Going Our Way
The pleasures of Provence, for two.
Melinda and Art Garroway of University Park would like to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in France’s Provence region. Terrific choice. They want to visit art museums, take walks in the countryside, sample regional wines, go antiques-shopping and visit museums. I’m with them so far. But they’d also like to rely entirely on public transportation to explore the region. Ah non, ce n’est pas possible!
Okay, I exaggerate. The major towns and cities of Provence are linked by an efficient network of trains and buses, and it would not be difficult to base yourself in a largish city — Avignon, say, or Aix-en-Provence— and take train trips to other cities and major towns, or bus trips to smaller venues.
But trustme on this: Without a car, you’ll miss out on some of the very experiences that make Provence so appealing — tooling down a country road past impossibly beautiful fields of lavender or sunflowers, visiting hidden villages that aren’t accessible via public transportation. Spectacularly beautiful spots such as Gordes, Bonnieux, Cabrieres d’Avignon, Roussillon, Saignon— as well as the centuries-old stone farmhouses, small family wineries, incredibly moving war memorials and unsung restaurants you’ll pass on the way — will be out of your reach.
It’s not as if driving in Provence is difficult. Traffic is light, roads are well marked and Provencal drivers are generally courteous (as long as you don’t tool along too slowly). This is the country, after all. At Home in France, a vacation rental site, has helpful driving tips for newbies at www. athome infrance.com.
One more point, as long as I’m trying to talk you out of things. Those lavender fields and sunflowers? They won’t be blooming in March. To experience these sensory delights, along with the dry, sunny weather that so signifies Provence, schedule your trip for early summer or fall if at all possible. Avoid July and August,
“We would like to be based in one town and make day trips using public transportation. We are especially interested in Aix-enProvence.”
when the region is overrun by crowds.
Getting there: The Garroways already have their plane tickets, but for readers planning similar trips, there are several options to consider. Some Provence regulars prefer to fly directly to southern France, on Air France and Delta’s nonstops from New York’s JFK Airport to Nice. Other major cities in the region — Marseille, Toulouse, Montpellier, Avignon— require connecting flights, from either Paris or elsewhere in Europe.
For Washingtonians, it makes the most sense to fly into Paris: Tickets are cheaper, there are plenty of flight options, and it’s super easy to hop on a TGV high-speed train at the airport for the three-hour trip south. Roundtrip flights from Washington to Paris in March are currently running about $700 per person. From Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, round-trip fares on the TGV to (for example) Avignon start at about $160 per person, plus a delivery fee for orders under $349 total, from Rail Europe ( www. rail europe.com). ( You can purchase tickets more cheaply on the French National Railroad site, www.voyages-sncf.com, but it’s hard to navigate. You can also buy tickets when you get to Paris, at any train station.)
Car rental: Assuming that I’ve persuaded you to drive, rent your vehicle before you leave the United States from a company such as Kemwel ( www.kemwel.com) or Auto Europe ( www.autoeurope. com). Expect to pay $350 and up for a seven-day rental of a manual (stick shift) economy-size car with unlimited mileage.
Base towns without a car: Assuming that I haven’t persuaded you to drive, Aix-en-Provence or Avignon would be excellent bases. Both are gorgeous and historic university towns with vibrant atmospheres, hotel options in all price ranges and excellent bus and train connections.
Avignon is larger and arguably more historic — it’s hard to beat the Papal Palace. The city has rail links to all the major cities of the region, including Arles, Nimes, Orange and Aix. The local train station and intercity bus station are in the center city; the TGV station is outside town, too far to walk, but there’s a shuttle that runs every 15 minutes.
If I had to choose, I’d stay in Aix — the city of a thousand fountains, home to Cezanne and the most beautiful main street in Provence, the Cours Mirabeau. I could happily spend a week sipping coffee at the Deux Garcons, the landmark restaurant and cafe where writer M.F.K. Fisher whiled away her time in the 1930s and ’40s. Stay in the Quartier Mazarin, a residential district lined with 17th-century architecture. The well-regardedHotel des Quatre Dauphins ( www.lesquatre dauphins.fr), a former private mansion near its namesake Four Dolphins Fountain and the Cours Mirabeau, has rooms for $92 to $111 double per night through April. Sample day trips by train from Aix: to Avignon, one to two hours each way, about $60 roundtrip per person; to Arles, about 1.5 hours, $60; to Marseille, 45 minutes, $22.
Base towns with a car: For the quintessential Provence experience, base yourself in a small village and rent a restored mas (farmhouse) or vacation cottage. Google “vacation rentals in Provence” and prepare to drool. At Home in France, for example, lists a stucco cottage with red tile roof near the delectable town of St. Remy, on the grounds of a 19th-century estate complete with an olive grove. There are two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a swimming pool and a private garden with outdoor dining. Low-season rate (March-May and September) is $2,055 per week. Or scale back and stay in the guest wing of a country house “surrounded by olive groves and vineyards” outside the village of St. Antonin. The property, listed on TripAdvisor ( www.tripadvisor. com), sleeps four, has its own entrance and private garden, two bedrooms, a sitting room and a fully equipped kitchen. It goes for $545 to $1,083 per week, depending on the season.
Cost: Because your plane tickets are taken care of, your budget of $7,000 will cover your expenses more than adequately. Roundtrip train fare to Provence will run about $320 for two. A week’s ground transportation via rental car will cost about $350 plus fuel, vs. about $700 for day trips by train. Lodging will run from about $700 per week for a cozy two-star hotel to well over $2,000 for a restored farmhouse. Whatever you decide, you’re covered.
Lavender fields and centuries-old stone farmhouses are among the visual treats of exploring Provence, whose drivers are usually courteous.
Who: Melinda and Art Garroway, both 60, of University Park
Where: Provence, France Why: 25th wedding anniversary celebration When: Mid-March for 10 days
Budget: $7,000 (not including