First, I’ll start with that it’s hard to do South of France in 12 days if you want to see all the attractions, lounge in French cafes, explore endless museums, do a little shopping and feel like you actually had a vacation. South of France is a huge area but for the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on Provence and French Riviera. Alternatively you can explore only Provence or French Riviera on your vacation. There is a lot to see and do in this relatively small area. In 12 days we never drove longer than 2 hours from one point to the other. We saw a lot but yet we left so many places unseen. We’re already planning to come back. Here is how we did it and what I would do differently.
Day 1 – Arrive to Marseille. Alternatively you can start your trip from Nice and end it in Marseille. The flights go from DC to Marseille or Nice through Frankfurt. I highly recommend not to fly to Paris and take the train as you will lose a lot of time, and Paris and its surrounding areas is a trip on itself. We opted to skip Marseille and go directly to a small beach town of Cassis. We took a bus directly from the airport to St. Charles train station and then a train to Cassis from there. Alternatively, you could get a taxi from the airport although taxis are expensive.
Cassis is small, cute beach and fishing town that has inspired many artists. The port anchoring the downtown is surrounded by small cafes and nice restaurants. Perfect start of the trip. The town is full of summer villas, pebbled beaches and all-surround sound of cicadas.
Day 2 – Conquering of famous Cassis calanques. Calanques are inlets between limestone rocks jutting out into the sea. In between them you find gorgeous azure waters of Cote D’Azur. You can hike them or see them from the boat on numerous boat trips organized at the port. We did both. We hiked to the first 2 calanques. The very first one is an easy walk from town. Then past it, you continue a relatively easy hike to the second one that is small but very pretty. And then there is a hike towards the third one… I read on a beautiful blog of lelongweekend.com how you can hike all 3 calanques with small kids and was confident that this was going to be not an actual hike but more like an easy walk in the woods. I don’t know what kind of kids could hike the last leg towards that 3 calanque but these two adult, relatively fit women, stared down a steep 75% degree incline mountain down and decided that we can potentially make it down, but no way we can climb it back up.. Maybe with real hiking boots and more than a little bottle of water, but sneakers and leisurely supply of hydration was not going to cut it. So, we turned around, hiked back to town and took a boat to all 3 calanques. The views are not as good, at least I can say that about the first 2 calanques, because boats are not allowed to come too close, and the view from above while hiking is always better.
Alternative first 2 days – if you are planning to go to Verdon Gorge (and if you aren’t, you should), you could skip Cassis and go directly to Aix-en-Provence from the airport.
Day 3 – Trip to Arles where we were staying for one night. We took train to Aix-en-Provence which goes via St. Charles train station in Marseille. This took a good chunk of the day, so again, you might want to go directly to Aix-en-Provence from the airport when you arrive.
In Aix-en-Provence, we rented a car and explored the town. It’s a historical town, considered the heart of Provence and worth spending at least half a day, but unfortunately during our visit the whole place was under construction.. After touring Aix-en we headed to Arles which was 2 hour drive.
Note: parking is a bit tough in all these towns so ask ahead your hotels or airbnb hosts about parking situation.
Day 4 – Arles is a beautiful city that truly captures the soul of Provence. I highly recommend it making this your main stay for a couple of nights. You need at least a day to explore Arles. If possible, make it Saturday when the largest market takes place downtown. Come hungry and ready to taste different meat delicatessens, cheese, and olives and take some for a snack if you’re staying at airbnb. There is a dried lavender galore, amazing dried herbs and spices, more meats and cheeses, clothes and other nicknacks.
If you’re into art, Arles is a city that inspired Van Gogh and you should visit a modern museum of Van Gogh Foundation. Additionally, there are plenty of others, but if you take art in small doses, Van Gogh Foundation should be it.
In the evening we drove to Avignon. On our way, we stopped by Pont du Gard – a roman aqua duct that is 2000 years old and just a magnificent testament to the early dwellers of this region – the Romans. Walk across it, go to the museum and watch a 14 min documentary telling the whole story which is pretty fascinating.
