What does the South of France make us think of? We think nice wines, yachts, glorious sunsets, vineyards, ‘A Place in the Sun‘ type holiday homes with sea views, and, last but not least, miles and miles of sandy beaches littered with irritating British tourists (I’m British and can confirm how annoying we are as a nation on holiday).
Our short flying visit through the South of France led us into a few places along the coast and I can just say, guys, I’m just not that impressed.
Don’t get me wrong, the cliff-top views are amazing, and there are some places 100% worth going to – like Les Calanques, the national park separating Cassis and Marseille. We were here in October and thankfully the tourists were spread quite thin so it was a pleasant place to go for short hikes (or super long ones if your agenda allowed!).
But from what I’ve seen of the bigger coastal towns and cities, Cassis and Marseille for example, is that even in off-season they are heaving with people that just ruined any romantic vibe. Restaurants know they’ll have a constant stream of income so seem to offer the worst table service (or maybe we were just unlucky). Shops seem to sell tacky and overpriced tat unless you really wander off-piste.
For most of our trip we stayed inland because of this and had the best time. The food seemed better, the people – well they didn’t seem friendlier because the French aren’t known as a nation for their friendliness towards tourists, but seemed more accommodating. The views of the rolling hills were mesmerising and there was obviously the benefit of things being cheaper. I’ve listed below my favourite towns in the south of France, missing out the beach resorts and implore you to check them out if you’re ever that way:
(this post is not designed to put you off the coastal resorts of France – there are some wonderful places and I think we just caught it at a bad time – but I am suggesting that you include the quieter inland towns too if you’re in the south of France as they have so much to offer!)
At the base of Verdon National Park (and actually in the foothills of the Alps), Aups is a small town parked in the middle of a load of hills and is home to plenty of medieval and renaissance architecture.
Our first evening here, whilst we were still adjusting to French eating habits, we struggled to find a restaurant open to accommodate us for dinner (and we couldn’t work out if we were too early or too late!). After wandering the streets we stopped upon a small shopfront that barely looked like it was a restaurant (we only noticed it because there is a tattoo parlour directly opposite and as the tattooist was closing up his shop, he crossed the street to this place!). Le Tilleul offered a delicious selection of Italian-style pizzas and also had on their Specials one of my favourite dishes: steak tartare. I’ve never had a genuine tartare de boeuf before and it was delicious! Quite rich and probably would’ve been better as a smaller portion, but wonderful and the husband’s pizza was unrealllll. By the time we left this place more restaurants had opened and Aups came to life with customers sitting on streetside tables and chairs drinking wine and chatting into the evening.
Aups itself is surrounded by hearty stone walls with broken tower ramparts and is every inch the heartbroken medieval town that I was longing for. Streets are broken up with narrow, windy stone steps and there is an abundance of fountains and sundials that are common throughout the region. There are several museums to explore, including one outdoor sculpture park just outside the centre. Aups is a small place, and do not expect much English to be spoken, but just knowing the basics in French will be enough for you to order some food.
Villecroze itself is a very tiny village, actually just up the road from Aups, with a population of ~1,000. It is just outside the Verdon National Park rather than being part of it. It is a slightly run down place but still has a market square with many cafés (though they never seem to serve food…) and there are some great views from the high points of the town.
The reason to visit Villecroze is mainly to see their troglodyte caves. I couldn’t fathom if this was a well known tourist location because we only seemed to be surrounded by locals, but for the mere cost of €4 we were able to enter these caves and learn all about them.
The caves formed 700,000 years ago after an ice age, when foam and water ran down through the limestone cliffs and carved out a series of cavernous grottos. Occupied by Benedictine monks for many years, who mainly used the area for storage, the caves quickly became a safe haven during the 10th Century Saracen raids that were spreading across the south of France. The monks used the caves as a hide-out and even moved their cattle into these caves during these periods.
Later on in the 1600s, the caves were gifted to the village of Villecroze and now are categorised under the French Natural Monument Sites.
Villecroze has a decent-sized public car park (free) and it is a short walk to a picturesque park with a children’s play area and a huge waterfall that forms into a stream which runs through the park. It is a beautiful space. The entrance to the caves is up a narrow staircase and quite unstable underfoot so good walking shoes would be handy! There are some very narrow corridors, where you have to double-over to enter, that lead into some completely enclosed caves so if you’re claustrophobic you may struggle a bit — especially the ‘batcave’ right in the middle (pictured above, which has a tall ceiling of mineral stalagmites…and yes we heard bats!).
