South of France in April?

Old Jan 5th, 2022, 02:17 PM
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South of France in April?

I am beginning to plan for a trip in mid-April, pandemic conditions and restrictions permitting of course. For this trip, I’m focused on places that are easy to reach, familiar rather than exotic, good food, and a variety of sights and sounds urban and natural. For these reasons, I am narrowing my list of options to Europe. High on the list is the Provence and Riviera regions of France.

This would be our first visit to the South of France. We’ve travelled to France multiple times but have not made it beyond the Paris region except for a visit to Chamonix. We will have 12 nights on the ground, and will be confined to public transportation. We are open to hiring a taxi or using another private-car-and-driver option if it will enhance our experiences and have done so on other trips to Europe.

Piquing our interests are:
- Avignon – Pope’s Palace, bridge, urban sites, etc.
- Arles – Roman ruins, urban sites, etc.
- Pont du Gard
- Nimes – Roman ruins
- Chateauneuf-du-Pape – wine tasting
- Les Baux-de-Provence – castle ruins, meal at L’Oustau de Baumaniere
- Luberon – Provencal villages
- Vernon Gorge - hiking
- Aix-en-Provence - Cezanne
- Cassis / Calenques
- Nice – Chagall, Matisse, urban sites, Mediterranean
- St. Paul de Vence / Grasse – hill towns
- Monaco
- Villefranche-sur-Mer
- Cap Ferrat - Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild
- Antibes – Picasso

I know, I know – We could spend a full month in the South of France and not cover all of our interests. And we do not intend to do so.

Bases: We are looking at three bases at this time: Avignon / Arles, Aix, and Nice. We’re open to adding a base somewhere in the Luberon or the hill towns near Nice, but not sure it is feasible without a car and whether it may be easier to visit on a day trip. Also torn between Avignon and Arles as a base.

Time allocation: We’re looking at 4-5 nights in Avignon or Arles, 2-3 in Aix, and 4 in Nice. Our initial thinking from the list above looks like.
- From Avignon or Arles, day trips to Pont du Gard, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and Les Baux in addition to visiting the two cities
- From Aix, a day trip to Cassis and the Calenques
- From Nice, day trips to Monaco, Villefrance-sur-Mer, and Cap Ferrat in addition to one-and-a-half to two days in the city.

Roman sites: How similar or redundant is Nimes compared to Arles? We also looked at Orange given its proximity to Avignon and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Wine tasting: Chateauneuf-du-Pape seems to be the easiest but I’ve been reading about the Cote du Rhone villages. If the experience is significantly better, we could take a day trip; would probably organize a private trip with our own driver given COVID if we go this route.

Non-urban places of interests: If we are only able to include one or two, which would you recommend for a setting and experience unique to this region? Luberon? Hill town near Nice? Somewhere else?

What do you think? Thanks in advance for your feedback.
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Old Jan 5th, 2022, 03:24 PM
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My wife & I have vacationed for 43 weeks in that region. See attached Itinerary.

A few comments:

Watch out for were you are on a Sunday - when most shops are closed & somtimes they pull down (graffiti covered) shutters over the storefronts so you can't even window shop. Aix, Arles, Avignon, Nimes, Chateauneuf du Pape, and even Nice will be somewhat dead/dreary on a Sunday. Many on Monday morning also. St Paul, Gordes & Roussillon (Luberon), Monaco, & St Remy should have a little more activity on Sunday.

I'm not a big fan of Monaco - too much concrete, congestion, noise, and glitz for me. There is a comment in my itinerary about visiting Monaco.

Not a fan of Grasse either (visited 3 times). There are perfume places in Eze & other spots in southeast France.

I'm also not a fan of the Gorge du Verdon - especially if you have visited the Grand Canyon in the US. It is about my 4th favorite Gorge in France. Plus the Gorge will consume a lot of time getting to/from and around. IMO, it will consume an entire day. Where are you hiking near the gorge??? There are many people on various boats traveling down the river - but it doesn't seem like a "casual" hiking place to me. It is a huge gorge and you drive around the rim, pull into the (too few) belvederes/lookouts, and gaze down at the river & across to the other side of the gorge.

IMO, Chateauneuf du Pape may underwhelm you. It's a C+ village (IMO) with lots of wine tasting shops. Tasting wine in France is nothing like tasting wine in the US (if that's where you are from). Chateauneuf seems more like a collection of jewelry shops where you walk in, sit down at a table with a host, taste some wine - and then get a little intimidated into purchasing a few bottles. A better idea is to visit Beaucastel, take a tour (reserve ahead - very interesting), taste some wine, wander through the vineyards, and then leave. See my itinerary for details.

Are you planning on visiting one of the wonderful farmer's markets in that region? See my itinerary for recommendations.

Stu Dudley
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Old Jan 6th, 2022, 07:24 AM
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Without a car, you can probably eliminate places like Les Baux and the gorges of Verdon. Even the Pont du Gard is difficult by public transportation in April (easier in full summer season).
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Old Jan 6th, 2022, 07:51 AM
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Also, the hill villages in the Luberon would be hard to visit without a car.

