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Provence/French Riviera


The region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (or “PACA”) covers the southeastern part of France. Provence, the picturesque region known for its rolling hills of lavender and scenic hill towns, spills down into the French Riviera on the Mediterranean coast.

French Riviera

The French Riviera (Côte d’Azur, “Azure Coast”, in French) is a beautiful stretch of coastline from the Italian border to the area near Marseille. For hundreds of years, this stretch of coastline has been the playground for the rich and famous, but there are still natural wonders and sleepy cliffside towns, and outside of summer the area is not as inundated with tourists (especially avoid July and August). The Riviera is very close to Italy, and has much in common (friendly people, seafood, warm Mediterranean climate). Indeed, most of it was once part of an Italian city-state (Italian hero Garibaldi was born in Nice). However, it's with a French accent: you can still get amazing baguettes and croissants, and a wonderful array of French cheeses (the area is known for its goat cheese, or chèvre). For information about the French Riviera in English, see www.rivierareporter.com, a newsletter designed for expats.

Menton

Menton is the closest town to Italy, and thus has the most Italian influences; most shopkeepers speak Italian as well as French, and you can walk (or more comfortably, bicycle) to the border. There isn’t a whole lot to do in town, but it has a reasonbly nice beach, a cute (but small) old town, and some great nearby hikes.

Things to do

Where to Eat

  • Paris Rome - rec’d Michelin, closed Mon-Wed
  • Le Petit Prince - rec’d Michelin, “traditional and nice”
  • La Cantinella - rec’d Michelin, closed Sun eve, Mon
  • Méditerranée - rec’d Michelin www.hotel-med-menton.com
  • Le Bistrot des Jardins - 14 avenue Boyer, open every day, rec’d in Petit Futé, “peaceful haven” in their garden, rec’d Michelin
  • La Terrasse des Logettes “traditional, family run, typically Mentonaisse restauarant”
  • Cote Sud - opened 2007, “superb food” says TripAdvisor
  • Mirazur (2 Michelin stars, 2 CHs rec’d, one of whom says “Mirazur in Menton is one of the best restaurants I have ever been to.”), closed Mon/Tues (except July/Aug: open Tues dinner but not Wed lunch), great post by Lebovitz: http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2010/09/mirazur-mauro-colagreco-menton-france-restaurant/ “best restaurant” in town, Argentine-Italian chef
  • ?Braïjade Méridiounale - old town, Provençal favorites, closed Wed, bagna calda, aioli de poisson, etc - regional specialties, dinner only?, rec’d Lonely Planet, flambé skwers? www.abraijade.fr 
  • ?Le Midi - 103 avenue de Sospel, closed Mon/Wed eve, Sun, only 30 tables, all filled by regulars, Menton specialties: cochon de lait, aubergines en beignet, petits farcis aux blettes, rec’d in Petit Futé
  • Saveurs d’Eleanoire - epicerie but also mentonnaise plates (pichade, farcis, begnets de courge, socca) www.saveurs-eleonore.fr
  • La Topia - menton specialties in park with olive trees, with some italian twists, (mixed TripAdvisor reviews)
  • Restaurant du Petit Port - 4 rue du Jonquier, open every day in summer, typical regional dishes, rec’d in Petit Futé
  • Restaurant Le Nautic - 27 Quai de Monléon, open every day for lunch, fresh seafood, bouillabaise, paella, good quality for price, rec’d in Petit Futé
  • Le Petit Prince - 69 Promenade du Soleil, open every day, nice ambiance, menu changes with market, good bouillabaisse, rec’d in Petit Futé
  • l'O à la Bouche restaurant - rec’d NYT “it is everything that a good, middle-class French bistro should be, and specializes in fresh seafood” ...but bad recent TripAdvisor review: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187231-d2657868-Reviews-L_O_a_la_Bouche-Menton_French_Riviera_Cote_d_Azur_Provence.html
  • Gorbio (up the hill from Menton): Le Beauséjour, 14 Place de la République, +33 (0)4 93 41 46 15 - nice place (very "cute", with nice dishes that have fancy presentation) with gorgeous view

Roquebrune-Cap-Martin

Close to Menton (~11 min drive, ~40 min walk, ~6 min train ride) has a nice medieval castle 
with a nice view and part of the Alpine Line (the southern version of the Maginot Line); read more about the town here: www.beyond.fr/villages/roquebrunecm.html

