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Frommer's EasyGuide to Provence and the French Riviera

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Simply to name the highlights is to stir travel excitement: Nice and Cannes, St. Tropez and Monaco, Arles and Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, the Cote d'Azur and the South of France. The many sunny, playful or historic cities and renowned resort areas are all we'll-covered in this new Easy Guide. It is freshly-researched and up-to-date, and joyfully-written by Frommer's top corps of journalist-experts on all things French. You'll enjoy their obvious love of the destination.

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1 THE BEST OF PROVENCE & THE FRENCH RIVIERA

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The Best of PROVENCE & THE FRENCH RIVIERA

The ancient Greeks left their vines, the Romans their monuments, but it was the 19th-century Impressionists who most shaped the romance of Provence today. Cézanne, Gauguin, Chagall, and countless others were drawn to the unique light and vibrant spectrum brought forth by what van Gogh called “the transparency of the air.” Modern-day visitors will delight in the region’s culture, colors, and world-class museums. And they will certainly dine well, too.

Provence, perhaps more than any other part of France, blends past and present with an impassioned pride. It has its own language and customs, and some of its festivals go back to medieval times. The region is bounded on the north by the Dauphine River, on the west by the Rhône, on the east by the Alps, and on the south by the Mediterranean. Provence’s topography varies starkly, from the Camargue’s salt marshes to the Lubéron’s lavender fields, and on to the vertiginous Alpine cliffs of Haute Provence.

 

2 PROVENCE & THE RIVIERA IN CONTEXT

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PROVENCE & THE RIVIERA in Context

Say ‘the South of France’ and a dozen images spring to mind: glitz, glamour, history, sunshine, celebrity. One could recall Cézanne in Aix, Picasso in Antibes, or Matisse in Nice. Modern day movers and shakers are also synonymous with this fabled stretch of shore: Carla Bruni near Canadel, Brad and Angelina near St Tropez, and Scarlett Johansson on the red carpet in Cannes. What’s truly astonishing is that such heady culture is packed into a region just 242km (150 miles) across.

And what an easy region it is to explore. Local taxes may be high, but it affords the South of France one of the finest public transport and road networks in the world. High-speed TGV trains zip between its main cities of Avignon, Marseille, and Nice, and then connect the region to Paris, London, and beyond. Buses, boats, and new electric share-cars run to even the tiniest town. Drivers may follow in the tire tracks of Cary Grant (in To Catch a Thief), Robert De Niro (in Ronin), or Sebastien Vettel (around the Monaco Grand Prix circuit). Passengers of any persuasion may stop off and gaze at paradise anywhere they wish.

 

3 SUGGESTED ITINERARIES

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Suggested Itineraries in PROVENCE & THE FRENCH RIVIERA

When the Frommer’s guidebooks were first launched, founder Arthur Frommer cautioned his readers, “You can get lost in France.” It’s still an apt warning—and promise—today.

For those with unlimited time, one of the world’s great pleasures is getting “lost” in France, wandering at random, making new discoveries off the beaten path. Few of us have this luxury, however, and so here we present 1- and 2-week itineraries to help you make the most of your time.

Provence and the French Riviera in particular are so treasure-filled that you may barely do more than skim the surface in a week. So relax and savor Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, St-Tropez, or Cannes—among other alluring destinations—saving the rest for another day. You might also review chapter 1, “The Best of Provence and the French Riviera,” to find out what experiences or sights have special appeal to us and then adjust your itineraries to suit your particular travel plans.

 

4 AVIGNON

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Avignon

Avignon

691km (428 miles) S of Paris; 83km (51 miles) NW of Aix-en-Provence; 98km (61 miles) NW of Marseille

In the 14th century, Avignon was the capital of Christendom. What started as a temporary stay by Pope Clement V in 1309, when Rome was deemed too dangerous even for clergymen, became a 67-year golden age. The cultural and architectural legacy left by the six popes who served during this period makes Avignon one of Europe’s most alluring medieval destinations.

Today this walled city of some 95,000 residents is a major stop on the route from Paris to the Mediterranean. In recent years, it has become known as a cultural center, thanks to its annual international performing-arts festivals and wealth of experimental theaters and art galleries.

