Driving in Southern France

Driving in Southern France

The South of France is a road traveler’s dream, with beautiful winding roads, sleepy towns that come alive on market days and endless stretches of beach. If you are in a hurry to get from one place to another, the toll roads are the best option. But they can get quite expensive fast and offer very little in the way of scenery. Getting out on the back roads may take more time, but you will be more than rewarded with the amazing views and much cheaper gas off the motorway.

The best time to take a lazy drive through these hilly landscapes at the bottom of the alps is spring, summer and autumn. In winter, the snow off of the Alps can get pretty fierce. Avignon is a fantastic place to start a journey. The town itself has plenty to offer and it is a great place to rent a car, get you bearings and prepare for a drive. It would be a good idea to have some kind of vague route in mind, but you can find accommodation pretty much anywhere along the way, even in small towns.

South-East of Avignon is L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue which is a tiny little town that is so quiet that you might pass it right by, unless you happen to be there on a weekend, when it can be almost impossible to even find a place to park. The town sits on a river, replete with water wheels, and it brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘picturesque’. The towns Sunday market, has been in operation every weekend since 1596.

Drive further east and you will come to the charming town of Roussillon which is set among dramatic red cliffs. This was once a part of Spain, and many of the people here speak Catalan. The coast here is very rugged and the views of the Alps simply awe inspiring. From here you have a choice. Either Marseilles and the beach towns of the Cote D’azure or the dramatic mountains above Aix en Provence. I’ll get to the coast later, but for now imagine that a you are headed into the mountains.

Heading north into the hills is one of the most spectacular drives in this region. The further that you get into the hills, the roads become like a corkscrew winding past mountain bluffs, scenic valleys and towering cliffs. You are now in the Alpes de Haute-Provence area and if you look very hard you might find the tiny town of Moustiers-Ste-Marie. This little village is perched on the edge of a cliff and it looks as though it may fall off at any time. But it has been there for hundreds of years. In fact, the town is famous for a type of ceramics called faïence which they have made for centuries. Take a drive down to Lac de Sainte Croix and have a dip in the very cold crystal clear waters. You can follow these roads east and eventually they will snake back down to the coast at Cannes or Nice, depending on what route you choose. This is the perfect way to do a round trip circle around the south of France.

The coast feels somewhat like the opposite of those rustic mountain villages that you have just passed through. Nice is a pleasant enough city to spend a day in, especially the bustling old quarter but there are so many other great little towns along this coast worth visiting. If you stay on the coast headed west, you will pass through the delightful town of Antibes and Jaun les Pins. Don’t be mistaken, this is very much the jet set high roller south of France, but much quieter and authentic than Cannes or Nice.

The further west you go, you will find that the towns and villages have a more French essence, though it is still very popular with tourists. The city of Sainte Maxime has fantastic beaches as well as an old town that looks like it has not changed in hundreds of years. Further on still is the famed Saint Tropez, complete with beauties in tiny bikinis, big yachts and sun tan lotion.

After you leave this area, the road heads inland for a bit and eventually winds back up on the water at Cavalaire sur Mer. All along this coast the scenery is quite dramatic, with green covered rocky ledges descending into the ocean. There are stretches of beaches in little coves, villas perched on hilltops and lavender growing wild everywhere. At the pretty little white washed town of Le Lavandou, the road heads back of the coast again and you can head to Toulon, where you can easily spend a day wandering around a city that has been in existence for over 3000 years. It is a fascinating place, with natural springs everywhere. The port is beautiful and the town is sheltered from the almost constant winds that blow along the south coast.

From there, it’s time to head back where you started, but not without a stop in the port city of Marseille. This city has a bit of a reputation as a rough and tumble place, and it is wise to pay attention to what area of town you go to, but for the most part it is fine. Be sure to sample the famous bouillabaisse which is better here than anywhere else in France. Sit by the harbor and watch the fishermen bring their catch in as you watch the sun set. For tomorrow, you will be headed back to Avignon.

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