We visited Provence this spring, a region in southeastern France famous for lavender, romantic holidays, and the good life, if North America media over the past 30 years if anything to go by. Our itinerary took us through some of the most famous villages, a town we knew from a nursery rhyme, and down to the coast. This is an overview with everything we did, where we stayed, how we got there, and what we’ve got saved up for next time.
When to go to Provence
We visited in late April, over my son’s Easter break. We spent a full six days and that was great. Much shorter than that and you’d want to focus on only one or maybe two towns. There were tourists, but it was clear the season was not fully underway. This was good, as it wasn’t overrun, but also a bit unpredictable on the weather front. The famous Provence wind is no joke, it’s blasting away nearly all the time. Now I know why everyone builds those picturesque walled gardens!
If you’re looking for the famous fields of lavender, you will want to visit between mid-June and mid-July, the lavender harvest happens around the 15th of July. The perfume town of Grasse has two main flower festivals: ExpoRose in mid-May and the Jasmine Festival in the first week of August.
Where to stay in Provence
We made Avignon our homebase for most of our trip, with a night in Antibes on our way out to be close to Grasse. This worked very well for us, though I think next time we might stay in a smaller town near Apt, we really enjoyed the scenery around there. Around Avignon it is very windswept, and consequently a bit on the rocky and dry side. It’s greener over by Apt, with more little green valleys. However, if you’re mainly travelling by train, I would suggest staying in Avignon to allow for the easiest connections.
Our Provence itinerary
Here is our relaxed Provence itinerary that takes in several different types of Provençal village.
As I mentioned, Avignon was our home base. It’s a manageable size and very walkable. We spent a morning in the Palais de Papes, and I heartily recommend doing the same. The buildings dominate the city, so it’s hard to miss. When the popes returned to Rome, they took their finery with them, but there is an absolutely excellent iPad-based audio and multimedia tour that made up for it. We also did the hop-on, hop-off bus tour as we usually do, travelling with kids makes this an easy way to see most of the sites while still saving little legs, so if your mobility is at all an issue, or you just need a rest, it’s worth it. Definitely book your dinner reservations as soon as you can, because the restaurants fill up fast.
This tiny village is perched on top of ochre cliffs, looking out over the Provence countryside. The red and yellow-orange colours of ochre come from this small area, it was mined here for hundreds of years. You can still buy ochre pigment in some of the shops. Each house is painted with a variation on this colour as well. It’s a tiny village, inaccessible except by car, and it is quickly overwhelmed by people. Visit in the morning or evening, and if you need to eat, get into one of the little restaurants early! We made that mistake and ended up having to drive somewhere else to find lunch. It has a much different feel than many of the surrounding villages, and worth a stop.
Les Baux de Provence
You will want to leave a full day for this visit, and be prepared to walk. This town is perched on top of one of the many pale rocky crags thrusting out of the flat Provence countryside. It is a popular tourist stop, so go as early as you can manage. Once everyone is up there, however, it’s not super crowded. At least, we didn’t find it so in shoulder season. Every corner of the little town is picturesque, but what makes this town special is the fortress remnants on the top of the hill. It is incredibly windy in the exposed areas, so be prepared with an extra layer, or just enjoy it if it’s midsummer and you’re dying from the heat. Check in when you buy your tickets to find out when the trebuchet demonstrations are. Everyone loves a good trebuchet demonstration.
You can reach Les Baux most easily by car, but from the beginning of July through to November there is a new train plus shared taxi option from either Avignon or Marseille (in French, run it through Google Translate).
If you’ve read the book Perfume, or have seen the film, you will know Grasse. This town is home to the worldwide perfume industry. You can tour part of the Fragonard perfume works, as well as several others. The town itself is dilapidated and beautiful in its own way. Do eat your lunch somewhere local – this town gets overwhelmed with daytripping tourists spending all their money at the high-end perfume companies. My full post on Grasse is coming soon. Without a car, you will need to take a local bus from Nice to reach Grasse unfortunately.
The French Riviera’s glory is pretty relaxed in this little peninsula near Nice. We chose to stay here over the busier (and more expensive) Nice, so we could make the most of our trip to Grasse the next day. The beaches looked nice, but the water was still quite cold in April, so we only did a bit of wading. They were building more beachfront restaurants and whatnot, so it will definitely be a bit more lively come high season.
