Help with South of France Itinerary

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Jul 15th, 2011, 10:45 AM
  #1
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Help with South of France Itinerary

I apologize in advance for an itinerary question. I have Rick Steve’s Spain and France books but he makes everything sound so good it is very difficult to fit everything into our limited vacation.

My wife and I are planning our next big trip for April 2012; we start out in Spain for 6 days and plan on dividing them between Madrid (with day trips to Toledo and Granada/Alhambra) and Barcelona.

We then go to Carcassonne for 2 nights and on to the South of France. We will have 8-10 more days and want to hit as many highlights of the area we can before ending up in Nice (to include day trip to Monaco) before the flight home.

We will be traveling by train and our interests are mainly historic sites, cultural experiences, and beautiful locations. Maybe a seaside stop (we loved Cinque Terre). We are active and usually look for some type of hiking or biking opportunity.

The plan I’m considering is 2 or 3 “home” bases with a variety of day trips available from each. MY list of possible locations is: Nimes, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Toulon … with day trips to???

I am very interested in hearing your favorite “must see” stops and sights, great home base cities, doable day trips, what to avoid, what you loved... etc.
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Jul 15th, 2011, 10:53 AM
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First off, I'd nix the plan to go to Carcassonne for 2 nights. You really need no more than a half-day there, and then move on. Forget Toulon entirely.

Second, unless you have some major problem with the notion, rent a car. You just can't get around the "South of France" by train easily (get a map of the train routes in France from the SNCF site and check it out) and will be forced to miss many of the places everyone here will recommend you see.

If you do rent a car, I would highly recommend renting a gîte or apartment for a week of your time, probably in the Bouches-du-Rhône area as IMO that's the best base for seeing the things most first-timers enjoy seeing. The remaining days could be spent on the Côte d'Azur, including Nice and surrounds. Monaco IMO is not worth a day, either (actually, for me it's worth no time at all, but I do understand wanting to go if you've never been).
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Jul 15th, 2011, 12:20 PM
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Hi Mark -

I will second St Cirq's advice about renting a car. Driving is easy, saves lots of time, and provides quick access to places that you otherwise would not see. Yopu don't want to mess with local bus schedules in the Luberon on a 10 day vacation.

How about -

train to Carcassonne - stay one night

train to Nimes - Maison Carree, the amphitheater, water gardens - stay one night

next morning, pick up rental car and drive to Pont du Gard. Uzes for lunch. Then reverse and drive to hotel in St. Remy. Stay a few nights in St. Remy. Loved Mas des Carrasins. One day trip south to Arles and Les Baux. Another day trip north to Avignon. Another day trip if you must to Isle sur La Sorgue, which I didn't like but everyone else seems to. A better day trip might be some villages in the western part of the Luberon like Gordes, Roussillon, Lacoste, Menerbes. Everyone has their favorites. I really liked Roussillon and Lacoste.

Then drive to Aix. With a bit of a detour you could stop in some other Luberon town for lunch. Aix is really beautiful and vibrant but please explore the charming streets and squares instead of spending all your time at that cafe on Cours Mirabeau. One night is probably all you need.

Then drive from Aix to Nice. This will be a long drive. You could stop at St. Maximin just east of Aix to see Mary Magdalen's relics. Drop the car off in Nice. You could also just drop the car off in Aix and take the train to Nice. Once there, use the very good train system over your next few days to see places along the coast like Monaco, Antibes, Cannes, etc.

To me, Monaco wasn't nearly as horrifying as I expected. Went twice - one daytime visit for the palace, cathedral, harbor. The second was a night visit, just to the casino. Apparently the nighttime dress code there prohibits track suits and gym shoes, so it was actually pretty nice.

Have a great trip!
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Jul 15th, 2011, 12:24 PM
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Oh - if you like to hike, by all means take the train to Roquebrune. The train station is near the water. The charming village is spectaularly situated about 1000 feet up a long series of stone stairs. Great views, including Monaco's harbor.
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Jul 15th, 2011, 01:43 PM
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Agreed on the driving part. Prior posters "talked" us out of trying to do our whole trip without a car and we are so glad we listened. Most caves and castles are inaccessible without a car, taxis hard to find, and you don't see the best of France just in the cities. And Carcassone- wave at it when you head on to Perypetuse!
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Jul 15th, 2011, 02:27 PM
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Agree--two nights in Carcassonne is two too many...unless you want to see it AFTER the crowds have left, and it is a necessary "half-way" sleep spot between two other places on a long drive.

Our main impression of it was what a good job Walt Disney did--the main entrance and its surrounding streets looks just like D'land, including the fake "Olde Worlde" type fake store signs.

IF you go, check out Rick Steves France book for a a self-tour that starts at a quieter entrance. Wish i'd have known about that before we entered.
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Jul 15th, 2011, 02:41 PM
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I also agree that a rental car is a better solution. And I would not consider a large city for a base (certainly not Marseille, and -- based on what our French B&B owner told us -- don't even go there, unless you know exactly where you're going...). I agree Monaco and Monte Carlo are a waste of time (unless you have a LOT of time)...

