The South of France: Provence and the Côte d’Azur

Art, wine, beaches, hiking and the odd celebrity sighting

The South of France: Provence and the Côte d’Azur Calanque de Sormiou - © Charlie Pinter/Time Out
By Elizabeth Winding

The South of France is a heady mix of Roman remains and Modernist masterpieces, busy beaches and unspoilt coves, exquisite restaurants and tourist traps. Here, we provide an overview of what each region has to offer, and the best places to head if you're a lover of art, wine, beachlife, wildlife-watching, celebrity-spotting or hiking.

The overview

With the ‘discovery’ of the Côte d’Azur in the 1920s, the South’s mighty tourist industry was set in motion – and a powerful myth was born. Blame the artists and writers whose work made the Riviera a byword for bohemian sophistication and belle-époque elegance, forever imbued with the glittering promise of Raoul Dufy’s colour-saturated canvases of bathers, palm-fringed promenades and sailing boats, or the glamour of Scott Fitzgerald’s brittle, beautiful socialites and despair-tinged decadence.

Inland Provence is similarly hard to separate from its idealised image, shaped by everyone from Van Gogh to Peter Mayle. Its name alone is enough to conjure up a series of painterly vignettes: fields of lavender and tangled vineyards stretching under a cloudless sky; games of pétanque on plane tree-shaded squares; and tumbledown, mimosa-clad stone mas, enticing stressed urbanites with their promise of rural bliss.

Spend a week or two exploring and you may well encounter all of the above – but that’s by no means the full story. The bleakly beautiful saltmarshes of the Camargue and the studenty social scene in Avignon are much a part of the South as its yacht-filled harbours and perched medieval villages, and equally worthy of a visit. Times have changed, and the chameleon South is busy reinventing itself for the 21st century, from rough diamond Marseille’s rebirth as a cultural hub to Nice’s daring, art-dotted piazza. Even the age-old Southern wine scene is changing, with a once-unthinkable swing from reds to rosés, and a small but influential band of organic and biodynamic wine producers.

While there’s no point denying that much of the South is firmly on the tourist trail, it’s always possible to find a path less trodden. If the beach doesn’t appeal, try spending your summer hiking in the mountainous hinterlands of the Var or Southern Alps; in winter, take advantage of low-season rates and the balmy southern climate by spending a weekend in Nice, exploring its art galleries and restaurants at your own unhurried pace.

The regions

The Rhône Delta

The region that inspired Cézanne and Van Gogh is a landscape of contrasts, bounded by the arid limestone peaks of the Alpilles to the north and the wide open salt marches of the Camargue to the south. Amid this natural splendour, Arles and Nîmes are home to some of the best-preserved Roman remains in France, while the market town of St-Rémy is as chic as it is charming.

Avignon & the Vaucluse

Centuries under Papal rule left Avignon with a rich cultural heritage, which it supplements with a flourishing arts festival. Lovers of opera, meanwhile, make for Orange, where the Roman theatre makes a magnificent backdrop for the annual Choregies event.

The bucolic Drôme Provençale and Luberon have struck tourist gold with picture-perfect hill villages, vineyards and chateaux.

Marseille & Aix

After an overdose of Riviera glamour and beautiful perched villages, Marseille brings a welcome change of pace. Chaotic and charismatic, the age-old port is a city on the up, thanks in part to its thriving contemporary arts agenda. It’s also within easy reach of the fishing village of Cassis and the unspoilt seaside Calanques. Further inland, Aix is an unerringly elegant city with a spirited cultural scene. 

The Var

Beaches abound along this stretch of coast, ranging from the beach clubs of plage de Pampelonne, where teeny bikinis and sizeable wallets are de rigueur, to the peaceful charms of the Iles de Hyères. St-Tropez epitomises Riviera glitz, but head into the Var’s mountainous hinterland and you’re immersed in a different world, with glorious scenery stretching as far as the eye can see.

The Riviera & Southern Alps

The South’s mighty tourism industry was born on these shores, and the glamour of the belle époque lingers on in Cannes’s plush palace hotels, Nice’s palm-lined promenade and the private villas of Cap Ferrat. Artists also flocked here, leaving a rich legacy of artistic treasures in its museums, galleries and chapels. Inland, olive groves give way to mountains and gorges – and even a ski slope or two.

The best for...

Beach life

The Var

White sand beaches and turquoise waters fringe the island of Porquerolles a car-free paradise that feels a world away from the Riviera crowds.

If you don’t mind sharing your stretch of sand, St-Tropez’s famous plage de Pampelonne is lined with toned, tanned bodies and bling-filled beach clubs.

Marseille & Aix

Best reached by boat from Cassis, the Calanques are wonderfully unspoilt, with crystal clear inlets and not an ice-cream kiosk in sight.

The Riviera & Southern Alps

Those not averse to a pebble or two should head for the lovely Mala plage in Cap d’Ail, Beaulie-sur-Mer – it’s secluded, but worth seeking out.

