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Provence Transportation Tips

Hello,

I will have five full days in the Provence region from June 18-22. I will be arriving from Le Mans on June 17 via a TVG train (~noon that day). I have been reading a lot of mixed ideas and opinions on renting a car vs. using public transportation in this region - hoping I can get some more ideas from people here!

Things I want to see focus on ancient Roman history and ruins, along with medieval sites (like castle ruins), and finally iconic landscapes (ex. lavender fields). Therefore some of my top picks for places/sites are Nimes, Arles, Orange, Uzes, Pont du Gard, Vaison-la-Romaine, Glanum, and Les Baux; and, if time permits, Aigues-Mortes, Avignon (unless I make this my base), and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. I would also like to see lavender fields (think they should be in bloom during this time...).

I was wondering where is best to stay, regardless of having a car or not - my top three places being Avignon, Arles, or Nimes. Probably will come down to Avignon or Arles. I hear Avignon is a better choice if not having a car, as pub trans is more versatile here, along with more to do after getting back from day trips. Opinions needed!

Is it a hassle to plan and rely on pub trans, buses, and/or guided tours in this region to get to these sites and cities? Is it worth the cost to have a car and either get to my destinations asap or also be able to have the freedom to stop where and when I want to? Will the cost for all these tickets/guided tours add up to be a similar cost as a car? On first glance it seems like the pub trans is a lot try to coordinate and can lead to downtime waiting for the buses and trains, but with a car, you have to worry about parking (and some of these places seem old and small), fuel costs, and also I read that the commutes in this region can take awhile due to narrow, winding roads.

Finally, I need to depart this region to Paris and am wondering what the best airport is to fly out of? I was thinking of spending my final full day and night in Marseille (June 22) and flying to CDG from there. Marseille also looks like a nice city - is worth checking out for a day? Is there a better option of where to leave from?

Tl;dr -- Looking for tips and suggestions from people on if renting a car vs. public transportation is better in Provence and what is the best option to fly from Provence to Paris.

Thank you!

Posted by
162 posts

Hello Tescani,
Disclaimer: I have not been to Provence but I have planned a similar trip and I will be there about two weeks before you.

From my research - including input from this forum - the best Roman sites are Vaison-la-Romaine (easily reachable by bus from Orange), Pont du Gard, Arles - many sites and good museum, Orange Roman Theatre and then Nimes.

My (probably at east slightly crazy) plan is to train to Orange, bus to Vaison-la-Romaine (stay). Next morning is market day.
Bus to Orange, see theater, train to Avignon (stay)
See Pont du Gard and Nimes via bus. Train back to Avignon (stay).
Rent car and see St Remy and Les Baux. (Stay in St Remy)
Return car and train to Arles. Blitz the Arles sites all day. (collapse)
Train out.

Public transportation in June is okay but some places (St Remy and Les Baux) are only serviced on weekends by buses at this point. Full service runs in July and August. Avignon is a better hub for transportation for trains, buses and tours. If you want to see St Remy and Les Baux you'll need to taxi, rent a car or book a tour. Most of the other places you've mentioned are served by buses and/or trains.

As always watch your train and bus times - especially the last train or bus - to keep from either waiting for 2 hours or getting stuck somewhere. Local bus tickets are generally bought from the driver. If you buy local train tickets they are for the trip on that day - use them on any train that day after validating them on the platform. All TGV trains have reserved seating for all trips.

If you rent a car get full coverage. I have an international drivers license I got for Spain where they care about that and it's still valid. I have driven in France multiple times without one but some countries are starting to care about this weird formality. (Or figuring out they can write expensive tickets...) It's so important the government has farmed it out to AAA and the result is something you can easily forge with a laser printer and a stamp.

Be warned trying to plan around Provence feels like trying to book Europe in the 90s. Websites without English translations, missing or outdated information and hotels that you email to ask about availability and instructions to mail checks for deposits. I take this to be the slower, more considered pace of life you visit to experience but does feel like a step back in time.

