HILLTOP VILLAGES AND FIG TREES: Exploring Provence by public transportation

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When I decided to go to Provence, one of the key things I had to think about was transport. Most people drive around Provence, but I had to make do with public transportation.

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Where to stay:

I decided to base myself in two places: I spent the first half of my trip in Aix-en-Provence and from there I moved to Arles.

Aix was one of the places I definitely wanted to see. It is close to the coast, so you can visit Cassis and other beaches. Arles, on the other hand, is an ideal place if you want to travel around, as it is well-connected to other towns by train and bus.

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Itinerary planning:

There are loads and loads of places to visit around Provence, so it’s difficult to choose. After some research, I found this itinerary the most useful (although it covers more than what I saw).

Aside from Aix and Arles, my favourite places were Les Baux de Provence and Nimes (all my Provence posts are saved here), but I’m sure there were many great places which I didn’t get to.

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Travelling by train:

Travelling by train in France is weirdly not as easy as in other countries. As ever, Seat 61 was very helpful. The main thing to do is to use this website to search for and book tickets, as it’s definitely better than the local alternatives.

There is an useful rail map of Provence here, and this is a good website to find more information and discounts (in the summer there are discounted day passes on offer).

The trains themselves were all good, and mostly on time.

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Travelling by bus:

In hindsight I would have probably taken the bus more often than I did, as you can often get a direct bus and I got lots of connections on trains.

You can find information on routes and timetables here and tourist information places can also help. There are usually buses going to most (if not all) tourist sites, particularly in the summer.

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All in all, it is definitely possible to explore Provence by public transportation – I did all I wanted to do and really didn’t feel like it was particularly difficult. I’m sure it would be easier by car, but with a little bit of planning I had no problems and saw a lot!

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STREET ART AND ARENAS AT SUNSET: A week in Roman Arles

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Soon after I arrived in Arles I realised I knew very little about it! I chose to go there because it has good connections with other towns in the region and because of the Roman sites. But it was even better than I expected!

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Visiting the monuments:

The best way of seeing most of the monuments of Arles is by buying a pass at the Tourist Office (16€ for the Pass Avantage which gives you entrance to all the monuments and museums owned by the city – it’s valid for six months). Then you just need to follow the map and check everything out.

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Amphitheatre: Arles’ most famous monument was just a few steps from where I was staying, so I took advantage of this and visited early in the morning. The theatre is beautiful and really well-preserved, and aside from seeing the building itself, you can climb one of the towers and get great views over Arles and nearby countryside.

The theatre is still is use today – they stage fake gladiator battles and it’s also a popular site for bull runs (different from bullfighting in that the bull doesn’t die, but not cool if you ask me).

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Theatre Antique: This is a Roman theatre which is still impressive but has suffered a bit over the centuries. The great thing about it is that it’s still in use today, so you can visit during the day to see the grounds but also when there’s something on.

I was lucky that when I visited Arles the Peplum festival was on. This is an annual event in the ancient theatre in which you can see sword-and-sandal films (tickets for 7€). I watched Asterix with the local crowd, and it was a great way of experiencing the theatre in use.

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Cryptoportiques: This is an amazing site – the old Roman forums required massive underground tunnels to be built, and here you can visit an example of this. The most impressive thing is how massive it is, it is a huge maze of large tunnels and it’s very well-preserved.

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Alyscamps: This old necropolis is another impressive site. There’s a big avenue of tombs, and there’s also a big church on the site. Van Gogh and Cezanne both came here for inspiration.

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Saint-Trophime Church and cloister: On the main town square, this church and its cloister are both really nice. The church is ample and has some interesting stained glass windows. The cloister is a beautiful building and there is a good film explaining how it was built.

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Les Thermes de Constantin: Here you can see the old thermal baths, and there are good notes explaining how the building worked. I visited early when it was just me and the local cats.

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Musee Departamental: This museum is about 20min from the centre following the Rhone, so you get nice views on the way there. It has an impressive collection of ancient artefacts and tells the story of Arles from its foundation with a focus on the Roman times.

The most interesting exhibit is a 2,000 year-old boat which was rescued from the bottom of the sea and painstakingly rebuilt for display – and there’s a great film explaining how they’ve managed to recreate it.