Essentials

ArrivingFrequent TGV trains depart from Paris’s Gare de Lyon. The ride takes 2 hours and 40 minutes and arrives at Avignon’s modern TGV station, located 6 minutes from town by a brand-new speedy rail link. The one-way fare is around 80€ depending on the date and time, although it can also be as cheap as 25€ if booked well in advance. Regular trains arrive from Marseille (trip time: 70 min.; 20.80€ one-way) and Arles (trip time: 20 min.; 7.50€ one-way), arriving at either the TGV or Avignon’s central station. Hourly trains from Aix-en-Provence (trip time: 20 min.; 25€ one-way) shuttle exclusively between the two towns’ TGV stations. For rail information, visit www.voyages-sncf.com or call ✆ 36-35. The regional bus routes (www.info-ler.fr; ✆ 08-21-20-22-03) go from Avignon to Arles (trip time: 1 hr., 10 min.; 7.10€ one-way) and Aix-en Provence (trip time: 1 hr., 15 min.; 17.40€ one-way). The bus station at Avignon is the Gare Routière, 5 av. Monclar (✆ 04-90-82-07-35). If you’re driving from Paris, take A6 south to Lyon, and then A7 south to Avignon.

 

5 ARLES & AROUND

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Arles & Around

St-Rémy-de-Provence

710km (440 miles) S of Paris; 24km (15 miles) NE of Arles; 19km (12 miles) S of Avignon; 10km (6¼ miles) N of Les Baux

Though the physician and astrologer Nostradamus was born here in 1503, most associate St-Rémy with Vincent van Gogh, who committed himself to a local asylum in 1889 after cutting off part of his left ear. “Starry Night” was painted during this period, as were many versions of “Olive Trees” and “Cypresses.”

Come to sleepy St-Rémy not only for its history and sights, but also for an authentic experience of daily Provençal life. The town springs into action on Wednesday mornings, when stalls bursting with the region’s bounty, from wild-boar sausages to olives, and elegant antiques to bolts of French country fabric, huddle between the sidewalk cafes beneath the plane trees.

Essentials

ArrivingA regional bus, the Cartreize, runs four to nine times daily between Avignon’s Gare Routière and St-Rémy’s place de la République (trip time: 45 min.; 3.60€ one-way). For bus information, see www.lepilote.com or call ✆ 08-10-00-13-26. The St-Rémy tourist office also provides links to up-to-date bus schedules on their website (see below). Drivers can head south from Avignon along D571.

 

6 AIX-EN-PROVENCE & THE LUBERON

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Aix-en-Provence & the Luberon

Aix-en-Provence

760km (471 miles) S of Paris; 84km (52 miles) SE of Avignon; 34km (21 miles) N of Marseille; 185km (115 miles) W of Nice

One of the most alluring aspects of Aix is its size. Frequently guidebooks proclaim it the very heart of Provence, evoking a sleepy town filled with flowers and fountains, which it is—in certain quarters. But Aix is also a bustling university town of nearly 143,000 inhabitants (the Université d’Aix dates from 1413), which packs manifold museums, sights, and restaurants into a compact city center.

It was founded in 122 b.c. by Roman general Caius Sextius Calvinus who rather modestly named the town Aquae Sextiae, after himself. Aix’s most celebrated son, Paul Cézanne, immortalized the Aix countryside in his paintings. Just as he saw it, the Montagne Sainte-Victoire still looms over the town today.

Much more recently, local boy turned superstar soccer player Zinedine Zidane recently opened his Z5 sports complex (www.z5complexe.fr) in Aix. In 2014, rumors were rife that actress Jessica Alba was planning to settle down in the nearby town of Éguilles. But there are still plenty of decades-old, family-run shops on the narrow streets of the Old Town. A lazy summer lunch or early evening aperitif at one of the bourgeois cafes on the cours Mirabeau is an experience not to be missed.

 

7 HAUTE PROVENCE

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Haute Provence

Bordered by plateaus and limestone ravines, Provence’s sparsely populated Alpine hinterland rises up to 3,000m (9,850 ft.). You can wander through car-free, cobblestoned villages, fly in a hot-air balloon over lavender fields, and marvel at the impregnable citadels that stand above every mountain pass and river crossing. Scale the hilltop fortresses of Entrevaux or Sisteron. Paddle around deep-blue mountain lakes on pedalos. Or plunge giddily down deep limestone ravines in the Parc Naturel Régional du Verdon. Accessible via the fertile valley of the Durance or aboard the Train des Pignes à Vapeur, Provence’s least-discovered region will put a smile on the face of the most adventurous travellers.