La Turbie

Named for a triumphal statue erected by Julius Caesar after his conquest of the Gauls, this cute town has nice views of the coast.
  • Café de la Fontaine (Hostellerie Jerome) → 4 av. du Generale de Gaulle (note that the Hostellerie Jerome is a fancier restaurant in a different location), 04 93 28 52 79, Michelin bib gourmand and rec’d by Auntie Gail, open every day, lunch 12-2:30, dinner services at 7:30 and 9:30, ~30 euro/person lunch www.hostelleriejerome.com/pages/le-cafe-de-la-fontaine.cfm delicous “bistro” fare in a cosy atmosphere

Monaco

One of Europe’s tiny “micro-states”, the Principality of Monaco is completely sorrounded by France and the Mediterranean. Since it has become a tax haven, it has a bunch of densely-packed condos where rich tax-avoiders live. The famous Monte Carlo hotel (of James Bond fame) is a bit underwhelming, but high rollers might still enjoy it. You can also tour the Aquarium and the Cathedral (where princes and princesses are buried, including Grace Kelly). Probably not worth visiting for most people.

Antibes

Antibes probably has the nicest sand beach of any on the Riviera (many beaches are more pebbly). It’s also home to the Pablo Picasso museum, since the artist lived here for many years.

Nice

The largest town on the Riviera, the waterfront is dominated by old, fancy hotels from the 19th century. There is a large university in Nice, so there are a fair number of students around the town.

Cannes

Known for its famous film festival in May, it's sleepy (but still chic) the rest of the year. Wikivoyage has some travel tips and things to see; it's pretty easy to take a car, train, or bus to other towns along the Riviera. Also check out this NYT article

Other Towns

  • Rick Steves likes St. Paul, Vence, and Eze.
  • Eze: Le Grill du Château panoramic view, French-Med cuisine, rec’d NYT
  • Villefranche: La Mère Germaine (old school restaurant, bouillabaise), rec’d NYT
  • Cagnes-sur-Mer (& Haut-de-Cagnes old part): Le Cagnard Michelin haut cuisine, Josy-Jo (“down-home, top-notch Provençal cuisine” with chef Josy Bandecchi €40 lunch menu www.restaurant-josyjo.com closed Sun/Mon, rec’d NYT
  • Golfe Juan: Tétou - has good bouillabaisse? popular with film stars during Cannes festival, recent reviews suggest food is going downhill?, very expensive (>€130 per person bouillabaise), closed M/T lunch, Wed http://epicures.wordpress.com/2008/10/14/tetou-golfe-juan/ 

Provence

Sun-kissed vineyards, postcard-perfect small towns dotting every hill, rows of lavender perfuming the air...Provence is in many ways France’s Tuscany, a place popular with tourists looking for rustic chic. Summer months (especially July and August) bring big crowds, but other times are less crowded (and, just like Tuscany, you can find peace in some places even in the summer).

Avignon

Anybody who took French in school probably remembers that nursery rhyme "Sur le pont d'Avignon"...well, you can dance on the famous bridge (not the original, but who cares?) in this sizable but cozy town.  Home to popes in the middle ages, Avignon still has Papal Palaces which, unlike the "real" ones in Rome, you can tour.  It's also not hard to make a day trip to the Pont du Gard, an impressive Roman aqueduct bridge spanning a wide valley.

Aix-en-Provence

Pronounced like the verb "aches," this university town is a bit inland and a hidden gem. There's also a large TGV (fast train) station nearby, so it's easy to get to/from Paris and other places.

Saint Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume

This town is host to the remains of Mary Magdalene (or so it claims; another town named Vézelay also has relics). Nearby is the beautiful Grotto of Sainte Baume, where Magdalene supposedly lived; up the hill from the Grotto is a spectacular view from the ridgeline.
  • Nans-les-Pins; L'Éveil Des Sens - very fancy place near a golf course; rec'd Michelin and Petit Futé

Moustiers-Sainte-Marie

A cute village perched on a cliff, with interesting “faïence” dishwear. Just to the east is the beautiful Verdon canyon.
  • Bastide de Moustiers - fancy Michelin-starred place with nice food, +33 (0)4 92 70 47 47

Luberon

When most people think of “Provence”, they think of this region (it's where Peter Mayle wrote "A Year in Provence"). Now protected as a “park” (and thus from industrialization and development), it feels very much like the hills south of Sienna. It’s almost essential to have a car here (it’s pretty hard to get around without one).