We made Avignon our main stay for the next 4 nights. All the main attractions of Provence are clustered in the area between Arles, Nimes, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence, so you could make any of these towns your main stay. Alternatively you could stay in chambres d’hotes (small B&Bs) outside of the big towns. The benefit is that you don’t waste any time getting out of town in the mornings when you’re going to explore the country side. The downside – you usually can’t walk anywhere once you parked at chambres d’notes as they are in more remote areas.
Day 5 – If you’re into antiques, the biggest antique market takes place every Sunday in a little town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue. It’s 30 min away from Avignon and you have to get there early. As a side note – you should get early to all the main attractions as not to melt in the heat and to avoid crowds (specifically if you’re traveling in the summer). It is officially an antique market but they sell everything: new clothes, food, kitchenware, random stuff and, of course, antiques. If you’re not into shopping at big markets, visit this town on a different day. It is whimsical with emerald green river running through it and making it a small, magical place.
After doing our part to support French economy, we headed to Gordes. Gordes is a small town etched out of the rock and part of the Luberon villages. The view driving up to this town is hard to describe, but it is often expressed with a collective sigh of “wow”.. Couples miles away, nested between rocky mountain sits Sénanque Abbey surrounded by lavender fields. You can find better lavender fields than the ones next to the Abbey, but it is a pretty view worth to drive by.
Day 6 – If you’re short on time and need to prioritize, the village of Les Baux-de-Provence should be high on the list. It’s about 45 min away from Avignon or Arles and offers a variety of things to do. The village is high in the mountains with the old castle remains up on the very top. You must walk through the village to get to the castle for the magnificent views of the surrounding vineyards and olive tree coves. When you buy tickets for the castle, buy a combo that includes Les Carriers de Lumieres art exhibit. Even if you’re not artsy or contrary – by the time you get to Les Baux, seen too many Van Goghs and Picassos, this art exhibit is the most amazing thing you’ll experience. Set in the old lime stone quarry, it’s a light and musical journey that brings art to life. Also, its cool temperature provides a much appreciated reprieve from the summer heat. After satisfying your cultural senses, try one of the many olive oil farms and/or wineries that surround Les Baux. On the way back to Avignon, we stopped by St. Remy – another small town famous for the hospital where Van Gogh spent some quality time and the house where Nostradamus was born. Nothing much to see otherwise, so if you need to skip it, you won’t miss out on much. There is an amazing old church in the middle of town, worth to cool off in.
Day 7 – Provence is known for its wine region. However, unlike in Napa and Sonoma, in France not all wineries have tasting rooms. Not knowing where to go, we took a tour of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. What we learned is that Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a village where most of the winemakers have tastings rooms. So you don’t have to do a tour, you can just drive up to the village and walk around tasting wine.
I’m conflicted about travel tours. If it’s a good tour, with a knowledgable tour guide who can speak a language you understand and provide a lot of info that you wouldn’t come by in your average travel book – it’s an amazing experience and worth the money. I mostly don’t like tours because I’m forced to see the place on someone else’s clock. I wouldn’t do the tour for the wine because we saw only a couple wineries, when on our own, we could have easily made it to more.
Day 8 – We toured Avignon a bit more and set out on our trip to Verdon Gorge which was 2 hours away. We stopped by the village of Roussillon famous for its copper mines. If you want to see the mines, don’t leave Roussillon, just ask around how to find it.
On the way to Gorge, we stubble upon fields and fields of lavender, one of the main reasons I wanted to go to South of France. The views are surreal and we were stopping every 5 minutes to take more pictures. Eventually we made it to Verdon Gorge.
Verdon Gorge is this magnificent river canyon that starts with the azure lake of Sainte Croix and continues into the canyon shouldered by windy, narrow roads providing for magnificent, although virtigo-causing views. It’s a must-see natural beauty of France.
You can stay in a couple of small towns around that area. We chose Moustiers-Ste-Marie, you should too. Adorable, small town with couple good restaurants in romantic settings and ages-old pottery shops where local families sell their wares.
Day 9 – Touring of Verdon Gorge. The following activity is not recommended to those who are afraid of heights and narrow, windy roads without rails. You can drive along the canyon, hike it or contact tourism office in Castellane to arrange whitewater rafting or floating down the river. If you’re staying in Moustiers and want to float down the river, you would still have to drive down to Castelane so you would get to see the canyon from up top as well from down below. Highly recommend doing it.
