A Roaring Road Trip Through Provence and The French Riviera

In August 2013, Sylvie and I rented a tiny Renault Twingo and zoomed through 1500kms of Provence and the French Riviera. With no fixed agenda and stopping only for cheese and wine, we’d sleep in the car and wake to views of billionaire yachts and the luminous Côte d’Azur.

If you’re thinking of exploring the south of France, then I dedicate this post to you, mon ami.

Road trip camping and picnic on the French Riviera, Provence, South France

The nauseating smell of hot plastic made my head spin, and for a moment I literally had no idea what was going on or why I was back in the car. But as the gargantuan globules of rain plonked angrily off the roof, a wet and blurry memory of us sprinting to our rented Renault Twingo played through my mind.

I looked to my right to find Sylvie sprawled out with her legs strategically placed in cubbyholes and drink holders, her pink inflatable pillow perfectly cupping her head like a giant marshmallow. She opened her eyes and smiled as the hilarity of our circumstance set in, before erupting into a fit of giggles. It wasn’t exactly what we’d had in mind when we planned our road-trip-camping-adventure in the south of France. Still, like they say, it’s not an adventure unless you’re miserable. 

Jurassic Storms in Avignon

Like a frail old lady, Avignon constantly reminds you of how old it is. A mighty, 800-year-old wall surrounds the city, and the skyline is a puzzle of sand-stoned bell towers and château turrets like you find on the labels of dusty bottles of Bordeaux. A narrow alleyway funneled us in passed men and women wearing Macbeth costumes and smoking strong cigarettes outside of theatre fire exits. But I wasn’t interested in the theatrical festivities that take over Avignon every summer; I wanted to discover its restaurants and street life, the joie de vivre that my hero Keith Floyd talked of with such great affection.

He lived here, you know, in a classic Provençal country home, complete with the region’s traditional butterscotch stonework and sun-bleached-green window shutters. It was here that old Floydy boy, the swashbuckling, bow-tie-wearing cook enjoyed his last few extravagant years. In fact, it was Floyd that first inspired me to explore this region and taught me of its fertile vineyards and seasonal approach to cooking – the herbes de Provence and Côtes du Rhône reds.

Having grown quite attached to our new rental-car-come-home, Sylvie and I decided to take note of our guide book’s recommendation, setting off in cavalier style with a plan to discover the city of Aix en Provence – “the hub of all things Provence”. The motorways swarmed with little Peugeots and Citroens, immaculately kept and loaded up ready for a wonderful week on the French Riviera. If I were French, I wouldn’t leave the country for my holidays either.

Local radio blasting, we reveled in the freedom that the open road and no fixed agenda brings. We sang along in faux-French accents and argued over which places we should see next, Monaco being a consistent source of friction. “It’s just a tourist trap,” I would moan, “what about discovering the peasants’ Provence, the real Riviera?” Nothing could have prepared me for what we would soon discover.

Aix en Provence, the Hub of Provence

18th-Century Streets of Aix-en-Provence, AKA "The Hub of Provence"

18th-Century Streets of Aix-en-Provence, AKA “The Hub of Provence”

Entering Aix en Provence via a tree-lined carriageway, we were greeted with marble facades and apartment blocks with doormen, gold plaques and elegant black lettering. In fact, it took us about ten minutes of walking through the leafy streets and water sprinklers before I saw anything that reflected my vision of what the “hub of Provence” would look like.

A few windy streets later and we were in a lively little market square that was ever so slightly too familiar for a place I had never been to before. An old man with a slick side parting and shiny leather shoes walked slowly and deliberately up and down the market stalls. He walked with his hands firmly clasped behind his back, stopping to pick up giant red peppers, waxy courgettes and muddy bunches of skinny little carrots, squeezing them and sniffing them, like some kind of vegetable sheriff. Sylvie dived in, tasting the artisan breads with olive pastes and crumbly cheese, and again I saw people handling fruit and veg, bouncing it in their hands to feel the weight, sniffing and hunting out the best of the bunch.