Things to See

  • Lavender Museum - nice look at the different kinds of lavender and how they are cultivated in Coustellet/Maubec (note: there isn't any "fine lavender" actually grown here, since it's not high enough elevation; for that you have to go up near Sault)
  • Aroma’Plantes Lavender Tour - www.distillerie-aromaplantes.com, near the town of Sault, they have a great shop with not only lavender products but also other essential oils (for pretty reasonable prices), and you can go on a “lavender experience” where you can harvest your own lavender and make essential oils.
  • Sénanque Abbey - www.senanque.fr a nice medieval abbey known for its lavender fields in front (alas, when we arrived in late July 2014, it was already cut!). The 1-hour tour (you must reserve in advance) is decidedly underwhelming and only in French—skip it unless you’re very excited about abbey life (yes, it’s the only way to see the cloister, but there’s nothing particularly exciting about the cloister). Consider going for prayers (e.g. the vespers at 6 PM). To avoid crowds, get there early, late, or lunchtime (since there are no tours between 10:30 and 2:30).
  • Roussillon Cliffs - not to be confused with the region of Roussillon, this town is known for its bright-red ochre cliffs; you can enjoy the views from the town but to really experience the reddest cliffs pay a small fee to walk the Sentier des Ocres. Very popular with French tourists.

Where to Stay

  • ***Beaumettes: Au Ralenti du Lierre (in Village des Beaumettes, W along main road near Goult) www.auralentidulierre.com - wonderful spot run by a very welcoming couple; it’s in a perfect location for exploring the Luberon since it’s right near the main road (there is a little bit of road noise but you can barely hear it). Breakfasts are delicious (including homemade yogurt), and there’s a nice (but unheated) pool.
  • Ansouis: Un Patio en Louberon - www.unpatioenluberon.com nice rooms, 16th century, very cute, nice view, €80-115/night for 2 people with breakfast, €29 fixed price rustic dinner “La table de Stéf”, rec’d by Routard and Frommers, really good TripAdvisor Ratings

Where to Eat

Arles

This riverside town was a major Roman trading city (and still has a number of old ruins, including a well-preserved amphitheater and theater), and connects inland Provence with the Camargue (see below). Its historic center is small and walkable, with cute shops and pedestrian-friendly plazas. Arles makes a great "home base" for exploring Provence and/or the Camargue.

Things to Do

  • Theater and Amphitheater
  • Van Gogh Museum - has works inspired by Van Gogh (not any works by Van Gogh)

