What do you do with four days and a rental car in southern France? Go on an amazing tour of Provence, of course!
I’m not going to lie. Until now, I’d always figured the south of France would be one of those overrated, overpriced tourist traps. I never actually had a huge desire to go there. Part of me even though it’d be boring.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
Our journey through Provence actually began in Spain, in our new hometown of Barcelona. We (along with our good friend Sarah) picked up a rental car and set off on an easy 5-hour drive through eastern Spain, across the border, and along the southern coastline of France.
First stop? The Impressionist artists’ Mecca of Arles.
Arles: Walking in Van Gogh’s Footsteps
If you remember nothing else from art history class, you surely recall learning about the Impressionist art movement in the late 1800s. Gaugin, Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh all completed some of their most famous paintings in this era.
And guess where many of them called home? The little Provencal town of Arles.
Walking around this charming town, it’s not hard to understand why so many artists were drawn to it. The sunlight is special here, softening the edges of every object while enhancing their color and beauty.
And somehow, the whole world seems pastel.
Arles is home to many ancient Roman ruins, including an old bathhouse and, not one, but TWO amphitheaters! They date back to the first century and are quite the odd sight in an otherwise pastel world.
But as cool as the Roman ruins are, the main reason you should include Arles in your tour of Provence is for the Van Gogh walking tour.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to sign up for anything! All you have to do is download a self-guided map and venture out to see the famous sites yourself.
First stop? Van Gogh’s Cafe, the setting for his famous “Cafe at Night” painting. It still looks nearly the same as it did in 1888!
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch across the square from Cafe Van Gogh, marveling at the fact that we were looking at the setting for a painting I had on my living room wall for years. It was pretty awesome.
After lunch (and wine, of course), we wandered down along the river and through the town’s gardens to see more sites where Van Gogh set up his easel.
To be sure, we got our fill of beautiful Impressionist settings on our stroll through Arles. This is definitely a town I could return to and spend some more leisure time!
Next up on our whirlwind tour of Provence? The port city of Marseille.
Marseille: Artsy, Ancient, & Multicultural
How do you sum up a city with 2,600 years of history in just a few words? It’s pretty much impossible, but I’ll do my best.
Marseille has been around since, not just the Roman era, but the time of the ancient Greek empire. This seaside port town was already hundreds of years old by the time the Romans arrived!
Julius Caesar and his army conquered it in the 1st century BC, but it remained a “free” city. The same was true through the medieval era and centuries of wars with the viscounts of Provence.
One thing is for sure… Marseille is a tough town with a tough reputation!
We stayed in the quirky (and ancient) neighborhood of Le Panier, where the sailors and poorer immigrants of old made their home. The neighborhood still reflects that multicultural past, with tons of ethnic restaurants and an artists’ palette of graffiti and street art.
It’s one of the most colorful and visually interesting neighborhoods I’ve ever seen. It could even give Kathmandu a run for its money!
We spent an entire day exploring the city on foot, walking around the ancient harbor, past millennia-old fortresses and monasteries, and finally up to the cathedral high above the city center.
From way up there, we had the perfect view of Chateau d’If, the infamous prison where the Count of Monte Cristo (and many real-life prisoners) were once locked up.
As we headed back to our apartment for the night, we were greeted with a spectacular sunset over the Mediterranean Sea. We’d need our rest, because we were still only halfway through our tour of Provence!
Cassis & the Calanques: Jewels of the Cote d’Azur
Next up on our tour of Provence was a town and a national park that, until days earlier, I’d never heard of.
Everyone we talked to about our trip said we simply HAD to go see the Calanques (pronounced “cal-ONK”). Just a few miles south of Marseille, this stretch of coastline is the Mediterranean equivalent to the Scandanavian fjords.
These emerald coves embedded in white cliffs supposedly formed during the last Ice Age. And WOW… Is it spectacular!!
The day was spectacularly clear but cold and windy, so our seaside hike didn’t last long. We sought “refuge” in the nearby town of Cassis, which turned out to be the highlight of our tour of Provence!
French poet Frédéric Mistral once said, “He who has seen Paris but has not seen Cassis, has seen nothing.” With its idyllic harbor setting and colorful boats and storefronts, I’d have to agree with the man.
Like every other town along the Mediterranean coast, the origins of Cassis date back to Roman times. Today’s highlights include the (relatively modern) 13th-century fortress and the maze of alleyways and 16th-century houses and shops around the charming harbor.
Not to be overlooked was our amazing seaside lunch (with an even more amazing view). Mussels, steak tartare, creme brulee, and chocolate mousse were on the menu, along with a few glasses of Kir Royale (sparkling wine with blackcurrant-flavored Creme de Cassis).
And the taste? Heavenly.
We could’ve sat and enjoyed the view all day, but it was time to make the short drive back to Marseille. The final day of our tour of Provence awaited us!
Nimes: Pont du Gard & Roman Amphitheaters
On our final day in France, we made a slight detour north through Provence to the fascinating city of Nimes.
Once the capital of a Gaulish tribe, it came under Roman rule in 121BC. Everyone laid claim to it in the centuries that followed, from the Vandals to the Visigoths to the Arab Saracens to (finally) the Franks.
The reason we came to Nimes, though? It’s home to some of the best-preserved Roman ruins anywhere in the world.
Take, for example, the Pont du Gard aqueduct. Begin in 17BC and completed around 40AD, it soars almost 200 feet above the Gardon River.
And the very last stop on our whirlwind tour of Provence? The Arena of Nimes, the best-preserved Roman amphitheater (out of over 400!) on Earth.
Stepping inside, we learned the theater could hold 24,000 spectators in its heyday. It was completed around 100AD and was home to animal hunts and gladiator battles for centuries.
Bonus fact: There’s no record of any Christian martyrs at this location.
Walking the upper perimeter of the amphitheater provided not only an amazing view of the city but also the chance to reflect on the thousands of years of history we’d seen during our tour of Provence.
From Impressionist art to Roman ruins and ancient chateaus to idyllic villages, southern France was everything it’s hyped up to be—and more.