We had a great time driving along the coast, visiting places like Antibes (Nice, Cannes and the rest of them larger cities were just OK) but what we enjoyed the most were those small towns and villages, and especially the ones up on the hills and mountains, away from the coast.... Search those charming villages like Grasse, Moustiers Ste. Marie, Gordes and Roussillon... And find a B&B in one of the small villages located in the middle for easy day-trip access...

...We stayed in a charming B&B in Flayosc, from which we took day-trips to the places mentioned above. If interested, let me know...
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Jul 15th, 2011, 05:10 PM
  #8
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Awesome Responses!

This is really helping a lot. Truthfully, even though we have traveled quite a bit I am a little intimidated about driving (I have heard tales of bad experiences). In the past we have always traveled by train. But everyone is talking me into trying it.
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Jul 15th, 2011, 05:58 PM
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...As long as you take into consideration that the Southern French, like the Italians, are REAL GOOD DRIVERS -- but fast and a bit restless. Also, while their highways are superb, those narrow roads between villages are NARROW. So if you're driving an automatic car at home --- rent an automatic even if you have any experience with manual transmission... You need to concentrate on the narrow road and it's winding curves....

But unless you hate driving in general, it's fun, I promise you. And you'll get a lot more from your trip, far more freedom (you don't have to rush to catch the train) and access to far more exciting places...
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Jul 16th, 2011, 09:01 AM
  #10
 
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When in Nice, you can take the local buses[for only one Euro] to all the nearby towns including Monaco. It has fantastic service and the buses run frequently.
Also check out the wonderful Liberation food market. Much better thae the touristy Cour Salaya Market
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Jul 16th, 2011, 10:12 AM
  #11
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A couple more things occur to me after your great responses so far... thank you so much for the feedback on which locations are worth a stop or stay. Please keep the feedback coming!

I had planned on Avignon being a definite Home Base we would stay, but sounds like everyone prefers the smaller towns.

First what about tolls? I can see by looking at the map toll roads all over this area. How much are the tolls?

Second, Since I have no experience with car rentals in Europe... Any pointers? Cost? Company to use? Can I rent a Good GPS from the rental company? Buy the supplemental insurance? What to avoid?

I envy the travelers that can go with just a skeleton itinerary and 'go with the flow'. One of my big fears is wasting precious vacation time. I plan out EACH day with the things we'll see, where we stop, etc. There are still SOOOO many places I want to travel too I want to see everything I can since I don't know when or if I'll return to a particular area.

@mamamia - I would definitely like to hear the details of your trip!
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Jul 16th, 2011, 10:23 AM
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The Michelin (and Mappy) and other websites can calculate tolls for you.

I wouldn't make Avignon my base, but that's probably because I've been in that region dozens and dozens of times and have come to prefer the smaller towns. For a first visit, Avignon might be a good choice - though with a car I doubt it, as you'd be dealing with traffic getting out and back in every day.

I always rent from AutoEurope. More than 100 rentals in France with them and never a problem. Kemwel, their sister company, is sometimes a little bit less expensive, I've heard, but have no direct experience. Don't just go to AutoEurope's website and order a car, though - use the website to do your research, then call them and talk to a human so all your questions will be answered. Their customer service is excellent. Yes, you can get a GPS, but others will have to tell you about that - I've never had one and don't want one. There's no supplemental insurance that I know of, unless you're referring to the collision damage insurance, which you can waive at your peril. Check with your credit card company first - you may be covered by them, which would obviate the need to buy it from the car rental company.

It's great to plan out each day in detail, but pesky things like weather and strikes and traffic jams do get in the way sometimes...and the south of France isn't exactly the place to get all rigid about vacationing. I think it's great to have a plan...and equally great to be willing to deviate from it at a moment's notice when something wonderful comes up unexpectedly.
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Jul 16th, 2011, 10:39 AM
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And be sure to rent a small car if you want to see the beautiful villages with narrow streets but don't keep valuables in sight. We deviated all the time. Once we thought we were stuck in traffic and ended up on a commuter boat.
I suggest staying in or around St Remy. That way you can visit
Arles, the Carmargue and the perche villages like Gordes and Les Baux.
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Jul 16th, 2011, 12:21 PM
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We had an excellent rate from Avis. Get diesel, and a good roadmap (we got ours at the rest areas.) GPs will cost $10 a day. We relied on our Visa Signature credit card coverage and waived the rental car coverage.
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Jul 16th, 2011, 12:23 PM
  #15
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St. Remy is a great base for Provence. From there, you can day trip to just about everything you'd want to see in the region. It's small enough that it's not difficult to get in and out of town, but big enough to have a nice selction of restaurants. We stayed at Le Mas de Carassins and found it to be a great place to stay with a car, close enough to the center of town for a 10 minute walk, but on its own grounds with a gated car park.

