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Two new (older) drivers in Provence: opinions?

Here's our plan for late April: arrive in Arles by train from Paris and spend 2 nights. Take rental car to Saintes Maries de la Mer and spend 2 nights. Drive to St. Remy, stay for 3 nights, and take day trips to Roussillon, Bonnieux, and other towns in the area. Return to Arles and return to Paris by train. Neither of us have driven in France before - any recommendations or cautions for these particular areas?

Posted by
7133 posts

Saintes Maries de la Mer is like the wild wild west - very atmospheric, but not much there. I would add these nights to St Remy and visit Saintes Maries de la Mer as a day trip, also including Aigues Mortes.

Also note, Saintes Maries de la Mer is a mere 45min drive from Arles.

Posted by
1878 posts

I have driven in France on two different trips, including in Provence where we stayed in Arles. This was in 2003, but parking was very difficult in Arles. Someone said park by the river for free and walk, sounds like a good plan. We arrived after dark and it was unnerving, but you won't have that problem since you will arrive by train. Also in general when you first drive into towns, try not to drive in at 5 p.m. because that's the evening rush hour and it can be very hectic no matter where you are. I found driving on the freeways to be easy in France, but driving into a town and finding your hotel, parking, etc. can be challenging. The other drives really zip around in towns. I found it one of the harder countries to drive in, and I have driven in maybe eight or nine countries in Europe. Don't let me dissuade you though, it's also very rewarding to have a rental car in France.

Posted by
3329 posts

Have a gps, but carry a good map and/or viamichelin directions.
Each driver should get an International Driver Permit. It's a translation of your license. You still need to carry your license. You can get it at any AAA office for around $20. You also will need 2 passport-size photos.
Obey speed limits. France, like many other countries of Europe, employs cameras to catch speeders. The tricky part is that you may not see signs announcing different limits, for example, when you enter towns. You are expected to know them; so in addition to learning what various signs mean, you need that further bit of knowledge. I make a little "cheat sheet," which I stick on the dashboard so that I don't have to rely on my memory for limits and sign meanings.
Don't worry. Roads are good; and most drivers, courteous. I, well over 70, have driven many times in France; and I've not found it particularly difficult. Wa-a-y easier than Italy.

Posted by
3713 posts

Go to Gemut.com for excellent information on driving in Europe -- especially the free downloadible brochure, What You Should Know about Renting a Car in Europe.

We did SMdlM in a day trip from Aix-en-Provence. It is on the beach. It is like many small beach towns, except this beach is in France and on the Mediterranean. We found easy and free parking there. It would be worth 2 nights if you want to spend some quality time visiting the Camargue, seeing the horses, seeing the bird refuge, etc.

Arles had the WORST traffic of anywhere we have driven, but we did hit it at evening rush hour. That could be another argument for spending 1-2 nights so that you would be heading back north earlier in the day.

We had our car for about 3 weeks that trip and didn't find driving anywhere in France particularly difficult. But, we did get 2 speeding tickets, so take what the brochure and other people say about the signs and expected limits to heart.

Posted by
126 posts

Hello Dawn,

If you’ve never driven in France before then my suggestion would be to ease myself in gently by getting the train to the Avignon TGV station rather than going all the way through to Arles.

The Avignon TGV station is relatively new and is located way out of town on the southern edge so driving from here is quite easy compared with Arles where the station is located right in the middle of town.

Arles is only a 45 minute /40Km(25mile) drive from Avignon and if you take the back roads to get there by the time you’re there you will have had time to familiarise yourself with both the car and the road conditions and signage. And be ready for the rest of your trip.

I had a quick look at times for the trains and on one day the fastest train to Arles took 3hrs 57 minutes and the slowest train to Avignon took 3hrs 35 minutes. Most TGVs to Avignon take less than 3 hrs, so even adding on the driving to Arles you'll get there at about the same time.

And most importantly get a GPS with the car and familiarise yourself with it on the trip to Arles.

