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Please help sort out the order of seeing places in Provence

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Have read tons of stuff on Provence for a couple of years, but kept having to delay a trip. Thought we might never get there, but last week those cheap, XLFrance direct flights popped up and impulsively, I booked JFK to Marseilles. I'm usually pretty laid back and know things will work out fine, but right now I am stressed because I gave myself four days to firm up an itinerary so I can book lodging, and can't seem to do it

First problem: Arrival in Marseille is at 3:30 A.M. Thursday, June 6. All the other times were fine and price so good, I didn't pay attention to this. There are no lounges at the airport and shuttles do not run between 3:00 A.M. and 5:00 A.M.
1. Taxi to an airport hotel (or stay at one in the airport) and try to get five or six hours sleep. Issue is, I hate to pay for a hotel for only a few hours, and by time we get there, with check out at 11:00, it seems a waste. Also, 3:30 A.M. will be only 8:30 P.M. US time, and I doubt we will even be sleepy.

2. Go to Aix, but would prefer to end our trip there for the flight home. Don't want to backtrack and go twice, but could go on to Avignon from Aix and do Arles at the end of trip.

3. Don't really want to go to Marseilles this time and hate to backtrack there since the airport is Northwest, right on the way to Arles and Avignon.

4. Catch first train possible to Arles, but afraid the day would be exhausting if we can't get into a hotel earlier in the day.
Any ideas on how to rescue this first day?

We have 13 days on the ground (including that first day), Depart 9:00 A.M. on June 19.

Would prefer to use trains as much as possible with busses when necessary, but know we'll need a car for part of the time.
We can walk and meander for long hours, but not hikers and find one or two major sights are enough for a day.
Enjoy one or two markets, but that is plenty. Don't want that to be a focus instead of the charming towns.
Love Roman ruins, gardens and plants, cafés, art, boating
Unfortunately (especially in Provence, I know), we are not too sophisticated when it comes to wine, so not important.

Important question. It is early for peak blooms, but wonder if near the end of our trip, lavender would be blooming and if we should rethink any of it to include drive to Sault area?

June 13 is DH's birthday and, if at all possible, I would like to spend that one night in Aigues Mortes. It looks as if we need the car (hate to have it just parked) or do it from Nimes if we stay there as a base. If that doesn't work, when is best to fit Aigues Mortes in, and anything else you might suggest that would make for a wonderful 70th birthday - besides just being in France?

Places we think we would like to see
Arles for three or four days, Van Gogh sights, Sat market, Roman sights
Aix-en-Provence (have been there and love it- would like two days at the end - or beginning of trip).
Pont du Gard
Aigues Mortes (possibly the Camargue)
Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (probably not on market day)
Nimes (for the Romans sights)
Les Baux
St Remy?
Cassis? Love the sea, but is this too out of the way?
We are thinking to do most of the sights in a week or so and rent a chamber-d'Hote or gite for a few days in the Luberon to chill and paint - lots of places I've found are available and look to have lovely views, gardens stone walls, etc. Perhaps combine this with some of the sight seeing. What do you think? Any place better?

Thurs, June 6, Arrive Marseilles, 3:30 A.M.
June 6, 7,8,9,10,11,12, Open
Thursday, June 13, Aigues Mortes
June 14,15,16,17, 18 Open
June 18 - late evening back to airport hotel or night in Aix before
June 19, 9:00 A.M. flight

Thanks for reading this and for any and all help, advice, suggestions.

  • Report Abuse

    Your 13 days minus time in Aix and Arles = 8 days minus 2 days in the Luberon = 6 days.

    You have 14 places that you want to see.

    Get a map of provence, use viamichelin to check the distances.

    It's farther than you think.

    Personally I don't see that it's possible in the time allotted.

    I really don't see it being possible using trains or buses.

    I'd start culling your choices asap.

  • Report Abuse

    Guess I wasn't too clear.
    Since many people seem to see the major sights in a week or so from one or two bases, I'm trying to figure out the best way to group places and the best bases - hope to make the best choice possible.

    Know that is a lot of places named, but some are only a few minutes apart and people seem to see two or three villages in one day. I figure we will plan for two or three, but if we get tired, we can call it quits whenever we want.

    If we stay 3 days in Arles, I expected to do day trips from there.

    Aix first, then car in Luberon (to visit smaller villages), Aigues Mortes and finish with Arles?

    Arles first, train to Nimes, get car for Aigues Mortes, then to base in Luberon and end in Aix?

    Some other grouping or itinerary that would work better?

    Thanks for opinions or suggestions.

  • Report Abuse

    I'm a little confused as I don't understand how you think you could get to Aix at 4:00 am even if you wanted to?