At about 3.5 hours from Avignon I would look seriously at the train over flying to Paris. By the time you get an airport and then fly and then get into the city itself versus getting on the TGV and landing in the center of Paris at Gare de Lyon I seriously doubt you'll save any time.

If you're flying into Paris to meet a flight at CDG make sure the local flight goes into CDG and not ORY the "other" airport like a lot of local flights do. If you train into Paris catch the Roissy Le Direct number 4 bus just outside Gare de Lyon to CDG if that is your destination: https://www.lebusdirect.com/en/roissy-cdg-shuttles.html

I love Loco2.com for checking train schedules and booking train tickets.
Really good informational site about trains, stations etc: https://www.seat61.com/France.htm

Hope that helps. I'll file a trip report when I get back that might be in time to help you.
Have a great trip,
=Tod

Posted by
3794 posts

Public transport is doable but driving is far more efficient in Provence, especially if you want to go all the way to Uzès, Vaison, Aigues-Mortes... The roads, while slow, are not particularly winding in your area of interest, and parking is not challenging if you head straight to an underground car park in the cities and to the signposted outdoor lots in the smaller towns. Fuel costs are low as distances are short, same for tolls, parking can add up however.

This said, two things if you drive:
- To what extent do you mind driving and the extra cost?
- Avignon (especially) and Arles are inconvenient to stay in due to traffic restrictions in Arles, and restrictions + traffic jams in and around Avignon. Nîmes is marginally better, but you'd be better off in a smaller town such as Saint-Rémy de Provence.
And if you don't drive, Avignon is the best hub by far.

As for Marseille: worth checking out, yes. Worth shortening your stay in inland Provence to 4 days, no - you have listed many sights and they would already make for 5 very full days. I'd just take the train straight to CDG from Avignon TGV (sometimes requires a change in Lyon, but that is better than a change in Paris). Do not fly, and ideally sleep at CDG on your last night unless your flight out is in the evening.

Speaking of sights,
- les Saintes Maries de la Mer is, to me, a fairly average seaside resort. Nearby Aigues-Mortes is stunning, and Pont du Gau bird sanctuary is nice if you're into these things.
- Renovations are ongoing at Orange theater, I do not know how extensive the scaffolding is.
- les Baux = arrive late or early

Posted by
5697 posts

We have stayed in Provence twice and have rented cars from the Avignon TGV station for basing in St-Rémy. Enjoyed the flexibility of driving, didn't mind the parking that much. TGV beats flying, in my mind.

Posted by
7573 posts

I have found in my experience that a car really helps in Provence.

Posted by
3932 posts

We've had 3 trips to Provence - the first one we didn't have a car, but we only had a few nights in Avignon. The next two times we had a car rental and I'd say anyone spending any amount of time there wanting to see lots, a car is the way to go. I know we were able to see so much more because we had a car - and to linger or hurry at our whim, not because we had to run to catch a bus. It was also great last year when we went in July - it was really hot, and being able to go back to a nice air conditioned car instead of having to wait around in the heat for a bus or train was a lifesaver. And we went for the lavender - if you want to see the fields, a car is really the best option, that way you can stop and get our when the mood hits or you're driving by a particularly beautiful field.

I think luck with lavender depends on the weather - we were there from July 4-11 and saw tons of lavender.

Our first trip when we didn't have a car, we did a day trip with a tour company - well, it was Pont du Gard, Uzes and Nimes (or Alres, I get the 2 mixed up) - it was very hurried - in Uzes we only had about 50 min to walk around and PdG was hurried as well. It was a good overview, but not sure if it was a good use of our money, as it was very rushed.

If you didn't want to fly to CdG - you could look at taking the TGV from Avignon to Paris - pretty darn quick. No worries about security and bag restrictions, and you could drop the car at the station. we've not visited Marseille, tho we had thought about it.

Avignon didn't do much for me personally. Of Arles and Nimes, I liked Arles better. I kinda like Aix as well. We stayed in Salon en Provence on our last two trips.

Posted by
3932 posts

Also want to mention...if renting you do have to watch your speed. BUT...oh my we had a lot of tailgaters. You just need to ignore them and when there is somewhere to safely pass slow down and let them go around you. We’ve been lucky to not get any tickets, but others haven’t been so lucky as speed cameras seem to abound.