Posted by
605 posts

Dawn,

I drove all around France last summer, including 1 week in Provence in early July. I found the driving to be delightful and, in general, much easier than what I encounter every day in metro Boston. The most useful resource for me was this podcast: http://joinusinfrance.com/episode-16-driving-in-france/

I purchased a used tomtom GPS with French maps on it from eBay for $35. This was 100% sufficient and you can't beat the price.

St Remy, Arles, and Saintes Maries are relatively close to one another. You may want to consolidate your time in the area to 1 or 2 home bases and spend some nights in further away, and incredibly lovely, Roussillon (though note that you won't see lavender in April).

Be sure to see the http://carrieres-lumieres.com/en/home - you are lucky as they are featuring Chagall this year!

-Matt

Posted by
15037 posts

I drove for the first time in France last year (Burgundy and Alsace). I would not have found most of my destinations without GPS. I bought huge Michelin maps and hardly used them. They were just too big, and I bought the regional ones. There are so many tiny roads crisscrossing every part of the country. One of the problems was the signage was very poor. It seems that each region is responsible for maintaining its roads (not the major arteries). Even in wealthy Alsace where the roads were much better than in Burgundy (wider, better signage, no potholes), they were all 2-lane roads with no shoulders.

You are expected to know the rules of the road like speed limits (often they are not posted), when and how to pass (for example, no driving in the left lane if you aren't passing). Signs are only in French, including caution signs. The legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers is 0.5% and penalties are stiff. People here have reported getting speeding tickets (with hefty fines) for going less than 5 kph (kilometers, not miles) over the limit.

Posted by
6 posts

I cannot thank you all enough - all of these suggestions are so helpful. Yes, for anyone who wants to know, the train to Arles does not arrive in time to pick up a car on a Saturday, nor to return it before train to Paris (rental office = limited hours.) So I'm happy to get out in Avignon instead and go from there, particularly since it sounds easier logistically. Given some comments here, do you think we would be better off staying in a place like Roussillon and day tripping to St. Remy instead of reverse? We are looking for a place w kitchen so we could enjoy market food, and St. Remy seemed more likely, but if anyone is in love with a smaller-town lodging in the area, please mention!! I'll throw into the mix that I'm a fanatic photographer!

Posted by
971 posts

Roussilion is very nice, but also overun with tourists, so I would not recommend staying there. The same goes for nearby Gordes. I found the hill town of Saignon very pleasant and almost devoid of the tour busses that crowd Roussilion and Gordes and I wish I had stayed there.
Regarding parking in the cities such as Arles, Nimes and Avignon, there are parking garages and parking areas near the city centres that are well signed when you enter the cities, but you have to pay for the privilege.

Posted by
3936 posts

We picked up our rental in Avignon last year - getting to the highway was super easy. Our car actually had an integrated GPS, which was great. (Our last rental in France in 2012 - the car also had an integrated GPS). My sister lives in the UK and my mom brought her GPS home for us to use when we went to France, but the darn thing somehow was giving us directions as if we were
driving in a UK car even tho it knew we were in France (telling us to circle the roundabouts the wrong way - I think the thing was possessed), so thank goodness for the integrated GPS.

For us renting with Europcar (and probably most of the other rental places as well) there was a 34 euro fee for picking up at the TGV rail station in Avignon. Convenience fee, so don't let that blindside you.

I also thought Rousillon was gorgeous, but for spending 3 nights there, I think I'd rather stay in a bigger spot. Maybe 2-4 hours to wander, then really not much else to do (that I could see). Maybe a little far as a base for visiting other places as well. We stayed in Salon-en-Provence and visited Aix, Arles, Nimes, Les Baux and some other spots from that base. We didn't get to do St remy - we drove thru, but our GPS kept trying to send us down a one way street the wrong way (I think there was construction) and it took us almost 25 min to finally get it to stop sending us the same wrong way. So after passing the same area three times, hubby was like...that's it! Let's get out of here...lol.