It suddenly dawned on me that this was Marché Place Richelme, the market old Floydy boy took me to in one of his ground-breaking cookery shows. He had explained how the French are different from the British, that they aren’t afraid to touch and squeeze and smell the market’s produce. In fact, if they don’t, then they could risk looking like they don’t trust their own judgement. It’s about saving face, being discerning and being selective about what they eat. I love the relationship the French have with what they eat.

It was this very market that Floyd explained was the market of all markets – the blue print for the world’s food markets as we know them today. How could you not be enamored by that? I was in love……and hungry.

Marché Place Richelme market stalls, Aix en Provence, South France

Marché Place Richelme, Aix en Provence – “The market of all markets”

We invested in a quiche Loraine and took it in a greasy brown paper bag to a little courtyard. We sat on a doorstep and took in the sights and sounds of a giant water fountain as it shot liquid diamonds into the powder-blue-sky. I tore it into two parts as a waft of old cheese and salty bacon filled my senses and gave me that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you walk into a good bakery. It wasn’t quite the peasants’ Provence I was chasing, but it would certainly do.

Riviera Wild & The Hunt for The Côte d’Azur

As we zoomed down the autoroutes, Sylvie grew increasingly impatient. “I just want to get to the sea already!” We’d seen a picture of the calanques de Cassis, steep cliffs plunging into sheltered coves of intense blue sea. A few songs later and a small fortune in toll fees, and we were there. There’s no mistaking where the Côte d’Azur (the blue coast) gets its name. The light bounces off the ocean and over saturates everything in sight, like a bottle of spilt blue ink over the Mars-red soil and rocks.

We got lucky in Cassis and found a little camping spot surrounded by shoulder-height bushes blossoming with pink and white petals. Cross-legged on our wafer-thin camping mats, we indulged in a feast of cheese, oven-warm bread and giant Provençal tomatoes. I uncorked a bottle of Canredon, a red from the Languedoc region, and we glugged it down out of white plastic cups whilst trying to pick out the different flavours and aromas. It was paradise.

Later, as the sun set over the Riviera we strolled down narrow streets towards the harbour, dodging couples demolishing pots of muscles and seafood pasta dishes on tiny tables in the streets. Bronzed angels in white flowing dresses showed off their jewelry, reluctantly wrapping it up in tiny paper bags and swapping it for money from flocks of passers-by. “This place is magical,” Sylvie whispered as we watched a waiter float majestically toward a table with ten plates of smoking grilled fish balanced in his hands and arms.

This became our daily routine: get up, drive somewhere awesome, buy cheese and wine, find a place to sleep, eat, drink and sleep. One day we had croissants and coffee for breakfast in St. Topez, quiche and ice-cold cans of Amstel for lunch in Cannes, coffee in the pastel streets of Nice, and still managed to make it to Monaco in time for dinner. It was whimsical and glamorous and dirty and delicious.

Purple Haze in the Alpes de Haute Provence

We didn’t want to leave the Riviera. It was an endless utopia and I just wanted to keep exploring and indulging. But the clock was ticking and we were desperate to see the lavender roads before flying back to London.

As soon as you leave the coast the mountains swoop you up into leafy heavens, with dramatic views over the glowing Mediterranean Sea. The only car on the road, we zipped along, stopping at every viewpoint to take photos of the Alps as they stretched out for an eternity in front of us. We stayed at an alpine-fresh campsite in the tiny little Romanesque village of Forcalquier, which I would thoroughly recommend, and another campsite which catered to rock climbers and hardcore campers who looked as if they were staying for the whole summer. And as I packed away our little tent and sat on the ground to enjoy my last café au lait and croissants, I fantasised about selling everything I owned so I could return and do the same. Just la route, la vin et Provence!

