Continuing my touring ideas for France, not by bicycle but by road and rail (see my stage one post for Côte d’Azur).
Also accessible from Nice, a better gateway is Marseille, especially as you can now get a direct train there from London.
Marseille is very big and can be a little stressful, but still offers all that you would expect from a large city, as well as having some very nice coastal areas to relax in. If you go in autumn or winter make sure you have a bowl of their signature dish of Bouillabaisse (fish soup to you and me).
For authentic Provence, head first for the nearby much smaller city of Aix-en-Provence.
Aix is a very pretty place and well worth a day or two stopover to chill out, enjoy the al fresco cafe and bar culture and visit the lovely cathedral and cloisters.
The best thing about Aix though is its proximity to the villages of Provence, those of a Year in Provence fame and the equally famous Abbaye de Senanque.
Think lavender fields, picture perfect villages adorned with a riot of colourful flowers, scented wild herbs, soothing fountains, eclectic art galleries, charming boutiques and gift shops that shout ‘spend your money’ at you. The word idyllic was invented for these small settlements.
We went in June and barely saw another car on many of the minor tree-lined roads that connect les villages beaux.
Our particular favourites amongst a strong list were Gordes, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, Lourmarin and Saignon. I will let the pictures do the talking…..
The villages are easily doable in a day or two, however lingering, browsing and long lunches are highly recommended.
The Abbaye de Senanque adorns a multitude of biscuit tins, bookmarks, mugs, posters and postcards.
We spurned the pricey guided tour and just lapped up the familiar scene.
The Natural World Of Provence
As well as all of the man-made wonders, there are a couple of natural jewels within a couple of hours of Aix that are well worth the effort to get to.
The Verdon Gorge is Europe’s largest and you could easily spend a few days exploring the area. We went en route between Cannes and Aix, but met a few travellers in camper vans who were doing just that.
The drive up the hairpin bends to the summit of the gorge were spectacular enough and we were further rewarded with stunning views of the gorge and the winding river within it.
We stopped in several places to take in the breathtaking scenery and having seen many photos on-line since, it is clear that there are many more that we missed. It was a choice of Left Bank or Right Bank as we did not have time to do both. The Left won out, perhaps meaning we need to return to do the rest.
Head west from Aix and you will get to The Camargue, France’s premier national park. The area is vast and a paradise for ramblers, climbers, serious hikers, flora and fauna watchers and all sorts of activity sports. Bordered by the Mediterranean on one side, the area is a real natural wonderland.
We satisfied ourselves with a lovely picnic (Boursin with fig on crusty baguette is to die for!) and a visit to the bird sanctuary. As a (extremely) part time twitcher, I was beguiled by the flamingoes, herons, storks and eagrets.
Sitting ducks they may have been, but this did not stop me snapping away in search of the perfect pink pose!