Before Paris, before Normandy, there was Provence, Nice and Monaco. Though it was still spring, we really wanted to experience the warmth of the south of France before the chilly winds of Normandy and the dampness of Paris. We rented a car and headed south, stopping first at the Palace of Fontainebleau, where Roger’s dad was stationed during WWII. Then on to Macon for much needed sleep and at last…Provence.
Provence is the much beloved hill country with charming villages, delicious market days, exceptional food and wines and more locals than tourists. The idyllic laid back lifestyle has been written about extensively. Peter Mayle’s, A Year in Provence is an Englishman’s delightful look at the French people of Provence. It’s a must-read if you plan to much spend time here.
3 Places to Go
It’s tough to narrow down where to go, which villages will fit your imagination about French country life. We chose based on our interest in history.
Theatre Antique is the oldest Roman theater with a stage back wall still being used today. As Rome conquered more and more territory, the first thing they did was build a theater, a forum and an arena… to show authority of Caesar and spread Roman propaganda. Although repairs are constant, the theater boasts a 2000 year old solid backdrop that supports theater and concerts. The acoustics are remarkable as you can stand in the middle of the stage and hear clearly all the way to the back row. We noticed several school children on field trips visiting the theater as part of their history classes. How awesome! I enjoyed sitting in the seats imagining what it would have been like back in the day. The noble and wealthy sat in the front half of the rows, the poor in the back. Cost is 10 euro. Hours: 9:00-6:00, check hours depending on time of year. Thursday is market day in Orange’. www.theatre-antique.com
Le Mistral – We noticed the chilly wind whistling, then viciously howling as we fought our way from the theater to a relaxing pizza lunch across the street. After reading and researching the famed le mistral, we realized the 30-60mph wind could last up to three weeks. Mercy!
+1 Day Trip – Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard is a magnificent, must see, intact Roman aqueduct built around 19 B.C. You drive southwest of Orange’ for 22 miles, about 30 minutes on D-981, follow the signs and end up at Pont du Gard. There is a helpful information center and a great museum that explains just how an aqueduct works and why they were necessary. Hint: It’s all about the water supply. Then take the walk over to the Gardon River and feast your eyes on Pont du Gard. The bridge is the largest built over the 30 mile aqueduct and it is in wonderful condition. Take photos, walk across and think of the Romans. It is possible to hike up above the aqueduct for a top-down view. It’s astonishing that this is so well-preserved. Definitely worth the side trip! Cost: 18 euros per car, not person. Hours: 9:00-7:00 or 8:00 pm in summer for the museum, but the parking lot and aqueduct is open until 10:00 pm or even 12:00 am in summer (check the website depending on the time of year) and costs 10 euro per car if you go after the museum closes. Worth seeing lit up at night. www.pontdugard.fr
Arles is our “go to” place in Provence. There is so much going on in Arles that you get a true flavor of the region, lots of history, tons of Van Gogh, Roman Arena and Roman ruins, outdoor markets and even bullfights. Vincent Van Gogh lived in Arles during the last part of his life, the cutting off his ear part. His paintings capture Arles. You can take a self-guided tour of many of the places where Van Gogh painted, each is marked by a print of a painting and its description. You’ll find these all over town center. We like to do this walking tour because not only do we see where Van Gogh painted, but we see Roman ruins and other historical sites along the way. Attend a bullfight if you dare.
+ 1 Day Trip –Camargue Regional Nature Park
Pink flamingos and wild horses. Gosh! We’ve been to France several times, but had never heard of this little day trip just outside of Arles. You can drive or bike down to the swamp lands south of Arles and literally muck around checking out the breeding grounds of hundreds of pink flamingos. Its a nature and wildlife dream. On your way, if you’re lucky, you’ll see small herds of large white wild horses. Sometimes the horses are captured by farmers in the area for domestic use. We stopped along the side of the road and a couple of horses trotted over to our car looking for munchies. The combination of large numbers of pink flamingos in the wild and the thrill of spotting wild horses makes for an exciting day away from cities and people. Bring along a picnic lunch and maybe some mosquito repellent. Enjoy the day!
If you are driving to Nice from Arles or vice versa, try stopping at St. Maximin for breakfast or lunch. There is a great produce market/bakery, Marie Blachere St Maximin, not far from the highway.
We always love local stops for food while traveling.
Nice is the most famous French getaway. There are wealthy people driving Lamborghini’s, Maserati’s etc., a lovely long boardwalk called the Promenade with the pebbly beach on one side and large, fancy hotels on the other. The architecture is iconic, especially the famous and luxurious, Hotel Le Negresco built in 1912. What a fabulous area for people watching, looking out at the ocean or taking a peaceful sunset stroll. The town of Nice is filled with outdoor cafe’s and expensive shops. Bring your walking shoes, you won’t be sorry.
The highlight of Nice for us was definitely the Chagall Museum (Musee National
Marc Chagall). This museum is a real treat for those who love the bright colors and dynamic movement of Chagall’s art. He helped design this museum and even painted specifically for the museum from 1954-1967. The museum chronicles Chagall’s life and various periods of art including his interpretation of several Biblical stories. This is a must-see! Cost: 8 euro and includes audio guide. Open: Wed-Mon 10:00-6:00. http://en.musee-naitonaux-alpesmaritimes.fr
+1 Day Trip –Monaco
Don’t miss Monaco! Yes, definitely go there! The drive from Nice to Monaco is like a live action postcard, each turn offers another gorgeous view. There are 3 roads (corniches) that will take you there, each with their own pluses. This time we chose the Middle Corniche road known for its unbelievable views and scenic pull offs. Take time to stop, take pictures and gasp at the sea, sand and gorgeous coastline. Monaco is touristy for sure, but it is also full of surprises. The rich and famous are packed in tightly. Parking can be tough, as we’re talking 3/4 of a square mile total for the entire country. The Monte Carlo Casino is a highlight for the gambling crowd, but you must be dressed appropriately just to get into the lobby. We drove by, but elected to see the other sites of Monaco and leave the casino for another time.
