Peter and I have just returned from [nearly] a week in the Rhône Valley in southern France. We split the trip equally between Lyon and Avignon, allowing us to explore the whole valley.
Here’s a list of shortcuts if you’re looking for specific information regarding navigating the Rhône Valley.
- Rhône Valley overview
- France/UK entry requirements
- Lyon airport (arrival)
- Train journeys overview
- Ouigo trains
- SNCF trains
- Rhônexpress trams
Rhône Valley overview
The Rhône Valley extends from Lyon to Avignon and geographically speaking, is divided into two sub-regions, Northern and Southern.
Following the Rhône River from the Alps in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, you’d pass through Lyon followed by Northern Rhône, Southern Rhône, and finally, Avignon.
At a high level, Northern Rhône is the birthplace of Syrah and Southern Rhône is where Grenache rules the roost. Southern Rhône, specifically the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), is known for GSM wines – blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre.
Syrah, Grenache, and GSMs are our favorites and the Rhône Valley was a wine paradise to us.
We went on three wine tours during this trip.
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape in Southern Rhône
- Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu in Northern Rhône
- Southern Beaujolais (located north of Lyon, not part of the Rhône Valley)
I’ll write about our wine tour experiences in future posts.
France/UK entry requirements
It wouldn’t be a travel blog post in the 2020s without mentioning covid entry requirements.
Similar to our trip to Amsterdam, there was only minor covid prep before we departed for France.
Per the government website, France required every visitor (arriving by air) to complete the European Passenger Locator Form (PLF) before arrival. We completed the forms but were not asked by the airline or immigration staff for our forms.
This was the second time (the first was the Netherlands) where we’d completed the entry forms and they went nowhere.
Unlike our trip to the Netherlands, masks were not required on flights or in French airports. This was our first trip since the pandemic began where the entire vacation was mask-free.
Lyon airport (arrival)
Our flight to Lyon departed on time which was a nice change from our recent experiences where our flights departed at the time when we should have been landing at our destination.
Immigration was fast and efficient and after a short wait for our bags, we were outta there!
But, our travel day was not over yet…
The next leg of our travels was to take a train from Lyon (airport) to Avignon.
Train journeys overview
There are four train stations to take into account if doing a dual destination trip like we did to Avignon and Lyon.
- Lyon Saint-Exupéry (aka Lyon airport)
- Lyon Part Dieu
- Avignon TGV
- Avignon Centre
Our itinerary was to fly into Lyon, take a train to Avignon, spend three nights in Avignon, take a train to Lyon, and spend three nights in Lyon before taking yet another train to the airport.
There are two ways to “train it” from Lyon to Avignon and there are two train stations in Avignon Things can be a bit confusing at first glance.
Option 1 – Lyon Saint-Exupéry (airport) to Avignon
This option entails taking a train from the Lyon airport to the Avignon TGV (high-speed rail) station and then taking a tram from Avignon TGV to Avignon Centre.
Trains from Lyon airport to Avignon are limited and, in our experience, were only operated by Ouigo.
Ouigo is a low-cost railway operator. Exactly what the world needs: easyJet on rail.
Lyon Saint-Exupéry, the train station at the Lyon airport, is about a five-minute walk from Terminal 1.
The station is not connected to Terminal 1 but it appeared to be connected to Terminal 2 via a long glass corridor. The walk from Terminal 1 to the station is uncovered and flows through the parking lot and across a couple of roads.
Signage is limited which is always a frustrating experience.
To get from Terminal 1 to the station, exit the airport and follow the wide sidewalk toward the parking lot and the station will eventually come into view.
Option 2 – Lyon Saint-Exupéry (airport) to Lyon Part Dieu to Avignon
This option entails taking the Rhônexpress tram from Lyon airport to Lyon Part Dieu and then taking a train from Part Dieu to Avignon (either TGV or Centre). If arriving at Avignon TGV, there’s one more journey on the tram to Avignon Centre.
Protip: Rhônexpress offers a discounted “train connection” ticket for passengers who have a valid TGV reservation on the day of their journey. The TGV ticket must have Lyon Saint-Exupéry as the arrival or departure station. A one-way discounted “train connection” ticket is about 33 percent cheaper than the standard one-way ticket (10€ versus 15€ when purchased online).
Given our arrival time in Lyon, the fastest and most efficient way for us to travel from Lyon to Avignon was with Ouigo (again, the easyJet of rail).
We had a 15-minute layover from the time we arrived at the airport train station to when we departed for Avignon. We entered the station and joined the queue to check in for our train. The only other times I have checked in for trains was for international journeys with Eurostar.
After our tickets were scanned, we descended to the train platform and waited for the train to arrive.
Given our experiences with French trains in late 2019, I had been left with no trust when it came to French rail and, yet, there we were, taking a low-cost train.
The alternative of taking Ouigo from the airport was to travel into Lyon (option 2 above) and the total journey time from the airport to Avignon via option 2 would have taken 3-4 hours, depending on layovers and journey times.
We purchased our Ouigo tickets online two weeks before we departed for France. We chose to “upgrade” to Ouigo Plus because of their strict luggage requirements and for “better” seats.
Protip: The website is only in French but the Ouigo app is in English. Alternatively, tickets can be purchased via SNCF Connect.
