Car travel is the best way to see Provence, especially because buses go to the famous hilltop villages only once a day. However, a car may not be the fastest or most economical way to get to Provence: consider flying into Paris, connecting via a smaller airline to Nice or Marseille, and then renting your car in the south. Or purchase a rail-drive pass, available from the SNCF (French national rail company) or one of the larger car-rental companies. This will allow a few days' rail travel—say, from Paris to Nice—and a block of car-rental time. By using the train to cover the long distances, then exploring the region in depth by car, you can make the most of both modes of transit.
France's roads are classified into three types and prefixed A, N, or D. For the fastest roads between two points, look for roads marked A for autoroutes. A péage (toll) must be paid on most expressways: the rate varies but can be steep. Sample toll charges are €61.70 from Paris to Nice; €14.30 from Nice to Aix-en-Provence. At your first toll stop you will simply retrieve a ticket, and at the next toll you will pay. You may pay by credit card; Visa and American Express are accepted at most toll booths. The main toll roads through Provence are the A6 and A7, which connect Paris to Marseille via Lyon, Avignon, and Aix; and the east–west A8, which traverses the region from the Italian border to Aix via Nice.
The N (Route Nationale) roads, which are sometimes divided highways, are the route of choice for heavy freight trucks, and are often lined with industry and large chain stores. More scenic, though less trafficked than the Ns are the D (Route Départementale) roads, often also wide and fast.
Though routes are numbered, the French generally guide themselves from city to city and town to town by destination name. When reading a map, keep one eye on the next big city toward your destination as well as the next small town; most snap decisions will have to be based on town names, not road numbers.
Negotiating the back roads requires a careful mix of map and sign reading, often at high speeds around suburban giratoires (rotaries, also known as roundabouts). But once you head out into the hills and the tiny roads, which are one of the best parts of Provence and the Côte d'Azur, give yourself over to road signs and pure faith. Directions are indicated by village name only, with route numbers given as a small-print afterthought. Of course, this means you have to recognize the names of minor villages en route.
To leave Paris by car, figure out which of the portes (gates) corresponds to the direction you are going. Major highways connect to Paris at these points, and directions are indicated by major cities. For instance, heading south out of the city, look for Porte d'Orléans (direction Lyons and Bordeaux); after Lyons, follow Avignon, and after Avignon follow Nice and/or Marseille. It's best to steer clear of rush hours (7–9:30 am and 4:30–7:30 pm), although this is only a real concern between Aix and Marseille and around Nice.
Gas is expensive, especially on expressways and in rural areas. When possible, buy gas before you get on the expressway and keep an eye on pump prices as you go. These are roughly €1.60 per liter, or about $7.70 a gallon. The cheapest gas can be found at hypermarchés (very large supermarkets), but be ready for long lines. It is possible to go for many miles in the country without passing a gas station—don't let your tank get too low in rural areas. Many gas stations are closed on Sunday but, they often have automatic gas distributors that allow you to pay with credit cards that have chips, as long as you enter the card's PIN. If you are worried about your budget, ask for a diesel car; diesel fuel at gas pumps can be labeled as diesel, gasoil, or gazole. Unleaded gas will be labeled as sans plomb (SP95 for regular unleaded and SP98 for super unleaded). Be careful, as many gas stations still sell leaded gas.
Parking can be difficult in large towns; your best option (especially in a metropolis like Nice or Marseille) is to duck into the parking garage nearest the neighborhood you want to visit. Carry the ticket with you, and pay at the vending-machine-style ticket dispenser before you go back to your car. On the street, ticket machines (pay and display) are common and work with cartes de stationnements (parking cards), which are like credit cards and come in three denominations: €10, €20, and €30. Parking cards are available at any café posting the red Tabac sign. Insert your card into the nearest meter, choose the approximate amount of time you expect to stay, and you'll receive a green receipt, which must be clearly visible to the meter patrol; place it on the dashboard on the inside of the front window on the passenger side. Be sure to check the signs before you park, as rules vary.
Be careful when parking your car overnight, especially in towns and village squares; if your car is still there in the early morning on a market day, it will be towed. In smaller towns, parking may be permitted on one side of the street only—alternating every two weeks—so pay attention to signs.
The coastal area of Provence—especially the Camargue and the Calanques—as well as overlooks along the Côte d'Azur are extremely vulnerable to car break-ins, and the parking lots are often littered with broken windshield glass. It's important that you never leave valuables visible in the car, and think twice about leaving them in the trunk. Any theft should be reported formally to the police.
Road conditions in Provence are above average and potholes are rare, especially on highways. Check with the regional information center or listen to FM107.7 (the traffic station) to find out whether there's anything you should know before setting off.
If your car breaks down on an expressway, go to a roadside emergency telephone (yellow or blue boxes), which you'll find every 10 km, and call for assistance. If you have a breakdown anywhere else, find the nearest garage or contact the police. If there is an injury, call the SAMU (ambulance service) or fire brigade.
Fire Department (18.)
General Emergencies (112.)
Rules of the Road
In France, you may use your own driver's license, but it must be accompanied by an official translation. You must also be able to prove you have third-party insurance. In 2012, a law was passed requiring all drivers to carry a breathalyzer, but as of this writing there is no fine for failure to do so. Drive on the right and yield to drivers coming from streets to the right. However, this rule does not necessarily apply at roundabouts, where you are obligated to yield to those already within (to your left)—but you should watch out for just about everyone. You must wear your seat belt, and children under 10 may not travel in the front seat. French speed limits vary depending on weather conditions, and are lower in rural areas. The limits in dry weather are 130 kph (80 mph) on freeways, 110 kph (70 mph) on divided highways, 90 kph (55 mph) on other roads, 50 kph (30 mph) in towns, and 30 mph (15 mph) in school zones. French drivers break these limits often, but police also hand out hefty on-the-spot fines.
Autoroute Information (www.autoroutes.fr.)
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's website. There are other reasons to book ahead, though: for popular destinations, during busy times of the year, or to ensure that you get certain types of cars (vans, SUVs, exotic sports cars).
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
Though renting a car in France is expensive—up to twice as much as in the United States—and the cost of gas is very high as well, it may pay off if you are traveling with two or more people. And of course renting a car gives you the freedom to move around at your own pace. Rates begin at about €30 a day and €220 to €265 per week for an economy car with a manual transmission (an automatic transmission will cost more). Mileage is extra, but there are often multiday packages or weekly rates including some number of kilometers. Be careful to check whether the price includes the 19.6% V.A.T. tax or, if you pick it up from the airport, the airport tax.
Also, price local car-rental companies—whose prices may be lower still, although their service and maintenance may not be as good as those of major rental agencies—and research rates on the Internet. ADA, a French-owned rental company, has offices in towns, train stations, and airports throughout Provence. The Renault Eurodrive program avoids usual car-rental taxes by offering short-term leases to customers. Offices are in Marseille, Montpellier, and Nice; cars must be rented for longer than 20 days.
In France your own driver's license is acceptable, provided you have a notarized translation. You don't need an International Driver's Permit, unless you are planning on a long-term stay; you can get one from the American or Canadian automobile association, and, in the United Kingdom, from the Automobile Association or Royal Automobile Club.
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