The coves of Cassis - AKA Cassis Calanques

Explore the breath-taking and vertigo-inducing Calanques de Cassis –  The Coves of Cassis

The bold blue coast - Côte d'Azur, French Riviera

Whats that? Why do they call it the blue coast, you ask? (Côte d’Azur)

The French flag flying off the back of a ferry going from Hyeres to Porquerolles Island in the south of France

The boat from Hyeres……

The island of Porquerolles, Hyeres, Provence, South France

…..to the pure white sands and waters of Porquerolles Island. Europe’s very own Caribbean hideaway.

eating bread, cheese and tomatoes in Provence, South France. With a bottle of red wine.

Simple food, great wine, and the French Riviera. What could be better?

Sleeping in our tiny rental car on the French Riviera, South France

Waking up to the Riviera in our rental-car-come-hotel.

Packing up our Renault Twingo rental car in Provence after sleep at the beach

Packing up the car-otel before anyone sees us!

Breakfast at the beach, just outside of St. Tropez

Croissants and black coffee at the beach just outside of St.Tropez

Stretching at the beach in St.Tropez, South Fance

Sylvie stretching after a night at Hotel Renault Twingo

Quiche and French beer at the viewpoint in Cannes on the French Riviera

Quiche and French beer with views over Cannes

Pastel pink and blue buildings in Nice, South France, Riviera

The pastel buildings of Nice

Pizza making is serious business in Nice, French Riviera, South France

Pizza making is serious business in Nice and you can really feel Italy’s influence – it’s only a few hours down the road, after all!

Restaurants in Nice, French Riviera, South France

It’s all go in Nice, France’s Italian city

Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco

Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco. Believe it or not, they let me inside dressed like that.

Everyone’s ‘someone’ in Monaco

Alpes de Haute Provence Mountains

Alpes de Haute Provence. The perfect place to be lost.

French Southern Alps, Haute Alps, Provence

Stopping, again, to take photos of the Haute Alps

The Lavender Road - Plateau de Valensole

The Lavender Road of Plateau de Valensole. Best seen from June to August, before the September harvest.

Glacial lake in the Haute Alps Provence

Quick! Let’s take another photo!

 

A sunflower field in the French Alps

The happiest place on earth

Cycling in the French Haute Alps

What’s that? Cycling in the French Alps in 35 degree heat? That’s a good idea!

Alpes-de-Haute-Provence

Are you planning a trip to the south of France? Interested in Provence and the French Riviera? Please feel free to ask me your travel questions in the comments below, or via Twitter – I’m ALWAYS happy to talk about the south of France!

12 Comments

  • Nura says:

    Hi Ben!!
    Loved the article and pictures. I’m going to south of France in July and looking at your pictures just made me more excited about my trip. I’ll be driving, from marseille, to see the blooming lavender fields. Would you say it was an easy uncomplicated drive to the lavender fields? It’ll be my first time driving in Europe so I’m a bit nervous about that.

    Thanksss! :)

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Hey Nura,

      Thanks for your comment; sorry I’m only just getting back to you!

      I think it’s fair to say that it can be quite stressful driving in European cities. But driving in Provence countryside was fairly quiet and easygoing. The biggest problem you’ll probably encounter is when you get stuck behind a tractor for miles on end.

      Just take your time and pull over when you need a break. There’s so much to see and you’ll want to take lots of photos.

      Enjoy! :)

  • Daniel says:

    Hey Ben,

    Thanks for this great post. We are about to do the same thing in a couple of weeks and after reading this post, probably follow it to the T! We have had some romantic visions of road tripping through Provence, and glad to know they don’t have to be mere notions.

    Anyway, I wanted to ask about sleeping in the car. I see you have posted some links to campsites. Any other suggestions about making the most of a “car-otel”? Find a parking lot or beach or something and just set up, or is there a science to it?

    Thanks!

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Hey Daniel,

      Thanks for your comment – I’m glad the post inspired you!