Modern art meccas

The Riviera & Southern Alps

Brilliant light, vibrant landscapes and moneyed patrons have long drawn artists to the South, and a rich artistic legacy remains. Nice’s haul includes the Musée Matisse (www.musee-matisse-nice.org) and Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall (www.musee-chagall.fr).

In St-Paul-de-Vence, the fortunate few staying at the Colombe d’Or (pl du Général de Gaulle, 04.93.32.80.02, www.la-colombe-dor.com) can admire works by the likes of Picasso, Matisse and Braque – left here in lieu of payment by former clients; fortunately, the Fondation Maeght (Monté des Trious, 04.93.32.81.63, www.fondation-maeght.com) – which has some 9,000 items in its collection – is open to everyone.

The Var/The Riviera & Southern Alps

Chapels also appealed to the modern masters: don’t miss Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire (466 av Henri Matisse, Vence, 04.93.58.21.10) – Matisse designed the chapel by a way of thanks to a Dominican nun, sister Jacques-Marie who cared for him when he had cancer; Cocteau’s Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Jérusalem (av Nicolai, La Tour de Mare, Frejus & Roquuebrune-sur-Argens, 04.94.53.27.06) and the Chapelle de St-Pierre-des-Pêcheurs (quai Courbet, Basse Corniche, 04.93.76.09.70), or Picasso’s La Guerre et la Paix in the Musée National Picasso (pl de la Liberation, Cannes, 04.93.64.16.05).

Celebrity-spotting

The Var

Celebrities can’t seem to keep away from St-Tropez. The epicentre of the scene remains the exclusive Les Caves du Roi (Hôtel Byblos, av Paul Signac, 04.94.65.68.00, www.lescavesduroy.com), where pop stars, playboys and an assortment of other A-listers regularly hit the champagne.

The Riviere & Southern Alps

On Pampelonne beach in Cannes, Club 55 (04.94.55.55.55, www.leclub55.com) is another perennially popular spot, allowing for discreet celeb-spotting from behind your shades. Alternatively, head for Cannes in festival time: the lobby’s awash with A-listers at the Martinez (73 La Croisette, 04.92.98.73.00, www.hotel-martinez.com), where suites are taken over by haute-couture labels for last-minute frock fittings. After dark, head for Bâoli (Port Pierre Canto, 04.93.43.03.43, www.lebaoli.com) to party with le beau monde.

Antibes

Stars fleeing the madding crowds, meanwhile, check in at the Hôtel du Cap Eden-Roc in Antibes (bd Kennedy, Cap d’Antibes, 04.93.61.39.01, www.edenroc-hotel.fr, closed mid Oct-mid Apr, double €460-€620).

Wildlife-watching

The Rhône Delta

In addition to its white horses and bulls, the Camargue – a vast flat plain that lies between the Grand and Petit Rhône rivers – is home to an astonishing array of birdlife, from herons and plovers to terns and sandpipers. Even the most amateur of twitchers will be able to spot the flocks of pink flamingos.

The Riviera & Southern Alps

On the border with Italy, the rugged Parc du Mercantour (www.mercantour.eu) is a romantic wilderness, where the inhabitants run from badgers and bears to wolves and golden eagles.

Alternatively, check out Monaco’s clifftop Musée Océanographique (av St-Martin, Monaco-Ville, +377-93.15.36.00, www.oceano.mc), where an enormous whale skeleton resides alongside sharks, sea turtles and a live coral reef.

Wine regions

You can’t visit the South without touring a vineyard or two – and there’s an abundance from which to choose. Pay homage to the mighty reds of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (www.chateauneuf.com) or the increasingly famed Bandol appellation (Toulon & the Western Côte: The Var, www.vinsdebandol.com), or sample the crisp whites of Cassis (Cassis: Marseille & Aix, www.vinscassis.com). Up-and-coming regions worth seeking out include Gigondas and Rasteau (Avignon & the Vaucluse, www.gigondas-vin.com, www.rasteau.com) or the compact Baux-de-Provence region (see The Rhône Delta), where vignerons have embraced organic and biodynamic cultivation.

Hikes & walks

The Var

With their sheer drops and vertiginous views, the inland Gorges du Verdon make for high-adrenaline hikes. More information is available from the two main tourist offices at Castellane (04.92.83.61.14, www.castellane.org) or Moustiers-Ste-Marie (04.92.74.67.84, www.ville-moustiers-sainte-marie.fr).

The Riviera & Southern Alps

Less of a scramble, though equally lovely, is the public footpath that winds around the Cap Ferrat peninsula, skirting luxury villas, secluded beaches and windswept cliffs. Alternatively, follow the iconic Grand Prix street circuit through the tightly-packed heart of Monaco on foot – and marvel at how Formula 1’s finest whip round its hairpin bends. Visit the official Formula 1 site for a map of the circuit.

Fast facts

Getting there

By air

Airlines providing direct flights are detailed below. From the USA, most flights involve a Paris connection.

