Please help me plan a month in SE France

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Jan 8th, 2019, 12:26 AM
  #1
kja
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Please help me plan a month in SE France

Warning: LONG post ahead!

I now have a first draft of an itinerary for a month-long trip that I will take this coming May (sliding into June as necessary, depending on the exact start date) that takes into account the greatly appreciated insights many of you offered on my initial planning thread:
Seeking diverse experiences in SE France

The plan includes Provence, the Cote d’Azur, parts of the Rhone Valley, a tiny bit of the French Alps, and a small segment of the Languedoc.

A bit about me:
· I’m a reasonably experienced solo traveler, but have never visited this part of France.
· I don’t speak French, but will learn enough to be civil and to make simple inquiries -- and also to understand basic answers to those questions.
· I hope to maximize the diversity of my experiences.
· My interests include art, architecture, natural scenery, food, wine, and cultural events. BTW, I’m not at all worried about finding good food and wine.
· I have no objection to one-night stays, and actually prefer them to backtracking.
· I am not seeking beach time (except, perhaps, a brief sunset stroll or two); shopping opportunities (except to buy a few gifts for family and friends towards the end of my trip); or active sports (unless you count some short, easy walks).
· I am not seeking relaxation other than what I will experience over meals or while in transit. Instead, I hope to take full advantage of every moment I have while traveling: I prefer being up and about from the time I finish breakfast until there is literally nothing else that I can see or do on any given day except to relax over a nice evening meal with wine and then, time permitting, take a short walk. I don’t even eat mid-day meals! (But I don’t do that IRL, either.) I’d rather return home completely exhausted than regret that I didn’t make time for another indelible memory. That does not mean that I’m willing to skim: If I decide to see something, then I’ll take whatever time it takes for me to do so in the way I want to do so, even if I need to eliminate other things from my plan.

Of course, even with a month, I will have to skip a lot. I’ve tried to come up with a plan that includes all the art museums / artworks that I hope to see in the area (on days when said museums will open ) and that also includes a wide range of outstanding architectural achievements and diverse beautiful natural settings. My reading (guidebooks, trip reports, planning threads) convinces me that there are numerous small towns that offer stunning views and interesting nooks and crannies, any of which I might find completely enjoyable – except that my tolerance for such towns is limted. I can manage only so much “town hopping” before they all blend into a bit of a mishmash, so I’ve tried to limit my plans for those towns to a few that hold specific places of particular interest to me or that make sense to round out a day that involves one or more of those towns.

Even at an energetic pace, I suspect that my plan is overly ambitious. I’m seeking input about
· places I might consider skipping (whether because too far out of the way, unnecessarily redundant with other things I’ll see, not of sufficient interest to justify inclusion, whatever);
· places I’ve excluded that warrant a serious second look;
· comments about how to bettter organize my itinerary (I do NOT think I have a well-organized plan!), or
· anything else that strikes you as worthy of comment.

Also, as you’ll see, during the segments of this trip when I expect to have a car, I often plan to stop en route from one place to another, which will mean leaving my luggage in the trunk of a rental car. I know that no one can guarantee safety and I will take reasonable precautions, but if any of you see that I’ve mentioned a stop where you think I face a particular risk by doing so, please let me know!

OK, take a deep breath and (please) call upon all of your reserves of patience for the many silly errors and obvious flaws in my thinking (and spelling) as you consider this initial plan:

Day 0: Overnight flight from the eastern U.S.

Days 1 - 4: Land in Nice and begin exploring. Priorities include exploring the city and visiting its treasures; Cap Ferrat with walks to the Villa Ephrussi and on to the Villa Kérylos; and at least part of the Chemins de Fer de Provence. 4 nights in Nice.

Day 5: Public transportation to Menton, where my priorities include its gardens and older corners. 1 night in Menton.

