The South of France includes many areas – the Riviera or Cote d’Azur, Provence, the Alps and the Pyrenees. There are seaside palaces lined with palms, french country retreats surrounded by lavender, ancient hill towns from medieval days and chalets set in front of towering Alps.
We went in September and focused primarily on the southeast corner of France visiting Nice, Eze, Monaco, St Paul de Vence, Moustiers-Ste-Marie, Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Les Baux de Provence, Avignon, Carcassonne, St Tropez and Antibes. Like other trips we drove with a GPS unit and were able to make our way around pretty easily.
Old Town Nice
Nice is a beach town but also has historic areas like the port and old town. Old Town is the place where people go to eat and drink at night with it’s winding stone streets, narrow passages and energizing feel. It’s not too far from the Avenue des Anglais – the city’s well known beach promenade. We were surprised to see American military vehicles parked all over town, later realizing we had arrived on the anniversary of D Day and they were celebrating the allied liberation of Nice.
Eze is a beautiful hill town towering high above the Mediterranean. It’s about 30 minutes from Nice along the Corniche Moyenne, or the middle road. It’s a beautiful medieval village now devoted to shopping and dining. You can see Cap Ferrat, Villefrance Sur Mer and Eze sur Mer at a distance below.
We had the tasting menu at the Chateau d’Eza – a hotel and restaurant perched on the cliff. The dining was 5 star and I can’t remember a better view in recent memory. The other well known Michelin star restaurant in the city is the Chèvre d’Or. Both offer excellent food with top notch service and spectacular views.
Once home to Princess Grace (Kelly) and still home to the Grand Prix, Monaco is a tiny principality heavily lined with residential buildings. It’s allure includes the blue ocean, warm breezes and the tax free status given to its citizens.
Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly) is buried with Prince Rainier in the Saint Nicholas Cathedral on the hill by the Prince’s Palace and old town. The main attraction is the Casino de Monte Carlos and the nearby Hotel de Paris. You can purchase a tour of the casino if you left your black tie attire at home. Most guests are formally dressed and the minimum bet is $5,000. Another great activity is the Musee Oceanografique, once directed by Jacques Costeau.
Moustiers is a small village, set against the dramatic pre-apilles, the foot hills of the French Alps. It is split down the middle by a waterfall and surrounded by verdant hills, olive trees and vineyards. There is an ancient cathedral, a mountaintop chapel and a star strung up high which legend has it, was put there by a knight who returned home from battle.
For a small town it was lively with a festival and DJ in the village square. We felt very welcome and enjoyed our one night stay, listening to the waterfall below our hotel room throughout the night. Just before you arrive in the city is the Gorge du Verdon. It is a high, rocky mountain pass cut through by blue-green water. We rented paddle boats and enjoyed the afternoon.
St Paul de Vence
St Paul de Vence is a hill town which looks like it should be in Tuscany. It reminded me of San Gimignano with just one tower. The town was once home to artists such as Matisse, Renoir and Chagall. It is perfect for an afternoon of shopping or a quick stop for rose in one of its cafes.
Aix en Provence
Aix en Provence is a beautiful city, set under the shady plane trees with large pedestrian boulevards. There are artisan markets and every type of food imaginable. One of my favorite snacks here was the potato chips seasoned with herbs de provence. The town is the perfect place to sit in a cafe shaded by umbrellas and enjoy a Rose. The Cours Mirabeau is an expansive street lined with cafes and regal buildings. This city was a highlight for us.
Arles was the home of Van Gogh and several Roman monuments. You can visit the setting for the the artist’s Cafe La Nuit painting, it is set in a beautiful little square where you will want to linger. The houses have brightly colored shutters and flower boxes below – it has the feel of a smaller, southern version of the Montmartre. Also visit the Roman arena, the Roman amphitheater and walk the city wall along the Rhone River.
Once home to the Pope, Avignon rivaled Rome for a little over a century as several popes ruled from southern France. They built an impressive papal palace which provides a tour. Avignon also has a large square in the middle of town with a carousel, jazz musicians and many small cafes. Two side trips are the Fort d’Andre, an impressive fort across the river as well as the Pont du Gard – an intact Roman Aqueduct.
Les Baux de Provence
Les Baux is a city set in the rocks. A citadel sits high above the village, where the noble family who once ruled lived. The fields surrounding Les Baux are filled with olive trees, vineyards and mediterranean atmosphere. Two unexpected pleasures were the art installation by Phillip Haus featuring larger than life renditions of the The Four Seasons paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Also amazing was the Carriers des Lumieres – an indoor light show which projected hundreds of famous paintings across the walls, pillars, ceiling and flow of an ancient hall.
Set in the Languedoc region, Carcassonne is a 13th century medieval village, completely surrounded by turreted walls. Fit for a princess, one might feel they have entered a Disney movie. The entire city is pedestrian only and is one of the largest, most intact medieval fortresses in Europe. The Cite Hotel has a Michelin starred restaurant, La Barbacane. Their tasting menu was exquisite.
St Tropez is made up of a beautiful port and marina area as well as a pristine beach on the other side of the peninsula. You can get there by boat or car and expect to see some impressive yachts in the harbor. You can stroll the streets and shop for high fashion clothing.
Antibes was a surprising delight. Another marina town, you will see yachts dotting the harbor against impressive mountains and an ancient fort. There is a walking street with shops, restaurants and gelaterias on the way to the harbor. There is also a Picasso museum near the walled part of the city and a beach near the marina.