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Southern France -Sept 2015

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My wife and I are planning to take 2 month car holiday through southern France, Spain and Portugal in September and October 2015. We will fly into Geneva and would like to visit these places in France - Geneva, Chamonix, La Ciotat, Roquesteron, Saint Etienne-du-Gres, Carcassonne and Viey. At least 4 weeks will be spent in France.
Before we begin our planning and research in earnest, we would like to hear the advice of others. We are interested in hearing about where to stay, for how long, what to do and see, roads to take, anything that may enhance our experience. At this stage our planning is totally open with absolutely nothing set.
Our thanks in advance.
Con80

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    We've been to all the areas/places you've mentioned anywhere from 2 weeks to 20 weeks. I'm curious as to why you mentioned some places that are quite small - but close to major/popular areas - like St Etienne-du-Gris/Provence, Roquesteron/Nice Hinterland, Viey/Haute Pyrenees. Do you already have accommodations selected?.

    We spent 2 weeks on Lake Annecy - and Geneva kinda left us cold. Would you consider staying on Lake Annecy instead of Geneva?

    We've driven by La Ciotat many time going/coming from Cassis & St Tropez. Why there? From a distance, it seemed a little "industrial" to us.

    Why Carcassonne??? It is a great place for a 3 hr visit - but it is close by, but too far away for a day trip into the Lot area, the Dordogne, and perhaps southern Roussillon - which are all very popular destinations.

    I'm going to be quite busy for the next couple of days with Christmas stuff & such - so I won't have much time to give you more detailed info.

    Perhaps e-mail me at StuDudley@aol.com and ask for my;
    - Provence & Cote d'Azur itinerary (35 pages) - we've spent 40 weeks in these areas
    - Languedoc/Roussillon (35 pages) - 10 weeks there
    - Dordogne (20 pages) - 10 weeks there
    - Annecy Short - for a friend) - 2 weeks there.
    - Haute Pyrenees - 2 weeks there - but no detailed itinerary. Just my own "plan".

    Stu Dudley

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    You seem to know your general itinerary. The Michelin Green Guide for the Provence and the one for the Languedoc offer you the possibilities that exist along that route. Michelin also has guides for Spain and Portugal.

    If you credit card will carry the CDW rent a car for the first four weeks (one month is the maximum coverage, but it can be repeated for the second half of the trip), making sure that you rent it on the French side of the Geneva airport to avoid a stiff cross-border drop-off fee, and return the car in France before taking public transportation to the next town in Spain. Check out Autoeurope.com or Kemwel for car rentals, using the basic rate if your credit card will cover the CDW.

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    I just sent you all the itineraries I mentioned above. Read them and let me know if you want to substitute the Dordogne for the Carcassonne area. The complete itinerary "I have in mind" for you includes a 3 hr visit to Carcassonne on the way from Provence to the Dordogne.

    Stu Dudley

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    StuDudley
    Thank you for your emails - they are extremely useful and already we began making changes. Yes, we will substitute Dordogne for Carcassonne. Your complete itinerary would be much appreciated.

    Michael
    We'll look in to those guides you recommended. We are aware of the expenses associated with the drop-offs of French cars in other countries. Initially we had planned to drop off the car in Lisbon but the cost was high. I think at this stage we'll pick it up in Geneva, holiday through to Portugal, and then make a hurried return to Nice before flying out home.

    Annhig
    Thanks. We'll definitely look into the Cadogan guides.

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    Con60,

    See if splitting your rental reduces the cross-border fee. Rent one car for France and drop it off close to the Spanish border, cross the border and rent the other one. The fee for dropping a Spanish rental in Portugal may be much lower, or the drive back to Madrid to catch the flight home would be less strenuous.

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    Con60.

    Are you willing to stay in Annecy instead of Geneva, with a day-trip to Mt Blanc? Mt Blanc's weather is iffy. If you stayed for 5 nights in the Annecy area, you could wait until the weather is perfect on Mt Blanc & dash over there when it is. It's only 1 1/4 hrs away from Annecy. Lots of stuff to do around Annecy while you wait until the weather is perfect on Mt Blanc. Not so much stuff to do around Chamonix, IMO.

