5 Stops In Southern France Not To Miss
Southern France gets a lot of hype, and for good reason. Wine, cheese, beautiful scenery…France has a lot of lists maxed out. Last year I was lucky enough to work onboard a river ship which sailed on the Rhone river from Lyon to Avignon for five months. For once I had enough time off to get off the boat and explore a little. France is beautiful, but more importantly it also had several landmarks that were on my bucket list. Here are my top 5 favorite spots in Southern France that I’m glad I didn’t miss.
Before coming to Southern France, I really never gave a single thought to Arles. Fortunately, it was a stop where I had the pleasure to thoroughly explore. Bustling, unapologetic, crumbling and vibrant; Arles still has that initial charm that drew Van Gogh in the first place. From my ship it was a very short walk to a truly hideous Monoprix which had makeup brands normally only found in Sephora, then a ten minute stroll to the colosseum, and another ten minute walk to the Foundation Vincent Van Gogh.
The Arles colosseum is more complete than the one in Rome and the city still uses it to have traditional bull fights. Most days you can take your time to explore the ancient graffiti carved into the stone and explore all the ins and outs still used by the city today. Foundation Vincent Van Gogh is housed in what used to be the insane asylum Van Gogh stayed in. While five of his works are on permanent display, there is always a rotating featured artist who mimics some aspect of Van Gogh’s work. Right down the street from Van Gogh’s museum is a fantastic ice cream shop. The owner is Quebecois and speaks perfect English, and I came back for her amazing waffle cones.
While strolling up and down the narrow streets it is easy to miss the small details that make this city shine. Small things like the remains of ancient Roman frescoes, evidence of bombings during the World War, or small street theatres are often hidden where you wouldn’t look. If you visit this city I’d recommend paying extra to take a walking tour to really appreciate the little tidbits hidden around the city. Be sure to visit the market square with the obelisk; sometimes street musicians will hang out here and dance parties take place without announcement.
Arles is definitely a touristic spot but avoids that gimmick that sours most cities thriving on reputation. Plenty of chances to buy souvenirs from the shops, but a lot of the items you find will be just like Arles; quirky, dented, and worn with care.
While this medieval city doesn’t have the star power of some of the others on this list, it stays in my heart all the same. Viviers is a hold out ancient city, with parts of its stonework streets exactly the same as they were in feudal France. More interesting; there are people still living in these same houses that are barely modernized. There aren’t any hot night spots or nice cafes here, taking a walk is mostly uphill in very bumpy streets. Once you make it all the way up to the summit of the castle, though, and look out over the countryside to listen to the wind with no one else around…well, it’s just worth it.
Explore these crooked little streets and don’t be afraid to bump into the ancient churches sprinkled around here. Pack a lunch and have it under a crumbling tower and admire the view. The trip down is a little precarious.
Pont du Gard
This spot on the list is obvious to anyone who studied art in school. The amount of times I had to memorize slides and data about this Roman aqueduct and still don’t remember a single detail is amazing. When I found out one of my guests tours visited this giant site I jumped on it as soon as I could. Unfortunately, the tour only stayed for all of two hours and the guide only spoke German. Despite this, I soaked up all the Pont I could. It’s a beautiful, warm stone bridge situated over a beautiful river with paved paths up and down. Be sure to take a full day and enjoy a swim, a picnic, and very long hike when visiting here. There are tours that let you walk on the top of this structure, but not during my visit.
It makes the list just for being so impressive and pleasant to visit. I’m glad I was able to check another thing I stared at in textbooks off my list. Visit here if you studied art, like canoeing, or just want to see some really amazing architecture.
Wine drinkers know this city, but I had no idea until I visited what a gem it is. Even without the stops for a small glass of extremely delicious wine (a decent bottle is only 20€) this city aims to impress with its quaintness. It is also home to the fascinating Musee de l’Hotel-Dieu, or just Hotel Dieu. This medieval hospital was the first of its kind and was run entirely for the benefit of the poor. Funded by kings and queens, Hotel Dieu revolutionized many aspects of standard medical care for its time. While it has its own impressive history, it is also home to quite a few beautiful medieval art pieces. My favorite piece, an alterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden, is featured at the end of the tour. While I did have to battle groups of children out on a road trip, I can actually tell you that the painting glows.
Walking through the Hotel isn’t boring either, especially with a glass of wine waiting for you at the end. I walked away from this city stocked up for Christmas and wishing I had more time to spend. The whole tourist area is only about four streets, so this city can be covered in a short time.
This metropolitan city might be last on the list but there is one major attraction that moves it to first place: Pope’s Palace. I went on a tour of this massive citadel on my last week on the job and I’m so glad I squeezed a trip in.
This megalith was the seat of power for all of Europe for many years and all of this history shows in its construction. Twisting, stairs, dead-ends, many chambers that clearly held deep secrets at one time. This castle is fascinating. Like the Louvre, you’ll need more than a few hours to get an appreciation of the history in this castle and a guided tour is a must. After you finish the long walk with all the stairs, be sure to stop at a cafe in the square in front of the palace. Street performers often sing in the courtyard where you can get an over-priced glass of wine with a view. I did wind up buying two paintings from an artist in this square to commemorate the end of my work-cation, so the street art isn’t bad either.
Other than the Pope’s Palace, Avignon is a little bit too shiny for me. Massive and overpriced, it can be very difficult to find a good place to eat (or even one that is open). The shopping is typical of any high-end mall, and I did not find much to set the city itself apart. Avignon may be one of those places you need to stay in a while to let the character steep.
While I have many more favorite places I found on my adventures in Southern France, I’m sticking with this list of top 5 places to visit. If you are thinking of taking a trip out to Southern France, feel free send me a message or comment so I can steer you in the right direction. Whether it’s a good cup of coffee, the highlights of a particular city, or a cheap place to get sparkling water, I’ve probably navigated it already.