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Recommended route/sights for a Southeast France loop

My next trip is in September and, as usual, I'm going somewhere I've never been. I'm flying into and out of Paris (the cost of flights to/from Lyon is just too much more). I plan to get my bearings in Paris for a couple days, train to Lyon, rent a car and start a loop. The dates are September 14 to October 2, including travel days - essentially 17 nights on the ground in France.

The very rough idea now is to visit Annecy and Chamonix first because there might be a slightly better chance of decent weather in mid Sept than late Sept. After Chamonix I want to go south towards the coast (route will likely be through Grenoble and Gap but no definite plans on where to stop). Probably hug the coast from Nice to Toulon, then inland towards Aix, Arles, Nimes, Pont du Gard, Avignon. If no more stops planned, I'd train to Paris from there. If more stops, I'll hold on to the car and pick up a train to Paris as soon as it makes sense.

The questions:
1. If you've been near the loop I'm describing are there sights/places you particularly enjoyed?
2. Does the route generally make sense? Does it make sense to go to Chamonix in mid September vs. late September, is the other way better, or does it matter?

This is my third loop, the first was northwest, the second northeast. The time available seemed to work well in the last two. I had time for the sights I wanted to see, at a pace that's within my normal range. If I have extra time I'll add days in Paris at the beginning or end of the trip.

Thanks for your thoughts and suggestions,

Brad

Posted by
21313 posts

Brad, you know the drill: You need to remind us of your interests as a traveler. It makes no sense for me to go on and on about how attractive this or that little town is if you're all about major historical sights. Art museums are a very big deal in SE France. Any interest in those?

Posted by
6728 posts

The Ardeche gorge, Pont d'Arc and the replica of the Chauvet cave there are well worth doing. The gorge is stunning and you can rent a canoe and paddle under the arch and just generally enjoy the beauty and the water. The cave replica is beautifully achieved.

Posted by
2251 posts

We spent an afternoon in Uzes and liked it very much. Hit the Pont du Gard late afternoon and catch the sunset. Also, by then the crowds are largely gone. There is a restaurant there with patio and view, though we did not try it.

Posted by
11973 posts

Good point. My primary interest is history, particularly anything before 1500. Roman ruins are great, prehistory is better, significant sights from major conflicts or turning points in history always interest me. I'm not so much a modern history buff.

I always love people watching, so cafe's with a view are a favorite. I really like good food but I think I define it differently than most. My "good food" is well made local food in a nothing fancy environment. I like to taste the local drink too (e.g. wine and beer) but not a fan of anise flavor, for me a glass of a good local wine with dinner is ideal. I am turned off by pretense, so some people's idea of a great meal wouldn't interest me.

I'm minimalist regarding lodging too. I want clean and quiet. I prefer small family owned places. I don't need, or want, luxury accommodations. A bathroom down the hall doesn't bother me.

I like architecture, especially medieval. And I love all things water related - swimming, sailing, SCUBA, kayaking, beaches, waterfalls, etc.

I've always enjoyed hiking and camping but I'm not planning to pack for either. I hope in the future to take some dedicated camping/hiking trips but this won't be it. A relatively light hike in comfortable walking shoes is good but not much more.

I enjoyed biking Loire. I'm not planning any biking this trip, but if there's a good spot to rent a bike for a day I'd be game.

The ideas listed so far sound great to me.

Posted by
4125 posts

There are many fine Roman antiquities in Provence, all worthwhile. Definitely add the Roman Theater in Orange to your list. Not in the same league, but still worth seeing, is Glanum, just south of St Remy.

Based on your interest, I think you may find Avignon a bit of a snooze. Aix is charming but also light on your interests (but, cafes on the Cours Mirabeau).

Great time of year for this trip.

Posted by
703 posts

if you are near annecy and heading south, you might want to consider driving via the col du galibier, for some fantastic views etc. we did the drive ( in the reverse direction to you) coming from briancon, on suggestions from the local tourism office. we did it in june ( for memory) and there was 3m high snow on the side of the road, in some parts. it was spectacular to say the least. it made our trip. the old part of briancon is nice also. the annecy/chamonix area is very beautiful.
you can easily spend many days looking around provence, we used st remy as a base ( so much to see in a relatively small area)
hope this helps

Posted by
21313 posts

I knew I should have kept a few notes about the art museums, but alas, I am lazy when I travel. I'm not sure how much there is in my favorite museums that fits your preferences, but you can probably tell by Googling whether any would appeal to you.