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Reattu museum: This is a great local museum with lots of different modern art exhibits. It’s set in an ancient building, so the contrast between the old architecture and the new pieces makes it more interesting. It’s right by the Rhone, so you also get great views of the river from within the museum.

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Van Gogh in Arles:

Van Gogh lived in Arles, so there are some interesting places around to see his work and where he used to paint.

Vincent Van Gogh Foundation: The Van Gogh Foundation (tickets for 9€) hosts exhibitions featuring some of Van Gogh’s paintings as well as works by other artists (when I visited there was a big Alice Neel retrospective). It’s all presented in the context of Van Gogh’s art, so the exhibits are made relevant to the site.

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L’Espace Van Gogh: Back when it was a hospital, Van Gogh used to come to this place to paint. Nowadays it’s a cultural centre, and the artistic appeal definitely remains – it really is an ideal place to be artsy (even though my attempt wasn’t up to scratch). It’s a small space but it’s nice to walk around the garden and spend a few minutes lounging about.

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Van Gogh Walk: Van Gogh painted a few of his pieces in Arles, and you can see these scattered around town. They are all marked with plaques, and you can download a map of where everything is here.

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Farmers’ Market:

Arles hosts two markets, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The Saturday one is the most famous, as it covers the whole of Boulevard Lices and beyond stretching over 2,5km. It’s a great market, offering not only lots of choice in local produce and handicraft, but also North African delicacies and spices. I found the prices here were a bit better than what I was paying in Aix.

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The Rhone:

The Rhone goes right through Arles, and you can get amazing views over the river by following a promenade. It is also the best place to watch the sunset.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Stay: I stayed in this nice Airbnb which was ridiculously close to the Amphitheatre, and the host provided me with lots of useful tips on exploring the town. Arles is pretty small so as long as you’re in the city centre you can walk anywhere.
  • Go: Arles is very well-connected by train to other towns in Provence. It’s also only about 30min from Marseille, so you can easily fly there from London and get the train from the airport.
  • How long to stay: I stayed in Arles for 9 days, and I used a lot of my time to travel around. There are quite a few highlights in Arles, so you need a few whole days to see everything, and it’s also a great base from where to explore Provence by train.

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ROMAN RUINS AND SUNNY PARKS: A day in beautiful Nîmes

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I hopped on the train from Arles to explore nearby Nimes, home to another impressive arena and other Roman monuments.

The amphitheatre is huge, and its claim to fame is that it’s the most well-preserved of its kind.

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Another highlight is the Maison Carree, which has one of the best-preserved Roman temple facades still standing. The inside of it is used to show a film reenacting how Nimes was founded, which was interesting.

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Close to the city centre are the beautiful Jardins de la Fontaine, a massive park and garden with lots of sculptures. This is where you can see the temple of Diana, another Roman ruin.

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Within the park you can reach the Tour Magne, the largest tower from the old city walls, which nowadays is a viewing point where you can see the whole of Nimes.

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Nimes is a great place for a day trip, the city centre is really nice and the highlights are definitely worth a visit!

HOW TO DO IT:

  • Getting there: From Arles the train to Nimes takes just 25min (tickets for 15.30€). It’s not very frequent, so a more flexible alternative is to take the bus. The bus and train stations are next to each other, so it’s easy to choose.
  • Monuments: The best way to visit the Amphitheatre, the Maison Carree and Tour Magne is to buy a pass covering all of them for 13€. It can be purchased in any of the three monuments.

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FLYING FLAMINGOS AND COLOURFUL DRAGONFLIES: Camargue by bus

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The research I did before going to Arles led me to believe that you need a car to visit the Camargue. Luckily this is not the case!

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Camargue is a region close to Arles. It is where the Rhone meets the Mediterranean, creating interesting flooded areas with lots of wildlife.

Following the recommendation of my host in Arles, I decided to visit Pont the Gau, a bird reserve at the heart of Camargue National Park (ticket 7.50€).

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It is a good place to get a taste of what the region has to offer, as it has a little bit of everything. But the main attraction are definitely the flamingos, which are everywhere and spend their time looking like Giacometti statues dancing an awkward ballet. You can even spot them flying from time to time!

