Paris to Monaco by coach: A great way to experience the delights inbetween

There's only so much one man's bum can take, and mine's reached its limit by the time we get down out of the coach in Lyon. "Man," mutters one American as he tries to rub life back into his cul. "I should have read the small print."

He's joking, of course (especially as later in the evening I spy him riding the gaudy rhinoceros sculpture in the hotel foyer), but it has been a long day with a lot of sitting down.  Paris traffic, roadworks, "comfort" stops, you name it, have conspired to make the 480-kilometre journey longer than it should have been.

Why we are surprised that a nine-day coach tour should involve a lot of sitting down is anybody's guess. And while there are occasions when we do push the limits on the "keisterjoule scale" (the scientific measurement of bottom numbness) this jaunt from Paris to Monaco and back is a distinct pleasure.

On the way to Lyon (it's by far the longest section of the trip) we stop at Beaune, a walled and cobblestoned town in the Burgundy wine region, for lunch. It's just a short break - 90 minutes or so - but it's enough time to take in the shops, historic buildings, and that charming feature of many a leafy French square, the pastel-coloured children's carousel.

The town is awash with wine stores - it's surrounded by vineyards - and also rightly famous for Hotel-Dieu, a wonderful 15th-century hospice.

Our tour starts with two nights in Paris before heading to Lyon via Beaune, then two nights in Cannes via Aix-en-Provence and Monaco, followed by two nights in Avignon with a side trip to Arles, where Van Gogh painted so many of his masterpieces. It's finished off with a fast train (TGV) back to the City of Light for one last hurrah.

At many of the destinations, local guides are on hand. In Paris we are taken up to the second stage of the Eiffel Tower (bypassing the queues) and in the south of France we pop in to Saint-Tropez by boat. At most places, also, there are optional experiences available for an extra cost. These include excursions from Paris to Claude Monet's house at Giverny, a Parisian cabaret, a side trip to Nice, and a guided tour and three-course dinner in Lyon. 

This last tour takes us through the traboules in the old part of the city. These secret passageways, which tunnel through the older buildings like holes in Swiss cheese, lead to circular staircases and three- or four-storey galleried courtyards which spiral upwards, Escher-like, to the open air.

The earliest date to the fourth century when they offered more direct access to fresh water than the winding streets allowed. They later provided safe passage for silk workers to get their wares to market unspoiled and are also credited with preventing the occupying German army from taking complete control of the town. There were originally many hundreds of traboules but only a few are still open to the public today and the apartments inside are still occupied.

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The coach, by the way, is comfortable enough, with a loo if you can't hold it between stops, and seats that recline when you're done staring at motorway verges. As we travel south and the landscape changes it's pretty much beyond pretty.

With erudite and witty commentary from our guide, Vanessa Bullard, we skirt the edges of the Massif Central, push on past Valence, the gateway to the south, and suddenly it's all Mediterranean architecture, olive groves, cypress trees, lavender fields, bulky crags topped with ancient castles and Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf warbling on the coach sound system.

Vanessa has also instituted a seating guide that changes every day and ensures we get the chance to meet fellow travellers, who range from teens travelling with their mothers to sprightly septuagenarians. Most are from the US with a sprinkle of Australians and a mouthy Londoner thrown in.

Sometimes we find it preferable to head out on our own rather than buy into the optional experiences, which can be a bit on the expensive side - and a little on the parsimonious side when it comes to wine with dinner (odd in a country where a decent red can be found in the supermarket for €3).

In Paris, we strike out on our own to the wonderful Le Relais de Venise entrecote restaurant at Porte Maillot.

And in Avignon, we follow our nose through the historic centre past the Palais des Papes, the cathedral, the large main square (resplendent with a carousel) and find ourselves in a backwater square of shady trees, small bars, cafes and outside tables perfect for pastis-sipping and people watching.

On our last full day in Avignon there's also a trip out to see the Pont du Gard, the three-tiered Roman aqueduct that soars majestically across the Gardon River near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard. Built in the first century AD it is the highest and one of the best preserved elevated Roman aqueducts and was added to UNESCO's World Heritage list in 1985.

On the last day we take the TGV back to the Gare de Lyon in Paris. There are optional experiences that include a day tour of Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter and a late-night Seine Cruise.

We do our own thing before rejoining the main group for the final dinner in Le Grand Cafe Capucines, a wonderfully evocative art nouveau restaurant around the corner from the Place de l'Opera.

Plus, the dining chairs have a keisterjoule rating of one. Easy on the eyes and easy on the bum. C'est magnifique.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/france

trafalgar.com

FLY

All of the major airlines operate frequent flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.

TOUR

Trafalgar operates throughout Europe and Britain. The nine-day Wonderful France guided holiday from Paris to Monaco and Cannes and back again costs from $3786 per person twin share. Prices include some meals, airport transfers, an expert travel director as well as local specialists along the way. If you book all seven optional experiences it will cost an extra €434 ($680). Visit trafalgar.com for more details.

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Trafalgar.

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