Stu Dudley
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Old Jan 6th, 2022, 11:40 AM
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@StuDudley, thank you for your feedback. Yes, we enjoy markets and plan on checking out some of the farmers' markets in the region. We are not thinking about planning our itinerary around it though. In terms of Sundays, we will be there on Easter Sunday and the one following. Not sure if the Easter holiday makes it better or worse in terms of openings and closings.

@kerouac, thank you. Is April too early in the season to get a good mix of experiences in this part of France relying on public transportation? As I said initially, I am okay with hiring a taxi or car with driver to enhance our itinerary, but if the time of year would limit our itinerary to the major cities, we would probably reconsider visiting until we are able to go later.
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Old Jan 6th, 2022, 01:23 PM
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Most things will be closed on Easter Sunday. But I believe that the Sunday Farmer's market in l'Isle sur la Sorgue "happens" on Easter Sunday.; Hotel reservations might be an issue also. Too bad you won't have a car because Easter Sunday would be a good day for a scenic countryside drive.

Stu Dudley
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Old Jan 6th, 2022, 10:23 PM
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I can't imagine things being closed on Sunday because it is Easter. Generally anything that is open on Sundays is open on Easter Sunday since Easter is not a big deal in France. Easter used to be considered the beginning of the tourist season in France before the masses of people began to visit at any time of year. Now some of the minor sites tend to take the month of January off, but that's about it.
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Old Jan 7th, 2022, 09:13 AM
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Tripplanner001: May I ask, why your restriction to public transportation? That leaves a lot on the table.
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Old Jan 7th, 2022, 10:12 AM
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@StuDudley and @kerouac, thank you.

@tomboy, I am open to taxis and private tours, not just public transportation. We have never driven and are not licensed.
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Old Jan 7th, 2022, 11:57 AM
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T.P.001--OK. No cars. Got it.
Don't know your budget, but...if I were you, I'd contact a few TI's (tourist information offices) to see if they might know someone who could drive you around for a few days in each area. Surely, there's a laid-off waiter who'd be happy to drive you for a few days on a cash basis.
You appear to have researched your interests pretty well (you might add St. Remy d Provence, which has the ruins of a Roman village 6 miles south), so if you know what you'd LIKE to see, getting there is the main obstacle.
Seen one coliseum, seen them all, at least when time is precious.
Me, I like the Luberon. Gigondas, a nice proto-typical village, with L'Oustalet fine restaurant., and a tasting shop to boot.
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Old Jan 7th, 2022, 12:58 PM
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Another vote for Gigondas and the Luberon villages, including the circular route round the Dentelles de Montmirail. St Rémy de Provence too, we greatly enjoyed the walk from the town to Van Gogh’s asylum, following some of the landscapes the artist painted. The asylum visit itself is very moving, the tranquil surroundings belying that tragic and tortured life.

I also second Stu’s suggestion of a visit to the Beaucastel winery, they also have a tasting room in Châteauneuf du Pape where you can buy their wines. The ruins of the old château above the town are also interesting, though the actual town isn’t very much.
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Old Jan 7th, 2022, 05:05 PM
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We did not rent a car, so were, of course, limited, but found some things super easy by local bus and train. I hope this helps you. While I have liked to go further a field, DH did not feel like driving that trip and Arles, Aix and the Camarque were the main focus anyway, and it was lovely.

We stayed in Aix for a couple of days, loved it so much, we returned at the end of out trip. We could have easily gone by train or bus to Marseilles, but enjoyed rambling around Aix and had been to Marseille before, so did not go, but it is possible.

We took the train from Aix to Nimes, then a bus to Aigues Mortes. It was long, but pretty easy and cheap. I don’t remember the details. We stayed in Aigues Mortes inside the walls, and took a combo boat and van tour of the Camarque. We absolutely loved this part of the trip and were so glad we were there in the evenings with few tourists and no crowds. Dinner in St Louis Square is a favorite memory.

We took a taxi to Arles where we based for several nights. We wanted to check into our apartment in time to go to the Saturday market in Arles and a taxi was a splurge, but made sure that was possible. The market there is one of my favorites, especially for stocking up on food for the week.

From Arles, one day we took the train into Avignon, less than 20 minute ride and about $6.00. Toured the day and had lunch. Took a local bus around Avignon for sightseeing, walked, had dinner, etc.

We took a bus from Arles to Les Baux, about a 35 minute ride and nice to see the countryside. It was $3.00 or a bit more. It was perfect. We caught the bus right outside the train station in Arles. We spent a few hours and caught the bus back to Arles.

Some things to note:
Local, so called, workers’ buses may run only on weekdays. They are good and cheap. Be sure to read the schedules and days carefully.
There may be senior discounts, even a free day. Don’t know your age, but ask about them.
Check travel times for trains. Two may depart at nearly the same time, but one makes a lot of stops and the other is an express. From Arles to Avignon may take 16 minutes or an hour.