      In all honesty – and I’ve traveled more than most – it was the most fun, exciting and beautiful thing I’ve ever done. There was something so liberating about just going.

      I think we would have preferred to stay at campsites, but sometimes we literally couldn’t find any, so we had no choice but to sleep in the car.

      We were lucky and never got caught, so I have no idea how they would have reacted to it. When we did it, we would park at the end of a quiet road and put towels up over the windows so you couldn’t see in or out. We’d park up very late, about midnight, and be gone at first light (6am), so as to reduce the chances of getting “caught”. But the campsites are good and cheap, though, so do make the most of them. They nearly always have space, even during peak season.

      Apart from that, I’d just recommend being polite and respectful. And remember, if anyone stops you, you’re just a stupid tourist! ;)

      Have an amazing trip! Let me know how it goes.

      Ben

  • Jaslyn says:

    Hi Ben,
    What great photos! I’m heading to France for 3 weeks in late July through early August. My partner isn’t the sleeping in a car type, so do you have any places where you would recommend staying… anywhere? All we have planned is that we’re driving from Tours and I want to visit as much wine country as possible – drive down to Provence and stay there for 4 days and then we’re in Barcelona. Provence area is so big — how do we decide where to book accommodation?

    Thanks,
    Jaslyn

  • steve says:

    Ben, what a fantastic post – thank you for sharing. Wife and I will be taking a train from Paris to the South, hoping to end in Marseilles (where our plane flies out from) and we are very excited.

    Our first thought was to head to Nice and make our way west to Marseilles – we have 6 days to do this.

    Are all of those stops accessible by driving/parking and enjoying? I’m trying to determine if we should be booking rooms/hotels along the way. And, if we do need to book places to stay, at which points?

    If you could recommend 1 or 2 spots between Nice and Marseilles to settle in for 1-2 days, where would they be?

    Thank you for your help!

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Bonjour Steve,

      Thanks for your comment! Firstly I would say, 6 days is plenty of time to see much of the coast. If I was going to do it all over again, I’d probably want to spend more time in Aix en Provence, Nice, Antibes and Raphael. You’ll probably want to book in advance if you want to stay in hotels; we stayed in our tent or car most nights, which was quite liberating.

      Hope that helps Let me know how it goes.

      Ben

  • Trinh says:

    Hey Ben, loved this post!! Thank you :)
    My boyfriend and I are planning a 3.5 week Italy and France getaway. We arrive in Milan, and then I was hoping to go through the South of France and Paris for the first half, and then make our way back through Italy up the Amalfi coast and Cinque Terre on our way back up to Milan. I am finding planning the France portion of the trip very difficult, as I would like to visit smaller towns and some grand castles, but I’m finding it impossible to even narrow down a list of smaller towns from so many great recommendations and posts I find online. I’m overwhelmed and cannot decide! Any tips? Also did you run into any difficulties from sleeping in your car? Is this legal there? Thanks alot!

  • My boyfriend and I spent two weeks traveling across the south of France, and I think renting a car is the best way to explore the region.

    One of the best things about our trip was definitely the food, especially the meals we had in Provence. We even attended a baking class and learned how to make calissons whilst we were there!

    I’d also recommend doing some hiking for a scenic experience of the French Riviera. We went on a lovely beach trek, starting from Plage de Gigaro and continuing along the rocky coast, where we came across a few secluded beaches.

    These photos are beautiful, by the way!

  • sam says:

    Hello, It was great to read your travel journal. I am a real lover of provence but only been a few times…luberon, saint Paul de Vence and plan de la tour. If you would recommend the best location for culture, beauty and of course the quintessential provence where would it be?
    Thank you!
    sam

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Bonjour and merci for your comment Sam,

      I would say Aix-en-Provence, which is the capital of the region. It’s a gorgeous, leafy city with a great deal of culture. Idyllic. I also love Avignon if you’re looking for something a bit smaller.

      But in all honesty, I think you’d enjoy wherever you went.

      Happy travels!

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