In April, one of my best friends came to visit me in Marseille all the way from Chicago! Laura and I spent a couple of days chilling at the beach in Marseille, and then departed on a 3-day road trip through the beautiful villages of Provence along with two other friends. We were a little early for one of the main attractions – the famous lavender fields were not quite in bloom – but we completely enjoyed ourselves and the Provençal landscapes all the same!
I will admit that, for some reason, the prospect of planning a road trip thoroughly intimidated me! Maybe it’s because I had no idea what would be do-able in a given day, because I don’t actually even know how to drive, or because we had no particular destination and there is SO MUCH to see in the region. Luckily, our fellow travelers were super low-maintenance, so coming up with an itinerary, though intimidating, boiled down to choosing a few “Must-Sees” and then filling in the gaps.
We decided to base ourselves out of Avignon for the 3 days A) because driving in Marseille seemed like a TERRIBLE idea and B) because it’s about an hour closer to most of the places we wanted to visit. I discovered the website Drivy, which is sort of like Airbnb for cars: individuals who don’t regularly use their cars can rent them out on a day-to-day basis. As long as you conform to a few basic requirements, the site handles insurance for you, and you can avoid the ridiculous fees rental agencies often have for under 25-year-old drivers. The car rental for 3 days and around 500km of mileage cost us just over 100 euro! Split between the 4 of us, it was a downright steal!
Marseille – Pont du Gard – Uzès – Nîmes – Avignon
After picking up the car in the morning, we left Marseille around 9:30am and made our way towards our first destination: the Pont du Gard! The Pont du Gard is an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge, spanning the Gardon river. At 160m tall, it is the highest elevated aqueduct of the Roman World and is today very well-preserved. For an entry fee of €8,50 (€6 reduced rate), we had access to the park surrounding the bridge, the bridge itself, and the very interesting and well designed Pont du Gard museum. In all, we spent almost 4 hours wandering the grounds and checking out the museum. I learned a lot about the importance of water in Roman societies and why the Pont du Gard was such an important achievement for the city of Nîmes, where the water carried on this route was eventually delivered. It was such a beautiful day; I wish we would have thought ahead and packed a picnic to eat along the banks of the river, but the museum food court was an acceptable alternative. People were also swimming and kayaking, which would have been really fun as well, had we known about it before coming!
From the Pont du Gard, we made out way northwest to the village of Uzès. Incidentally, Uzès is the location of the water source that fed the very same aqueduct we had just departed! Quite a charming village, we spent about an hour wandering the small streets and enjoying amazing ice cream sundaes in the central square.
I would have loved to go out to see the spring, which is a big attraction in the town, but we still had two more stops planned for our day, so we hopped back in the car and headed to Nîmes. It was pretty cool to see the whole route from Uzès to Pont du Gard to Nîmes in one day, albeit out-of-order. By the time we got to Nîmes (and knowing that we still had to carry on to Avignon where we’d reserved an Airbnb) we were pretty tired, monuments and shops were closing, and so we didn’t spend much time there. It seemed like a cool place though, with lots to see, so I would totally go back again one day! After a little tour around the famous Arènes de Nîmes and some charming streets, we hopped back in the car to our final destination for the night: Avignon.
Avignon – Gordes – Roussillon – L’Isle sur la Sorgue – Avignon
Day 2 of our trip was, without a doubt, my favorite! We had a lazy morning in Avignon, walked around the Palais des Papes and visited the Rocher des Doms park for some breathtaking views. We could have spent more time in Avignon if we’d wanted to tour the palace, but we decided against it and instead left around noon for the famous “perched villages” of the Luberon park.
The first village, Gordes, came highly recommended to us by a friend and the French government: it’s been officially classed as one of France’s top 5 beautiful villages. Following signs for the town, we noticed cars pulling over at a small lookout point and decided to take a look for ourselves. The view was anything but disappointing!
The city itself was adorable and charming and sunny, but there wasn’t much to do beyond wandering the winding streets. We arrived too late in the day for the traditional Provençal market, unfortunately. So after eating lunch and buying a few souvenirs (a theme of the trip), we moved onto the next item in the itinerary.
Roussillon was probably my favorite stop, due to its main attraction, the Ochre Trail. The village is perched on top of a series of cliffs that have been mined for ochre since the 18th century, and one of the former quarries has been turned into a hiking loop. The trails were hardly rugged, but they offered up landscapes that were completely surreal and beautiful! After taking the hour-long trail, we meandered into the village, which was just as colorful as the ochre cliffs themselves!
When we’d just about had our fill of picture perfect doors and flower boxes, we convened to figure out what to do next. Looking at the map, we were not far from a handful of other villages, and we ultimately decided – completely randomly – on L’Isle sur la Sorgue. 40 minutes later, we’d arrived in this village, famous for its antique stores and water wheels, just in time to grab a map at the tourism office. After getting lost while trying to follow the tourism route, we decided instead to relax on a café terrace with a cold glass of rosé instead. When in Provence… ! The city itself was cute but kind of unremarkable. Around 7pm we headed back to Avignon for dinner.
Avignon – Arles – Saintes Maries sur la Mer – Marseille
The third day, we left our Airbnb and headed towards Arles. We had to have the car back to Marseille by 7pm, so we opted to visit some towns in that direction. I had already been to Arles and found it to be absolutely lovely, if a little touristy. The small city is famous for its collection of Roman ruins and for being the home of Vincent Van Gogh for over a year. Some of his most famous works, including Bedroom in Arles and Café Terrace at Night were painted there. No one was really interested in paying to enter the many Roman sites, but our traveling companions, former art majors, really wanted to visit the Fondation Van Gogh. Not in a museum-y mood, Laura and I left them at the exhibits, while we went in search of some souvenirs and another cold glass of wine, because what better way to spend a sunny day in a classic French village?
At the tourism office, we inquired about our final stop on the way back to Marseille: La Camargue, the marshy wetland to the south known for its salt mines and interesting wildlife including white ponies and pink flamingoes. She suggested driving down to the town of Saintes Maries sur la Mer. Sadly, by the time we got there, we only had about half an hour to explore before hitting the road for Marseille. After taking a stroll along a long, beautiful beach, we headed back to the car. A return trip to this area to hike, rent bikes or just relax on the beach is very high on my list!
Our Provence road trip was not meticulously planned, nor flawlessly executed. But it was three days of perfect weather, good company and stunning views. In retrospect, I personally might do some things differently — stay in Nîmes for longer, maybe go somewhere like Bonnieux or Les Baux de Provence instead of l’Isle sur la Sorgue, skip Arles to spend more time in the Camargue, look into some wine tastings at local vineyards — but ultimately, we had an amazing time on a very small budget! If you plan to come to Provence, definitely look into a driving tour. Many of the places we went are difficult to reach by public transport, but they absolutely shouldn’t be missed! ❂