You do need to watch your speed. I think we dodged the speed ticket bullet, but man, people will tailgate something awful when you are trying to keep to the speed limit! Back roads are nice, but the roundabouts can be tiring every 2-3 km or so. When we picked up in Avignon, we were heading straight to Carcassonne. We first had the GPS set to avoid tolls, so ended up on 'back' roads. I think the journey time was maybe 4 hours. After a few hours, I checked and changed the GPS to allow tolls - it cut the last two hours down to 45 min! So if you are in a hurry (we were - we had a 3 hour train delay on the TGV from Paris because someone decided to do suicide by train) don't discount spending some euro for a faster trip!

Posted by
3936 posts

Also - watch some of the tight indoor parking garages. We were in Vence and ended up putting a huge scrap down the side of an otherwise pristine rental due to a very narrow corner. Luckily, after a few months of back and forth, AMEX is reimbursing us the almost $600 we were charged. When renting again, we are going to stick to outdoor lots if at all possible.

We visited Arles on a Sun, so we just found some parking on the street that was metered but free since it was Sun and walked a few blocks to the downtown area. I remember it was near a police station.

Posted by
605 posts

Others can check me on this but I would be willing to bet that no place in Provence is too crowded (subjective, I know) in April. I was there in the first week of July 2015 and the only place that we found uncomfortably crowded was Gordes and the nearby Abbey - and that was during peak Lavender season. The Pont du Gard, Arles, Stes Maries, Roussillon, Vaison La Romaine, and Les Baux had a reasonable amount of tourists, but not nearly enough to dampen my perception of those places. I've been told that the last two weeks of July and the first 3 weeks of August are exponentially more crowded than the rest of the year and that experiences with crowds will vary significantly depending on when you were there.

-Matt

Posted by
1005 posts

I love Roussillon, but St. Remy will have more houses and apartments to rent with kitchens if you are looking for those type of accommodations. Don't forget to search the Gites-de-France website for a place to rent. The French government regulates these vacation city apartments and country homes and it's a great deal provided your can rent them for a week--usually Saturday to Saturday.

Posted by
8499 posts

Well, let me check you Matt: Provence can be very crowded during the French (and other European countries) school system spring break, and when is spring break this year--April--the whole month! French spring break is divided into three overlapping zones for the break, two weeks each, starting April 2 and finishing the first week of May. Down in Provence during spring break in 1980, baby in tow, we turned around and left Les Baux because it was wall-to-wall people. No place else was that bad. Some of today's popular tourist villages hadn't yet been bought up and restored 36 years ago, so perhaps that's why so many people were in Les Baux.

Posted by
345 posts

My husband and I have driven all over Provence and the rest of France. We enjoy taking the back roads and have the book "Back Roads of France" for reference.

We have enjoyed the Luberon area, the Camargue, Avignon and Arles. Some people like St. Remy but we did not like it as much as other towns. Too much traffic.

We do not use a GPS (my husband says that I am his GPS). We have a laminated Borch map purchased at Barnes and Noble to use. In fact, our map now has a slight hole from folding and unfolding. (We also have one for Germany and Italy.) The maps have traffic symbols on them plus other symbols for things like castles, airports, ruins, truck stops, churches, etc.

We love the Luberon area and rarely cross the A 7 unless going to the Arles/Avignon or the Camargue. If you want specific information about towns there, you can send me a message.

At first, my husband didn't like the round-abouts but now he is used to them. If you miss your turn, you can make another trip around the circle. Remember that the roads are usually narrow and the ditches are deep. You do not want to get your passenger side tires off the road!

We love driving in France and are trying to decide if our next trip will be this spring or in the fall. We always look for restaurants where "les routiers". Good food for the truck drivers and not expensive.

Have fun! Perhaps, my husband and I could drive for you?????

Posted by
2737 posts

If by Chesire you mean UK, France driving isn't going to be all that different. Besides the driving on the right business. Your countrypeople have a long history of boarding ferries in Dover and disembarking in Calais.

Posted by
75 posts

My husband and I will also be driving in Provance in early May, car rental from Avignon. In one of the earlier posts the recommendation was made to obtain an International Driver Permit from AAA for $20. No one else mentioned this. Is this necessary?