My favorites were the Fondation Maeght in St-Paul-de-Vence and the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi. The latter is not confined to works by TL. I'm a fan of naive art, so I especially enjoyed the Naive Art Museum in Nice and the Musee d'Art Brut in Montpellier. Other museums I liked a lot included the Asian Art Museum in Nice, the Musee Granet (2 sites) in Aix-en-Provence, the Musee Angladon in Avignon, and the Fondation Bemberg in Toulouse. One of the good things about the museums in the small cities and towns is that they are mostly not very large. Many can be seen pretty comprehensively in not much more than an hour, and most of the entry fees are moderate, so it works well just to stop in and see what you think. It's especially interesting to see a painting displayed near where it was painted, I think.

I'd suggest being aware of major market days do you can avoid them if you have no interest. While I do enjoy browsing in markets, I find that they make it very difficult to appreciate the architecture if they take over the Vieille Ville. Example: L'Isle sur la Sorgue.

Posted by
605 posts

I too love history and regions of France. If you haven't already, consider reading the discovery of France by Graham Rob.

Matt

Posted by
375 posts

We went to see the glacier in Chamonix. SO COOL! (Literally and figuratively)

The pont du gard is magnificent. Also Roman theatre in Orange on one of our day trips from Avignon.

We enjoyed just relaxing, eating, market, people watching in Aix for a bit of down time.

Key is not trying to do too much I'm to few days.

Have a great trip!

Posted by
10 posts

Pont du Gard is a must. I could have spent many more hours there. We also liked exploring Château des Baux de Provence and an attraction down the road, Carrières de Lumières, that paired classic art and classical music in an old quarry setting. We stayed in Nimes and Arles and visited Avignon and Orange to see as many Roman ruins as possible. We were not disappointed.

Posted by
597 posts

Since you love people watching, I highly recommend being in a provencal town on market day. While it might be out of your way, Bedoin, near the foot of Mont Ventoux, has a fantastic market -- a true feast for all senses. If you are unable to visit Bedoin, then check out towns near you for market day. Great people watching, amazing wares to buy, fantastic aromas, and all the various types of food you can imagine.

Posted by
21313 posts

Two other art possibilities:

The Palais de Papes in Avignon has a special exhibition of modern African sculpture that I really liked. As previously noted here, the palace is not furnished, so it was a great venue for the sculpture. There were dozens of pieces by a number of different artists,

I don't know how far north you'll get on this loop, but the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Lyon is a fine museum that has some good impressionist works. I was also impressed by the Egyptian antiquities. There's a lot of other ancient stuff--not my thing at all, including Egyptian bronzes. Using the audioguide I spent about 4-1/2 hours in the museum today, and that was with the decorative-arts section closed. It reopens later this month I think. (I am not having particularly good luck this year with museums.)

Posted by
11973 posts

I'll start the loop in Lyon, so I'll see the sights there before getting a car and heading toward Chamonix.

Posted by
223 posts

Brad,
I've been to Chamonix in mid-September and the weather and views were very good. There are a lot of fans of Annecy on this forum, but I prefer Chamonix. It's just astounding if you get up early and take the téléphérique to Aiguille du Midi and then on to Helbronner. You can spend a leisurely time visiting and enjoying the views, and have your feet on the ground in Chamonix in early afternoon.

I lived in Lyon for three years, so if you have any questions about it, feel free to send me a private message.

Some places in the area you might consider:

Pérouges is a medieval town a short distance from Lyon. Worth a couple of hours. Three movies about the three musketeers have been filmed there.

Vienne just south of Lyon is the site of a former Roman shipping center, where goods from the area were shipped back to Rome (probably Ostia Antica) via boats on the Rhône river. It has ruins (a Roman warehouse and commercial center near the river and a forum and Roman temple in the center of town). It also has an interesting Roman museum with archaeological artifacts from the area.

If you find yourself going to Grenoble, either on your way there or on your way to leave, consider taking D531 between Villard-de-Lans and Romans-sur-Isère. You'll go through the Gorges de la Bourne. Google it and look for some photos. It's, well, an interesting drive.