    I think your best option is to get the first train to Arles. I don't think trains run before about 5:30-6, but that gives you plenty of time to get to wherever you plan to catch that train (I'm not clear, Vitrolles or in Marseille?). You'll have maybe an hour or a bit more to wait around if it is Vitrolles, but that's not too bad. I'm assuming you get out of the plane and immigration by 4 am. In fact, a lot of people would want to build in an hour cushion to catch a train upon arrival, anyway.

    I think you will have to figure out your stamina and patterns, hopefully, from travelling before. Because it is a little contradictory to think you couldn't fall asleep at 4:30 am because it will be only 9:30 your time (you know you are not getting to any hotel by 3:30 am which is when you land), and then say you don't think you could stand going to Arles because you want to get to a hotel sooner. In fact, they say the best method is to get onto local time, so going to bed to sleep for maybe 5 hours sounds like a decent option to me. Also, lots of hotels do not have check-out at 11 am, many do at noon (eg, Comfort Inn Vitrolles). Also, even if it is only 9:30 pm your home time, I think you will be able to sleep as traveling can be exhausting, even if you aren't doing much, it seems to me. Maybe just don't sleep a lot on the plane.

    So I'd either stay in the airport hotel upon arrival until noon or go to Arles ASAP and wait around a little bit to do that. Of course, if you choose that option, you realize you will not be able to check into your hotel in Arles that early, most likely. You could get lucky. I could be off, but it looks like the first train from Vitrolles to Arles is at 6:14 am (which is direct, so that's good). And you arrive around 7 am. But that means hanging around the airport/train station about 2 hrs. I don't think it takes long to get to the train station from the airport, maybe 5-10 min.

    I'm surprised a plane even lands at 3:30 am, actually, but since you booked that, I think you are going to have to do something which isn't ideal, of course.

  • Report Abuse

    I think it's pretty clear on any map how to group things. Arles probably deserves a full day (especially if it's market day). The Lubéron villages deserve a day. St-Rémy,Les Baux, Pont du Gard, and Uzès can make up a full day.

    I would scratch Nîmes. There's plenty of Roman ruins in Arles, and then of course there's Glanum, which beats anything in Nîmes by a long shot.

    <<Aigues Mortes (possibly the Camargue)>> I'm a little confused about this, as Aigues-Mortes is in the Camargue. But of course there's lots more to see and do there, though Aigues-Mortes is a winner.

  • Report Abuse

    "I'm surprised a plane even lands at 3:30 am"
    I am too...

    Even moreso how one books a JFK to MRS flight getting into MRS at 3:30 with the early U.S. flights not getting into CDG until about 6:00 a.m.

  • Report Abuse

    As I recall, we arrived MRS and departed TLS and cover all of what you show, but we had 2/full weeks on the ground and had a vehicle, which wasn't all that expensive for an automatic. Used Aix, St. Remy (most time here to head east, north, south and west), Nimes, Carcassone and Toulouse as bases. Unless we were spending a day or two at one of our base-towns, we were on the road most every other day by 8:30am, back at hotel for dinner if we didn't eat out somewhere (we often did). It was rather easy, all 1,000 miles (not km). Only once we paid for parking, otherwise found space on the streets (and never a ticket... whooow, lucky us).

    One day travel partner and myself got separated (had different interests) yet everyone in Avignon knew there were two 'lost' Americans, but the local tourist office managed to get us back together... rather funny in the end. Another time lost in the vineyards, which was rather interesting... so we just stopped at each and bent our elbows. And this was before everyone had mobile phones.

    Had to laugh, your reference to the villages in the Luberon 'they're only a few minutes apart!' Really? Not if you want to spend any time in any of them. First to find the town, where to park, walk about, back to car, move on to the next.

    Believe you've got to omit some of what you indicate, and not be depending on local buses or trains.

    As above, use a map, group towns in each area and then cut, cut, cut (after checking local bus/train schedules) if you don't drive.

  • Report Abuse

    You are very much like us. We were in Provence last year and I suffered the rath of the "it's with a car or don't go" Fodorites.

    Rather than go over my head and make suggestions I can tell you what we did and what I liked and din't.

    We did not and do not rent a car in Europe. We travel mostly by train and are just starying to take buses. My wife suffers from motion sickness and she has started to fortify herself and that has been successful.

    We landed in Marseille (thanfully not at 3AM) and took a shuttle bus to Aix. We stayed there for a day before bussing to Aivgnon which then served as our base for about 8 days. We loved Aix and I can see us going back on a future trip if it works out.

    I wasn't overly excited with Avignon though it's pleasant enough. However, it prooved to be and excellent base as our hotel (inside the wall on the main street) was two minutes from the train station and only a couple more to that disgusting bus terminal.

    We to a bus to St Remy and back. Not one of our favorite places.

