Paris has Musée d’Orsay, the historic bohemian counterculture of Montmartre, and no shortage of boulangeries to satisfy your craving for croissants. In the city known for its romantic atmosphere and architectural wonders, you can while away hours drinking merlot and indulging in cheese and prosciutto on an outdoor patio or on your private hotel balcony. However, as the French are quick to remind foreigners, their country’s diversity and richness of history is unfairly represented when viewed through the rose-coloured lens of the Parisian tourist.
Paris leaves a lot of people underwhelmed. There’s a psychological definition for the phenomenon: “Paris syndrome,” or syndrome de Paris, which occurs when tourists discover that the elegant and atmospheric city of their dreams was quite different than they had imagined.
In fact, Parisians express frequent concern that their city is becoming increasingly dirty, dangerous, and unappealing to outsiders. Tourism in Paris dropped significantly in 2019, with reports stating that anti-government protests in the wake of Brexit were likely a contributing factor. Despite the allure of the City of Love, no one wanted to be caught in the crossfire.
What remains unchanged is the sleepy charm of the southern French countryside. Luxury travellers have made the south of France their destination of choice for centuries, drawn in by the sweeping lavender fields, the lush vineyards, and the inspiring coastal views.
The southeastern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, known colloquially simply as Provence, is situated on the cerulean-blue coast of the Mediterranean Sea, bordering Italy. It is known for its very diverse array of landscapes. The Southern Alps are the highest point, while vineyards, olive groves, fields of lavender, and dense pine forests dot the lower valleys of the area. It’s advisable to visit during either the spring or fall seasons, when the temperature is moderate and the crowds are sparse.
Most travellers begin their journey in Paris, after which they make their way south by train. The scenic trip takes between seven and nine hours in total, carrying you through such iconic cities as Lyon, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, and Marseille. Just below Marseille in the town of Bouches-du-Rhône is the Parc national des Calanques, or Calanques National Park. Calanques is considered a must-see stop on any excursion through the south of France due to its novelty: it is Europe’s only protected national park that contains land, water, and urban areas. The rugged mountainous coastline and bright blue ocean views are breathtaking.
Locals recommend travelling this entire route by rental car, as the roads are fairly narrow, and a vehicle offers the curious adventurer more freedom to get out and explore than if you were riding the rails. To be certain, it’s a beautiful train route, but if you’re tired of highly structured vacations that you feel like you need another vacation to recover from, this is the ideal trip.
Provence offers plenty of opportunities to create your own adventure, rather than stick to an established itinerary. However, having a loose outline is a good idea: intend to start out in Paris, pass through the city of Provence, and finish up in Nice, where you can board a relaxing flight home at the Aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur.
If you’ve always dreamed of foregoing the highways and taking the long way around, you’ll be pleased to learn that this is actually the ideal way to travel through the south of France: by taking a meandering route that avoids city centres, you will be fortunate enough to catch glimpses of hamlets, vineyards, olive groves, and detours into small villages that are only accessible through the network of backroads.