A brief guide to public transport in the Riviera
Paris is the most expensive city in France, but even for a couple of adopted Parisians like us (after 20 years in la capitale), certain things on the French Riviera still feel expensive: property for example, particularly if it has a sea view; restaurants, not so much because of the prices as such but because of the ratio between what-you-pay and what-you-get.
Public transport, conversely, is one of the great bargains of the French Riviera, always providing good to excellent value – and that, mind you, for people who come from a city where tickets are also heavily subsidized.
Most folks who visit the area will be familiar with the train service which runs up and down the coast, from Cannes to Ventimiglia, roughly once every 30 minutes. Ordinary single fare tickets are on the “good value” end of the spectrum, affordable although not extremely cheap, but there are many ways of cutting down your costs further.
Residents and long-term guests can use the Carte ZOU ticket option which gives you a 50% or even (on only one route that you need to specify in advance) a 75% discount against an annual fee of (currently) € 30 (€ 15 if you are under 26 years of age).
You can buy the Carte ZOU at the ticket booth in your local train station. Have a copy of your ID and two passport photos ready. You will also need to fill out a form in French. It takes at least a couple of weeks for your card to arrive (by mail), but they will issue you a temporary card straight away.
To purchase discounted tickets as a card holder, go to the ticket machines and look for the ZOU option under “autre options”. Whenever you travel with a ZOU-discounted ticket, you must carry the card with you.
Short-term visitors are probably better served with the ZOU Pass, which allows you unlimited travel for a day on regional trains in the département of Alpes Maritimes (06) and includes the Train des Merveilles from Nice to Tende, at €15 per person. The catch: this pass is only available in the high season, from 1 June to 30 September.
For a family of four (two adults and two children under 16), there is the Passe Isabelle Famille at € 35 valid for a day.
One word of warning about regional trains: they are not always supremely reliable, specifically in summer when – due to under-staffing, perhaps – quite a few trains are cancelled. They are also quite often late, also mainly in the high tourist season. It must be said, though, that this is not necessarily the fault of the French railway company – no schedule in the world can accommodate the eventuality of 2,000 passengers crowding the platform at Villefranche-sur-Mer station on a Sunday afternoon, all wanting to return from a day out on the beaches.
While regional trains are good value, specifically when you use one of their discount options, buses are even better. The network of the Ligne d’Azur essentially serves the conurbation of Nice but in fact extends across most of the coast.
Line no. 100 is particularly useful for visitors on the eastern side of the French Riviera, from Nice to Monaco and Menton. These buses are far more frequent than trains (generally circulating every 10 to 20 minutes), do not have irritating holes in the schedule (when they do not run at all for an hour and a half for no discernible reason) and are also cheaper.
Single tickets cost €1.50, but you can buy an electronic carnet (also available on the bus) of 10 tickets for €10. These are, however, personal carnets, so if there are two of you, you will each need to purchase such a carnet. The full journey from Menton to Nice Harbour takes 1 h 15 minutes – the train takes about half the time, but then again, you see more of the splendid coast from the bus.
On the Italian side of the border, there is a similar bus network called “Riviera Trasporti” which features about 40 lines, covering all coastal towns of the province of Imperia and a fair number of mountain villages, too.
Individual tickets cost €2.50 on the bus but only €1.50 in a Tabacchi (licensed tobacconist). Some big bus stops have ticket machines, but be ready to have the right amount of coins (No credit cards or bills accepted here.) They do not operate a “carnet” system as they do in France, so you can buy as many tickets as you want, 2 or 4 for the day or more if you are already making arrangements for your next trip.
The most conveniently located bus stop in the border town of Ventimiglia – the gateway to Italy for all visitors who are coming from the French Riviera – is the one just by a bank on Via Cavour, the first major road on your left hand side when you leave the train station.
If you need to buy bus tickets, you can do so in the Tabacchi in the train station itself or, once outside the station, less than 100 metres away on Via della Republica opposite the covered municipal market.
Buses from Ventimiglia go to San Remo – where you would have to change if you want to go further – and to mountain villages such as Dolceacqua and Apricale, but this service is far less frequent. (The word feriale in the bus schedule, by the way, means Mondays through Saturdays, festivo means Sundays and public holidays.)
Ventimiglia is also the gateway to the Italian train network. The green ticket machines in the hall of Ventimiglia station are easy to use: they have foreign language options, and you can pay with a range of international credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard (provided your card has a PIN).
Italian trains are inexpensive, so there is really no need to book in advance for short journeys up and down the coast. All Trenitalia trains from Ventimiglia – with the exception of the infrequent service on the transalpine Cuneo line – run up and down the coastal strip of land at the end of which lies Genoa (which is approx. 3 hrs away), so it must be said that for all practical (day-trip) purposes, you do not gain access to a network but rather a single line – the network only spreads out once you have arrived at Genoa’s huge and impressive central station. But there are enough places to visit even so, with San Remo (20 minutes away) at the top of most visitors’ list.