Traveling to Provence by car: here we go with 4 routes taking between 7 and 20 days, among sweet-smelling villages, natural parks, food, wine and lavender. And your life will never be the same again.
My love for southern France has never been a secret and my unresolved issues with the Provence landscape and lavender are by now part of my vocabulary.
Yet, that’s not enough for me, I want them to become part of your vocabulary too… this way we’ll be sharing the same kind of memories. What do you think about it? It’s not a bad idea at all, isn’t it?
Here are some tips for your trip to Provence, following one of the most beautiful car routes in the wold, especially if you go there between May and the beginning of October, because of the colours, flavours, seasoned food and events.
Besides suggesting this route, I will also give you some tips about possible detours or paths for you to take if you’ve planned a trip lasting less than ten days, for a total of 4 slightly different routes according to your tastes and the time you have available.
(spoiler: at the end of the article you’ll find 4 routes divided by stopovers and number of days)
If you’re travelling from Italy by car, you’ll clearly choose the route that passes through Liguria and the Maritime Alps; by doing so, you’ll start getting used to the extremely fascinating landscapes that simply don’t seem real and you won’t get scared by so much beauty all at once when you get to the Provence area.
The first stop I recommend you take is not in Provence but still in Côte d’Azur-Maritime Alps, and it’s not Nice.
Hold on driving a little longer and put on some good music; this way you can resist for about 70 km from the Italian border (68 km from Ventimiglia). And then you’ll get to…
I liked this small town so much that I set my still unpublished novel here. Apart from this useless anecdote, the old town surrounded by bastions is cosy and interesting.
There ‘s also a museum dedicated to Picasso here, where many of his most important works are on display.
Spending an afternoon walking along the sea stacks and watching both the Maritime Alps and the sea from there is really worth a stop.
Get back in the car and drive along the coast for a while.
Proceed towards Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, which is 130 km far (less than two hours drive).
This village perched between two astonishing cliffs crossed by a stream boasts many small shops that sell faïences, a special kind of local majolica, small places where you can enjoy typical dinners and… a golden star hung between two rocks that dominate the small town.
Apparently, this was a gift from a knight who couldn’t believe he had made it back home from the Crusades; for this reason, he dedicated the golden star to the Holy Mary.
Yet, I’ve brought you here especially because this small village provides easy access to the wonderful…
Regional natural park of Verdon
Dry and lush green areas take turns in this park, as well as ravines and canyons with rocks plunging into the crystal-clear water of the Sainte-Croix lake.
If you want to spend less time in the car driving from one stop to the other, there’s also another closer stop you can take to access the gorgeous park of Verdon coming from Antibes, that is passing by the stunning
It has been listed among the 10 most beautiful villages in France, or named also “Village in the sky” for its location, which seems to be suspended between the earth and the sky.
Around June 20 (21st this year), this village hosts the Fête de la musique whereas, on the first August weekend every year, a very local feast takes place here, with traditional street food and old dances in historical costumes.
From the park of Verdon, you absolutely (and I mean it) have to go to…
Valensole with its plateau is one of the biggest municipalities in France. This place is sunny almost 300 days a year, with a dry wind that makes your hair look as if you’ve just got out of the hairdresser’s, so to speak.
This area is mainly devoted to growing lavender and cereals. The view is really peculiar due to the colours that take on different shades and intensity according to the season, ranging from the white of the snow and almond trees during winter and at the beginning of spring, to the thousand nuances of blue-lilac-dark pink that take turns during the year, along with the gold of the corn.
This is the best place to admire the view of the lavender fields and take pictures, to taste the food prepared with this plant and, for those who pass by here around the second week of July, there’s also the lavender festival (this year the feast will reach its climax on July 15).
Lavender, Provence women and our imagination:
let me make a brief aside, please.
The legend goes that a fairy, called Lavandula, cried when she saw how arid the Provence area was and her teardrops, blue like her eyes, contaminated the area with prairies of blue nuances (lavender, to be precise) and gave local women the same look of the fairy, who was blonde with blue eyes.
What if I told you that women from Provence have influenced our imagination?
As a matter of fact, the freaking Petrarca fell in love exactly with a woman from Provence (Laura, if she’s ever existed, was from Avignon). As some of you might know, but not everybody, the poetry of Petrarca imposed some standards of beauty throughout the West; actually, from Petrarca on, all of a sudden all representations of the Holy Mary that were earlier typically dark and middle eastern, featured a clear complexion and became almost albino. This is the reason why tall-blonde-with blue eyes is on average the highest standard of female beauty for our imagination (damned Petrarca).