Posted by
75 posts

My husband and I will also be driving in Provance in early May, car rental from Avignon. In one of the earlier posts the recommendation was made to obtain an International Driver Permit from AAA for $20. No one else mentioned this. Is this necessary?

Posted by
1005 posts

The French Embassy says you must have a notarized translation of your US drivers license into French--and the easiest way to do this it to get an IDP at AAA. "You may drive with a valid U.S. driver’s license if it is accompanied by a notarized translation in French. It is strongly recommended that you carry an International Driving Permit. "

Posted by
2 posts

Dawn:
Driving in W. Europe is easy once you get accustomed to the local rules and driver habits. Having rented cars for the past 10 years, I follow a few simple guidelines. (1) Reserve your car from AutoEurope. They have never let us down. Buy all the insurance available (many times you can "buy down" to zero deductible). (2) Take your Garmin GPS loaded with the Europe maps. Pre-load your primary destinations and just call them up when you need them. (3) Try to book your overnight stays at places that have free parking on-site. Sometimes this is not possible, but it really takes the hassle out of finding a parking spot. (4) Get an International Driver Permit from AAA. I don't think you really need it in France, but it doesn't hurt to have it. (5) Being a little older (like us) you probably are proficient with a manual transmission but if not, specify automatic. They usually have them primarily for American drivers. (6) HAVE FUN! You will love the freedom having a rental car gives you. Get off the beaten path and find the "back door".

Bill Smith
Beaumont, Texas

Posted by
3696 posts

I have almost always stayed in St. Remy and driven all over the area as day trips... Arles definitely harder to navigate and park. I drove there many times without gps and found signage to be quite good... I am sure I got lost, but eventually found my way.. So that usually doesn't bother me too much. You will love having your own car to enjoy the countryside.

Do you know how to drive a manual? That is the norm... You will need to request an automatic and usually pay more.

Posted by
6 posts

If you can, please do,stay in Roussillon. A previous poster said the place is crawling with tourists, and this is true, but only midday, and only in the middle of the town and the famous ochre quarries. We rent a Gite at the edge of town, and although you can walk to the boulangerie in the morning, it is dead quiet all day. Website for the gate that we use is lajameela.com I have no commercial connection, only a happy customer. Driving is no problem in the Luberon.

Don't miss the Sunday morning market in Isle sur la Sorgue. Biggest antiques and bric a brac (brocante) market outside of Paris, and fabulous food stalls. Very colorful, and very delicious. Get there early, it turns into a madhouse in the afternoon.

Posted by
21 posts

Concerning International Driving license- We were there in October 2015. We had an international driver's license, but when I tried to show it to the agent at Auto Europe, she told me they didn't need it, only your valid state driver's license. Check with the company you rent a car from and see what they say. You will be fine driving, just keep your sense of humor and know that you will hear "recalculating" at times!

Posted by
99 posts

If you can drive in the US, you can drive just about anywhere, and certainly in France which I think is one of the easier countries to navigate. Do yourself a favor and get a GPS even though you can drive without one. It takes a lot of stress out of driving, especially in cities. I've driven straight through the heart of Paris without a single problem. It's not nearly as hair-raising as Atlanta or as frustrating as Houston. Go for it.

Posted by
69 posts

Have never been asked for an international drivers license in Europe but have never left the US without it.
Go to AAA and spend the $20, if nothing else, for peace of mind.

Posted by
1850 posts

Dawn,

We drove in southern France last summer. GPS is a must. Maps don't cut it as they do not cover the small local roads which can be very confusing. If you plan to drive on toll roads, have change under 20 euros on hand as our chip and pin did not work except for one occasion on the toll road. Gas up the car any day but Sunday as gas stations are unmanned on that day. Our chip and pin (Andrews FCU) worked in that situation. Parking garages may not accept credit cards (even chip and pin) so again cash is king. I would also suggest photographing the entire exterior of the car for any damages before you leave the rental lot as proof that you were not responsible for said damage. That saved us a lot on two occasions when the damage to the car (which we did not cause)was noted by the rental company after we returned the car.