    Stu Dudley

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    I wrote a photo report about my two week vacation on the Lac d'Annecy if you want to look it over for tips:

    http://tinyurl.com/k9y7s9w

    Other than that I can give you some general tips about traveling and researching a vacation in France:

    Get your hands on the Michelin maps. You want the ones of the scale 1:200,000 (regional maps) or 1:150,000 (departmental maps, more detailed, cover slightly less area) for whatever regions you visit. A nice feature of the 1:150,000 maps is they show the starred attractions in the corresponding Michelin Green guidebooks. The Michelin maps have icons for all kinds of historically/touristically interesting things such as châteaux, ruins, churches, abbeys, scenic view points, caves, Roman sites, megaliths, designated scenic roads and many other things.

    Usually when I'm exploring various regions in France I just look at the map and I am able to plan interesting and scenic drives just reading the map. For instance, I usually look for a designated scenic road, which are highlighted in green, and I especially look for towns with the historic church and/or château icon. With the departmental maps also look for towns/sites/attractions that have been give one or more Michelin stars. I also try to make sure the route goes through as many small villages as possible. Usually putting all these things together I find interesting and scenic drives without even knowing where I am going and with no assistance from a guide book. Often these places are never mentioned in guidebooks and remain completely unknown to many tourists.

    You can buy the Michelin maps from their website and here is a link to the page that shows you the 1:200,000 scale maps of France (Regional maps):
    http://tinyurl.com/4bt96ev

    And here is a link to the page that shows you the 1:150,000 scale maps of France (Départementale maps):
    http://tinyurl.com/6mt4n64

    You could also buy them here but then you can't do research beforehand. The maps can be bought in many places such as bookstores, news stands, magazine stores, larger supermarkets, department stores, hypermarkets and in the full service rest areas on the autoroutes, just to name a few. If you're going to be traveling all over France you may find it easier to buy the Michelin Atlas, which covers all of France.

    You need good guidebooks for whatever region in France in which you will be traveling. I like The Michelin Green Guides. If you need restaurant info then get The Michelin Red Guides, which cover restaurants.

    And speaking of Michelin, you can go to the website viamichelin.com and get info on drive times and distances, toll and fuel costs and suggested routes (i.e. scenic routes). The drive times given do not consider stops (fuel, food, bathrooms) nor do they consider bad weather and bad traffic. I find the drive times very accurate when these factors are accounted for. The time estimates can break down when you are driving in congested urban areas, like in or near Paris, due to the unpredictability of heavy traffic or traffic jams. They can also be affected on peak travel days, specifically on autoroutes leading to/from popular destinations.

    You can acquaint yourself with rules of the road in France and road signs and such and this website will give you some useful tips:

    http://www.nickbooth.id.au/Tips/FrenchDrive.htm

    You can google the tourist office websites for any region, département, city , town or village you may want to visit. You will find loads of info on these websites including hotel/accommodation and restaurant info as well as what to see and do in the area. Occasionally the websites have English versions. In doing a google search enter the words "office de tourisme" followed by the name of your region, département, city, town or village and this will bring that place to the top of your search.

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    With such a long trip you might want to consider the auto lease program. Peugeot and Renault both have them I believe.

    This is the one we have used the past two years: http://autofrance.net/

    The drop off cost is pretty low when you drop in other countries. You just have to figure out whether the number make sense. We almost always rent for 4-5 month so it is much cheaper and much nicer-we can choose the model we want and it is fully insured. For shorter stays you might do better with regular rentals.

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    Here is my suggested itinerary. I also sent it to you via e-mail.

    Itinerary summary
    Arrive in Geneva
    Annecy 5 nights
    Roquesteron/Nice Hinterland 5 nights
    La Ciotat 2 nights
    St Etienne/Provence 5 nights
    Viey/Haute Pyrenees 4 nights
    St Cirq Lapopie 2 nights
    Sarlat/Dordogne 5 nights
    Toulouse or Paris 1 night
    Total 29 nights
    Fly home from Toulouse or Paris

    Standard warning about visiting cities & villages in France
    Almost all non-food shops will be closed on Sundays, and most will be closed on Monday morning also. Some will open Monday afternoon around 2:30. Villages that almost solely depend on tourism may have shops open Sunday & Monday. We never visit a large city (like Aix en Provence) on Sundays or Mondays. Annecy has a farmer’s market on Sunday – so some shops will be open in the area where the market is located (canal area), but most of the shops on the pedestrian shopping street will be closed.