With Ouigo Plus, we were allowed a “bulky bag” (think checked bag). Alternatively, we could have booked a standard/essential seat and paid a per bag fee but by the time you a la carte bag fees, the total price ends up being almost equal to the Ouigo Plus ticket.
The seats for Ouigo Plus are on the upper levels of the carriages and are a 2×2 formation with outlets. I was able to select our seats at the time of booking.
Standard/essential seats are on the lower levels and are a 3×1 formation. I do not know if standard/essential seats can be selected at the time of booking or if they are automatically assigned but we did not want to get into a situation where we were seated in a row of 3 and next to a random passenger.
As for our experience on the train, well, it was, as expected, terrible. Not “FlixBus terrible” but it was a 1/5 star experience. The fact that the train departed and arrived on time is where the 1 star comes into play.
And if I really break things down, departing and arriving on time was all we needed. The journey time was only 50 minutes; definitely short enough where, no matter how bad, we could grin and bear it.
Lyon Saint-Exupéry station is an open-air station and birds love it there! It was a treacherous wait for our train… with the birds… and their bodily functions…
A few minutes before our scheduled departure time, the obnoxious aqua and hot pink colored train arrived at the platform. I thought, well, this is off to a good start.
Those of us on the platform patiently waited for passengers to alight and then we experienced something we had never experienced before.
Passengers on the train lit cigarettes in the vestibule of the train and when the doors opened, they piled out of the train and stood in front of the doors puffing away.
This partially explains why the train app, SNCF Connect, cites the number of stoppage minutes for each station on a train’s journey. Smokers can look at the app and determine how many cigarettes they can smoke during the stop.
Start of tangent: France is a heavy smoking country but at 34.6%, it is shockingly less than Greece (39.1%) and is much higher than Austria (29.1%).
Austria, for the longest time, has been known as the “Ashtray of Europe” but perhaps this designation is more about the lax laws which still allowed (until January 2020) smoking indoors at restaurants, bars, cafes, and on train platforms and less about having the highest percentage of smokers.
As an example, we were at a cafe in Avignon for 35 minutes and the man at the table next to us smoked seven cigarettes.
Another example was at a wine bar in Lyon. We were seated next to a table of two women, one of which had a Ziplock bag that contained three different pouches of tobacco. They never smoked at the same time but one of them was always smoking.
And with the popularity of al fresco drinking and dining in this region of France, smokers really put a damper on the experience. End of tangent.
Back to the train…
Those of us on the platform who were waiting to board had to push our way through the smokers to get on the train.
Things went downhill from there.
We boarded the train and after a short struggle to find luggage space, we made it to our seats. The carriage smelled like cigarettes and stale booze. I spent most of the journey with my fingers pinching my nostrils shut.
The train was also dirty.
Seated in front of us was a group of guys who, at one point, opened or unwrapped a package of marijuana (illegal in France) and that was the final straw for me. I cannot handle the smell of marijuana.
I stood up, collected my things, and exited the carriage. I spent the remainder of the journey standing in the vestibule at the top of the stairs with a dozen other people.
I was happy when we arrived at the Avignon TGV station. I leaped off the train and the heat hit my face and I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
The final leg of our travels that day was to take the tram from Avignon TGV to Avignon Centre. The tram is a 5-minute shuttle service between the two stations and runs every 15 minutes, at least that’s how often it is supposed to run.
There were rail disruptions (no surprise there!) on our travel day and we had to wait 40 minutes for the tram. It’s quite frustrating to wait for 40 minutes to ride a tram for 5 minutes.
Note: The Avignon TGV station does not have air conditioning. It was boiling in there.
In retrospect, we should have taken a taxi but I read that finding a taxi was near impossible and we didn’t even try (dumb).
On our reverse journey from Avignon to Lyon, we took an SNCF (French National Railway Company) train. Technically, we took the tram from Avignon Centre to Avignon TGV and then took the SNCF train to Lyon Part Dieu.
We upgraded to first-class for a small fee and felt it was worth the money for the extra leg room and silence, though I found the train’s air conditioning to be poor. It was a non-stop train and we arrived in Lyon an hour later.
The Rhônexpress is a shuttle service that runs between Lyon Part Dieu and Lyon Saint-Exupéry (airport). There are two stops along the way and the journey time is a lengthy 30 minutes.
There is nothing ‘express’ about the Rhônexpress.
1) It is cheaper to buy tickets online than at the ticket machines on the platforms.
2) As mentioned above, there is a discounted “train connection” ticket that can be used in conjunction with a valid TGV ticket for the same day of travel. A one-way discounted “train connection” ticket is about 33 percent cheaper than the standard one-way ticket (10€ versus 15€ when purchased online).
3) The Rhônexpress is a tram and shares the railway with Lyon’s public tramway. Due to this, the Rhônexpress station is NOT inside Lyon Part Dieu. It is in the plaza in front of Lyon Part Dieu’s east entrance. The official name of the tram station is Gare Part-Dieu Villette.
When we were departing Lyon for the airport, our taxi dropped us off at the east entrance and we hustled inside and again found ourselves struggling with signage. I turned to Google and found a travel forum that clued me in as to where the station was and then Peter found signage and off we went.
We walked the entire train station looking for the Rhônexpress platform only to find it about 10 feet from where our taxi dropped us off.
The giant red sign could not have been more obvious… after we knew it was there…
Below is a list of resources I used to prep for our vacation in France.