Travel Tips for Provence
Travelling Around Beyond
Bus service in the back country is inconsistent, at best. Bus service is good between major towns, such as Nice - Grasse, in the immediate area of large towns (Avignon or Marseilles, for example), and connecting some large town with a few of their surrounding villages. For many of the villages, bus service is infrequent or non-existent. We've tried to list local bus information where we could get it. For more information, or current bus schedules, contact the Office de Tourisme in the town.
A car is really necessary for travelling in Beyond if you're away from the rail lines. We strongly recommend a rental car; it will give you the flexibility to go where you want when you want.
Travelling Times and Planning Your Visit
The time to visit parts of Beyond depend a lot on your methods: pass through and have a quick look, or stay, wander the little streets, talk to people and absorb some of the local culture. The first way allows you to see much more, but the second gives a bit more "body" to your visit.
First, you should go over the maps and estimate your travel times as well as you can. Except for autoroutes, you can easily spend half a day on the small roads getting between different towns and villages. Many of the villages are quite close, but if you're travelling far by small roads, it can take a while. Have a look at our Driving Times charts.
Second, meal times can take out part of your day. Figure 1-2 hours for lunch. Good service in France does not mean fast service. You get waited on quickly, then things drag out, and rushing them doesn't help. Figure 10-15 minutes, for example, just to pay at the end. There are ways to eat faster, but that really isn't French, and certainly not Provencal. One way to gain a bit of time at mid-day is to buy food at the local markets and have a picnic in a park, on a river bank or on a hill with a view.
The third consideration is What to See. The larger towns have so much to offer that it would be a waste not to spend a day while you're there. Avignon, Orange and Marseilles are some examples. For other towns, like Apt or Grasse, you have to consider both the town and visits to surrounding sites and villages. At St Rémy, for example, you have the town, nearby Glanum and then a visit to Les Baux. The smaller villages could take less time, and you could perhaps visit two in the morning and two others in the afternoon; but, if you run across a good market or a fête, you won't be able to tear yourself away quickly.
When to Visit
We're often asked when is the best time to visit, and sometimes more specifically, we can come in July or August, which would be better?
August is the peak vacation period for the French, and many of them take their vacation in France, in Provence or the Côte d'Azur. July is the second busiest month. August is also the hottest month of the year. Between the two, we would suggest that July is a somewhat less crowded and possibly less hot. If you like crowds, and that is one of the pleasures of the beaches (for some), either July or August is good.
During the peak season, July-August, hotels are more crowded and reservations are required. During the extended season outside July-August, roughly April-May to mid September, weather is usually fine, roads, towns and beaches are less crowded, but all the hotels, restaurants and attractions are open. During this season, we find that phoning during the morning to reserve a room for the night is sufficient, allowing flexible, day-by-day planning.
Off-season, mid-September to Easter, there are no crowds, but not everything is open. Many seasonal businesses close during the winter, or at least take their month's vacation during this time. You probably don't need to reserve hotels, but you should call ahead to make sure they're open.
Go into the "back country", Beyond the beaten path. The little villages are beautiful, quiet and uncrowded. The even seem cooler during the hot summer months.
How (Where) to Visit
One method of visiting Beyond is to travel from town to town, absorbing the sites as you go. A better method is to pick a base and visit the surrounding area from there. Check out Beyond's Itineraries section.
Some good possibilities are Aix-en-Provence, Arles or Avignon in the west; Digne-les-Bains, Saint André-les-Alpes or Sisteron in the north; Antibes, Nice or Vence on the Côte d'Azur. These towns (and some others like them) are big enough to have hotels, restaurants, museums and events and attractions to see while you're there. From the base you can easily make day trips to visit the surrounding villages and sites, returning to "home" base each night. Distances are close enough that you can even have your dinner in an outlying village and make it back to base afterwards.