Let’s get back on the road, and in less than an hour drive from Valensole we get to…
Aix en Provence
Also called “the city of a thousand fountains”, this university town is rich in culture and good vibes.
Cours Mirabeau is the main junction between the old and the modern part of town.
Besides its fountains (not really a thousand), places to eat and fast-food restaurants, it is worth visiting the atelier Cezanne, who was born and lived here most of his life.
Note: You can easily and quickly get to Aix en Provence by landing in Marseille, which is definitely worth a visit by the way and it’s only 33 km far.
85 km away or a little longer than an hour drive from Aix en Provence, there’s another must-see place, the
Natural park of Camargue
You can’t miss it and you need to spend a least a day here.
The park is one of the most beautiful protected natural areas in Europe, with its pink flamingos, its cane and rice fields, black bulls and white horses (which according to me are actually undercover unicorns) and lavender covered with glasswort.
After this stop, go up again for about an hour drive and, regardless of the fact that this route might seem insane, go to…
Located in the Provence area of the Vaucluse, this town owes much of its valuable architecture to the so-called period of Avignon captivity, the strategic time when the Papacy moved to Avignon in order to avoid another schism in the church. The Popes Palace is certainly the most representative building in the history of town, which offers interesting views and features several worth visiting museums.
Yet, my concern for Avignon is not related to old art, but to the stunning and legendary Festival of Avignon, an annual theatre festival held in mid July in the theatres of town (“inside” festival) and down the street (“outside” festival). The festival revolves around puppet shows and actors’ theatre, as well as classic and experimental theatre, and it is a must-see destination every year!
Just a little detour: Should you like to follow the coast of the Rhone heading south, you can pass by Arles, a place worth visiting even just for its atmosphere that was an inspiration to Van Gogh, Picasso and many other artists during their most productive periods.
A really gorgeous and peculiar town. Besides, wine lovers will like to know that the areas of the Côte du Rhone offer excellent and particularly full-bodied white wines, with grapes that are still harvested strictly by hand.
It seems the galets, flat and smooth cobbles that cover the land, give the grapes that typical density, which is generally unusual for white wines.
Speaking of wine, a good alternative route can be going upriver (possibly landing in Marseille to get to the Rhone) and then head towards the Camargue park, where you’ll taste excellent, full-bodied rosé wines. Once you have tasted the Sable de Camargue you can set off to Arles and then Avignon.
Nîmes, a city in the Occitaine region, is half an hour drive from Avignon. The city had quite an important role in the Roman empire, and this is evident in the extremely well preserved monuments dating back to the Imperial age, such as theAmphitheatre, the Maison Carrée, the Tour Magne, the Arles gate, the remains of the Temple of Diana, and the Gard bridge, a very important engineering construction.
The beauty of Nîmes lies also in its fervent contemporary cultural life.
Montpellier, a place you simply can’t miss, is one hour drive from Nîmes.
It’s just 10 km away from the sea, half way between Italy and Spain, no wonder it’s one of the most visited French destinations by young undergraduates and workers of the nation.
Full of history and places offering live music, typical food (somewhat dramatically similar to Spanish food), feasts and all-round culture, I believe Montpellier is the right town to finally fall in love with southern France.
Just joking, I bet you’ll already feel in love with it after the first 5 km.
Let’s sum it up: the asides I made above suggested 4 possible routes:
#1 – 10, 20 days:
From Liguria to Antibes – Moustiers-Sainte-Marie – Park of Verdon – Velansole – Aix-en-Provence – Park of the Camargue – Avignon – Arles – Nîmes – Montpellier.
#2 – 15 days
Land in Nice, rent a car and drive towards Antibes + Tourtour (otherwise, drive straight to Tourtour if you want to quickly plunge into the atmosphere of Provence) – Park of Verdon – Velansole – Aix-en-Provence – Park of the Camargue – Avignon – Nîmes – Montpellier.
#3 – 10 days
Land in Marseille, rent a car and drive to Aix-en-Provence – Park of the Camargue – Avignon – Nîmes, Montpellier.
#4 – 7, 10 days (for wine lovers)
Land in Marseille, rent a car and drive to – Aix en Provence – Park of the Camargue – Arles, Avignon – Nîmes.