While exploring the South of France I stuck to the train system and didn’t hire a car. While the trains are perfect for exploring the French Riviera I would definitely recommend hiring a car for exploring Provence. The towns I visited were absolutely lovely and all linked along the train system. However, if you want to really explore the heart of Provence then you’ll need a car to reach the rural villages, lavendar fields and the Gorges du Verdon. My highlights of my Provence trip were definitely Aix-en-Provence and the Calanques de Cassis. I would love to return to this area though in the future and visit the Gorges du Verdon, the lavendar fields in Valensole, the sunflower fields near Saint-Remy-de-Provence and the cute town of Lourmarin. For a detailed guide to these areas in the Provence region read Find Us Lost’s comprehensive guide to Provence.
Where to stay
Packing our bags and getting on a train we headed into the Provence region of France. Our first stop was Marseille which I’d heard mixed things about. It is the third largest city in France and is also the French city with the largest number of North African immigrants which geographically makes sense because in Marseille you are actually closer to Africa than Paris. MINDBLOWN. So Marseille was pretty rough but we did find some beautiful areas and overall had an extremely memorable and fun time.
Our view from our hotel room was beautiful with the warm terracotta rooves and cathedral in the background. We had a delicious picnic of bread and cheese-classic French!- looking out at the Old Port. We then meandered through Le Panier district which was very beautiful and filled with stunning street art and Savon de Marseille shops. That evening we passed through a pretty rough neighborhood, unintentionally, in search for some pizza. Comments were passed and we looked steadily ahead. The thunderclouds had begun to roll in so we took our steaming hot pizzas and hiked to our room on the top floor, opened all the windows, turned off the lights and watched the sky illuminate with lightning bolts and shudder with thunder. It was AWEsome in the true sense of the word.
Marseille is well-known for its vieux-port, soaps and nougats.
Calanques de Cassis
Every French person I’d told that I was going to Marseille said I HAD to go to the Calanques de Cassis while I was there. The Calanques de Cassis are a series of canals or natural inlets that run from the sea and are surrounded by steep rocky cliffs. They are a brillant azure blue and a stunning natural wonder in Provence in the South of France. I had seen that there were many expensive boat tours which I wasn’t keen on but when I found out how tangible it was to hike them I knew we had to make it work. And so we did. We got dropped on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere armed only with a undetailed map the bus driver had given us moments before and a rough indication of the direction of the path.
We inevitably got lost from the get go, taking a wrong turn right at the beginning and so only really started our hike half an hour later. We encountered many other confused hikers, unsure of whether they were on the right track. We went on our gut feeling often and eventually, after a steep climb down slippery rocks, arrived at the mouth of the most impressive and beautiful Calanque: Calanque d’En Vau. The word calanque literally means inlet and so these stunning wonders of creation are bright turquoise trickles of water running into the cracks of the earth. It gives the feeling of a river but at the same time is the colour of the ocean. It’s like something I’ve never seen before. We peeled off our sweaty clothes and changed into our costumes, diving into the fresh, cool water. It was beautiful! The sheer white cliffs were dotted with pine trees and then plunged into the mottled turquoise, blue water.
After a refreshing break we refueled on biscuits and got back into our hiking gear ready to climb back up the treacherous slope. Soon enough we arrived at the next calanque: Calanque de Port Pin. It was also stunning, but smaller and made for the perfect picnic spot. The last calanque Calanque de Port Miou didn’t really have a stopping spot but acted as more of a port for the yachts of Cassis.
We approached the town of Cassis and little houses and suburban streets replaced the hiking trail. By the end of it we had walked 17 km in about three and a half hours. We treated ourselves to a Cassis treat at a restaurant in the port: I had a scoop of Cassis sorbet and Jodi a Cassis kir. Wonderful!
For future recommendation I would suggest staying in the town of Cassis and starting the Calanque hike from there. The path will be much easier to find and follow and you’ll get to stay in the quaint town of Cassis.
The next day we left Marseille and took the train to Aix-En-Provence. There was no such thing as a hostel in this little town and so we had booked a hotel. It was to be our most expensive and luxurious accommodation and so we relished in that one night of fluffy pillows, our own ensuite bathroom and comfort. We only spent one night in Aix-En-Provence but within those 36 hours Aix-en-Provence became very dear to both of us.
It was the perfect manifestation of what your mind conjures up when you think of Provence; Old French houses, a wide boulevard lined with plane trees, farmer’s markets filled with fresh produce, shops exuding the delicious lavender fragrance and cafés spilling out onto the cobbled streets.
We spent most of our time here wandering through the markets, attracted by the vibrant colours of the sun-ripened fruits and vegetables of the farmer’s market. The streets were lined with a rainbow of bright marquees, stalls selling beautiful and affordable clothing, French antiques and lavender products. I absolutely adore markets and so this made my heart very happy. Our pallets tasted the sunny flavours of Provence: olive tapenade, fresh bread, sweet peaches and plums. We took things at the Provencal pace: really slow and in no rush at all, starting our day with a proper French petit dejeuner: pain au chocolat and pain aux raisins at the boulangerie, meandering through the street stalls and then taking a late evening train to Avignon.
We saw all of the must-see sights of the Palais des Papes, Rocher des Dams and the Pont d’Avignon which were lovely but I found the buildings in Avignon to be quite dull in comparison to the South.
Unfortunately the lavender season had just finished and so the best we could do was smell the floral fragrance as we walked past shops selling lavender bags and pick the last few sprigs at the base of the Pont d’Avignon.
We had a lovely time in Avignon and most of it featured French food: us trying to get the last of our French favs in before we left for Spain. I was struck with the startling realisation that these were really my last few days in the country. Yes, a little bit of nostalgia had set in but most of all I felt the urge to get in as many french pastries, baguettes, cheese and speculoos as possible before leaving. Yoh, the health kick upon returning home is going to be insane!
Our last stop in France before hitting up Spain was Montpellier. I had just kind of seen it as a one nighter break in the journey but it turned out to be such a lovely little place. A pretty normal French city with all the usual architecture, Notre Dame and Arch du Triomphe.
We found some wonderful hidden art galleries and a really incredible photography exhibition. We also forgot about time in a vintage book and CD store where I stocked up on some French books to continue my french when I return home. This was followed by some reading in a shaded park. Autumn has definitely started to set in here with the leaves turning all sorts of beautiful colours and falling off the trees. It is beautiful and I’m really excited to experience an European autumn.
I’ve had a wonderful two weeks in the south of France. It really has captured me and reignited my love for the French culture and language, for which I am extremely thankful. I will be able to leave here having made peace with France and with some fond memories to look back on. But for now, Ola España!
If you’re visiting more of France on your trip why not check out my French regional guides:
Champagne Region: Epernay
A winter skiing trip to Tignes