Day 6: Pick up a rental car and head into the Mercantour National Park, routing through Ventimiglia. With some stops for views, make my way to the Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Fontaines and (if time) a few of the other chapels with medieval frescos in the area. Stop in Tende (for the Musée des Merveilles) and Saorge, spending the night somewhere along my way – I need to learn more before deciding exactly where – ideas are welcome! 1 night in this area. Question: This leg of my journey would be in early May. Any areas that I should avoid because it will be too early in the year to be confident of clear roads, even if I check the weather before heading out?

Day 7: Drive to Vence; making sure to arrive in time to explore Vence (and the Matisse chapel there), Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and the Fondation Maeght before walking back to Vence. 1 night in Vence.

Day 8: Leave for Antibes with stops (as possible) in Tourretes-sur-Loup, Gourdon, Grasse (I believe I’ll be there during its annual rose festival – the only festival I am likely to catch on this trip -- and even though some of you don’t recommend Grasse, I’m curious about the making of perfumes), making sure to reach Biot in time to visit the Musée Leger, and then on to Antibes. 1 night in Antibes.

Day 9: Visit the Musée Picasso, spend a couple of hours on one of the cape’s walks, and then head to Saint-Tropez, aiming to reach it in time to visit the Musée de l’Annonciade, and stopping (if possible) in Les-Arcs-sur-Argens (for the Chagall chapel) and maybe Grimaud en route. 1 night in Saint Tropez (or Grimaud?) NOTE: I should reach Saint-Tropez shortly before the start of the Cannes Film Festival, which I hope to avoid insofar as possible, and will be headed away from Cannes from then on.

Day 10: Visit the Domaine du Rayol and make my way (with various stops) to the Abbaye du Thoronet and on to Cassis. 1 night in Cassis. (I know I could go on to Marseille, but like the idea of spending the night in a quieter harbor-side town.)

Days 11 to 14: Join a boat tour of the Calenques from Cassis. Move on to Marseille, return car (assuming I was unable to do so in a timely way the day before). My priorities for Marseille include exploring the city and its markets and visiting many of its museums. 4 nights in Marseille.

Day 15: Public transportation to Aix-en-Provence, where I look forward to visiting museums, exploring markets, and roaming the town. 1 night in Aix.

Day 16: Public transportation to Arles, where I plan to explore some of the city’s gems. 1 night in Arles.

Day 17: Rent another car. Visit Eygalières if time, and maybe another town, making sure I have plenty of time to visit the Carrières de Lumières and Les-Baux-de-Provence before reaching Maussane-les-Alpilles (or?). 1 night in Maussane (or?)

Day 18: Visiting places I missed the day before as possible and maybe the olive mill outside Mausanne (Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille), make my way to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. 1 night in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. (NOTE: I will not be there during the annual pilgrimage.)

Day 19: Move on to and explore Aigues-Mortes. 1 night in Aigues-Mortes.

Day 20: Knowing that I’m making no geographic sense, but trying to make the best use of a car before turning it in in Orange (I think the best choice for my route?), head to Pernes les Fontaines, with stops en route as possible (e.g., perhaps Nimes or L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue). 1 night in Pernes les Fontaines.

Days 21 to 22: Explore various villages – Roussilon, Gordes, Village des Bories – as possible before going to Avignon and then, the next day, enjoy Avignon’s highlights. 2 nights in Avignon.

Day 23: Visit the Pont du Gard, stop in Uzès if time permits, and drive through the Gorges de l'Ardèche to Vallon-Pont-d'Arc. 1 night in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc

Day 24: Visit the museum / reproduction of la Grotte Chauvet. Stop in Gigondas if time permits (unlikely), then return the rental car in Orange and visit the Roman Theatre and it’s museum (and triumphal arch) before they close. 1 night in Orange.

Day 25: Public transportation to Vienne; enjoy its treasures. 1 night in Vienne.

Days 26 to 28: Public transportation to Lyon. Explore Lyon. 3 nights in Lyon.

Day 29: Public transportation to Annecy. Explore Annecy and Talloires. 1 night in Annecy.

Day 30: When ready, but before my evening meal, public transportation to Geneva. 1 night in Geneva (which I have already visited).

