A roadtrip in Provence

The familiar rows of shady plane trees and the chalky blue sky of Provence that I missed so much.

One of the many places I call home is Provence. I studied abroad 6 years ago in Aix-en-Provence and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The warm people (and weather), the carefree lifestyle, the familiar mediterranean landscape that sometimes tricked me into thinking I was in San Diego where I grew up; it’s a place that will always have a hold on my heart. I haven’t been back since I lived there in 2007, so I was beyond excited to go back with my parents at the end of their 3 week trip.

We went on a week-long road trip across most of Provence, covering the Côte d’Azur, the Bouches-du-Rhône, the Var and the Vaucluse, missing only the Alps region. In this post, I will give a brief description of each town we visited, where we ate and what hotel we stayed in if we spent the night there. Keep in mind this wasn’t necessarily a budget trip as I was travelling with my generous parents, so if you’re on a budget you may need to check out some more affordable hotels and restaurants. Without further ado, our week in Provence…

Day 1: Arrived at the airport just outside of Marseille. While the Vieux Port de Marseille is quaint and boasts a plethora of restaurants specializing in delicious moules frites and bouillabaisse (fish stew), we had all seen it before and decided it was best to avoid the congestion of France’s 2nd largest city, so we headed straight to Arles. On our way to Arles, I just stared out the window, soaking up the landscapes of Provence which are so dear to my heart. The white blue sky, the fields of lavender, the rows of cherry trees, the sun so bright it bleeds into everything.

Arles Arles was possibly the most pleasant surprise of the trip. It was our first stop, and probably my favorite town of all those we visited. While its’ well-preserved Roman forum and amphitheatre are amazing, the real treat is the sheer picturesqueness of the houses and winding streets, which are tiny even by French standards. Warning: Be careful driving in the center of town…we had some tense moments where we thought the rental car might be irreversibly stuck. My dad shared many choice words with the GPS…

Eat at: Le Criquet. Traditional style Provençal food with a super cute atmosphere.

Super cute street, super delicious foodThe first pastis of many on that trip. That is a full-size glass…

Sleep at: Hotel le Calendal. Located right in the heart of the historic center. Great, friendly staff.

Visit: Les Alyscamps. A 10 minute walk from the center of town, this ancient Roman cemetery is well worth a visit.

Day 2: We had a lazy morning in Arles, and after some mishaps with confusing directions and narrow streets, made it safely out of the small city and drove the short distance to Nimes. We drove by fruitstand after fruitstand advertising local cherries and melons and finally when we could stand it no longer pulled over to sample the goods. We snacked on fruit and bread and cheese for lunch…my favorite kind of meal.

Nimes is one of the bigger cities in Provence. If you’re a Roman history buff, don’t miss it as it has a well-preserved Roman ampitheater, the best preserved Roman temple in the world and many other Roman sites. If you’re not a history buff, I’d say you can skip Nimes. We weren’t too charmed by the city itself, found it to be much too crowded and were dissapointed by the very overpriced visit of the ampitheater.      

We quickly hit the main sites of Nimes and headed back out into the countryside to ogle the landscape and scoop up some more cherries and melons on our way to the nearby Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.

The cherries and melons of Provence cannot be beat.

Pont du Gard If you’re anywhere near this spot, it’s a must. It costs 18 euro to park and enter, but it is so worth it. It’s located on protected grounds where you can hike, swim and camp and has a really nice museum with all the information you could ever want concerning the Pont du Gard’s history and construction. It’s so crazy to stand at the foot of this stone behemoth and imagine the water rushing through it to fill the needs of the urban Romans.

The Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct which supplied Nimes with water during Roman rule

The river which runs underneath the Pont du Gard

Ancient  Latin graffiti chiseled in by repair workers

Tired out from all the walking we did at the Pont du Gard under the hot heat of the Provençal sun, we piled into the car and headed to Avignon.

Avignon

The famous Pont d’Avignon

We arrived in Avignon later that night and settled into a hotel just outside the ramparts of the city. We wandered into town in search of dinner and stumbled upon a tartine restaurant called  Ginette et Marcel. It looked very familiar and it didn’t take me long to realize that this is the original L’Epicerie. Ginette et Marcel has an almost indentical menu, with slight regional variations (cold gazpacho soup as opposed to hot onion soup for example). We had a lovely meal of soup, salad and tartines in the middle of a giant, bustling square.

Ginette et Marcel in Avignon, the sister restaurant of L’Epicerie in Rennes.

After our meal we stumbled through our exhaustion back to our hotel to get a good night’s rest before the next day’s  exploration of Avignon.

Day 3: I had been to Avignon once before on a miserable day when it was dumping down rain. I don’t remember loving the city too much, so I was pleasantly surprised when Avignon redeemed itself in my eyes with its’ sweeping views and quaint courtyards. Last time I had escaped the rain by exploring the Palais des Papes (Pope’s Palace), which in all truth I found to be a bit boring, but this time we spent our time outside hiking up from the river to the park and exploring the meandering streets of the ancient quarter.