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You can also spot lots of other birds, many dragonflies and the occasional horse. And you can catch great views of the surrounding area too.

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HOW TO DO IT:

To reach Pont de Gau, you can take bus L20 from Arles (ticket for 1€), which leaves every few hours. The trip takes about 40min.

Alternatively, the same bus also goes to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which is the main town in the Camargue. There are many walking routes around there. Horse-riding and renting bikes are also popular.

Another option is to head to Salin de Giraud, where you can follow other walking trails. Bus n. 10 from Arles goes there a few times per day (timetable available here).

The links above as well as information centres in the region are all full of detailed information on how to reach the different areas, so it was actually fairly simple to see some of the Camargue just taking the bus. The only thing to be aware of is that the bus can get quite busy, so it’s best to go early.

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SUNNY CANALS AND MODERN ART: Visiting cute Isle sur la Sorgue

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When I was first planning my trip to Provence it was difficult to choose where to go, as there are so many places to see. I chose to visit l’Isle sur la Sorgue because it came up again and again.

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The main highlight are the canals that go around town, and make it very scenic. There are lots of restaurants and cafes with great views too, and some nice areas to sit by the water cooling off with an ice cream.

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The town is famous for its antiques market which happens every Sunday, and there are lots of antique shops around the town too.

There’s also a good modern art museum to visit, Villa Datris (free to enter), which has many interesting pieces and a great garden with lots of fun exhibits.

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L’Isle sur la Sorgue is pretty small, but it’s definitely worth a little day trip!

HOW TO DO IT:

There are trains from Avignon (the journey takes about 40min) every hour or so. From Arles, the trip takes 1h30 with one change and return tickets cost around 20€.

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FAIRYTALE VILLAGES AND AMAZING VIEWS: Day trip to Les-Baux-de-Provence

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I hopped on a bus late in the morning and headed to Les-Baux-de-Provence, which is a highlight of any visit to Provence.

Les Baux is set high up in the Alpilles, a range of hills which makes the setting for this village absolutely magical. The village is small and full of cute little shops and cafes, all with amazing views along the way.

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The main sight to visit is the castle (ticket 10.50€), which is set in a huge site with views over the Alpilles on one side and the flat Provence countryside on the other. The castle is in ruins but it’s still very impressive.

But again the highlight are the views you get from the different towers – although it can get really windy when you’re going up those steep stairs.

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The images really don’t do it justice – the place is simply unbelievable!

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HOW TO DO IT:

Les Baux is 15km from Arles and 25km from Avignon. In the summer you can take bus n. 57 (you can check the itinerary and times here) from either city every couple of hours. The ticket from Arles cost 4€ return and the trip takes about 30min.

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OLD POPES AND ROMAN THEATRES: Day trip to Orange and Avignon

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I took the train from Arles to Orange to check out their famous Roman theatre.

The building is really impressive, and one of only three in the world with the original wall still standing (tickets 9.50€). There are also many really interesting explanations, including a short film and a multimedia section showing different performances through the ages. The theatre still hosts spectacles to this day, so that’s another thing to look out for.

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Also in Orange there’s an Arc du Triomphe, which is another nice landmark to visit nearby. Otherwise the town centre is cute but nothing unmissable as compared to others in Provence.

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By lunchtime I hopped on a train to Avignon, which is mostly famous by the period it hosted a papacy. You can visit the Papal Palace (tickets 11€), which is a huge and impressive building which has been restored more or less recently so it looks great.

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Nearby you can go up Rocher des Doms, a little hill where you can get great views over the Palace, the Rhone, and the remains of Avignon bridge, another local highlight (you can visit it but it was too hot so I didn’t go).

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Around the palace and nearby roads there are lots of little shops and cute cafes, so it’s a great place to spend some time wandering about.

Then it was time to catch the train back to Arles.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: Arles, Avignon and Orange are all about 30min from each other by train. Trains can be booked online here and are fairly cheap at around 8€ each. You can buy them on the day too, but I’m not sure if there’s a price difference. The train station is conveniently close to the centre in both towns.
  • Weather: I visited in August, and by the time I reached Avignon it was a good 35 degrees, which was a bit tricky for exploring on foot, particularly on open sites (I chose to visit the Orange theatre early in the morning which was definitely the right thing to do).

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