When you think of the south of France, you probably think of Nice – or maybe the holiday destinations of the rich and famous such as St Tropez and Cannes? These are all lovely cities to visit, but have you considered heading a little more west to sample the more authentic south of France?
If you like medieval castles, beautiful fountains, olive groves, vineyards, winding cobblestoned streets and wandering markets filled with wheels of cheese, wine and fresh tapanedes, then you could spend weeks exploring the south of France. There’s dozens of these places to choose from – and you’re guaranteed to fall in love with the charms of these picturesque villages.
There’s so many beautiful villages and attractions to choose from in the south, but here’s my top 10.
Cassis is one of my favourite places to visit. With its quaint port side location and picturesque calanques, it’s a great place to relax and explore the coast.
Cassis has a series of calanques, which translates to inlet, along the coast. They’re basically small beaches framed by steep limestone cliffs. It’s possible to reach three of the calanques – Port Miou, Port Pin and En Vau – on foot.
Hiking in allows you to see the beautiful coastline as you walk across the plateau and descend down into each of the calanques.
The En Vau calanque is considered the prettiest of the three but is also the hardest to access on foot – it’s the furtherest away from Cassis and also has a very steep climb down and then back up. Depending on your fitness level, expect the hike to take around two hours each way from the Cassis port.
The hike in can get very hot and there’s also no food facilities at any of the calanques so bring lots of water, food, a hat and sunscreen. And don’t forget your swimmers – after working up a sweat on the hike you’ll be running into the clear turquoise blue water.
Hiking to the calanques is only possible from June to September. Camping is not allowed in the area.
It’s also possible to visit the boats by calanques by boat. You can go on an organised tour to up to nine calanques for photo stops or if you have a boat licence, you can hire a boat yourself and stop at some of the calanques for a swim.
From Cassis, driving the Route des Cretes for great views over the coast is a recommended journey.
- Les Baux Des Provence
Les Baux Des Provence proclaims to be one of the most beautiful villages in France and it truly is. Set on a rocky plateau, it features panoramic views over the Alpilles region and you can spend a couple of hours exploring the castle ruins. There are also themed activities such as archery in the village to showcase its medieval history. The village is also well known for its delicious food offerings.
- Aix En Provence
Aix En Provence was my first introduction to a southern French town and I fell in love with it instantly. The French really know how to build beautiful towns.
Aix En Provence is one of France’s main university towns and can be visited year around due to its mild climate.
The city features beautiful fountains and the main boulevard Cours Mirabeau is a key highlight and the best starting point for your trip to Aix En Provence. Start at the beautiful Rotunde fountain and then walk along the tree lined boulevard taking in the historical buildings and fountains, and stop for a bite to eat or coffee at the many cafes.
Aix En Provence was the home of the famous French artist Paul Cezanne and there’s a number of attractions related to his work and life. Follow the stamped C’s around the town to see where he was born, his school, and studio.
Nearby Aix En Provence is Mt Sainte-Victoire – a good hiking spot.
Avignon is most well known for its Palace of the Popes (Palais Des Papes) – the largest Gothic style palace in Europe that has served both as a papal residence as well as a military fortress and prison throughout its life. The palace became the residence of the popes in 1309 when the current Pope had to flee Rome due to unrest. It was the papal residence until 1377 when the Popes returned to Rome, but remained under papal control for centuries after. Entry to the Palace of the Popes is €11 ($A17) or you can buy a combined ticket for €13.50 ($A21) and also visit the Saint Benezet Bridge.
It’s said the Saint Benezet Bridge came about after a young shepherd heard voices telling him to build a bridge in Avignon. So with the help of others, he built the bridge early on in the 12th century. The original bridge spanned 900 metres and had 22 arches. It was dismantled in 1226, rebuilt, but was then washed away several times by floodwaters. Eventually it became one flood too many and the bridge was abandoned in the 17th century and today only four arches remain. You can see the bridge at various points along the river or buy a ticket to walk across it.
Avignon is one of the stations on France’s TGV high speed train line. Trains run to Avignon from Marseille, Paris, Lyon and Strasbourg.
- Pont Du Gard
The Pont du Gard dates back around 2000 years. The bridge stands at nearly 49 metres high, has three tiers of arches, and crosses the Gardon River, near the town of Nimes.
The bridge is part of a 50km aqueduct built to carry water from a spring near Uzes to Nimes and then onto fountains, baths and homes. It is one of the best preserved aqueducts in the world and is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You can walk along the first level of the aqueduct – which is a short walk from the carpark. The cost of entry per vehicle is €18 ($A28) which covers the bridge entry fee and parking. If you arrive by public bus, which is possible from Avignon and Nimes, entry is €7 ($A11) per person.
- Gorges Du Verdon
The Gorges Du Verdon is a 25 kilometre long river canyon. The turquoise blue of the water makes Gorges Du Verdon a beautiful spot to explore by car, on foot or in the water. Canyoning, hiking and kayaking are all popular activities in the area.
I tried canyoning for the first time in Gorges Du Verdon. A number of canyoning excursions operate from Castellane and range from introductory sessions for a few hours or full day trips. Canyoning excursions start from €35 ($A55).
- Gordes and the lavender fields
In July and August, thousands of tourists descend on the area around Gordes to see rows and rows of lavender. The lavender is at its peak during this time – just before it’s harvested.
It’s a treat for the senses taking in the colour and smell of the lavender. You don’t have to go far to see the lavender, many of the fields are just in paddocks alongside the road.
Gordes, a village set into a hillside, is also a must see.
One of my favourite places on the lavender trail is the Senanque Abbey – a former monastery which is set among vibrant lavender fields.
- Marseille and the Chateau d’If
The port city of Marseille is a hive of activity with influences from many different cultures, making for bustling streets and a range of food offerings.
The Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is probably the city’s most popular attraction owing to its prominent position on the hill above Marseille.
Another place to put on your itinerary is the fascinating Château d’If, which has been utilised as both a fortress and prison.
The Château d’If is located on the island of If, about 3km from Marseille’s port. Tours run regularly during the summer months to the island. Chateau d’If has been both a fortress and a prison. Chateau d’If is nicknamed as the original Alcatraz – it was considered escape proof due to its isolated location and sea currents.
- Fontaine de Vauclause
The delightful village of Fontaine de Vauclause is a pretty spot that is popular with tourists due to the powerful spring flowing out of a 230 metre high cliff. The spring marks the start of the River Sorgue. Walk along the tree lined River Sorgue and visit the museums dedicated to the mills utilising the power of the gushing spring.
This village is probably one you’ve never heard of, but is definitely worth a visit if only to take a walk along it’s wonderfully preserved medieval walls. Entry is €7.50 ($A12). The town itself is built inside the walls.
The ramparts offer great views over the wetlands of the Camarugue region and Aigues-Mortes serves as a good base for 4×4 tours, horseriding and hiking activities.
Things You Should Know:
- A car is handy to get around the villages in the south. Public transport networks are good especially the high speed train between Marseille, Avignon and Paris – but you’ll be able to see some of the smaller villages off the beaten track with a car and also get around a lot quicker.
- The south of France can get very hot in the summer months. If you’re doing any outdoor activities such as hiking or mountain biking, make sure you bring plenty of water.
- Hiking trails in the south are often rocky so good footwear is recommended for trails such as the Cassis calanques – but also bring your flip flops with you.
- Make sure you try the little local restaurants in the French villages and sample the Provencal cuisine. The food is very fresh and full of flavour.