Posted by
354 posts

I don't drive so I am seriously questioning whether a village/town like St. Remy, Les Baux, Gordes, Uzes, St Guilhem-le-Desert, Pezanes would be possible for someone without a car unless I stayed the whole time there. I would like to see Arles, St. Remy, Uzes, and Nimes. I think I'd have to cross Aix and Avignon off the list if I used any of the former four as a base. The buses seem very sketchy from Arles - Nimes - Uzes, for instance. Anyone done it? I'm a Van Gogh amateur so Arles & St. Remy are important to see. I prefer tiny villages, so Uzes sounds like the place I'd like to spend a whole 2 weeks as base at.

Posted by
21026 posts

St.-Remy has bus service from Arles and Avignon. As I recall, it was reasonably frequent in late May or early June (2017).

Aix-en-Provence has good rail connections.

Pezenas (is that where you mean?) is considerably farther west and south. I was able to get there by bus, but I was traveling from somewhere much closer--I think Montpellier.

I do not recommend staying in a tiny town for an extended period without a car unless you are a writer or artist looking for a retreat, or something like that. It will severely limit where you can go other than on foot, unless you don't mind spending 6 or 8 hours round-trip in transit to places you want to see. There are one-day bus tours that can get you to some small towns without or with very little public transportation, but they depart from the tourist centers, so in most cases they are not practical options for carless travelers staying in small towns.

Posted by
2916 posts

I spent a week in St. Remy w/o a car, and managed to see quite a few places we wanted to see: Les Baux, Avignon, and Isle sur la Sourgue come to mind. However, there were 2 issues: (1) some places I probably would have liked to see were just not realistically reachable; and (2) we wasted a lot of time in transit, particularly during bus connections in Avignon. To make up for that, we returned to the same place in St. Remy a couple of years later, with a car.
If you don't plan to have a car, Avignon is most likely the best place to stay for purposes of visiting other towns. But then you're in Avignon for 5 days, which I didn't think much of.

Posted by
21026 posts

I spent close to a week in Avignon, taking a lot of day-trips. Perhaps my standards are lower than other people's (certainly possible; a lot of folks were not entranced by Avignon), but I wonder whether some visitors don't have time to go very far off the direct path between the train station and the Palais des Papes. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around, prospecting for food, away from the touristy area.

Posted by
354 posts

I do not recommend staying in a tiny town for an extended period without a car unless you are a writer or artist looking for a retreat, or something like that. It will severely limit where you can go other than on foot, unless you don't mind spending 6 or 8 hours round-trip in transit to places you want to see.

I am a would-be writer looking for a retreat, definitely not interested in being a tourist or visiting tourist sites. At the same time, because of my long-standing interest in French history and art, I feel somewhat obligated to make an attempt to see le palais des papes a Avignon, Pont du Gard, l'eglise St. Trophime, etc.

But I would not be willing to spend 6-8 hours RT to get to a place. 2 hours maximum. If, for example, I stayed in Uzes, I would have to content myself with going to Nimes and possibly Avignon, and give up Arles, St. Remy...I don't have that much interest in Aix, much further away, to the west.

What's frustrating is being ascertain to whether, how, and when a certain mode of public transportation will be available. That might be less difficult once I decide on the home base, but for right now, everything is so much in the air. And I feel pressure to make choices within a week or two at most.

I'm guessing that 3 months before intended arrival date in Provence would be a minimal amount of time to get plane, rail, and lodgings in place.

Posted by
354 posts

(2) we wasted a lot of time in transit, particularly during bus connections in Avignon.

Thanks for sharing, Robert. Could you clarify (2) above? I thought that connections to and from Avignon were the most convenient, as opposed to, for example, between small cities and large towns, e.g., St. Remy and Arles, etc.