Day 31: Fly home from Geneva.
(Day 32 ff: collapse!)

Please feel free to criticize any or all aspects of this plan! It remains tentative precisely so I can benefit from the wisdom and experience of my fellow Fodorites. I’m sure I’ll benefit from the input, whether I ultimately choose to implement any specific suggestion or not. My sincere thanks in advance!

Last edited by kja; Jan 8th, 2019 at 12:55 AM.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 01:35 AM
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Great itinerary, kja! Sounds like a wonderful trip.

I don't know if it will help you but my trip to the south of France covered many of the same locations. If you are interested in my itinerary, send me a PM with your email address and I'll send it to you.

How many days do you have between your car rentals? Is the price difference between keeping it and parking costs worth the trade off of public transportation schedules, travel times, etc.? Honesty just a question because I have no idea. But, I do know you like public transportation when feasible whereas I like the covenience of a car.

Happy trip planning!
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Jan 8th, 2019, 02:39 AM
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<< Day 9 :1 night in Saint Tropez (or Grimaud?) >> Grimaud Village is very pretty perched village, stone houses, narrow streets, Port Grimaud is a waterside development with some nice restaurants and cafes, you can walk around the canals.They are close to each other but quite different places. I'd be inclined to stay in St Tropez but be aware that driving in/out can be a nightmare if there is traffic and parking can be an issue. There are alot of public holidays in France during May/June: 1st May, 8th May, 30th May, 10th June. The route from Les Arcs to St Tropez is prettiest (IMO) on the D48/D558 after Vidauban and passing thru La Garde Freinet and down to Grimaud/St Tropez.

<<I don’t even eat mid-day meals!>> The French do though, so check opening times in case anything is closed for lunch/or less staff around during lunch

<<Day 10: Visit the Domaine du Rayol and make my way (with various stops) to the Abbaye du Thoronet and on to Cassis.>> Are you thinking of going back from Rayol Canadel Sur Mer back to St Tropez and across the A8 again to the Abbey? I would be inclined to visit the Abbey same time as Les Arcs, if the itinerary can be tweaked a little, as it is a lot of backtracking, once you are in St Tropez I would be inclined to keep going west, maybe with a stop in Bormes Les Mimosas which is a perched village, past Toulon, Bandol (great wine region) and onto Cassis.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 06:16 AM
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I know you don't mind one nighters, same with me, in fact sometimes I really like them since you get to experience a place in evening and early morning - but - I think days 17-23 could all be done from one base in St Remy without excessive backtracking (OK, a little, but only an hour or so on nice to drive roads). I haven't been to all the places you list on those days, but I have to many of them, all from a base in St Remy and found it enjoyable. In fact I also did Arles from that base. But maybe you could have a couple of bases - say Arles and include Aigues-Mortes from there. I think Les Baux was closer to St Remy. Abbey Montmajour which is near Arles was one of our highlights.And maybe Avignon deserves an overnight. But I think you could group those days better. Also, Aigues-Mortes was one of my few European disappointments - I didn't hate it but wasn't as good as I expected. I did feel Pont du Gard lived up to it's reputation but make sure you take the time to walk up river away from the masses of people - might not be bad in May though. And I think you'd enjoy Uzes. Aix is one of my favorite places in France (or Europe for that matter).

I'm going to be in Marseilles and Lyon in July (about the same amount of time you have allocated) so I'll be interested in your plans for those cities.

Have you seen my trip report that covers part of your itinerary? The part you'd be interested in starts at Day 9
Photo Safari to the south of France, the Italian Rivera and the Swiss Alps

Photos - https://andiamo.zenfolio.com/f667172952
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Jan 8th, 2019, 07:40 AM
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Congratulations on the planning progress. Wow, that is a lot of one nighters! Not sure why you are including Menton. Unlike isabel, I found Aix disappointing.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 12:24 PM
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Maybe some of this was addressed in your prior thread, but I missed that. That’s why I believe it’s a good idea to keep one trip in one thread.