Eat at: Ginette et Marcel. Tartines. Low prices, great outdoor seating.

Sleep at: Hotel Saint Roch. Just outside the walled city, has a nice courtyard and budget price for the generous room size.

Visit: Rocher des Doms, the park located atop the city, overlooking the river and the Pont d’Avignon. We hiked up to the park from the river, enjoying the amazing view as we worked off our lunch.

Two little boys enjoying the fountains at the Rocher des Doms

After a full day exploring Avignon we headed to the small market town L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. We arrived just in time to have a dinner of bread, cheese, olives and wine on the hotel terrace, soaking up the impeccable Provençal weather.

Day 4: L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a small town best known for its antique markets and epic Sunday market. Once a week the whole town turns itself inside out and transforms into one giant marketplace. All along the canal, in every little alley street, there are stalls with vendors proposing baskets, pottery, handmade quilts, lotions and soaps, tapestry, antiques…everything the heart could desire. And the food vendors…offering up samples of olives glistening like jewels, tapenades of so many varieties, fresh produce bursting with color and taste, handmade focaccia, bread and pastries, and of course, cheese galore. You haven’t lived until you’ve had goat cheese from the South of France. Prepare yourself though, you’ll never see a market this crowded. It is difficult and expensive to find parking. We were lucky we were staying in a hotel in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue which offered parking for its guests (in a parking lot that was highly guarded to ward off market visitors poaching the guest spots).

Eat at: The Sunday market!

Sleep at: Hotel les Nevons. Modern hotel with big rooms and terraces.

After quickly exploring the market (we could’ve stayed all day, but had a lot of ground to cover that day) we hopped in the car, driving past the poor, unfortunate souls who were trying to find parking, and headed on to the next small town.

Fontaine de Vaucluse is one of the villages I visited as a student which stands out sharply in my memories. It’s an amazing village perched on either side of the emerald green Sorgue River. The town follows the river up in a snakelike curve into the cliffs above, where the path ends at the bright blue pond which is the underground source of the river. It’s such a unique place that I think pictures will do a better job describing it than I could.

     The base of the quaint village of Fontaine de Vaucluse, the rest of it winds up into the nearby cliffs along the Sorgue.                                                                 The River Sorgue                                                                          The cliffs hovering above Fontaine de Vaucluse.     There was a kayak race that day on the River Sorgue.                  The source of the Sorgue, which flow up from a deep underground river. During heavy rains, the source connects to the river below. Throughout most of the year, the river starts beneath the rocks that separate it from its source.

The source when I visited it as a student 6 years ago. You can tell the rain has been heavier this year, the water level is much higher now.

After a magical morning in Fontaine de Vaculuse, we hopped in the car and drove up into the windy hills above. We drove with the windows down, popping cherry after cherry into our mouths. We enjoyed the varying landscapes as they flashed by: valley below to hilltop village above, olive grove to lavender fields, ancient Roman ruins to ordered rows of grape vines. The weather was perfect, of course, and we saw more than one beautiful Provençal manor which beckoned us to drop everything and pick-up and move to Provence.                                                                       

The hilltop medieval village Gordes

After a beautiful hour long drive, we arrived in Roussillon, another village which had made its mark in my memory during my travels as a student.

Roussillon is yet another Provençal hilltop village, but what makes it unique is its deep rusty color. The hills and canyons surrounding the village are made of ochre, and as the buildings were made from this soil, the entire city is a burnt crimson color. Because it is so beautiful, it’s still worth a visit despite the rampant tourists that fill it year-round.  

From Roussillon we headed down the harrowing switch backs to my old stomping grounds, Aix-en-Provence.

Aix-en-Provence is the center of rural Provence. It is surrounded by countryside, lavender fields, soap and perfume factories and quaint villages, many of which we visited or merely glanced at as we drove by. They all start to bleed into one another. Besides Marseille, which is about half an hour from Aix on the coast, it’s by far the largest city around, making it a lively hub. It is a university town, full of chic students from all over France and the world. It’s rather well-to-do and gets a lot of tourist action. A lot of Parisians have their pied-a-terre (holiday home) in Aix making it a comical melange of born and bred Provençal folk and Parisians: natural enemies.

I lived a charmed life here 6 years ago, in a gorgeous apartment at the top of the Cours Mirabeau. I had French friends (yes, actual French friends, my own age!) and American friends, friends who I will keep for life. I had the time of my life in Aix with these friends. Therefore, I’ve always been a bit hesitant to go back. It could never be as good as it had been then, so why bother?

The Cours Mirabeau, the grand tree-lined boulevard that runs through the center of Aix, dissecting the “old” city from the “new” city. These are relative terms as the new city was constructed starting in the 18th century.