When we were there, there was a tourist type bus service that did circular trips from Avignon to Les Baux to Arles to Avignon. Another ran the circle in reverse. It ran several times a day, really convenient for touring. I think we got information about it at a tourist info place.
I also found a different website, in French, that seemed more comprehensive. If you do not find it, I will try.

https://www.rome2rio.com/map/Arles-S...e#r/Line-5485-

https://www.rome2rio.com/map/Avignon...ux-de-Provence

https://www.rome2rio.com/map/Avignon/Arles
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Old Jan 8th, 2022, 04:29 AM
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Originally Posted by Sassafrass View Post
We did not rent a car, so were, of course, limited, but found some things super easy by local bus and train. I hope this helps you. While I have liked to go further a field, DH did not feel like driving that trip and Arles, Aix and the Camarque were the main focus anyway, and it was lovely.
Sassafrass, thanks so much for this detailed post, I never knew one could see/do so
much in rural France using trains and buses! My sister and I decided against Dordogne and Languedoc for this April/May as we don’t want to rent a car, but your post encourages me to research this some more…
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Old Jan 8th, 2022, 06:44 AM
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@tomboy and @geetika, thank you for your suggestions. Looks like some use of a car will be necessary in Provence. We will look into a combination of a driver and shorter taxi rides where buses aren't available during this time of year.

@Sassafrass, thanks so much. What month did you visit? Seems like some of the options you used, like Arles to Les Baux, are not available until later in the season.

Do folks have a preference between Avignon and Arles as a base? While I've read that Avignon is better for public transport, it may not matter as some of the handy buses aren't running this early in the season and we would be able to access trains and taxis from either Avignon or Arles.

It also seems like it will be easier to get around the Riviera from a base in Nice using trains, except perhaps for the inland hill towns. Would someone be able to confirm?

If we divided our 12 nights between 8 for Provence and 4 for the Riviera, given our interests, how does it feel? Should we reallocate a night for the Riviera? I know there is no correct answer. Just looking for a good mix.
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Old Jan 8th, 2022, 07:05 AM
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Hi tripplanner001,

One option you may want to consider is taking a small-group tour instead of using a taxi or driver. I spent several days in Arles without a car, and I arranged a small tour in a small van with about 5 other people; we went to the Abbeye, Gordes, & Roussillon. You can find such shared tours (private tours are much more expensive) just by googling, or at toursbylocals.com, getyourguide.com, or Viator.


For geetika -- I have the same suggestion for you-- take a look at some local shared tours. I did some research for a future trip, and I found Ophorus tours has a very nice selection of offerings for the Dordogne.

Have fun as you plan!

s
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Old Jan 8th, 2022, 08:56 AM
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https://www.tripsavvy.com/arles-fran...ovence-1507925

We were there in September. I think some bus routes did stop in mid-late September. If the numbers for the tourist office are still correct, and if they are open, they should be able to help. As I recall, the person we rented from also gave us a lot of help.
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Old Jan 8th, 2022, 09:33 AM
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Found some old notes. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything current. The old schedule showed weekend runs from Arles to Les Baux did not start until May. Weekday did not start until June. They ended in September, so we got in just under the wire. It won’t work for you in April, even if they are running. I wonder if a lot of those things are not running anyway because of Covid.
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Old Jan 8th, 2022, 10:24 AM
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Regarding touring without a car, you may find it easier out of Avignon, where many tours are based and where there are many public transit connections (they are not just seasonal, although coverage may be reduced on weekends). As others wrote, getting places can be difficult with a car. There are still some businesses in the Provencal countryside that mark Easter as their opening week.

Nice would make more sense as a base given your transport limitation. You can get to small towns in the hills via buses or bus/train connection, but not all are convenient. For example, you can go to St. Paul de Vence and Vence via the bus. But going beyond into the hills say to Tourettes-sur-Loup requires a connection to the local line (and service on these local lines during the week is more frequent than on the weekends). Eze is an easy bus ride (the train goes far below the main village and there is a steep climb up the steps).. In some cases, you can take the train, like to the hill towns along the border. There are also year-round tours and plenty of private tour companies. (We have a place in Nice and rely on public transport)
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Old Jan 8th, 2022, 02:05 PM
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@swandav2000 and @Sassafrass, thank you for this feedback.

@gooster, thank you for the additional information. Knowing that more tours are based in Avignon is helpful. Also good to know that Nice will be a convenient base. If only we had more days...
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Old Jan 8th, 2022, 02:53 PM
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We spent 2 weeks in Nice a few years ago (many weeks/months in Nice in the 3 decades before that). It took us a couple of days to figure out the bus system, and we took the bus to most destinations in & around Nice. See my itinerary for a way to get a peek of Monaco as you ride by it on the bus to get elsewhere. Generally - we took the bus to all destinations east of Nice (Villefranche, Cap Ferrat, Rothschild villa,, Monaco, Menton) and the train to destinations west (Antibes). Biot is hard to get to, and we bypassed Cannes on this trip). We rented a car the second week and visited the hill villages behind Nice - although we've also rented Gites in that region for 5 weeks.

Here is my wife's Shutterfly book for that trip
https://stududley.shutterfly.com/28

Click "Full screen"
Because of Shutterfly enhancements, captions & titles are oftern missing or truncaded.
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