Angelika Film Center & Cafe
Heading to Europe for a family vacation-- inclusive of an infant and grandparents-- in March and thinking of including 4 nights in the South of France to mix things up. We would be taking the train in, or driving, from Tuscany and would love some guidance in thinking about a good home base.
Being that it is March, my first question is if the French Riviera is even a good idea during this time of year. Would hate to go when it is empty and dreary. Alternatively, perhaps staying in an area in Provence would provide a good taste of the French countryside. We would love to be in one location and then take day trips by car or train. Seeing the coast, but then also the countryside, perhaps some wineries, etc. Really open to anything! Just a good taste of Southern France.
Thank you in advance!
Now, I've been there in March and was lucky enough to have perfect weather (compared to the weather I've encountered in July on a previous visit). Don't worry about it being empty. It won't be. For a base I'd suggest either Cannes or Nice (and of course explore both of them). You definitely have to visit Monaco which you'll come across while driving from Tuscany.
Other places worth a visit: Grasse (perfume "capital" of France), Saint-Paul-de-Vence (a picturesque village on the hill), Saint-Tropez and Port Grimaud (this is my favorite place in the area, and maybe the only place you'll find empty at that time). Another place I discovered in my latest trip was Moustiers-Sainte-Marie up in the mountains. Really nice village, plus you get a glimpse of the Gorges du Verdon
Have a nice trip!
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The coast will for sure be less crowded. Either way, you should check out Monaco. I would feel going into Provence, specifically Aix-en-Provence and up into the Rhone Valley Avignon are both great cities to check out for a couple days. The Rhone, in my opinion, has far superior wineries. If you are leaving out of paris you can make your way up into multiple wine regions along the same strip Lyon for Beaujolias and through Burgundy on your way to Dijon
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You are headed to my all-time most favorite part of the world!!! First, I would say that if you can push your trip a little further out, say until April or May you'll have a true-er Riviera experience in that that region is at its best in warm weather (think lavender and sunflowers!). That said, if you can't do NOT let it stop you from seeing this part of the world.
As far as whether to drive or take the train, I've explored the area both ways a few times and even thought I hate driving, I would try to drive. There are sooooo many sweet little towns and villages in between major cities that you'll miss if you take the train. Also, the view from the train really isn't always very exciting--the roads you'll take driving are probably a lot prettier.
I would think about making Aix-en-Provence your base. Not only is it VERY easy to get just about everywhere from here (by car or train), but it is, in my opinion, the most beautiful city in France next to Paris. It's very cosmopolitan but feels like you're in the country. I usually make this my base when I'm here and the only problem I ever have is getting myself to take day trips because I don't want to leave it. So, in no particular order, here are some other places I would try to see:
L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue - maybe my 2nd favorite place next to Aix. It's a town that's known for its antique markets and is a wonderful, beautiful little town. So much life here and amazing if you're into antiques. There's a communal spirit here that I just love--almost every time I've come here there's some cardboard boat race or costume contest or something silly going on. Saint-Tropez - the people watching here is second to none and the vibe is so lively and so much fun! The only major problem is that you can only get here by car and the traffic is beyond bad and goes through a hideous section of the area. You'll eat up a lot of time sitting on the road but the city is spectacular. You can take buses here so you might want to look into that. Stunning isn't even the word. If you go here, try to go on a Sunday--it's one of the few towns in the area where things are open on Sundays. Arles - OK, honestly, I hate this town (I've never been sure why--I just find it creepy) but I'm suggesting it because there is something really interesting about seeing where Van Gogh painted. You can walk around town and instantly recognize certain locations which is kind of cool. Still don't like it as a city, though--overpriced and always a bit dreary. Avignon - I think this is such an underrated city. It's a pretty big city by Southern France standards and always has such interesting things going on--festivals, concerts, markets, etc. My best friend and her family stay here every summer because there's just so much to do. Love this place. Le Castellet- this is a little artisans' village on the top of a hill that is relatively tourist-free in comparison to the rest of the area. It's only accessible by car, though, so keep that in mind. Wonderful, wonderful place that overlooks local vineyards.
Nice - I'll be honest--Nice, as a town, is not the glamorous city it pretends to be, but you can't go to the south of France and not see either Nice or Cannes (and Cannes is a tacky nightmare if you ask me). Nice is definitely worth seeing, though and Vieux Nice or "Old Town" is pretty interesting. Also, the architecture here is fascinating--every style you can think of--Belle Epoque, Art Deco, Pepe LePeu-type scrolly iron work. You have to look for it, but it's there. Monaco - O...M...G...the funny thing about this city is that as a visitor, unless you go for an event, there really isn't that much to do other than see the Grimaldi castle, but still, I can never resist a day here when I go. It's so beautiful and so legendary and so fascinating. The people watching is beyond amazing. Keep in mind, though, the driving here is legendarily treacherous and not a lot of fun. The last time I was there the train station was closed but I think it's back up--double check before you go as I know they were having some issues with it. Moustiers-Sainte-Marie - this town is to ceramics what Cooperstown is to baseball, but, as someone who doesn't particularly like ceramics (or faience as this type of ceramics is called) I LOVE this town. Charming, sweet, and quirky. Love this place. There's a nice like hike up to that church in the picture that will give you an amazing view of the countryside. Cassis - this is basically just a sleepy beach town but it's a nice place to stop for a lazy lunch by the water. Also a great place to pick up some cheap espadrilles. Parking can be tough, here, though, so just be ready for that. Grasse - if you're a perfume lover, you cannot miss Grasse. Just about every perfume in the world uses flowers from Grasse and there are whole museums dedicated to perfume. I love this city although a lot of people don't--I think because it's so focused on the whole perfume thing and there really isn't much else to do. If I'm remembering correctly, the train does not go here. I hope that helps get you started!!! I'm so jealous!!!
