Go­ing Our Way

The plea­sures of Provence, for two.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY K. C. SUM­MERS

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.

ALAMY

Laven­der fields and cen­turies-old stone farm­houses are among the vis­ual treats of ex­plor­ing Provence, whose driv­ers are usu­ally cour­te­ous.

FAM­ILY PHOTO

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

air­fare)

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