    The word “Col” is used frequently. In France, a col is a mountain pass. The “highest” point on a mountain road where the road stops going up & starts going down. Often there are monuments, cafes, viewing platforms at cols.

    use www.viamichelin.com for estimating driving times.

    Itinerary

    Lake Annecy
    Get the Michelin Green Guide for the French Alps and also Michelin Map # 328

    Land in Geneve and pick up a rental car at a French office. Drive 45 mins to Annecy & stay there for 5 nights. I would either stay in Annecy itself, or on the east side of the lake in Talloires. Both locations have an adequate number of hotels & restaurants. We've stayed in Annecy for perhaps 5 nights and in a gite in Talloires for 2 weeks.

    The Annecy market is on Sunday morning– one of the best in France according to the GG, but we thought it was just OK

    Tours – in order of preference (roughly)

    Tour 1 – Mt Blanc*** – the tallest mountain in the Alps.
    This will be an all-day event, and only do it on a clear day. It will take about 1 ¼ hrs to get from Annecy to Chamonix – mostly using the freeway. Head north from Annecy, and catch the A41 heading east to Chamonix. There is really nothing of interest in the town of Chamonix – it is only a base for Mt Blanc. Take the two lifts up to the Aiguille du Midi*** . Also, take some other lifts – perhaps le Brevent***. If it overcast when you get to Chamonix, don’t go up & find something else to do.

    Tour 2 – do on clear day and get an early start (8-9am) so the sun won’t be in your face for the most scenic part..
    Take the N508 southeast from the south part of Lake Annecy. Go to Ugine. Take the D109 northeast from Ugine to Flumet. Now the most scenic part starts. Take the D909 northwest from Flumet over the Col des Aravis**. If you want to hike, the Col des Aravis wold be a good place for one. Just past the Col, take the D16 west through Manigod to Thones. Then back to Lake Annecy on the D909. Once on the lake, take the lake road clockwise. Stop & visit Talloires (it is on the east side of the lake). Then continue clockwise back to your Gite.

    Tour 3 – Route de la Forclaz*** Do this on a clear day and in the morning. It will only take a half-day
    Head southeast on the N508 again. Take the D42 (just past Doussard) north over the Col de la Forclaz. Stop at the Col for great views. Continue north & follow the road back to the lake. Head clockwise, and visit Talloires if you have not visited it yet. The views from the east side of the lake are better in the morning.

    Tour 4 – Visit Annecy in the AM
    Gorges du Fier** 9:15-5 www.gorgedufier.com
    The Semnoz**. Follow the route in the Green Guide

    Other things you might want to do:
    - Boat trip on the lake – but you can see everything from the shoreline.
    - Drive around the lake – but you will probably do this going & coming from your tours
    - Chateau de Menthon* close to Annecy We enjoyed this chateau. Nice views.

    Roquesteron in the beautiful Nice Hinterland

    Get Michelin Map # 115 and the Michelin Guide for the French Riviera. Also, see my itinerary for the Cote d'Azur for details on the following suggestions.

    It's a 6 hr drive from Annecy to Roquesteron, so get an early start. Take the A41 through Grenoble, then the A51 to the D1075 to Serres. Serres might be a good stop along the way. They have a nice Saturday morning market. Wander through town. Then continue on the D1075 and get of at Exit # 21 and follow the N85 throught Castellene, then the N202 to Entreveux (more on this town later), and then down to Roquesteron.

    Stay in Roquesteron for 5 nights.

    Don't miss:

    - Entrevaux - see my itinerary for how to get a great view of this amazing village with a Citadel perched up a walkway. Then visit Villars sur Var, Touet sur Var, and Annot. Drive through the very scenic Gorges Superieures du Cians and the Gorges de Daluis with the brick red walls. Visit Rigard along the way and perhaps Roubion. See my itinerary under the chapter "Got an Extra Day to Explore more of the Nice Hinterland?"

    - Do the "Loup Loop" - visiting St Paul de Vence (get there early to avoid crowds), Vence, and Tourrettes sur Loup. Then do the Loup valley - see my itinerary for details.

    - Gorges de Vesubie and "deeper into the Nice Hinterland". See my Itinerary with the chapter titled "Deeper into the Nice Hinterland"

    - Nice is only 1 1/2 hrs away. Visit Nice and anything else along the coast that interests you. See my Itinerary for details.