I am waiting for @StCirq to call this a “racing” trip; it even has a few too many one nighters for me. Also, too many museums and chapels, since, for us, they begin to blur like small towns and villages do for you. But, as you always say, YMMV.

I would figure out a way to do most, if not all, Riviera towns via public transportation. It won’t avoid the backtracking you have already built in: Nice to Ventimiglia and presumably back to Nice to get to Vence and then Antibes.

I know that some hate Monaco (and it’s not one of my faves either), but, if this could be your one and only trip to this part of France, you don’t have even a glimmer of curiosity about Monte Carlo?

Our best hiking in Europe on a nice day (and the Riviera has plenty of those) would take you from from Villa Kerylos past David Niven’s old front door to St. Jean-Cap Ferrat for lunch or pastry and then a couple hours around the peninsula via the lighthouse and then to Ephrussi (which we enjoyed more than Kerylos). and end at Villefranche (maybe in time for the last cruise passenger of the day) for return bus to Nice.

Isabel mentioned Le Beaux-de-Provence, beautiful, small and touristy, but we liked the climb up there and the rock formations. We did enjoy the innovative Carrieres de Lumieres multi-media art show in the nearby bauxite mine.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 01:31 PM
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We stayed for a week in La Brigue in 2010 and really enjoyed the area. We actually walked from La Brigue through the forest to the Chapelle Notre Dames des Fontaines and then back down the road to the village. The frescoes are magnificent. There is an unusual right angled 15th century bridge, Pont du Coq, which you see from the road between the village and the chapelle. In Tende we walked up through the village to the cemetery which is at the top of the village and gives a view over the village.

It is always interesting to see how others travel. While a fast pace is not our style ( if you have read any of my current trip report you will see that !!), if it suits you, then that is fine. Just be flexible and prepared to change if you find you are pressed for time. I do agree about checking lunch time closures. We found tourist offices and some places closed for a couple of hours and it can be disappointing, especially if you already have a tight schedule.
Bon voyage
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Jan 8th, 2019, 03:32 PM
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We spend a lot of time in southern France because our daughter lives there, and we have encountered lots of lunch time closures. Also, if you do get hungry and want a quick bite, keep in mind that many restaurants close after lunch and don't open until dinner time.

We really enjoyed Aix. I think it's a wonderful city to just roam. Our daughter lived there for 2 years, so we also had the opportunity to see Aix as non-tourists, going food shopping, accompanying her to appointments, etc. We also used Aix as a base to see many Provence towns and villages, such as St. Remy, Marseilles, Cassis, Arles, Avignon, Rousillon, Gordes, and Loumarin. IIRC, sometimes it took one hour each way, but it is doable.

I hope you have the time to visit Eygalieres. We have been there several times, and it never felt touristy at all. We heard primarily French speakers, and talked to a nice couple from Belgium. I don't think you will see/hear a lot of native English speakers there. It's not on the typical tourist trail, but it's a lovely city with some great restaurants and the wonderful Friday market.

And I agree with Isabel that St. Remy makes a nice base, too. For my tastes, you have too many one-nighters.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 04:26 PM
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Kja, your itinerary is shaping up quite nicely. Given your interest in cultural events, you might check out festivals in the areas in which you’re staying, particularly those held in historic venues. May be early in the season but worth a look. An indelible travel memory is of a ballet staged in the 13th century courtyard of the Palais des Papes in Avignon, looking up at a sky filled with stars as three men were on their way to the moon.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 05:53 PM
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kja
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How nice to come home from a long day at work to find so many helpful and encouraging responses – thank you one and all!

A few general comments:

Lunch hour closures: It’s always good to make sure people expect such things, so thanks to each of you who mentioned this issue! I study opening hours ridiculously closely I check opening hours when planning my trips, and have already checked a number of the sites that are among my priorities. For me, lunch hour closures (even long ones) often make good times for walks or, more commonly, moving from one place to another.