Places to Eat

  • ***Soleileis, 9 rue du Docteur Fanton, 2 - 6:30 PM rec’d Routard, *great* sorbets (stick to the fruit flavors...the "creamy" flavors are a bit icy...when we went here in 2015 she had wonderful pear and "wild plum")
  • A Cote Bistrot - the more casual bistro "next to" Jean-Luc Rabanel's more fancy restaurant; Michelin Bib Gourmand; we had 2 great meals here in 2015; this guy had a bad experience but frankly it sounds like he was a pain in the butt about moving inside & outside
  • L'Atelier du Jean-Luc Rabanel - 2 Michelin stars
  • Le Jardin de Manon www.restaurant-jardin-manon.fr, member of Conservatoire Grand Sud Des Cuisines, looked nice
  • Comptoir du Sud - delicatessen with sandwiches and other quick dishes (including take-away), inexpensive, rec’d Routard
  • Cusine de Comptoir - tartine place (using Poliane bread), see these blogposts for more: http://theprovencepost.blogspot.com/2011/11/one-restaurant-i-love-in-arles.html  http://www.thepauperedchef.com/2009/05/restaurants-we-werent-looking-for-provence.html
  • La Mule Blanche - old blacksmith (maréchalerie), known for its great salads, nice terrace, inexpensive, rec’d Routard
  • Le Bar à Thym - , rec’d Routard, inexpensive, terrace with regulars, fresh juice, salads, lunch fare every day except Sun until 7 PM
  • La Bodeguita - rec’d Routard, small bodega with tapas and “sunny cuisine”
  • L’Autruche - rec’d Routard, fresh cuisine with good products, closed Sun/Mon
  • Le Plaza - La Paillote - rec’d Routard - “local institution”, young chef with French/Provençal traditions, nice terrace, closed We/Thurs lunch
  • La Comédie - rec’d Routard, fresh-made pasta with seafood, simple but good Med cuisine, terrace on the street
  • Le Jardin de Manon - rec’d Routard, “spirit of the south”, terroir/market driven, good value, closed Tues dinner, Wed
  • L’Ouvre Boite - rec’d Routard, spice shop for the chef behind La Chassagnette, run by his younger brother, tapas (both Spanish & Japanese), vegetables from Chassagnette’s garden
  • Le 16 - rec’d Routard, closed Sat/Sun, small menu + chalkboard, simple market/fresh
  • Le Gibolin - rec’d Routard, closed Sun/Mon, cute wine bar with small plates run by couple
  • Chez Félix - rec’d Routard, lunch only, closed Mon, all organic/Slow Food
  • Fée Gourmande  - rec’d Routard, Members of Conservatoire Grand Sud Des Cuisines, closed Tues/Wed, nice place
  • Bistrot des Artistes - rec’d Routard, closed Mon-Th dinner, terrace, market produce
  • A Côté - rec’d routard for fancy/gastronomic
  • Outside of town:
    • --> Raphèle-les-Arles: Ferme-Auberge de Barbegal - www.barbegal.fr near the Barbegal Roman ruins (an old mill/aqueduct), rec'd by many people (Petit Futé, Wine Travel Guides, parigi on Chowhound, etc.), dinner-only on Saturday and Sunday only (except if you have a large group)
    • ...also see the Camargue section, below

The Camargue

The Rhône river ends in this marshy swampland that has been reclaimed for a number of purposes, including rice production, salt, and raising bulls for meat. Also known for a wide variety of birds (including pink flamingos) and a unique species of beautiful white horses, this is a strange region with cowboys and natural beauty. Be careful for mosquitos in the summer/early autumn, especially at dawn/dusk if there isn't much wind (we didn't have a huge problem in mid-June, but it was pretty windy...and we avoided dawn/dusk). This guy argues you shouldn't go, but my guess is he's not a nature lover. Creme de Languedoc has some great general info and lodging advice.

Things to Do

  • Salt Works - 
  • Aigues Mortes - old walled city with some interesting stores and restaurants; get off the main streets to feel more atmosphere
  • Saintes-Maries-sur-Mer - "les Saintes" is the major seaside town, and is almost 100% tacky tourist shops...but it also hosts an old church dedicated to Saint Mary Solomé and Mary Jacobé, who supposedly accompanied Mary Magdalene on a boat from the Holy Land to this spot (yes, 3 saints named "Mary" in one boat). In the crypt is the statue of Saint Sara, who is venerated by Roma (Gypsies). Also nice beaches. More at www.saintesmaries.com/en
  • Horse Riding - it's a thrill to ride one of the partly-wild, partly-tame white horses in the Camargue—you really get a feel for the landscape getting off the main roads