Try the small underground lot right across from the aquarium. It is a strategic location for spending the day in Monaco. It is on a high point of the city so walking will be doable. If you park by the water, you’ll likely be walking hills most of your day.
Cousteau Aquarium (Musee Oceanographique)
This world class aquarium was built by Prince Albert 1 in 1910 and Jacques Cousteau was head of it for 32
years. The aquarium manages to capture more than the 250 species of fish. It looks at the long history of maritime memorabilia from Abert’s for the sea. The bottom floor features a large aquarium of sea life and educational facts about fish and crustaceans while the main and upper floors exhibit the history of mariners’ artifacts and educates its visitors to the sizes and sounds of whales and other sea creatures. Even the gift shop is full of brightly colored books, t-shirts and souvenirs that begged to be purchased. So fun! Cost: 14 euro includes audio guide. The best deal is the 19 euro combo-ticket for both the Cousteau Aquarium and the Prince’s Palace. Open: 10:00-7:00 Apr-Sept, 10:00-6:00 Oct-Mar. www.oceano.me
Prince’s Palace (Palais Princier)
A walk through of the palace is very special, especially if you are a fan of Grace Kelly. There are several lovely paintings of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier and the family. The palace is still used as family quarters, offices, receiving rooms and meeting rooms. You’ll hear lots of information through the free audio guides. I enjoyed the experience and tried to imagine how it would be to live and rule in such a small, but important country. Outside the palace is a gift shop where you can buy the only stamps of Monaco in the world. Cost: 8 euro with the audio guide included. The best deal is the 19 euro combo-ticket for both the Cousteau Aquarium and the Prince’s Palace. Open: Apr-Oct 10:00-6:00, closed Nov-Mar
After the palace, take a walk around the town and experience all the fabulous views and photo ops. Find the Cathedral of Monaco (Cathedrale de Monaco) where Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier were married and where they are both buried. Open: 8:30-7:15 daily. There are gardens and shops and walk by as you loop around back toward your fabulous parking spot across from the aquarium. What a fabulous time!
We chose not to go down and walk around the many marinas, but that is a great option if you love checking out the lavish yachts.
The world famous Monte Carlo Casino (Casino-de Monte Carlo) is open for gaming from 2:0o pm on. www.montecarlocasinos.com
3 Places to Eat
We only had lunch in Orange’ and elected to eat at the La Cremerie’ Cafe across the street from the Ancient Theatre. Splitting a pizza and lemon curd was just perfect as we needed time to relax and regroup after the ancient theater and the wind.
Staying in Arles and doing the walking tour brought us by several good restaurants, but my favorite was Hotel le Calendal. You order either eat in or take out as you enter the restaurant. We ate in the cafe’, having a yummy hot lunch and sandwiches. The bread was excellent, the atmosphere pleasant and relaxing. Open: 8:00-7:00. 5 Rue Porte de Laure near the Roman Arena.
Creperie Chez Mam Goz Try this crepe shop near the ruins. They specialize in both savory and sweet crepes. 18 Rue Porte de Laure
Glacier Arelatis This wonderful ice cream shop in city center is organic, no processed ingredients. You can sit in the town square, enjoy your ice cream, people watch and look across the street where Van Gogh painted his famous painting, The Cafe Terrace at Night. 9 Rue du Dr Fanton
Rue Biscarra Bistros. There are tons of eating places in Nice. Most will set you back lots of cash. Our best bet was the row of outdoor/indoor cafes on the east of Avenue Jean Medecin behind Nice Etole shopping mall. Closed Sun. There are scads of locals mixed with some tourists and the food/wine is very nice.
Buffalo Grill Restaurant. This is an inexpensive steak place that comes with salad, side and dessert. It can hit the spot on more than one occasion as you will see them all over France. It reminded us of a cross between Texas Roadhouse and Denny’s in the USA. Good, fairly priced, but not necessarily exceptional. 6 avenue des Phoceens
Eat at the restaurant on top of the aquarium. The food is very good and the view is spectacular. It will also save loads of time if you are planning to do Monaco in a day.
If you save Starbucks mugs, the Monaco mug can only be purchased in the one Starbucks shop on 1 Rue de la Colle. You know who you are…
1 Place to Stay
Hotel Regence. Its all about location, location, location. You can park next to the boardwalk on the river’s edge and walk across the street. The small, but updated rooms offer lots of flexibility while visiting Arles. You really never have to move your car. The Van Gogh self-guided walking tour begins very close to this hotel and within the old part of city centre. You can have breakfast at the hotel and get an early start to the day. You can walk to restaurants, the arena, the Roman ruins and shops. 5 Rue Marius Jouveau. www.hotel-regence.com
Le Meridian on the Promenade. Again, the location is great right across the street from the boardwalk and the beach. You can walk into city center from here and catch a tram or bus to the Chagall Museum or even a hill town. The rooms are typical Marriott. There is a pool, fitness center and spa available. 1 Promenade des Anglais. http://www.lemeridiennice.com/
As you can tell, I’m a huge fan of the south of France. I could spend months in Provence alone. How about you? Time to go for it, make your plans and see the world. Start with France. You’ll love it!