Both Provence and the Riviera are regions to experience rather than “see”; Life moves slowly in the South of France, and hasty sightseeing cuts again the grain of daily life. With so many compelling small towns and villages, you maybe tempted to visit them all, but if you rush and just go, go , go you will definitely miss the true essence of the place. Here are a few ideas to help you appreciate and enrich your time and travels.
Allow for some down time.
Don’t cram your days full of activities. Build enough time to slow down and experience the smells of lavender, enjoy a hearty lunch to slowly savor the wine, flavors and take in the view. The simple experiences can become the best to remember while visiting Provence. Always plan ahead what you want to do that day and you can always add more activities in the same area.
Take distance into account.
Provence and the Riviera are as easy to traverse as a small US state. Under normal conditions you can drive between many of the region’s most popular stops in less than an hour. If there is a lot of traffic it will be very different especially for towns far from the highway – it will take much longer to reach during peak hours. Also if you visit in summer or around school vacations you can add at least 30 minutes extra onto estimated drive times, even longer on the Cote D’Azur. Roads are very well maintained and signs posted but it is always good to have a map with you.
Time your visit right.
It is always good to be organized and if you have had the life-long dream to visit lavender fields, they bloom in July & August. If you want to experience the true , authentic Provence, do not go during the summer time, skip it and go in March, April, May or in the Fall ( September & October are still warm in Provence). The hoards of tourists will kill the experience. I recommend February for the Riviera and you can Menton‘s lemon festival and Nice’s Carnaval brighten the streets. La fete des Gardians ( Camargue‘s cowboys)in April.
Decide to hotel-hop or stay in one place.
Most of the region’s popular spots are near one another. Choosing a base for your trip and exploring the surrounding area on your day trips , you will save a lot of time in terms of packing, unpacking and staying in the next place. Avignon, St-Remy, Les Baux, Nimes and Arles are very close, it is best to bed down in one place. Nice is also a good place for a stop if you want to explore Menton, Monaco and the small coastal villages around Cagnes and St-Paul -de- Vence. A good place to stay put in one place is to rent a self catering, gite or farmhouse, from which you can visit the region and you can definitely go at your own pace.
You can plan your day trip around lunch.
If you are driving from town to town, it is best to arrive before lunch time. Most of the restaurants serve from noon until 2 pm or 2:30 pm , sharp. Also remember that most shops close at noon for the midday meal. If you find it too restrictive you can pack your lunch and stop somewhere for a picnic under the Provencal sun.
Plot your point of entry and means of transport there.
Provence has small airports in Marseille, Nimes and Nice. There are also international and direct flights ,( such as New York -Nice). Most visitors to the region fly to Charles de Gaulle or Orly airports & then a flight from Paris to Nice‘s airport which is practically in the town center and receives daily flights from Paris and other European cities. The quickest and easiest way to access Provence is to climb aboard the high speed train ( the TGV). Avignon is 2 hours, Aix en Provence 2 1/2 and Marseille little bit under 3 hours. You can rent cars at all region’s airports and train stations. If you want to drive from Paris to , the main autoroutes are the A6, A7 and A8. I would say 6 hours to Avignon from Paris, 8 for Marseille and up to 10 for Nice.
Within a 30- minute drive of the glamour and glitz of St Tropez, you can be on a rugged mountainside so remote that you dread nightfall. That’s the true beauty and charm of the Var – A mix of easy life and a harsh landscape. In the Verdon gorges and the upper part of Var, nature is wild and very imposing; Down below, beach resorts and casinos. The Provencal say is to “let time take its time” and it really unites the all region. No wonder that this is the favorite of French holiday regions.
Which sights to visit.
Abbaye du Thoronet, Le Thoronet. The magnificent and majestic structure is the eldest of the three Cistercian sisters. Built in 1175, the cloister with its massive arcades of reddish stone, is open to the sky, and the cruciform church is famous for its remarkable acoustics. one room of this abbey houses 25 painted statues: some original,some replicas, but all beautiful.
Le Massif de L’Esterel. The red- clay massif turns alongside the corniche. extends inland and culminates in the 2,020 ft high Mont Vinaigre. Firetrails, lined with pine and broom, lead to Cap Roux where sea and mountains converge.
Bormes Les Mimosas. The mimosa from which the village takes its name was brought as seeds from Mexico in the days of Napoleon III. The quaint Medieval village, with its covered walkways underneath the houses, has the highest density of these flowers anywhere in France.
Basilica St Maximin, St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume. One of the finest Gothic architecture was built to house the relics of Mary Magdalene, discovered on the site in 1280. The basilica appears unfinished from the outside but when you go within there is a powerful sense of balance that is stunning. So are the treasures, notably a 16th-century altarpiece depicting the passion and a renowned 17th-century organ. Mary Magdalene’s remains are in a marble sarcophagus in the crypt.
The Caves , Villecroze. They first were home to prehistoric people, and later provided shelter against marauding Saracens. There is a cave on the north side of the village , transformed by a 16th-century nobleman into a fortified , four-storey house. The staircases and windows cut out of the stone can still be seen. A spring within the caves creates a cascade which waters gardens below. ( see picture).
We are happy to announce that our Thanksgiving tour sold out!.
I had a problem publishing and will re-write my article tomorrow.Sorry for the inconvenience.