Here is one shot: http://www.france-voyage.com/visuals/photos/bourne-gorges-17786_w1000.jpg

Here's a video of a cyclist trying to navigate a curve: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnKNO615iWM. Not surprisingly, he turned around.

Regarding Aix-en-Provence -- I've found it to be not very interesting. It seems to cater to college students and wealthy tourists and feels a bit Disney-like to me. With that said, I enjoyed visiting Paul Cezanne's workshop near Aix and seeing both his versions of the view of Montagne Sainte-Victoire as well as the mountain itself.

Have a good trip!

Posted by
1410 posts

I thought that the Rothschild estate was worth the trip. It's just outside Nice. We took the bus out to it and don't recall that there was much parking there.

http://www.villa-ephrussi.com/en/home

It's been several years but when I was there, there was a wine shop in old town. It had many small barrels of wine. Apparently you buy or bring a container and choose your wine. Seemed to cater to locals. I didn't have a chance to try it but was really intrigued by it.

Posted by
21313 posts

Oh, I liked the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, too. The gardens are really impressive.

With his interest in things classical, Brad might actually prefer the Villa Kerylos, which mimics ancient Greek architecture.

I visited the two villas from Nice on the same day and still had time to do a lot of walking on Cap Ferrat. I just took the train from Nice; everything else was on foot. The Villa Ephrussi was very crowded (enough that it was sort of a problem). There was a special flower thing going on that weekend that seemed to pull in extra visitors, and unfortunately the day before my visit (I went on a Sunday), the heavens had opened, so everyone who wanted to go, had to go on Sunday. I remember seeing cars parked along the street in the area of the villa.

By comparison, Villa Kerylos had very few visitors.

Posted by
3709 posts

Western Provence/Rhone Valley has better Roman ruins that Italy does. Repeat recommendations for Nimes, Pont du Gard (must stay after closing, bring picnic), Orange, and instead of Glanum consider Vaison-la-Romaine. Save 10 days for this area.

Posted by
11973 posts

Thanks for the replies so far. I'm shopping for Green Guides that cover this loop. I've ordered Provence and French Riviera, but which one(s) covers Lyon, Chamonix and the area north of Provence? Can't figure out the right guide for the area. I haven't read Rick's France book yet, for this specific area, but I'm guessing the coverage may be lacking so looking for more detail.

Posted by
2152 posts

Brad,
Rick has a guidebook on Provence and the South of France that contains several driving tours. I have the book because one of these days I would like to take a couple weeks and tour around the area. I will be saving this thread for future reference.

Posted by
223 posts

Brad writes:

"I've ordered Provence and French Riviera, but which one(s) covers Lyon, Chamonix and the area north of Provence? Can't figure out the right guide for the area."

You'll probably want to consult a map of French départements. Here's one: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A9partement_fran%C3%A7ais#/media/File:France_d%C3%A9partementale.svg

Chamonix is in Haute Savoie.

South of Lyon is the Drôme département.

Southeast of Lyon is Isère, which contains Grenoble.

Southwest of Lyon is the Ardèche.

The green guides are focused on départements and certain destinations. I imagine you can find these in English:

https://www.amazon.fr/Guide-Vert-Ard%C3%A8che-Dr%C3%B4me-Michelin/dp/2067208292/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1498032438&sr=8-3&keywords=guide+vert+vert+michelin+rhone

https://www.amazon.fr/Guide-Vert-Lyon-r%C3%A9gion-Michelin/dp/206720694X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498033107&sr=8-1&keywords=guide+vert+vert+michelin+lyon

https://www.amazon.fr/Guide-Savoie-Mont-Blanc-Dauphin%C3%A9-Michelin/dp/2067215760/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498032438&sr=8-1&keywords=guide+vert+vert+michelin+rhone

Posted by
11973 posts

Thanks,

I like the map and was primarily looking for Isere.

Right now, I'm looking at Rick Steve's France, Rough Guide France and Lonely Planet France. They're too big to carry. I like the Green Guides because they have something related to anywhere I might go and aren't big. I can wander from my planned itinerary and still have information about sights.

I like how Rick treats the places he covers. His more detailed coverage, however, limits the number of places he includes. I'll have to see if his Southern France book gets to the area I'm looking for, essentially south of Lyon to the start of Provence (Isere).

Posted by
11973 posts

So, I'm piecing together an itinerary and am looking at some considerations. Here's what I'm finding, let me know your thoughts on any of this. I may post a specific question on a new thread.