Well, of course this one is here. The area of Provence has particularly grown in popularity over recent years because of its blooming lavender fields — I’m sure you’ve seen posts of ladies in white dresses clutching baskets of lavender amidst aisles of roving purple that stretch out to the horizon.
Unfortunately we were out of season for the lavender fields, but the actual city of Aix-en-Provence is stunning. We didn’t stay there but instead were 15 minutes away in a small town called Venelles. When we discovered on a Sunday evening that Venelles had absolutely nothing open, we (exhaustedly but gleefully) drove to the city and were treated to a choice of hundreds of different restaurants and bars!
Aix-en-Provence has a grisly history — plunders, battles and mass suicides — and stands today like a glorious antique. It has everything a stereotypical European city gem needs: cobblestone streets, winding narrow corridors of shops and bakeries that lean in towards each other like lovers, grand town halls and churches, and an abundance of outdoor cafés offering many a place to people-watch.
My favourite restaurant in Aix-en-Provence has to be La Maisons des Fondues. Having never tried fondue before we were apprehensive about table etiquette and how to do it properly, especially considering no one in the restaurant, not even the staff, spoke a word of English. We opted for the oil fondue as opposed to cheese fondue (which I believe is Swiss, not French, anyway) as the cheese fondue only came with bread, whereas the oil fondue came with an abundance of meat and potatoes. We ended up watching a family of four eat their fondue to work out how to do it. The most staggeringly taboo thing to happen was that the raw meat was served on the same plate as the potatoes — with the meat touching the potatoes! In England, this would be a big no-no. I can imagine my mum, with her I want to speak to the manager attitude complaining about the risk of food poisoning. No one else in the restaurant seemed bothered about all the cross contamination. So we just went with it. You know what? We didn’t die. And it was bloody delicious. I’m now a big fondue fan and cannot wait to try cheese fondue.
I’m still not sure how we ended up here because it was *not* en route at all, but we found ourselves in the petit town of Régusse on Saturday morning and even accidentally became part of a local event whilst just trying to find some food.
Régusse is an incredibly historic place and in the 12th century became a stronghold of the Knights Templar — they built a castle to fortify the town and it is surrounded by thick stone walls. It has been deserted and re-populated several times over the years, with many different rulers. There is a very old church (from the 1600s) in the centre which has a yellow, tiled tower.
Régusse had an incredible community feel to it, and there are dogs everywhere in this place. When we stumbled across the mini festival every attendee seemed to have a dog in tow, ranging from tiny terriers to large labradors. There were even dogs sat in the back of pick up trucks making their way through the centre. Dogs in laps outside coffee shops. Dogs, dogs, DOGS everywhere, it was a dream!
The town still has its old mills – one of them still grinds flour – and there are beautiful views for miles from this exact spot.
Whilst Les Goudes is still along the coast, it isn’t defined as a touristy location to visit, at least not for out-of-towners. Actually the town centre we drove through to reach the coast was quite run down and there is a huge unbalance in the ratio of cars to parking spaces (srsly, cars parked on bends, cars blocking driveways bumper to bumper), which had us slightly worried as I weaved through the narrow street towards the sea. What we didn’t know was that at the very end of the road there is an abundance of spaces in gravelly car parks that were surprisingly empty considering the chaotic streets we’d left behind minutes prior.
A fishing village at heart, Les Goudes rounds off the edge of the Calanques National Park neatly being its most westerly tip. The road driving here from Cassis has some stunning scenery of the surrounding hills and valleys of the park. Parking at the most furthest point, you are an easy ramble to a series of rocky cliffs that offer stunning sea views of the bays below — and to the south you can see the adjacent island of Île Maïre. Continuing down the rocky trail and you arrive at Baie des Singes (otherwise known as Monkey Bay) which has a cute little shingle beach one side of the rocky wall, and the deep blue sea on the other.
Once again, we seemed to be the only foreign tourists, and a few French families accompanied us as we wandered out to sea.
Our South of France mini tour began at the start of October, a time when the weather was pleasant, there was plenty of daylight hours and we escaped hordes of tourists. I actually couldn’t have been more pleased with how this trip turned out and it was awesome getting in our rental Fiat 500 and touring the little towns surrounding Marseille. The rural south of France has so much to offer and I can’t wait to go back.
Are you heading to the south of France this year? Where will you go?
go west, my girl