Along the Traindes Pignes

If you think that Provence’s most challenging train route is just for tourists, then think again. The Train des Pignes’ (www.trainprovence.com) single gauge railway rattles through tunnels, bridges, and viaducts to connect the region’s most isolated communities. The scenery is immense. The topography shunts from the palm trees of Nice to the rugged Gorges de Vésubie, before hitting the Alpine woodland of Puget-Théniers and the (almost) year-round snows before Digne-les-Bains.

 

8 MARSEILLE & AROUND

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Marseille & Around

Marseille

776km (481 miles) S of Paris; 203km (126 miles) SW of Nice; 32km (20 miles) S of Aix-en-Provence

Marseille is France’s oldest metropolis. It was founded as a port by the Greeks in the 6th century b.c . Today it’s the second-largest city in France, as well as one of its most ethnically diverse, with nearly 1.5 million inhabitants.

Author Alexandre Dumas called teeming Marseille “the meeting place of the entire world.” Never was this statement truer than in 2013, when Marseille proudly held the prestigious role of European Capital of Culture. More than 11 million visitors funneled into the city. They took in a flurry of new cultural venues and landmark museums, as well as the completion of long-term architectural projects, in particular the old docklands neighborhood west of the Vieux Port. XL Airways (www.xl.com) even launched the first direct flight from New York to Marseille, making this vibrant city all the more accessible.

 

9 ST-TROPEZ & AROUND

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St-Tropez & Around

St-Tropez

874km (542 miles) S of Paris; 76km (47 miles) SW of Cannes

While this sun-kissed town has a well-known air of hedonism, Tropezian style is blissfully understated—it’s not in-your-face. St-Tropez attracts artists, musicians, models, writers, and an A-lister movie colony each summer, with a flamboyant parade of humanity trailing behind. In winter it morphs back into a boho fishing village, albeit one with modern art galleries and some of the best restaurants along the coast.

The 1956 Brigitte Bardot movie “And God Created Woman” put St-Tropez on the tourist map. Droves of decadent tourists baring almost all on the peninsula’s white-sand beaches followed in her wake. Two decades ago, Bardot pronounced St-Tropez dead, “squatted by a lot of no-goods, drugheads, and villains.” But even she returned, followed in recent years by celebrities like David Beckham, Paris Hilton, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé.

Essentials

ArrivingThe nearest rail station is in St-Raphaël, a neighboring coastal resort (see p. 135). Boats depart (www.bateauxsaintraphael.com; ✆ 04-94-95-17-46) from its Vieux Port for St-Tropez (trip time: 1 hr.) five times a day in high summer, reducing to once- or twice-daily sailings in winter. The one-way fare is 15€. Year-round, 10 to 15 Varlib buses per day leave from the Gare Routière in St-Raphaël (www.varlib.fr; ✆ 04-94-24-60-00) for St-Tropez. The trip takes 1½ to 2 hours, depending on the bus and the traffic, which during midsummer is usually horrendous. A one-way ticket is 3€. Buses also run from Toulon train station, 56km (35 miles) away.

 

10 CANNES & AROUND

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Cannes & Around

Cannes

905km (561 miles) S of Paris; 163km (101 miles) E of Marseille; 26km (16 miles) SW of Nice

When Coco Chanel came here and got a suntan, returning to Paris bronzed, she shocked the milk-white society ladies—who quickly began to copy her. Today the bronzed bodies, clad in nearly nonexistent swimsuits, line the beaches of this chic resort and continue the late fashion designer’s example. A block back from the famed promenade de la Croisette are the boutiques, bars, and bistros that make Cannes the Riviera’s capital of cool.

Essentials

ArrivingBy train, Cannes is 10 minutes from Antibes, 30 minutes from Nice, and 45 minutes from Monaco. The TGV from Paris reaches Cannes in an incredibly scenic 5 hours. The one-way fare from Paris is 45€ to 129€, although advance purchase bargains can be has for as low as 26€. For rail information and schedules, visit www.voyages-sncf.com or call ✆ 36-35. Lignes d’Azur (www.lignesdazur.com; ✆ 08-10-06-10-06) provides bus service from Cannes’ Gare Routière (place Bernard Cornut Gentille) to Antibes every 20 minutes during the day (trip time: 25 min.). The one-way fare is 1.50€.