    We took a bus to Pont du Gard (planned this for a Saturday as we were still on the spring (mid-June) schedule and the bus only goes into the parking lot on weekends). Pont du Gard is definitely worth the trip.

    From PduG we took the same bus route on to Uzes. We were really taken with this very clean town. Unfortunately Saturday is market day and the main square was covered in market. Would definitely go back to see it again.

    As it turns out I made a mistake by planning to be in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on market day (Sunday). What appears to be a beautiful town was overrun with the market. Too bad.

    On Monday we were off to Arles by train. I had read several negative comments about Arles. We really enjoyed the part of a day we were there.

    At one point I left my wife to wander around the stores and walked (don't do that as it's quite far) to the Van Gogh Bridge. Worth the time but not the hot walk by myself.

    Arles was a very pleasant surprise.

    For Tuesday we booked a minivan tour to Luberon villages. There's always a temptation to take a tour that goes everywhere either by cramming them in or by making it a full day. In retrospect I'm glad we took one that made 3 stops: Les Baux, Gordes and Roussillon (not in that order).

    This was an excellent choice and we really enjoyed it. Of course we had to live with the schedule and you always want more time but life is a compromise.

    By not driving on our own the good is that we didn't have to find the towns, park the car, walk back to the car and hope it was not vandalized. The bad is that we were on somebody else's schedule and might have been nice not keeping an eye on the time to get back to the minivan on time.

    We made a quick stop at the Abbey but the lavender was not yet in bloom. However, en route the driver / guide noticed a lavender field that was much more advanced and she made a 15 minute stop and we got out and wandered thru the field. Probably made somebody quite unhappy.

    The next day (Wed) we trained to Montpellier. What piqued my interest was a comment on a thread that described Montpellier as the most underrated city (don't remember if that was in the country or the area).

    Within 5 minutes of leaving the train station we knew this is a special place. Beautiful city from what we saw.

    We are thinking of planning another trip to the south of France and this time using Montpellier as a base. If we do that Uzes could very well be part of the itinerary.

    We spent our last day wandering Avignon and across the bridge to Villeneuve-les-Avignon. A very nice suburb. Spent an hour or so wandering here.

    We then took a late afternoon TGV to Paris to spend our last 4 days.

    What would I do differently?
    Either skip St Remy or make sure not to go just after noon when it was "dead".
    Not go to Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Uzes on market days.

  • Report Abuse

    Thanks everybody.

    StCirq, I value your opinions immensely. I had read a lot about Aigues-Mortes, then I saw your suggestion to someone else, and made it definite - also marked some of your restaurant suggestions. Per your advice - will skip Nimes.

    MrNuke, It is always good to be skeptical when something doesn't jive with what you know.

    XLFrance starts their Summer schedule June 5 - non-stop flights - JFK to Marseilles. Last week it was $608, RT.

    June 5, 1:55 P.M. depart JFK
    June 6, 3:30 A.M. Arrive Marseilles.

    Even if I had thought about the 3:30 A.M. arrival, at that price, non-stop, I would have booked it. Returns times are perfect.
    June 19, 9:00 A.M. depart Marseilles
    June 19, 11:50 A.M. arrive JFK

    I absolutely do plan on renting a car, but it seems a few people manage without. What I am trying to do is figure out exactly when we need a car and group those places and the best starting and ending places without the car.

    Christina, my first thought had been to go straight to Arles from Vitrolles. Then I thought, perhaps we would be too tired and should stay in a hotel near the airport and get some sleep. Then we kept thinking, we know Aix, and it might be a good place to start. OK, too much analyzing pros/cons: settled - first idea - straight to Arles - probably end in Aix.

    I have a huge map and have read countless trip reports - where people visit three places in one day: Pont du Gard, Uses, and Nimes, for example.

    Sandi, Some people put St Remy, Les Baux, Pont du Gard and Uzes all in one long day. I am for sure not up to that kind of day, but I thought perhaps one or two a day, choose the ones most important to us first and play it by ear. We are not going West of Aigues-Mortes, North of Orange or East of Aix, so not nearly the distances you did. We have 13 days overall, at least five days for the Luberon part of the trip. Does that sound better?

    So, how does this fly?
    4 nts - Arles (day trip to Avignon by train)
    Pick up car in Arles
    3 nts - Les Baux (area)
    1 nt - Aigues-Mortes
    3 nts Gordes (area)
    return car in Aix
    2 nts - Aix

    Logistically, I know it would make more sense to put Aigues-Mortes right after Arles. I know it is backtracking to put it in the middle, but really wanted to be there on the 13th. If that is totally ridiculous, please say so.

    Sorry to sound so confused and apprehensive. I use to land in new places with minimal travel plans and no lodging booked. It was fun and exciting, but required an energy that with age and illness, I no longer have. Now, I'm a worrier.