    La Ciotat

    See my itinerary in the chapter titled "Department of the Var...." and drive through Tourrettes (not Tourrettes sur Loup), Fayance, Bargemon, Callas, Gorges de Chateaudouble, Ampus, Aups, Tourtour, Salernes, and Cotignac. You probably won't complete this entire route, but as my Cote d'Azur itinerary suggests - get as far as you have time for. Then head to La Ciotat.

    Stay in La Ciotat for 2 nights.

    Personally, I would stay in Cassis instead.

    See my itinerary chapter titled "Cassis and the Massif de la St Baume". Visit Cassis itself and also take a Calanques boat ride.

    St Etienne du Gres/Provence

    St Etienne is not far away from La Ciotat, so if you want to spend more time in the La Ciotat area - leave for St Etienne in the early or late afternoon.

    Spend 5 nights in St Etienne.

    We've visited Provence for a total of 20 weeks - 2 of them in a gite in St Etienne du Gres. There is weeks worth of stuff to do in Provence, so read my Provence itinerary & decide what fits your taste.

    Haute Pyrenees

    Get on the A54, A75, and A61 to Carcassonne. It should take you 2 1/2 hrs to get there. Purchase tickets for a castle tour as soon as you arrive in Carcassonne. Plan on spending 2 1/2 to 3 hrs there with lunch.

    Then continue on the A61 past Toulouse, and then the A64 to Tarbes. Then head south on the N21/D821 and find your way through Argeles-Gazost to Viey, which is at the western end of the Col de Tourmalet near Luz-St Saveur. It should take you 3 1/2 hrs to get to Viey from Carcassonne. We stayed for 2 weeks in a gite in this area in 2012.

    Stay in Viey for 4 nights.

    The following is something I wrote for another Fodors traveler.

    Continue on to Argeles Gazost and stay 2-3 nights in the "Haute Pyrenees". This is your chance for the "stay in one of those lovely, picturesque little villages" . We dined at two very nice restaurants, which are also hotels in the Vercos mountain region in the Pyrenees. They are close to each other - both just south of Argeles Gazost. So for 3 nights, you could stay in one, dine at both, plus the restaurant I mention below. The first one is La Grange aux Marmottes in Viscos (population 44). www.grangeauxmarmottes.com . The second one is Les Viscos in St Savin (population 372). www.hotel-leviscos.com .

    Our best meal in the region was in Cauterets (just outside to the south) at l'Abri du Benques. 05 62 92 50 15. However, they could not "accept" our magnetic stripe credit card - so we paid cash.

    Here are things to keep you occupied for several days in the area (we were there for 2 weeks). Consult the Green Guide to find "extra" stuff to do.

    Switch to the Languedoc/Roussillon Green guide - although this region is in both Languedoc & Atlantic guides.

    1. The most famous Col in the Pyrenees is the Col du Tourmalet**. You'll go over it on the way to your next location/hotel. However, bad weather comes & goes, and I would not want only one chance to visit this Col. So I would go there early in the AM on the first day you're in the region. You might go all the way to Ste Marie de Campan & see the stuffed "people" in various places in Ste Marie. Then turn around & go back over the Col du Tourmalet.

    2. Visit the fantastic Pont d'Espagne*** don't miss. This is described on pg 395 in my Languedoc Green Guide.

    3. Donjon des Aigles birds of prey show around a crumbling castle. This was fabulous - we've seen several of these in Europe - and this was the best. Pg 378 in the Languedoc Green Guide. www.donjon-des-aigles.com

    4. Take some chairlifts up to higher elevations with great views. The weather was really bad for 10 out of the 13 days we were in this region - so we didn't go on any chair/gondola lifts. We had planned to go on lifts starting from Cauterets, from Gourette on the Col d'Aubisque, and from La Mongie (Tourmalet/Pic du Midi de Bigorre***). There is info in the Green Guide about these - or just wait until you are there.

    5, Explore the Vallee de Gavarnie** - south of Luz St Sauveur. On the way, you could visit Luz Ardiden where Lance was knocked off his bike - but still won the stage. (with help)

    6. If the weather was not good when you drove over the Col d'Aubisque - do it again (we did it 4 times).

    St Cirq Lapopie

    The remainder of this "visit" is described in the Itinerary for The Dordogne I sent you
    .
    Get on the A64 back to Toulouse, then the A20 to Cahors.