 

11 ANTIBES & JUAN-LES-PINS

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Antibes & Juan-les-Pins

Juan-les-Pins

913km (566 miles) S of Paris; 9.5km (6 miles) S of Cannes

Just west of the Cap d’Antibes, this Art Deco resort burst onto the South of France scene during the 1920s, under the auspices of American property developer Frank Jay Gould. A decade later, Juan-les-Pins was already drawing a chic summer crowd, as the Riviera “season” flipped from winter respites to the hedonistic pursuit of summer sun, sea, and sensuality. It has been attracting the young and the young-at-heart from across Europe and the U.S. ever since. F. Scott Fitzgerald decried Juan-les-Pins as a “constant carnival,” no doubt after a sojourn in his seaside villa, which is now the Hôtel Belles-Rives. His words ring true each and every summer’s day.

Juan-les-Pins is famed throughout France for its International Jazz Festival. In 2014, the festival’s alfresco seaside stage hosted George Benson and Stacey Kent. Picasso also adored this most liberal of summer resorts, renting seven different local villas here during his yearly painting vacations during the 1920s and 1930s. He was no doubt spellbound by the Iles de Lérins that bob just offshore: Local ferries zip over to them all summer long.

 

12 NICE

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Nice

Nice

929km (576 miles) S of Paris; 32km (20 miles) NE of Cannes

The largest city on this fabled stretch of coast, Nice is known as the “Queen of the Riviera.” It’s also one of the most ancient, founded by the Greeks, who called it Nike (Victory). By the 19th century, Russian aristocrats and the British upper class—led by Queen Victoria herself—were sojourning here. These days, however, Nice is not as chi-chi as Cannes or St-Tropez. In fact, of all the major French resorts, Nice is the most down-to-earth, with an emphasis on fine dining and high culture. Indeed, it has more museums than any other French city outside Paris. In late 2013 it inaugurated a new city center urban park, one of the largest public spaces in the South of France.

Nice is also the best place to base yourself on the Riviera, especially if you’re dependent on public transportation. You can go to San Remo, a glamorous town over the Italian border, for lunch and return to Nice by nightfall. From Nice airport, the second busiest in France, you can travel by train or bus along the entire coast to resorts such as Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, and Monaco. Indeed, visitors may step off a direct flight from either New York or Montreal, then hop on an airport shuttle bus and be relaxing in their hotel 30 minutes later.

 

13 MONACO & THE CORNICHE COAST

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Monaco & the Corniche Coast

Villefranche-sur-Mer

935km (580 miles) S of Paris; 6.5km (4 miles) E of Nice

Just east of Nice, the coastal Lower Corniche sweeps inland to reveal Villefranche, its medieval Old Town tumbling downhill into the shimmering sea. Paired with a dazzling sheltered bay set against picturesque Cap Ferrat beyond, it’s little wonder than countless artists made this beachy getaway their home—or that it’s served as the cinematic backdrop for numerous movies including “Ronin” with Robert de Niro, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with Steve Martin, and “Never Say Never Again” starring Sir Sean Connery.

All in all, Villefranche is tailor-made for a romantic wander. Coastal trails run from the marina and beach of Plage Darse to the sandy town beach underneath the train station. Serious strollers may now walk all the way to Nice (with a short hop up to the lower corniche road halfway along), thanks to a newly inaugurated coastal trail.

Essentials

 

14 PLANNING YOUR TRIP

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Planning Your Trip & useful phrases

O f almost any destination in the world, flying into Provence and the French Riviera is one of the most effortless undertakings in global travel. Direct flights run to both Marseille and Nice from North America, and from all over the world. There are no shots to get and no particular safety precautions, and more and more locals now speak English. With your passport, airline or train ticket, and enough money, you just go. In the pages that follow, you’ll find everything you need to know to plan your trip: finding the best airfare, deciding when to go, getting around the country, and much, much more. At the end of the chapter, we’ve included some useful phrases and terms to help ease communication.

Getting There

By Plane

Nice Côte d’Azur (airport code: NCE; www.nice.aeroport.fr) is France’s second airport. It’s served by direct flights from New York and Montreal, as well as up to 30 daily flights from both Paris and the U.K. Dozens of other destinations cover Europe the Middle East. This being France, the airport greets passengers with free Wi-Fi plus a fleet of free bikes and electric share-cars. See the Nice chapter for details.

 

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