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Although I cannot speak to conditions during the month of March, I was in the French Riviera following a visit to Italy just a few months ago. My husband and I drove in from Florence and used Monaco as a home base to explore the coastline and medieval villages.
In terms of transportation, renting a car anywhere in Italy tends to be quite expensive due to unusually high insurance requirements (a reflection of how common car theft/damage seems to be in Italy). Unless you're returning to Italy with the car, you'll also likely run into an additional fee for dropping the rental in France. That said, we got around the fees by renting a car in Italy that had French plates. Alternatively, depending on your itinerary and group dynamics, you could make a full day's adventure of the train trip. Either way, you will benefit from having a car in the French Riviera - you'll be able to explore more freely and broadly, and rental pricing within Monaco/France is quite reasonable.
Among our favorite stops, Menton proved to be a quaint beach town with beautiful weather and lovely sea views. The waterfront promenade is lined with restaurants and benches from which to enjoy the salt air without the hurry of bustling crowds. It's really old town that holds the highlights though. The Baroque era Saint-Michel-Archange Basilica is a worth a stop for the sea view and to appreciate the Grimaldi coat of arms worked into intricate stone paving in the courtyard. Beyond museums and gardens, it's delightfully easy to lose yourself in the street cafes, small shops and market halls. Stroll until you feel like stopping for charcuterie, fromage and beer/wine. Repeat.
If you're willing to gut out a steep, winding drive on sometimes narrow roads, visit Gorbio - a little village in the mountains that dates back to the 13th century and retains authentic charm. You can wander the alleyways and search for engraved dates without running into many tourists. The village square welcomes visitors with an ancient elm, but an abundance of friendly cats seemed to provide the true welcoming committee.
Eze tends to be a bigger tourist draw and it's certainly merited. Its history places the village as a castle town, a defensive fort and probably many other things - much of which shows in the character of the well-maintained structures. Each alley seems to lead to something surprising and beautiful - even if it's simply a flowered balcony or old façade. The Jardin Exotique offers stunning views from the top of a hill and around the ruins of a 14th century castle. I would imagine the succulents and cacti keep the garden interesting year-round. It can be quite steep in the garden and around the village overall, so that could be a consideration for the grandparents. There's a high ratio of cafes and restaurants though, if part of the group wants to explore while others relax.
La Turbie is a must-stop for the Trophee des Alpes. This monument to Roman Emperor Augustus is one of a kind - reportedly the only structure of its type still in existence. The inscribed plaques are still clear and the ancient columns rise dramatically above the skyline.
I think others have commented on Nice. I didn't love the area as much as our other stops, but the Promenade des Anglais is a beach boulevard to rule all others. There is a great variety of museums, cathedrals and architecture to entertain, as well as Roman ruins to view in the city. Also note that the train ride between Nice and Monaco is quick and easy.
Monaco is an experience all its owns - lavish, luxurious and a bit disjointed. Getting anywhere in Monaco via taxi is about 15 euros, regardless of distance, but walk when you can. Le Rocher appears to be out of some kind of fairy tale, especially when the sun is lower in the sky and bathes it in a warm, pinkish glow. Here you'll find the Prince's Palace of Monaco (the tour is worth it; the changing of the guard is less impressive), the Saint Nicholas Cathedral (Roman-Byzantine style; burial place of past sovereigns, including Prince Rainier and Princess Grace), the Musée Océanographique de Monaco (a relatively small, easy-to-navigate collection of marine fauna and navigation artifacts) and Fort Antoine (former fortress, now outdoor gardens and theater). The Jardin Exotique de Monaco is a serene setting for a wide variety of succulents and outstanding harbor views. The gardens also include a cave with fossils and an anthropology museum. Although I was interested to see Prince Rainier III's extensive vintage car collection, the presentation only offered a bare minimum of information and very few images of the vehicles in use. This museum is probably best left to the most passionate car lovers.
Hope this helps. Enjoy your exploration of a beautiful area!
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Considering that you have only 4 days I would recommend to chose one area and enjoy it.
Taking Nice ( love this town!) as a base you can explore Monaco, Grasse, Cannes and Saint-Tropez.
Marseille is a perfect base to go to Aix-en-Provence, Parc national des Calanques and Verdon Natural Regional Park.
Roads are great, last year we drove from Marseille till Risoul and have a wonderful time.
( I'm currently planning a similar itinerary to my parents, Northern Italy + Provence, they will arrive on May)
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