Places to Eat

  • ***La Telline - (22 min from Arles) rec’d by CHs (including mangeur), countryside “a true local favourite”, “isolated cottage restaurant” www.restaurantlatelline.fr cash only, also rec’d by Routard (“saved as a secret”, “rustic, intimate”, old farm with peaceful garden, fresh fish and tellines [a kind of shellfish], good desserts), member of Conservatoire Grand Sud Des Cuisines, rec’d Lonely Planet, LeFooding, Pudlo, Petit Fute, 04.90.97.01.75, closed Tues/Wed, and Thurs lunch...we especially loved their garlic-soaked tellines and delicious steak
  • Mas d'Icard - rec’d Nancy Chang, “Not super fancy or super expensive, but we really enjoyed our meal there, and it was right near the Camargue places for horseback-riding. (That was amazing -- they might have even arranged it for us. Flamingos!)” www.masdicard.sitew.com €25/pp sans boissons...next to Mas de Frigoulès (which rents out horses, 1 hour €17, 1.5 hours €25, 2 hours €35...)
  • Mas de Peint www.masdepeint.com near Salin de Giraud, rec’d Lonely Planet and Fodors as “the ultimate mas experience” although says pool is unheated and not all rooms have showers; member of Conservatoire des Cuisines de Camargue, reservations essential, somewhat expensive)
  • La Chassagnette - www.chassagnette.fr pretty serious place with tasting menus, etc. fancy haute cuisine, also rec’d Lonely Planet and several CHs for beautiful (albeit pricey) vegetables, member of Conservatoire Grand Sud Des Cuisines 
  • Les Saladelles - Routard rec’s for “generous traditional cuisine”
  • Chez Bob - closed Mon/Tues and Sun dinner, *must* reserve 1 week in advance, 04–90–97–00–29, www.restaurantbob.fr countryside institution, rustic Camargue cooking in “isolated stone farmhouse”, also rec’d by Lonely Planet, Fodors (“taste Camargue at its rustic best”), & Routard (describes the arbor/trees/old furniture with a fire to roast specialties) http://lefooding.com/en/restaurants/restaurant-chez-bob-arles-1  ...when we went here in 2015 we thought it was a bit overpriced
  • Saintes-Maries-sur-Mer:
    • Ô Pica Pica - SMM simple, fresh fish, rec’d Lonely Planet
    • La Grange - SMM cowboy / bull meat place, rec’d Lonely Planet
    • La Casita - SMM fresh catch of the day, run by a couple, rec’d Lonely Planet
    • La Cabane aux Coquillages - seafood in SMM, rec’d Lonely Planet
    • Mas des Colverts - rec’d Routard, chef Roger Merlin “is a magician...defending the true Camarguaise cuisine”
    • Casa Româna - rec’d Routard, pizzas and traditional fare
    • Hotel Mangio Fango - rec’d Routard, sea and land food with good products
    • Hotel de Cacharel - rec’d Routard, casse-croutes with pool/panorama/horses
    • Manade des Baumelles - rec’d Routard nice place, they don’t say much about the food though
  • Aigues-Mortes/Petit Camargue:
    • L’Atelier de Nicos - laid back, unpretentious, chalkboard menu, bull, pistou, etc., rec'd Fodors 
    • Le Tamaris → wikitravel says “most rustic – most likely to prepare food you absolutely cannot get outside of the Camargue” → actually in Petite Camargue, 13 rue Victor Hugo, 30740 Le Cailar, www.restaurantletamaris.com [also one in SMM at 4 place Remparts, but that’s not the one], also rec’d Petit Futé

Marseille

(Marseille is in the region of PACA but culturally not really part of the French Riviera or inland Provence—it's it's own thing! Convenient air & train connections.)

This port town will remind you a bit of Naples: ancient history, beautiful scenery, but a bit rough on the edges. Marseille has a very active African quarter, where you can sample food and products from all over French-speaking Africa. The regional French food is excellent, too, with such favorites as tapenade and bouillabaisse.  Among the historical sites is the Abbey of Saint Victoire and the Château d'If (made famous in The Count of Monte Cristo).  Don't miss a hike (or bus/taxi ride) up to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde, which has some awesome views.  If you're in town for a while, take a drive down the "Calanques" (coves/cliffs) to Cassis.  Some places to check out:
  • La Passarelle - 52 Rue Plan Fourmiguier, 066-862-7787, closed Sun/Mon, a homey little restaurant where you can find real, delicious, "home-style" French food, with a hand-written menu that changes every day based on what is fresh--miles away from the overpriced, touristy restaurants a few blocks away!  Check out this blog post review.
  • Pan Quodietien - 18 Place aux Huiles, (+33) 491-335-500, awesome bakery/pastry shop...croissants to die for!
  • La Cantine - 27 cours d'Estienne d'Orves, good place for lunch
  • Hotel Relax - 4 Rue Corneille, (+33) 491-331-587, relatively cheap, no-frills but nice hotel, rec'd by Let's Go
Also check out the BBC's page on Marseille. (Thanks to Yannick Mireur for restaurant reccomendations!)

Calanques

These beautiful cliffside coves are just east of Marseille, between Marseille and Cassis. Introduction: www.marvellous-provence.com/other-places/sights-and-attractions/calanques/cassis
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