Air France www.airfrance.com
Paris to Avignon, Marseille, Montpellier, Nice and Nîmes.
British Airways
www.britishairways.com
Gatwick to Marseille and Montpellier; Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham to Nice.
British Midland www.flybmi.com
Heathrow and Nottingham to Nice.
Delta www.delta.com
Daily from New York JFK to Nice.
Easyjet www.easyjet.com
Bristol, Stansted, Aberdeen, Bristol, Liverpool and Luton to Nice; Gatwick to Marseille.
Ryanair www.ryanair.com
Luton and Stansted to Nîmes.

By train

Mainline services

The TGV (high-speed train) runs to the South from Paris Gare de Lyon and Lille, via Lyon, to Avignon. There it splits west to Nîmes and east to Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Toulon, Draguignan-Les Arcs, St-Raphaël, Cannes, Antibes, Nice, Monte-Carlo and Menton (not all trains stop at all stations). Note that the highest-speed track currently only reaches Marseille and Nîmes.

It takes around 2hrs 40mins to Avignon, 3hrs to Aix, Marseille and Nîmes, 5hrs 30mins to Nice. On slower, long-distance trains from Menton and Nice, you can travel overnight by couchette (a bunk-bed sleeping car, shared with up to five) or voiture-lit (a comfier sleeping compartment for up to three). Both are available in first- and second-class, and must be reserved ahead.

Eurostar www.eurostar.com.
For the Eurostar to the South of France, change on to the TGV at Lille or Paris. July to September, a weekly Eurostar goes direct from London St Pancras International to Avignon Central in just 6hrs.

Local trains

The local SNCF network is most extensive in the Rhône Valley and along the coast. Out-of-town stations usually have a connecting navette (shuttle bus) to the town centre. Sometimes SNCF runs buses (marked ‘Autocar’ in timetables) to stations where the train no longer stops; rail tickets and passes are valid on these. Métrazur runs along the coast, stopping at all stations between Marseille and Ventimiglia in Italy. There’s also a Marseille–Aix–Gap line and two mountain lines from Nice: the Roya Valley line via Sospel, and the privately run Train des Pignes (from Gare de Provence).

By bus & coach

Travelling round France by bus takes some determination.

Eurolines www.eurolines.com.
Coaches from London Victoria to Avignon, Marseille, Toulon and Nice. Local buses The coastal area is reasonably well served by buses, and city centres have regular services. Services are more limited in the country and are run by myriad local companies. Rural buses often cater for schools and workers, meaning there may be just one bus in the morning, one in the evening and none on Sundays and school holidays. Towns of any size should have a bus station (gare routière) – often near the rail station.

By car & motorbike

Car ferries & the Eurotunnel

Brittany Ferries www.brittanyferries.com
Poole to Cherbourg, Plymouth to Roscoff, Portsmouth to St-Malo or to Caen.
Eurotunnel www.eurotunnel.com
The Eurotunnel takes cars from Folkestone to Calais, through the Channel Tunnel.
Hoverspeed Norfolkline www.hoverspeed.com
High-speed Seacats run Dover to Calais and Newhaven to Dieppe.
P&O Stena Line www.poferries.com
Dover to Calais and Portsmouth to Cherbourg or Le Havre.
SeaFrance www.seafrance.com
Dover to Calais.

Money

The euro (€) is the official currency in France.

Websites

Official tourist websites:
www.alpes-haute-provence.com
www.crt.paca.fr Provence-Alps-Côte d'Azur (PACA) region.
www.drome-tourisme.com
www.franceguide.com Official government tourits site.
www.guideriviera.com The Alps-Maritimes.
www.toursmevar.com The Var.
www.visitprovence.com The Bouches-du-Rhône.

When to go

The climate is generally hot and dry, except for spring, when there may be heavy rainfall, and November, which can be blustery, cold and wet. The coast has a gentle Mediterranean climate with mild winters (minimum daytime temperatures of 10ºC/50ºF) and hot summers (30ºC/86ºF) or more). Temperatures can rise into the 40sºC (100ºF) in the middle of the day. Stay in the shade, wear a sunhat and drink plenty of water.

In Provence, the Mistral, a harsh, cold wind, blows down the Rhône Valley and howls through the streets of Arles, Avignon and Marseille, bringing winter (and at times spring) temperatures down dramatically. It usually lasts three or four days, but can go on as long as ten days. The area has also seen dramatic storms in recent years, causing flash floods in autumn.

The high mountains usually have snow from November to March. Although summer is generally dry, there are often dramatic thunderstorms along the Riviera in late August. Average sunshine on the French Riviera is six hours in January, 12 hours in July.

Time Out guidebooks

For more information, pick up a copy of our guidebook 'South of France: Provence & the Côte d'Azur', available from the Time Out shop, at the discounted price of £8.99.

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Comments

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And to not forget Moustiers Ste Marie with the gorgeous Verdon Gorges and Lavender fields!

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