Cheap and Romantic Lodging Options
Forget staying in hotels, even the budget ones. Southern France is filled with self-catering urban apartments and rural bungalows. Renting one of these for a week or two cuts down lodging costs by 30% to 50% and honestly, they up the romance and authenticity of being there by 200%.
The beauty of renting a place is that you unpack once and spend the rest of your time exploring the area– eating, drinking, wandering, hiking– without stress. And that is how one arrives at the good life.
Some suggested sites to search for your temporary home away from home are:
- Top Rural in France
- Homelidays in France
- Craigslist: Look for housing listings under France for Marseilles, Montpellier, Lyon, and Toulouse).
- For gîtes (rural, self-catering houses and apartments) in Provence French Connections has some romantic bargains if you hunt about.
Eating and Drinking
Having your self-catering accommodation offers the next big economic and romantic move: the ability to shop at the famous Provencal daily and weekly markets and sample the true terroir of the land: locally-grown food and wine.
Buy your fruits and vegetables, cheeses and sausages from the people who make them, as with the wine. Rent a bike, land your hands on one of the GR foot trail maps, and cycle and walk to villages and towns on market day.
Weekly food markets occur in nearly every town and village. When you arrive at your home base, ask the tourist office for a list of nearby markets.
And always ask the locals. If there is one thing people love to talk about it’s their local food and wine, and where and from whom to buy it. Tourist offices are also well equipped to help you with details.
Most flea markets occur on Sundays, though some are on Saturdays. Flea markets bring out the diverse color of society and are a great way to see the old fashions and aesthetics of a place.
Moreover, flea markets let you find a one-of-a-kind treasure to take home at a bargain price. Again, the local tourist office can tell you when and where these occur. Avignon and Montpellier have terrific flea markets as do other main towns.
Cultural Activities for Free (or Almost)
Music in the open air, galleries showing off the artistic genius of the area, hikes, sunset vistas from perfect perches– these are many of the free experiences you can find easily in Provence. Concerts are listed on church doors and at tourist offices. Gallery exhibits often have a sidewalk billboard announcing a little hidden plaza where there’s an exhibit.
The person from whom you rented your apartment can tell you the best place to watch the sunset in their town. (In Avignon, it is at the top of the Rocher des Doms gardens). Also ask them where the best trails are for hikes.
If museums are a must, take advantage of the all-city admission deals where you purchase a pass for a one or two-day access to all sites, rather than paying the higher individual admission fees.
Two Itineraries for Touring Provence
These two one-week itineraries capture the highlights of Provence. They complement each other well so if you have two full weeks, I’d give them both a go.
Week One: Arles, Nîmes, and the Camargue, or, The Roman, Romany, and Cowboy Route
- Make Arles your home base—renting a studio in the heart of town, where you can enjoy strolls in the streets Van Gogh once walked.
- Dine at the family-run places that advertise plat du jour, repas à prix fixe, or formules (set menus). These reasonably-priced set menus and specials tend to offer local, seasonal foods at the best prices.
- Arles’ market days are Wednesday and Saturday.
- Rent bikes to tour the Camargue, which you can do from Arles. Be sure to have plenty of sunscreen and mosquito repellent. July and August are the worst months for mosquitoes, but May, June, September and October (maybe even November) can be bad as well.
- Take the train for a day trip to Nîmes. If you want to go further afield, make another day trip to Montpellier, to the west, or Marseilles, to the east.
- Nîmes’ market day is Monday.
- Take a local bus to Les Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer for a beach day, enjoying shellfish, chilled dry rosé wine, and this pilgrimage site where it is believed many sacred Marys, including Mary Magdalene, and other biblical figures, arrived by boat from the Holy Land around AD 40.
- Les-Stes-Maries’ markets days are Monday and Friday.
Week Two: Avignon, Le Luberon, and the Pont du Gard, or, the Medieval Towns and Villages Route
- Make Avignon your home base. A great hotel, if you decide on that option over the lodging suggestions above, is the Hotel Medieval, which rents studios with kitchenettes at weekly rates. It’s in the heart of medieval Avignon.
- Allow 2-3 days just to soak up Avignon’s cultural, culinary, and social scenes. Enjoy the gallery exhibits, the church concerts, the food and flea markets, and the bistros scattered throughout the old Papal town.
- Avignon’s market day is Monday. It also has the daily Les Halles covered food market that is a treat to shop.
- Take a bus to Gordes and hike around this mountaintop town for the day: Take a linking bus or hire a taxi to the Abbaye de Senanque in a hidden valley nearby.
- Take a day bus to Uzès and the Pont du Gard, preferably during Uzès market days of Wednesday or Saturday.
- Take the train to Aix-en-Provence for the day and soak up the university atmosphere (which also means good eats at good prices).
- Aix’s market is open every day on the Place Richelme.
- Make a day trip to St-Rémy-de-Provence and enjoy a smaller-scale but quintessential Provencal town on the edge of the Alpilles limestone mountains.
- St.-Rémy’s market day is Wednesday.
And for a more personal take on travel in France, check out these blogs from Matador community members: The Quiet of the Dordogne, by member Maija, or Is There Any Where I’d Rather Be?, by member terryodee.