    I understand now how confused people can feel about a new place. If this were anyplace, even new places, in Italy or Spain, I wouldn't even be asking or thinking about this so much. I now have great sympathy for people asking about Tuscany or the AC.

    Thanks for you replies and patience.

  • Report Abuse

    Myer, I can not thank you enough. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences. That is exactly the help and opinions I needed. We love trains, not fond of busses and hate bothering with a car if we don't have to. You are right - always a compromise, but we each get what we can from travel. I will do it if I have to, but am terrified of high, winding, Cliffside, mountain roads, and don't think DH is quite as good a driver as he used to be and thinks he is still. I do want to see a few hill towns, so we will take it easy and drive only during day.

    I know I will love Arles but was questioning St Remy. We love Naples, Italy and Ghent, Belgium, so slightly gritty, lively cities appeal to us. I want to avoid market days - will make notes of that.

    Uzes is on my "must see" list. My original plan was to fly into Montpellier which does look lovely.

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    That would explain it. I even checked a couple of sites like ITA and kayak that wouldn't show someone like XL and even skyscanner that I would've thought would. Congrats on a good deal and enjoy the trip!

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    sass -
    >>Sandi, Some people put St Remy, Les Baux, Pont du Gard and Uzes all in one long day.<<

    Sure would be one long day as two are located south of St. Remy and the others to the northwest... I wouldn't even consider that.

    We used St. Remy as a base, not for the town itself, but it was smaller than Arles; St. Remy also did have two good Chinese restaurants (Vietnamese owners, of course), one of which actually did 'delivery' feeling as if back home and when bored with local cuisine. Being smaller it was also easier to get in/out of town going in all directions. When departing here, onto Nimes area then south to Carcassone and ending at Toulouse.

    We avoided market days mostly as the towns were busy, difficult to navigate with closed streets, besides the same vendors were at all of them as we did bump into a few we had seen a day or two before somewhere. Much like street fairs in NYC.

    We did a day north to Orange and the Chateuduneuf du Pape vineyards (got lost here, but drank our way out); two days enjoying the Luberon villages to the east; north & northwest to Avignon (again separated/lost... fun! fun!), also Uzes and Pont du gard (did late afternoon with the sun setting on the bridge and few tourists... beautiful), returning to give in our Chinese food delivery order :); another south of Remy thru Les Baux and Arles. Farther south another day to the Camarque and Aigues Mortes. Roman ruins everywhere.

    Concluding all into the Languedoc region splitting remaining days as above - Carcassone and Toulouse.

    The amended routing does seem better and at an easier pace.

  • Report Abuse

    <<Christina, my first thought had been to go straight to Arles from Vitrolles. Then I thought, perhaps we would be too tired and should stay in a hotel near the airport and get some sleep. Then we kept thinking, we know Aix, and it might be a good place to start. OK, too much analyzing pros/cons: settled - first idea - straight to Arles - probably end in Aix.>>

    yes, but perhaps I missed it, but you didn't say HOW you intended to get to Aix. There isn't any way to get to Aix faster than to Arles or at 4 am. Trains and buses won't run that early in the morning and no car rental place will be open. Were you planning on taking a taxi all the way to Aix from MRS?

    I figured those discount airlines could have special schedules, maybe they get some deal with the airport that way that is cheaper than regular airlines, landing rights. It's just that some airports aren't even open in the middle of the night, but guess MRS is.

    >>Sandi, Some people put St Remy, Les Baux, Pont du Gard and Uzes all in one long day.<<
    Sure would be one long day as two are located south of St. Remy and the others to the northwest... I wouldn't even consider that.>>

    I agree with that, I am amazed anyone would or could do all that in one day, regardless of the directions. What's the point of going to these places just to do a drive-by, anyway? You are supposed to be going there to see something, which means spending some time. I would have guessed someone might want to see some of their prime attractions (such as the Van Gogh asylum in St Remy and that historic chateau in Uzes), no just drive through the street once. And Les Baux is solely a historic attraction that takes some time, there is literally no other reason to go there, you don't go for the food or because it's on your way anywhere.

    So I wouldn't do that, either. I think you may not realize that St Remy isn't a city so you can't really compare it to Ghent or Naples. And when you compare it to gritty cities, I think you are really misunderstanding what it is or its size. It is a village or small town, there isn't even a train station. It isn't gritty, it's full of rich people, anyway, and expensive shops. Princess Caroline of Monaco used to love spending time there, for example, not sure if she still does.j I wouldn't go there for any reason other than the Van Gogh interest myself as otherwise, there is nothing special about it (to me, some people really like it, but there are many other small towns in France, although some poeple like it exactly because it has shops with expensive goods).

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