  1. Considered seeing Chartres as a day stop on the way from Paris to Lyon. That won't work. The train to Lyon doesn't leave from the same station, so from Chartres to Lyon is a trek. From Paris to Lyon is only a couple of hours. Chartres will have to be a day trip from Paris (one hour by train).
  2. Considered using a train from Lyon to Chamonix, then back to Lyon to get a car and start south. I won't do that. A car trip to Chamonix takes about 2 to 2 1/2 hours and I can stop at Annecy for a look around and maybe lunch on the way. A train is a four hour trip. I'll probably leave Paris for Lyon early, spend most of the day seeing sights in Lyon, stay only one night and rent a car in the morning to go to Chamonix.
  3. I'm considering visiting Vienne first thing on the day I'm driving to Chamonix. There are a handful of Roman sights I'd really like to see and it's not far out of the way. I think that's workable.
  4. Stay two nights in Chamonix so I have a full day to get up early and see Auiguille du Midi and Mer de Glace. Thoughts on taking the cable car toward Hellbroner (Italy) before going back toward Mer de Glace?
  5. After looking at routes from Chamonix to Nice (best route is through Turin), I'm thinking of making a C shaped route from Chamonix toward Avignon area then around toward Nice. From there I'd fly back to Paris Orly using the low cost Air France fligts ($44 on Kayak now) and stay in Paris until it's time to fly home. If I take this route, I'd go through Grenoble then southwest. I like the idea of driving the gorge (D531). If I take that route, stopping in Grenoble seems too short of day but too long to go all the way to Avignon (more likely Pont d'Arc then south). Is there a "good" part of 531 to see the gorge and the great road? I could drive from close to Grenoble all the way to Romans-sur-Isere, but do I need to?
  6. I like to go no more than four hours in a day of driving, from Chamonix to Romans-sur-Isere puts me more than 5 hours but Grenoble is too soon to stop and doesn't really interest me. Any recommendations, maybe something in the Gorge, to stop for a night?
  7. Any of the grottos along this route that people really enjoyed? There are a bunch of them and I don't have time to stop a lot, but I might stop at one or one group.

More to come as I sort out my must see sights around Avignon, down to the coast and over to Nice.

Thanks,

Brad

Posted by
21313 posts

I see lots of green (scenic) roads on ViaMichelin in the area you'll be traveling through. Maybe add a detour on one of those?

Posted by
11973 posts

I have to think about how to add in Perouges too before I get too far from Lyon.

Posted by
11973 posts

From Romans-sur-Isere (still have to decide where to stop), the next stop will likely be the Ardeche gorge, Pont d'Arc and the Chauvet cave paintings. I'm thinking of moving south through this area, Orange, Avignon, Nimes, St Remy and other places to stop for a short visit. I'll need to pick one or two bases in the area.

Has anyone seen the horses in Carmargue? Was it difficult to get to? Do you have to go with a local guide? Was it enjoyable? I woulnd't mind seeing them, but I'm not sure it's enough of a highlight to go well out of my way for.

Afterward I intend to skirt Marseilles, so maybe a stop in Aix-en-Provence for a look around and lunch while driving between St. Remy and Toulon.

I need to pick places to see along the coast between Toulon and Nice. Prefer uncrowded/low-key sand beaches if possible in this area (hopefully by third week of September it won't be too crowded). Tiny sand beaches surrounded by rock cliffs are perfectly fine. I'm not sure about beyond Nice? I'm not really enamoured with Monaco but I wouldn't mind seeing some of the old hill towns. It seems like the ones I've heard of are 100% touristy, however, and I probably wouldn't want to drive too far to see busloads of tourists.

I might like to ferry to Corsica for a couple of days. Is it a good idea without a car or is it worth the extra fare to bring the car?

Posted by
21313 posts

I spent a night at Aigues Mortes but didn't go to the Camargue. My research (and this forum) indicated that mosquito repellant is advisable. I heard some foolks in A.M. talking about having been bitten when they were viewing flamimgos, etc. I don't know how lucky you have to be to see the ponies.

I was underwhelmed by Porquerolles but quite liked the town from which the boat departed, Hyeres.

Others have said that car-rental agreements often do not allow you to take the vehicle on a ferry.

Posted by
1821 posts

Based on your interests you should be heading to the Dordogne and Provence.