In front of the old digs

Of course, we were in the area so we had to go. My parents had also never spent much time there and wanted to get to know they city I had called home. So, I faced my doubts and ended up having a good time. Though it was bittersweet, as expected. Sometimes I felt as if I was walking through a ghost town. Almost everything was still there just as it had been, with the exception of my favorite bakery. The same bars, restaurants, lively markets and squares. But my life there was gone. My friends were all gone, even the French ones. We walked by my old apartment and I wondered who’s living there now? We retraced my old route to school,  ate at my favorite Greek restaurant where my roommate and I used to have date night when we felt like splurging. We walked by the cafe where I used to sip café, rosé or pastis with my friends. We bought chocolate and wine at the market where I used to get all my staples.

Bar Carrefour (the Crossroads), where it all used to go down.

We ended up spending 2 nights in Aix because the hotel was so comfortable and had such an amazing terrace for eating impromptu dinners of bread and cheese, sipping wine and watching sunsets. At that point we had been moving to a new place every night, going, going, going all day and we decided we needed to stay in one place and take it slow for a couple of days. Besides, there is so much to do in Aix. We went to Cezanne’s studio, the Cathedral, visited my old haunts and mostly just walked around and ate on sunny patios.

Sunset view from the terrace at the hotel

Aix means water in Roman. There are natural springs abound there so the city is chock-full of fountains of all shapes and sizes.

One of the many fountains in Aix, this one smack dab in the center of the Cours Mirabeau

Eat at: Edykos Greek and Armenian Restaurant. Rather pricey for the serving size, but so delicious and fresh. Order lots of small plates to create your own mezze platter. Sit on the patio and enjoy some Greek resin wine.

Sleep at: Hotel du Globe. As mentioned earlier, this place has an epic rooftop terrace. The rooms are super clean and modern, the staff really professional and helpful and the location just outside the city center is ideal.

Visit: Atelier Cezanne. See the artist’s studio as it was when he left it.

Day 5: On the way from Aix to Nice we took the windy road out to the coast to visit Cassis. We had an amazing pizza lunch and enjoyed walking along the port, slurping some gelato and dipping our toes in the Mediterranean during a beach walk.

Old people playing pétanque or boules, a very typical sight in Southern France. It’s a game which sort of ressembles bocce ball.

Eat at: La PlacePizzeria. Typical South France Pizza – minimal, high-quality ingredients on a super thin crust.

A refreshing salad from la Place that shows off traditional Provence fare.

After a very long drive, grâce au festival Cannes, we arrived in Nice. To be honest, I hadn’t been looking forward to going to Nice much, and was a bit disappointed that we would be spending 2 nights there. I had been to Nice 4 times and don’t remember loving it enough to want to go back. Of course the old town is quaint and the view of the city and the ocean and port is gorgeous from the bluffs up above, but I didn’t feel a particular need to see all that again. I would’ve preferred to see something new. What a spoiled brat I am, I know. But I can gladly report that Nice was redeemed in my eyes (that was a theme this trip). The construction that had been going on for years has finally stopped and the city is left looking sparkling and new, and much more vibrant than I remember. We also strayed off the beaten path more this time, which always helps.                                                 

Eat at: La Maison de la Pizza. A bit touristy but has a good atmosphere and really good pizza. It’s in a lively square and has a fun atmosphere.                                                                                            La Maison de Marie. A bit pricey, but so worth the cost. It’s tucked away on a side street off the main pedestrian drag and has an amazing terrace surrounded by creeping wisteria vines and twinkling lights. The food is old school Provençal cuisine done simply and deliciously.

Sleep at: Hotel Les Cigalles. So this is funny: we stayed here once 6 years ago and ended up accidentally staying in the same place. I guess their advertising is effective. Had a great stay both times and loved the rooftop terrace. Ideally located right by main pedestrian street and a 15 minute walk from the historic center.

Visit: The antique, produce and flower markets on Cours Saleya, all on varying days.

Phew, if you’re still there you have stamina. That was a long post. But I had to do my marvelous trip to Provence justice. Thanks once again to my Mom and Dad for making it possible. I hope everyone reading this has the opportunity to visit Provence one day, if you haven’t already.

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4 Responses to A roadtrip in Provence

  1. YemenEmily says:

    Thanks for the great post! I’m planning a road trip through Provence in a few months and this was super helpful (and got me very, very excited for the trip).

    • caelycate says:

      You’re very welcome Emily, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful. That’s why I did it! I’m very jealous of your approaching trip to Provence, it’s one of my favorite places in the world! Have a wonderful time and please don’t hesitate if you have any questions.

      Bon voyage!

  2. Lauren says:

    Awesome post! We have recently moved to Lyon from South Africa and have hired a car for the weekend…where would you recommend going for 2 days? Avignon and Aix? I would love to hear your suggestions, thanks, Lauren

    • caelycate says:

      Thanks Lauren. Wow, Lyon! Oh my gosh, the food is so amazing there!!! I haven’t been there since I was 12, and I dream of going back. For 2 days in Provence I would definitely recommend one night in Aix and one night in Avignon. That way you could visit some of the smaller places around and between those two rather bigger towns such as Arles, the Pont du Gard, and L’Isle sur la Sorgue (great for the Sunday market, but be warned, it will be VERY busy and difficult to find parking). Bon voyage!

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