Roman Road Trip
- 3 days
Rome really flexed its imperial muscles in Southern France. Roman roads duck and dive across Roman bridges to theatres and arenas where you can grab a seat in the bleachers and watch the curtain rise. Let the show begin!
Strictly speaking, neither Nîmes nor Pont du Gard are in Provence; nonetheless they're nearby and their incredible Roman monuments are essential viewing. Nîmes’ coat of arms – a crocodile chained to a palm tree – recalls the region’s first sun-worshipping retirees: Julius Caesar’s loyal legionnaires were granted land here to settle after hard years on the Nile campaigns. Two millennia later, Nîmes' intact 1st-century-AD amphitheatre and temple blend seamlessly with the modern town.
The Romans didn't do anything on a small scale and Unesco-listed Pont du Gard, 21km northeast along the D6086, is no exception. At 50m this is the world’s highest Roman monument. Traverse its awe-inspiring arches, and swim upstream for unencumbered views, or downstream to shaded wooden platforms made for flopping between dips.
After seeing the monument, follow the River Rhône south via the D986L towards Beaucaire, then take the D90 and D15 to Arles – count on an hour's drive. Part of the Roman Empire from the 2nd century BC, Arles (the Romans called it Arelate) has a splendid amphitheatre, theatre and baths. Grab a coffee or ice on place du Forum, the hub of Roman social, political and religious life.
From Arles follow the D17, D78F and D5 north to Glanum. Park by the roadside triumphal arch and spend the afternoon exploring the Roman archaeological site. Van Gogh painted the olive grove that covered it until excavation began in the 1920s. Overnight 2km north in St-Rémy de Provence.
Day three, motor 50km along the A7 to Orange. Roman monuments here are stunning and unusually old – from Augustus Caesar’s rule (27 BC–AD 14). The stage wall of the Théâtre Antique dominates.
Push on along the D975 to Vaison-la-Romaine for a late lunch. Park on the river banks next to the Roman bridge (Pont Romain). Explore the ruins of the city that flourished here between 100 BC and 450 AD and end with the archaeological museum, which revives Vaison’s Roman past with incredible swag – mosaics, carved masks, and statues that include a 3rd-century silver bust and marble renderings of Hadrian and his dear wife, Sabina.
- 10 Days
It's time to tear yourself away from the coast and explore the mighty, majestic Alps. Amazingly, just an hour's drive north of Nice, you'll find yourself surrounded by mountain scenery – perfect for hiking, biking and wildlife spotting.
Start in Nice – enjoy a day of urban delight in Vieux Nice before hitting the road on day two. Drive to St-Martin-Vésubie and watch semi-wild wolves in the Alpha wildlife reserve. On day three, organise a guided hike to see the amazing ancient rock art of the Vallée des Merveilles, then head west to explore the many hiking trails around Lac d'Allos on days four and five.
On day six, drive to Digne-les-Bains, stopping in Barles along the way for fossil hunting in the Réserve Géologique de Haute-Provence. Organise a lavender walk on day seven, and on day eight drive down to Castellane, and take a scenic tour of the Gorges du Verdon. Explore the canyon in a different way on day nine: go rafting, canyoning or just trekking. On day 10, drive back to Nice or carry on along the Riviera.
Avignon & the Luberon
- 1 Week
This trip captures the essence of Provence, starting in bustling Avignon and ending in the mighty Gorges du Verdon, with stops at some of the area's dreamiest villages and most photogenic sights en route.
Spend day one in Avignon, exploring the old town and the Palais des Papes. On day two, drive down to St-Rémy de Provence in Les Alpilles and put your bags down for a couple of nights. Explore the town's stupendous Roman site Glanum and visit the asylum where Van Gogh spent the last – but most productive – year of his short life. On day three, take a day trip to Les Baux-de-Provence: visit the ruined castle and go olive-oil tasting around Maussane-les-Alpilles in the afternoon.
On day four, drive to the Luberon and spend the afternoon exploring a trio of lovely villages: Bonnieux, Lacoste and Ménerbes. On day five, visit Gordes and its Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque (of postcard fame) and the ochre-coloured village of Roussillon. On day six, pack a picnic and set off to explore the gorges, forests and lavender fields around Lourmarin, Vaugines and Cucuron. Treat yourself to dinner at the gastronomic Auberge La Fenière. On day seven, drive back to Avignon or carry on to Pays de Forcalquier and the Gorges du Verdon for another three days.
- 10 Days
This tour captures all the Côte d'Azur's unmissable sights. You can do the first part by bus and train, but for the full Riviera experience, a car is preferable – and a convertible would be better still.
Dedicate your first couple of days to the belle of the Côte d'Azur: Nice. Stroll in Vieux Nice and browse the market stalls of cours Saleya; visit Cimiez' wonderful Musée National Marc Chagall and Musée Matisse; and party till dawn in Vieux Nice's numerous bars.
On day three, take a day trip along the Corniche Inférieure, stopping at Villefranche-sur-Mer and St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. On day four, head to hilltop Èze for sensational views of the Med; carry on to Monaco for the rest of the day. Spend the following day in Menton.
On day six, rent a car and head for the hills: stop in St-Paul de Vence and Vence, and spend day seven motoring around the beautiful Gorges du Loup. On day eight, visit Grasse and its museums and perfumeries; leave your last day for the pretty village of Mougins. Drive back to Nice on day 10, continue in Haute-Provence or head west along the coast.
Marseille, Aix & the Camargue
- 1 Week
Mix city with countryside, starting in bustling Marseille and following with clifftop hiking, art appreciation, Roman history and flamingo spotting.
Spend your first day exploring Marseille: the Vieux Port, the historic Le Panier quarter and the art scene. Go to cours Julien for a night out. On day two, take a boat trip to Les Calanques or visit Château d'If before heading up to Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde for panoramic views of the city and the sea. Dine in the picturesque Vallon des Auffes. On day three, head to Aix-en-Provence to visit Cézanne's studio, his family house and the Bibemus quarries where he painted. Treat yourself at one of Aix's fine restaurants.
On day four, head to Arles and discover the places that inspired Van Gogh. Book a table at one of the city's Michelin-starred establishments. On day five, immerse yourself in the town's fine Roman heritage – the amphitheatre, theatre, baths and Musée Départemental Arles Antique – to learn about Roman times. Take a day trip to Camargue on day six: hire bikes if you're game, and don't forget your binoculars for birdwatching. Head back to Marseille. This entire itinerary can be done by public transport.
Essential Provence-Cote d'Azur
- 2 Weeks
All the classics in one easy itinerary: along the coast, into the hills and back again, via gorges, villages, vineyards, Roman ruins and lavender fields.
Fly to Nice. On day two, mooch around Vieux Nice and amble along the Promenade des Anglais. On day three, catch a bus to stunning Èze to feast on views; head to Monaco for lunch and enjoy the rest of the day in the principality. Catch a train back to Nice. On day four, pick up a rental car and drive to the medieval wonder of St-Paul de Vence and its art galleries. On day five, drive to Moustiers Ste-Marie along the scenic N85, stopping in Grasse on the way for an insight into the town's perfume industry. Spend the following day in Gorges du Verdon.
Explore the villages of the Luberon on days seven and eight, and on day nine head to Avignon. Enjoy the city for a day, and take a day trip to Orange or Nîmes on day 11. On days 12 and 13, head to the Haut-Var for hilltop villages and vineyards, before returning to Nice.