    Get off the A20 at exit #58, and work your way north to Cahors & visit. It should take you 4 hrs to get to Cahors. I'm not a big fan of Cahors - but many people like it. Plus - 4 hrs is all I want to drive at one time. After Cahors, head east on the D653 & D662 to St Cirq Lapopie** and visit. Stay 2 nights in St Cirq Lapopie.

    Next morning:
    Reserve a tour (first tour of the morning) several weeks in advance for Pech Merle***. This is one of the best caves in the area for pre-historic drawings, handprints, and footprints - plus stalactites & mites. After the tour, continue east on the picturesque Cele River. Marcilhac sur Cele was just OK to visit - walk by the Cele river next to the Abbey. St Sulpice has some interesting troglodyte buildings and Espagnac Ste Eulalie is an good village for a walk-around. Visit Figeac - one of our "top 5" medium-sized cities in France. Get a walking itinerary at the tourist office. See my Dordogne itinerary for details. Return to St Cirq Lapopie via the Lot River.

    As an alternative, you could stay in Figeac instead of St Cirq Lapopie - but you would lengthen the already 4 hr drive the first day you get to the area.

    From St Cirq, get an early start and get back on the A20 at Exit # 57, then off at exit # 56 and make your way to Rocamadour. It should take you 1 1/4 hrs to get there. Try to arrive before 9AM (It gets quite crowded as the day goes on). After visiting Rocamadour, drive to the Gouffre de Padirac for a visit. If you get to Rocamadour by 9, you should be able to complete the Gouffre de Padirac tour by 2PM. There are lunch facilities at the Gouffre. Next, head to one of our favorite "cute little villages" - Carennac. Then follow the Dordogne river west, and get off it soon & visit another interesting village - Martel. See my Dordogne itinerary for details on this route.

    Take the D703 to Souillac, then follow the Dordogne River to Sarlat.

    Sarlat/Dordogne

    I would stay in Sarlat itself if you want to stay in a city/village - or in Roque Gageac or Beynac if you prefer a village on the Dordogne River. I like Domme also - with a view of the Dordogne River from high above. See my Dordogne itinerary for details.

    Stay in this area for 5 nights.

    See my Dordogne itinerary for what to do & see.

    Next Destination

    The reason I suggested visiting the Haute Pyrenees before the Dordogne and not vice-versa is because I think it would be easier for you to get to your next destination from the Dordogne than from the Haute Pyrenees.

    To get to an airport that handles international destinations, I would either:
    - Drive to Brive la Gaillarde (visiting Collognes la Rouge on the way), dump the car, and take one of the many trains to Paris for your flight to elsewhere.
    - Drive to Toulouse, spend time in our second favorite city in France after Paris (tied with Dijon) and fly home the next morning.

    Stu Dudley

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    Wow so much great information. Thank you all so much. We will need a little time to really digest what you have recommended but based on what we have read so far, with all your help this trip is going to be even better than we expected. We will get back to planning after Christmas and post our revised plans then. Hope you all have a memorable Christmas and New Year. Thanks

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    5 nights in Roquesteron - really?

    It is a rather quiet village in my opinion and, although I don't know the posters main interests, I suspect that there must be a more suitable base for this leg of their trip?

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    We've stayed for a week in Entrevaux, which is just 32 K away, and 4 weeks in St Jeannet, which is 41K away & found plenty of great stuff to do in the Nice Hinterland. We were in Nice for 2 weeks this year & spent about 5 days driving around in the Nice Hinterland. I have to agree that it's not the "normal" location for a first-timer to the Cote d'Azur, however. But that's where Cob60 wants to stay, for what I'm assuming is a good reason. Maybe he wants to avoid the crowds & glitz of the Riveria, and enjoys isolation so they can hike & have peace & quiet. Dinners in nice restaurants might be a problem.

    If Con60 didn't want to stay in a city/village directly on the coast but close to a lot of "popular" places, I would have suggested St Paul, Vence, or Tourrettes sur Loup.

    Stu Dudley

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    I agree, it is very difficult to recommend places when you don't know the poster's interests and they have mentioned Requesteron - I would be curious to know what attracted them there?

    I really like Tourrettes sur Loup, Vence and St Jeanette and certainly the "arriere pays nicois" is a much neglected area of the Cote D'Azur.

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