille St Charles||11:33||11:50|
|Montpellier St Roch||13:50|
|Barcelona Passeig de Gracia||21:35||22:15|
This blog is mainly aimed at Interrail and Eurail travellers.
If you are travelling with a rail pass, you can use the above mentioned regional trains without any extra seat reservations. Avoid AVE, TGV and Intercités services on this route and use regional trains only if you want to save money.
If you are travelling with regular tickets, you can buy tickets from Barcelona to Nice including the high speed trains from Barcelona to France on Trainline and Omio. Tickets for the regional trains from Barcelona to Portbou and Cerbere are available locally at the stations in Barcelona, while tickets for the remaining part within France are also available online at Trainline and SNCF.
I hope you found this blog useful. If you have questions regarding the route, don't hesitate to ask either directly here in the comments or in the railcc forum.
Update: December 2016