Southern France on Four Wheels

Aug 20, 2012
The Alps were getting smaller and smaller in the review mirror as we hit the road down south. The closer to Provence we got, the more distinct the difference seemed; forests had switched into stunted bushes, mountains into much rounder hills and alpine style houses to Mediterranean influenced buildings. The drive from Briançon to Sisteron, the gate of Provence, is only about two hours, and Aix-en-Provence, where we were headed, an hour further tops. 

As we got to there I wanted to take my parents around Aix - one of the most visited city in Provence. This city isn’t just accidentally the southern hot spot for rich: inviting alleys of the old town, colorful markets, numerous boutiques, fine dining, ateliers, museums, and outstandingly lively southern street life. It has definitely established itself as the cultural center of the region. But it’s not only a venue for old and rich people; it’s also a university town, making it home to number of students from all over.  In the center runs a large boulevard Cours Mirabeau that divides the city into the older quarter and the newer town district on the other side. At the other end of this major boulevard are many of the town’s theaters, and at the other end is the famous Place du General de Gaulle and its fountain La Rotonde or Rotunda fountain. This fountain is one of the many (around 40) fountains in Aix, and surely the most widely known one.

My parents fully enjoyed walking around and getting the vibes of the old town, and they were pretty impressed by the amount of dining places all over the little plazas and alleys, not to mention the amount of people out! We found the cutest little restaurant with very local dishes on the menu, and after a small wait we got in to this inner patio where we had out table waiting. Such a delight, everything from starters to dessert!

Although it was closer to 11pm already, there were plenty of life on the streets; people hanging out, street performers attracting bypassers, and even the market stands on the Cours Mirabeau were still wide open! We sure took the advantage of it, because really, how often do you get to shop in the night market?

The next morning we were back on the road heading towards the Mediterranean coastline and the Regional Nature Park of Camargue. We had been travelling in the area in the past, and I could still remember the endless fields and wetlands, but first and foremost all the Camargue horses. Indeed, the place is known for its grey horses running wild through the open terrain, and many people even have this as a predominant image of the region. Furthermore, it won’t come as a big surprise that the area is very big on horseback riding and the horse-related activities and excursions are widely offered for tourists. But these grounds are a great place for spotting other animals too, especially birds.

This time, we pretty much passed the area by driving through it, but it makes a nice drive nevertheless. We continued following the coastal road all the way to Sète- a small port town that’s built between a salt-water lake Étang de Thau and the sea and is located in the Languedoc-Roussillon region (you might be familiar with this name from your wine bottle!). Sète is a town mostly known for its strong cultural heritage, beach and the cuisine, and it goes without saying that the supply of seafood is plenty and fresh. As a matter of fact, we wanted to stay around the town, but couldn’t find a camping close enough, and instead had to continue a bit further away towards the next town, Marseillan Plage. In between these two towns, it actually gets pretty busy during the holidays, and the sand beaches continue for kilometers in both directions. We found a nice camping site on the beach and due to the heat we totally ditched every attempt to get back to town and sightsee, and in turn, switched into bathing suits and headed to the beach! No regrets there. However, the camping site did have rental bikes and it seemed like a pretty popular way of getting around and along the beach…

As we sat there in the evening chatting and planning, all of a sudden we sort of came up with a brand new plan; instead of staying on the beach longer, we'd rather to go up to Massif Central (Auvergne) and undertake some hiking in the former volcanic area (apparently the day on the beach had either melted our judgement or we just had simply had enough of beach!). But we surely couldn’t leave the south without vising one more outdoor market, which we did in Marseillan. My parents got their hands on some nice souvenirs, but honestly it was hard to focus on anything in that heat...

One thing I’d like to do if and when we’ll go back to this area is to visit one of its many vineyards that are world-famous. When you’re on the road it’s impossible to miss the signs and ads for different wine estates where you can do tasting/ buy their products…

Voila, as we finally were able to leave the south and its markets behind, we were on our two-hour drive up to Massif Central mountains. The road has one spectacular point worth mentioning- The Millau Bridge. The reason it’s spectacular is that it’s the highest road bridge in the world, and the real showcase of beautiful architecture combined with genius engineering. As you enter the bridge, not only the Tarn Valley and the river down look amazing, but also it’s hard not to notice the actual subtlety of the construction itself.

We took off the road in Saint-Flour, and entered the Auvergne Volcano Park- the largest and one of the oldest regional nature parks in Europe. We based ourselves in Murat, which is a tiny community in the Cantal department of the park, and perfectly located near the best hiking trails. The two most famous peaks of Cantal are the Plomb du Cantal (1858m) and Puy Mary (1787m), both surrounded by green valleys created by a massive eruption of the largest volcano ever existed in Europe. Murat itself turned out to be a great, relaxing place to stay over night; the neat grey stone houses in the center, surprisingly many places to eat out, the steep volcanic rock framing the town, the absolute quietness of the surrounding nature and the out-of-this-world night sky I was lucky enough to wake up to…

Coming up next: Summiting the Plomb du Cantal & driving through the regional park till Le Mont-Dore (next to Puy de Sancy).


Did you know that Camargue is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
(Information for the markets, too)

Auvergne Volcanic Park:
Auvergne tourism
Parc des Volcans
(French site)


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