Things we didn’t do but have put on our list for next time…
While this was on our list originally, we had a few minor health issues that took up more time than we were expecting, so it fell off the list. To the west of Avignon, this town features a huge Roman amphitheatre in the middle of town where they still hold events. It’s also where Vincent van Gogh lived with Paul Gaugin, and the infamous ear incident happened here.
This picturesque hilltop town is one of the most beautiful in France. We drove up to it, but as we had spent time in Les Baux the day before, and it looks similar, we decided to skip it. It is truly incredible looking, so if you’re nearby, definitely make a detour to at least see it from a distance.
Les Grottes de Thouzon
This cave system is not too far from Avignon, and looked very cool, both literally and figuratively. Inside the caves, it’s a cool 13ºC, so if you’re visiting during the heat of summer, it may be a welcome break. There are stalactites, stalagmites, and all sorts of cool cave formations from the photos we saw. We just ran out of time, otherwise we would have visited.
Aix en Provence
This pretty town has a reputation for art galleries and picturesque streets to stroll down. If you’re into spending a low-key day at sidewalk cafes and people watching, this sounds like the town for you. As we were travelling with a 9 year old, it wasn’t first on our list for visiting, but we’d like to at least see it on our next trip to the area.
What to remember when visiting France
If you’re visiting from North America, be prepared for restaurant opening times to be later than you are used to. Particularly outside of the immediate tourist areas, restaurants will open around 1pm for lunch, close again around 3pm and not open until 6pm or 7pm for dinner. You need to have snacks on hand. Also, book your dinner restaurant as soon as you settle into your hotel on the first day. Just showing up, particularly in smaller towns, means you will have nowhere to eat. Check Yelp or TripAdvisor (and take with a grain of salt those reviews where they complain about slowness or rudeness, this is more the French style of dining – no one is going to rush your meal nor squat next to your table and be cheerful), and book a few likely looking places. Better yet, ask at the front desk of your hotel or your Airbnb host. If you do get stuck without somewhere to eat, swing by the local grocery store and pick up cheese, sliced meats, bread, and wine. Hotel picnics are one of our favourite traditions holidaying in France.
You can’t pick up any medication of any kind in a grocery store or convenience store. You will need to find a Pharmacie. You can spot them by the big green cross, often lit up, outside. There will be acres of expensive skin care, and then a counter. You will need to ask at the counter for anything medicinal, and most pharmacists will speak enough English to understand what you need if you use the generic name (ibuprofen, acetaminophen, etc). If you have an empty package, bring that along. The prices are very good, by the way.
Grocery stores are your friend
There are lots of great souvenirs to buy at the grocery stores in France. Look for a ‘de la région’ section and pick up local vinegars, mustards, jars of terrine, and pâte. In other sections of the store you can find shelf-stable cartons of hollandaise and other sauces, cookies, honey, and tea, as well as cute dish towels, wine, and chocolate. Collecting up little food taster packages are my favourite gifts for people, and loads cheaper than anything you can get at a tourist shop. Not to mention much more fun and authentic.
Traveling with kids
Research the playgrounds ahead of time. Unlike Germany or the Netherlands, French towns don’t put the same emphasis on building playgrounds, so you will want to plan out these pitstops specifically. Use the site Parc Equipe to find a playground near you. Dining hours can be a bit late for some smaller children (see above). If you’ve got a baby who will sleep in a buggy, try putting them to sleep first and then going for dinner. If you’ve got a squirmy toddler, try for nice lunches instead, particularly where you can dine outside and the small one can burn off steam chasing pigeons in the square. For dinner, take the hotel picnic route, and buy cheese, sliced meats, bread, and wine at a grocery store. This ends up being quite a bit cheaper than eating out every night anyway. If you’ve got an older child, you can always feed them yoghurt, cheese, and vegetables beforehand, then let them eat their way through all the bread and butter at the restaurant. That way you’re not coaxing them to eat something and you can enjoy your meal. You probably want to stick to one or two courses, as the leisurely pace of dining can really tax the patience of a small person. Though the promise of an apple tart and ice cream at the end can do wonders.