One-night stays. I know you are all trying to help, but honestly, I don’t mind them, and in some ways, I prefer them. That said, once I nail down a final itinerary, I will review my plan with a particular eye to consolidating stays (e.g., 2 nights in Aigues-Mortes rather than 1 there and 1 in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer).


@ joannyc: I’m so glad you responded, as it seems we often end up with similar allocations of time to the places we visit! Thank you very much for offering your itinerary -- I will send you a message ASAP. And I will also be sure to consider the pros and cons of my rental car options. As you note, I prefer public transportation when possible – some people engage in “people watching” from cafes or bistros; I prefer to do it while on a bus or train.

@ Odin: Thank you so much for noting the difference bertween Grimaud Village and Port Grimaud! I was thinking of the latter. And I’m glad you mentioned Bormes les Mimosas, which had been on my radar, but not very brightly. I hope to find a better route through my priorities in this part of my trip, and your suggestion might be just the key!

@ isabel: Thanks for mentioning the Abbaye de Montmajour! Sounds like something I will greatly enjoy. As I noted on my initial planning thread, I found a great deal of useful information in your 2013 report and added my thanks to that thread.

@ thursdaysd: Menton seems to be a love it or hate it place. I know that you are not alone in finding it less than fully appealing, but at least a few others seem to love it. One Fodorite suggested that it has two very different sections – a seaside area given over to rather uninteresting resorts and an old section, a bit away from the sea, graced with a somewhat aged charm. In any case, the reasons that it is now on my itinerary are (a) for its gardens, (b) for the contrast of the Italianate feel of the older sections to other parts of the region (I do seek diverse architectural and cultural experiences!), and (c) as a place I can rent a car for the drive into the Mercantour National Park, recommended for the views by kerouac on my initial planning thread.

@ whitehall: I would be interested in finding a way to avoid a car and backtracking along the coast, but I’m not sure I can. For one thing, I believe I need a car for the things I want to do in the pre-Alps. For another thing, work-related constraints on my schedule make it difficult to time my trip in a way that lets me escape the Cannes Film Festival with a different route. At least I would be traveling on a different corniche by car than by public transportation, and I believe many people recommend that. But I’m open to options. I believe the walk you mention is the one I describe as a priority for my time in Nice and I believe I mentioned that Les-Baux-de-Provence and the Carrières de Lumières are priorities for what is now my day 17 – so it's nice to see that you endorse both. And no, I have absolutely no interest in visiting Monaco or Monte Carlo, although I can certainly understand that many people do.

@ rhon: I am delighted to hear that you thought the frescoes of the Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Fontaines magnificent! That bridge sounds like a treasure, and those walks, too – I’m taking notes and thank you for these recommendations.

@ KarenWoo: Your comments about Eygalières confirm the reasons that I’m thinking of including it in my plans. It doesn’t seem to get a lot of coverage, but those of you who mention it seem to have only positive things to say.

@ bon_voyage: Your ballet in Avignon sounds magical! I’ve had the great good fortunate to see a Greek tragedy in Siracusa's Teatro Greco, a concert at Ravello’s Villa Rufolo, an opera at Athens’ Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Ramayana Ballet at Prambanan… all extraordinary! I fear that I’m traveling a bit to early, but I promise that I will explore my options and I appreciate the reminder to check. Keep your fingers crossed for me!


Again, my thanks to all of you!

Last edited by kja; Jan 8th, 2019 at 06:37 PM.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 08:04 PM
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My 2 cents:
1) the more French you can learn, the better you'll be welcomed. There are now lots of translating devices coming on the market that can aid you, some of which are two-way-conversational, almost seamless.
2) you can avoid noon cafe closures almost entirely by learning to use apps such as a) The Fork (used to be la forchette) b) TripAdvisor maps (enter a village, find out where restaurants are, look up their reviews and websites)
3) if you're interested in Roman stuff, look into Glanum, near St Remy, or Vaison la Romaine
4) what interested you about Gigondas?
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Jan 8th, 2019, 08:20 PM
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kja
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@ tomboy: thanks for your input!