Posted by
21026 posts

I believe what Robert means is that if you stay in a small town and want to go somewhere that isn't on the same bus line out of Avignon, you will first have to take a bus to Avignon (which may not run often), hang around the Avignon bus station for awhile and take another bus out of Avignon to your ultimate destination. The second bus may not run often, either. So your one-way elapsed time is longer than the two bus trips by however much dead time you have to spend in Avignon.

These are the sources I have used to explore bus and train schedules in advance of trips:

https://www.bahn.com/en/view/index.shtml for train schedules, covering most European trains (no French fares)

https://en.oui.sncf/en/ for French rail schedules and fares

https://www.rome2rio.com/ for all transportation modes, BUT you can't trust the transit times, frequencies or fares. The general information is usually correct (Are there trains? Are there buses? Will I need to transfer?), but you need to keep clicking through the website to find the name of the bus company handling your route and go to its website for current information.

I trust Rome2Rio so little that more times than not I just Google something like: bus Avignon to Uzes. But that can be frustrating if you don't already have a good idea that such a bus exists.

Guidebooks generally include some information about transportation from recommended towns to others in the area. Rick is particularly good about that. But understand that "6 times a day" does not mean every 2.5 or 3 hours. More likely the schedule will be spotty and designed for students and workers.

Also note that schedules vary by day of the week and sometimes with the school calendar, some buses running only during the school year. In southern France there seem to be a few buses targeting tourists, and they may not run frequently (or ar all?) outside high season--which sometimes is just July and August.

Posted by
7 posts

Thank you to all for your responses - this is the best community to get travel tips from IMO! Both of my questions I posted got a lot of replies, filled with a lot of helpful information!

From what I've heard here, I think the best thing for me to do will be to rent a car. I am already renting a car to go through Normandy and Mont St Michel so I am committed to driving for part of this trip already. I am running out of time (leaving on June 3) and don't have much time left to try and plan and decipher public transportation in this region - as many of you have said it is relatively challenging.

Since I only have 4-5 days, I think I would rather have the mobility to leave some place when I want to, and to get around without worrying about transportation schedules, wasting time sitting at bus and train stops, when I could be on the way to my next destination.

I think I will lodge in St Remy. This was recommended a lot and is also quite central! I plan to arrive in Avignon from Le Mans (TVG) and pick up a rental car there, maybe spending that half day in Avignon, seeing what is there and then moving on to St Remy later that evening.

Unfortunately, my last day in France, June 23, looks to be shaping up to be quite a waste. I need to get to CDG airport for a flight to BOS that departs at 1820h. The flight I hoped to take from Marseille leaves at 0930 and arrives to CDG at 1100 - making that whole day just sitting at airports - blah... Since I don't think there's much I can do around CDG for like 5 hours...

Posted by
3932 posts

You might want to look at arriving in Paris the night before you fly out - you could take a train, then have part of the day to hang around Paris before heading to the airport (way more fun than hanging around CdG for 5 hrs). My biggest fear about flying to a city sameday when you have an overseas flight would be - what if your flight from Marseille is delayed or cancelled? I know stuff like that may be rare, but my mom doesn't fly that much and her last flight she had a 3 hr delay in Montreal. We haven't flown a whole lot, but did manage to have a flight cancelled because of mechanical issues and we spent 8hrs at the airport before they could get us on another flight (luckily we were connecting thru Toronto on one ticket and not two sep airlines, but we could have been in a lot of trouble otherwise).

Just a thought - perhaps you've already booked tickets that can't be unbooked...

Posted by
2916 posts

Could you clarify (2) above? I thought that connections to and from Avignon were the most convenient, as opposed to, for example, between small cities and large towns, e.g., St. Remy and Arles, etc.

I think acraven answered that pretty well for me. Yes, Avignon had by far the most bus routes, but sometimes there was a couple of hours between connections, and all of our bus trips from St. Remy went through Avignon. So if we just missed a connection, we'd have to spend at least an hour or 2 hanging around Avignon.

Posted by
4125 posts

You are right to rent a car. It will really extend your reach.

I think that long day home is your best bet, unless you want to cut your time in Provence short and wake up on departure day in Lyon. Then you can catch a 2-hr direct train to deGaulle.

But you are not going to run out of great stuff in Provence.