Ah, Provence! Lavender fields, sunflowers, vineyards and their delicious wines, blue sky…what’s not to love? I’ll tell you what’s not to love: in the words of Jean Paul Sartre, it’s his definition of hell—other people. Yes, Provence is amazing and beautiful and breathtaking, and for those reasons, it’s also crowded. It’s no secret that Provence is no secret! So, what do you do when the only time you have to visit is the same time everyone else has, in the peak of summer?
First of all, you don’t avoid visiting altogether. The south of France is too beautiful to miss just because of other people. Rather, you just have to find the places that “the crowd” doesn’t go, and believe me, they do exist! The crowd is not particularly original or creative or daring, so if you are willing to be those things, the south of France is your oyster. So, here are my tips and suggestions for taking that oyster and the pearl inside, too!
Skip the Towns You’ve Heard Of
I know what you’re saying right now, but hear me out. If you’ve heard of it, so has The Crowd. Everyone and their brother, their cousin, their cousin’s cousin, and their drunk uncle will be in Nice, Arles, Gordes, and Aix-en-Provence. Visit those towns in the off season if you can. The thing about the south is that many of the towns share that distinctive je ne sais quoi flavor. Gordes is not the only adorable town on a hill, Arles is not the only one with an ancient arena and artistic masterpieces, Nice is not the only lovely town on the Mediterranean, and Aix is not the only hip college town. Try these other options on for size:
- Uzès is a darling little town on a hill that offers cafes, boutiques, beautiful tree-lined streets, outdoor markets, and it is blissfully low on crowds. When my son and I visited, we found a place to park in the town center, we walked through the heart of town, enjoyed some ice cream and were able to take in the sights in an afternoon. No stress, no crowds.
- Nîmes. A quick drive south from Uzès is Nîmes. It is home to the best-preserved Roman arena on the planet (far better than the one in Rome). In fact, the Roman Emporer wanted Nîmes to be another Rome—this one for his retired soldiers. So, he ordered the arena built and fashioned the city after an ideal Roman town, complete with running water, fountains, the aforementioned arena, a temple and (possibly—it’s true origins are a mystery) a library. All around town you will see the ancient logo of the town: a crocodile tethered to a palm tree. The crocodile represents Egypt, and the tree is Rome, symbolizing the defeat of Egypt by the Roman soldiers who would call Nîmes home. It’s a beautiful city, and when my son and I spent a Sunday there, we felt we had the place all to ourselves. Sundays in France can be tricky, and the smaller the town, the more likely you will find “Fermé” signs everywhere. But Nîmes is large enough that we were able to enjoy the day, see the sights, and get a bit to eat with no problems. The arena is a must-see. People of all ages will enjoy the museum and the fascinating history of the gladiators who fought there.
Timing is Everything
Consider Avignon. I know, it’s definitely on the radar of The Crowd, but you can outsmart them. Every July, Avignon hosts their huge Festival d’Avignon, the theater festival that draws huge crowds from all over the country. Everyone who visits Avignon in the summer wants to visit during the festival. So you, dear traveler, are going to visit before the festival. When I went, I timed it so that we were there the two weeks before the festival,
and then left a couple days after it began. It was perfect: for most of the time we were there, the streets, cafes, and boutiques were calm and easy to get into. The Crowd was partially there, but we hardly noticed them. We got to witness all the theater posters going up, and we saw Le Petit Prince on the first day of the festival. The next day, we left, just as things were getting crazy.
Become a Local
Consider staying in a tiny town you’ve never heard of that is near some of the bigger towns you want to explore. We stayed in two little towns, Joucas (near Gordes) and Dions (near Nîmes). Both were scandalously adorable and in both, we were the only non-locals there. It was wonderful to spend a day seeing the sights (and yes, even rubbing elbows with The Crowd now and then), and then to come “home” to a quiet, looks-like-something-from-a-movie little town that no one from The Crowd knows anything about. We felt like locals, which is always my aim when I’m traveling. This advice also applies when looking for an alternative to Nice. There are so many little towns dotting the Mediterranean coast, you really can’t go wrong with any one of them that doesn’t dominate the guidebooks.
You WILL miss out on something. Just accept that. The south of France is huge, it’s jam packed with amazing places to visit, and you will not see it all. You could visit every year for the rest of your life and you won’t see it all. So, relax in knowing that you WILL see gorgeous vistas that look like they are straight out of a magazine, you WILL have delicious food, and if you forget about the FOMO, you WILL have an amazing time. I find that the most memorable moments are often the unplanned and unglamorous ones. It’s not the world-famous restaurant you ate at that you’ll keep thinking about for months; it’s the little vintage book store that you stumbled upon, where you struck up a half-English, half-French conversation with the owner, who loves books just as much as you do. That’s the magic moment you will replay in your head long after you’ve returned home, along with the rest of The Crowd.