French autoroutes come with tolls, but it's worth it if you're trying to cover ground. I think our most expensive driving day was from the Dordogne to St. Remy, which cost us something like 23 euros in tolls. If you want to know exactly what its going to cost, go to ViaMichelin and enter your route there--it will tell you exactly what the tolls will be.

Although we drove from St. Remy to Nice, if I had it to do over again, I would take the train from the Avignon TGV station. It's on the outskirts of Avignon, and would be an easy place to drop your car. You won't need a car to see Nice and the Riviera--buses and trains will get you around fine. I thought it would be worth dropping the car in Nice in order to drive the corniches on arrival day, but a bus trip to Eze would provide you with the same views, without having to worry about driving or navigating.

As for navigation, rather than rent one from the car rental company, which will cost you almost as much as buying a unit, I would go ahead and purchase a GPS unit and European maps to load onto it, and use it some at home so that you know how to use the thing. They are not that easy to figure out on the fly. However, even if you do use a GPS, you should have a navigator using a map (I like the Micheline atlas of France, 1:200K, which you can order online and have with you before you leave for Europe) checking to make sure that the GPS doesn't send you on illogical routing, which it most likely will try to do from time to time.

As to what unit to get, our rental came with a TomTom (we didn't pay extra for it--it just came with the car), and it alerted us to speed cameras, and told us what the speed limit was, which I found to be very handy. Not sure if they all do that, as I've read elsewhere that you get these features by downloading information from a web site, something like TomTomHeaven, but I don't know the specifics on that. If you decide to buy your own unit, you should defintiely look into that.
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Jul 16th, 2011, 04:05 PM
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I agree with most of the above....

Buying your GPS plus adding a European maps to it is expensive, especially if you don't need GPS at home. We got our free GPS from Kemwel. It was VERY helpful, though the map-software seemed 3-4 years old, some roundabouts were not recognized, and in one place, late at night, lost in a small village, trying to get back "home" it instructed me to drive straight thru a house.... I started screaming at "Dolores" as we called her... We had a good laugh...

I agree about the size of the car, as long as the car is automatic, that's important.... Not sure they'll have an automatic in the sub- or even compact-car groups.... For automatic you want to rent in a larger city, since the small offices have only manual cars. At the Nice airport we first got a Peugeot van which was too big (and had some transmission problems), so I returned it the next day and got a fully-loaded VW Passat Diesel, which was sheer pleasure, with VERY good gas-mileage.

Also, based on our experience with toll roads in southern France, for whatever reason they don't accept Visa or MC, but we could use our Amex cards. Of course, it's a LOT more convenient than having to pay cash to those machines....

I personally find St. Remy de Provence a bit too far east. I'd try a more central town/village for a base...

Also, once you establish your base, plan ahead your daily trips (yes, ViaMichelin.com is extremely helpful!), but leave the dates open, make your decision later based on the weather, and what your B&B or hotel host tells you, some days are better than another to visit certain places (the larger cities are not for the weekend).

Also, the 2 maps I bought online were Michelin Zoom France 114 & 115, both 1:100,000 which give you better details than the regular 1:200,000. Those maps were helpful even while relying on the GPS...

...Hope this helps...
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Jul 17th, 2011, 04:28 AM
  #17
 
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Great advice given so far. Just to add if not already mentioned, Automatic rental vehicles are not that common, so make sure you book in advance to guarantee if this is what you require.
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Jul 17th, 2011, 05:05 AM
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>>rent an automatic even if you have any experience with manual transmission... You need to concentrate on the narrow road and it's winding curves....<<

I have never rented an automatic in France and much prefer manual transmission for negotiating narrow roads and winding curves. Central Marseille is worth a visit and there are many great restaurants. Driving at night is not an issue, unless you are a particularly nervous driver.
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Jul 17th, 2011, 07:01 AM
  #19
 
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The best tip for driving in France is to learn to love the round-abouts. They pop up frequently, and the cars already IN the roundabout have the right of way. But the nicest thing is, if you miss your exit (usually there is one to go to the right, one to go ahead, one to go to the left, but sometimes there are more. But if you miss it (for example are too far left to get over in time) you can just go round again.

We LOVE driving in France.
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Jul 17th, 2011, 09:30 AM
  #20
 
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Odin, not everyone is a car- or driving-enthusiast. Most drive just to get from here to there... At 18 I took driving lessons in a manual car, and drove only manuals till coming to live in the USA 30 years ago. Once you drive automatic YOU DON'T WANT TO GO BACK TO MANUAL --- unless you're a car buff... If one doesn't have much experience driving manual -- it would be SUICIDAL to rent a manual car to drive those narrow, winding, and some of them plain dangerous roads in the mountains of Provence. If one has NO EXPERIENCE driving manual, renting a manual for those trips is not only SUICIDAL but UTTERLY DUMB...

As far as Marseille, the warning not to drive there "unless you know exactly where you go" came from our Provence (Flayosc) B&B host. He must know, since he drives there from time to time for business.
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