Day 10 – Leaving for Antibes, we headed to Grasse. The downtown is nice and has its own distinct personality and I regret not spending more time there. It’s known for its long-established perfume industry. From there on we went to our final destination – Antibes. Antibes is a peninsula that has two main towns – Antibes and Juan Les Pins. Antibes town is a typical, laid back seaside town and Juan Les Pins have more of a touristy beach town vibe. Juan Les Pins has a long stretch of beach, and Antibes has more fractured beaches. Try staying somewhere closer to the metro station if you want to make this as your main stay. Highly recommend not using a car while going from town to town in French Riviera as parking is tough as is driving.
Day 11 – Early train ride to Monaco via Eze. Buy a day pass at the train station which allows you to hop on and off the train at the various stations along the sea. Eze is a town right out of a fair tale. Once you get off the train in Eze, take a bus right outside the train station to take you up. It’s a castle-town with the cutest stores, art galleries and two very fancy hotels-restaurants that have the most magnificent views but food not worth the money. From there we continued to Monaco – the most overrated place in French Riviera if you ask me. It’s overrun by tourists, priced for millionaires and doesn’t hold a candle to architecture everywhere else. After putting our stamp, that yes, we have been here, we hopped back on the train and headed to Villefranche-sur-Mer – a small, picturesque seaside town. I wish we skipped Monaco and spent more time at Villefranche. From there, to round out the day, we headed to Nice. Pretty architecture, million restaurants and tourists, and painful rocks on the beach. If you like to incorporate beach into your vacations, SKIP Nice. Those are not cute small pebbles, but ankle-twisting, sliding-from-underneath-your-limbs rocks.
Day 12 – Last day we headed to Cannes. Very similar to Nice with nice architecture, restaurants and hordes of tourists. One thing that Cannes have better than Nice is beach – pleasant sand. Otherwise there is not much to see or do. The theater where they host the famous Cannes movie festival is underwhelming.
All in all, I would recommend checking out small towns in French Riviera. They are easier to get to, have very nice, less crowded beaches, beautiful architecture, quality restaurants and small-town feel. You get the benefits without the hassle of the big city.
- Luminerre de camere art show.
- Verdon Gorge
- Lavender fields
- All the little towns.
- Provencial markets
- Luminerre de camere art show
- Lavender fields
I recommend renting a car for Provence and the country side in general. Roads are easy to navigate, not too crowded and you’ll see much more than relying on public transportation.
Use a combination of trains, busses and uber to navigate French Riviera. It’s dense and parking is hard to find; who needs that headache on a vacation. Uber is cheaper that the regular taxi but you’ll need to wait for a bit longer than you’re accustomed in the U.S.
I’m usually a big fan of Airbnb, but what I noticed that a lot of times Airbnbs in France didn’t include sheets/towels/etc. Not necessarily all of them, but a lot of them. For that reason we went with booking hotels through www.booking.com.
120-140 euros buy you basics, and by basics I mean closer to a pension-style accommodations resembling the life of little “Annie” than Courtyard Marriott.
As I mentioned earlier, chambres d’hotes is a less expensive and a nicer alternative to in-town hotels. These are usually redone farmhouses outside of big towns offering more value for a buck and easier access to your destinations as you don’t have to worry about parking and driving in and out of the city.
French are very particular about when they are eating. Breakfast is easy to navigate, but lunch.. If you don’t make it in for lunch between 12 and 2p.m. you are out of luck. A lot of restaurants serve lunch strictly in that time slot and if you show up at 1:55 p.m., you may be turned down. Look for restaurants that say “all day service.” Those tend to be more touristic with an ok food but at least you’ll get food. Dinner is not served before 7 p.m. Otherwise, you can lounge at the bistros and cafes with a drink or coffee for hours and no one will rush you out. If you want to experience the best of French cuisine, I recommend checking www.culturetrip.com for restaurant recommendations but do it couple days in advance as French are serious about planning their meals and you won’t get it without reservations.
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