1) I always work my way through at least 20 or 25 Pimsleur’s lessons before taking a trip. I have very little knack for languages, but I’ve been pleased with the results in various countries – including an earlier trip to France.

2) I don’t have a mobile phone and have no intention of getting one. I do use the Fork, google maps and other mapping options, TA, etc., both when planning and -- through a mini iPad -- once on the road. And I'll make sure to program my TomTom before leaving home.

3) I’m interested in Roman ruins, but not enough to do more than sample the best of the ones in this region. I’ve been fortunate to see quite a few Roman ruins in various parts of Europe. On my earlier thread, I noted that I've already been to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ephesus (among other sites), and so I haven't made Glanum or Vaison la Romaine priorities for this trip.

4) Your comment about Gigondas on my planning thread! Along with a comment from another Fodorite in her trip report. I'd love to hear more about why you felt a resonance with it.
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Jan 9th, 2019, 07:43 AM
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The "main square" in Gigondas is quite small - and there is very little else there - except wineries. However this square has a tasting "co-op" where you can taste many wines from the region. Our favorite restaurant in the area is also on the square.


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Jan 9th, 2019, 10:13 AM
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In Gigondas le Domaine des Girasols is held by a couple of american-french people. The wine is good, the property is very nice and people are nice too.
They have a very good vin liquoreux and obviously the usual Gigondas and some more.
We have been buying some wine there since more than 10 years. Albeit not every year.
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Jan 9th, 2019, 03:28 PM
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Originally Posted by StuDudley View Post
The "main square" in Gigondas is quite small - and there is very little else there - except wineries. However this square has a tasting "co-op" where you can taste many wines from the region. Our favorite restaurant in the area is also on the square.Stu

Dudley

Last year they had two co-ops.
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Jan 9th, 2019, 03:42 PM
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kja:

Consider a smartphone: Doesn't have to be the $1,000 latest/greatest. You can now buy one on E-Bay for say $100, and sell it back after your trip for $80. The smartest person I know did that. It does enable you to google a restaurant you're standing in front of, and see whether it's worth going inside. Or to find out what's around the corner. Or to stop outside a town you didn't pre-research that looks interesting, and find out more about it.

Gigondas. We stayed twice at a B&B run by a chocolatier a mile from Gigondas, using it as a base.It's a very pretty town, albeit small. The better restaurant (L'Oustalet) is rather pricey (probably 50 euro + wine), but the most fantastic meal I've ever had. Across the square is La Verre et Assiette (sp?); more reasonable, merely good food. Stop me, I'm being a snob. Anyway, eating outdoors on the square in the evening (with wine), felt so very francais.

We subsequently stayed twice at a B&B/mas outside Malaucene, the other side of the same mountain.

more?
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Jan 9th, 2019, 04:28 PM
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My understanding is that car insurance on cars in Italy is not the same as in France; and it's higher. I see no reason to drive via Ventimiglia to the Mercantour National Park. There are small roads going from Menton to that area with nice villages on the way:
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Jan 9th, 2019, 05:33 PM
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kja
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@ StuDudley, thibaut, & tomboy: I enjoy a good wine tasting, but not when I’m going to be driving so I think I might take Gigondas off my overly ambitious itinerary. That said … that meal at L'Oustalet does sound lovely, and I believe that’s Stu’s favorite restaurant in the area? I might have to rethink that part of my trip!

@ tomboy: More? Of course! I’m very greedy when it comes to planning my trips.

@ Michael: Oh, good point! I honestly hadn’t thought of the implications for car insurance. I will plan a route that remains entirely within France, and will look again at your trip report (and Stu’s itinerary and my many guidebooks) to come up with an alternative. And thanks again for the link to your stunning photgraphs!


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Jan 9th, 2019, 05:52 PM
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We must have passed by the National Park when we drove from Chamonix to Menton.
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Jan 9th, 2019, 06:22 PM
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We picked up some wine at the co-op in 2017. Caveau du Gigondas Where is the second one located??? Is it in the village or on the D7??


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