Should I Arles Or Should I Aix? Provence and Paris Vacation
July 30, 2018 8:26 PM   Subscribe

My dad (75ish years old) travels quite a bit for work and has enough miles for both of us to get tickets to Paris in September. He'd like to go to Provence or the south of France. He's been to Paris a few times, but neither of us has been to Provence before.

I'm a hipster twentysomething who looks up trip ideas on Atlas Obscura. My dad is a historian who loves history stuff (Roman ruins, art museums, castles) and wine. I believe his plan is to spend a few days in Paris and then pick a "home base" town in Provence and rent a car to take some day trips from there.

My dad suggested staying in Arles, but it doesn't seem to come up too much except as quite touristy. Past MeFi questions along these lines seem to suggest staying in Aix-en-Provence or Avignon.

I tend to prefer more off the beaten path, chill types of places while my dad is a little more into the hustle bustle of more touristy sightseeing. I'm trying to get some good ideas for both a main place to stay that's centrally located for day trips around the region and ideas for things to check out on our day trips. I'm also really interested in any recommendations for good food or wine or tours related to seriously good food or wine.

My dad has been to Paris several times and I've been once before, so I'm also interested in any suggestions that are a little off the beaten path here as well (if you've seen the Louvre, where would you go?). I think we're going to try to stay near the IV and V arrondissements in Paris. Any suggestions for picking out some good places to eat (range from swanky to grad student budget) would be really fantastic!
posted by forkisbetter to Travel & Transportation around France (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Arles is lovely but pretty small. Aix, Avignon, and Nîmes are all much larger and close enough that they'd all make equally good bases. Both Arles and Nîmes have Roman arenas; Nîmes also has the Tour Magne and the Maison Carrée. If your dad is into Roman ruins, you should absolutely go to the Pont du Gard.
posted by asterix at 8:50 PM on July 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Check out Vaison-la-Romaine, just to the northeast of the Avignon/Orange area. It would be a great place for you both to spend a day.

Mas des Tourelles in Beaucaire is a winery that specializes in making wines based on ancient Roman recipes. At certain times of year, they'll have people in Roman garb running around doing the tasks of wine production. Tastings are friendly and informative.

If you're in a rental car, Saint-Chamas is a tiny town with a small, but impressive surviving Roman bridge that you can walk across.

Aix on market day is a lot of fun.

Nîmes is a great city, and is packed with Roman stuff of every variety. Check to see if there is an event in the Roman arena that you can get tickets to.

When I was in the area, I used Salon-de-Provence as a home base. It's a nice smallish city. The attraction in the middle of town is the home of Nostradamus, the exhibits there are a little tacky. The rest of the town can be very charming in its own right.

There's an amazing number of things to see and do in the area--you could spend weeks. I used the Oxford Archaeological Guide to Southern France to scope out Roman stuff to find and explore.
posted by gimonca at 9:46 PM on July 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'll note, too, that either Arles or Nîmes during Feria season is amazing. The center of town is blocked off, there are performers, musicians, street food and more (including the abrivado, a version of the 'running of the bulls') until late at night. Feria des Vendanges in Nîmes this year is Sept 14 to 16.

Do be aware that hotels will be booked fairly solid in the middle of the city while this is going on. There's typically one in the spring and one in the fall. You can still get rooms in outlying areas (possibly cheaper anyway) and drive into town if you have a rental car.
posted by gimonca at 9:52 PM on July 30, 2018

The only female Michelin-starred chef in 2017 is between Arles, Avignon and Nîmes...
posted by newsomz at 10:21 PM on July 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

I stayed in Arles for ~4 days a couple of years ago and I didn't find it too touristy - there are a lot of tourist sites in it (including cool Roman ruins and some Van Gogh stuff) but it does feel like a real city, albeit a small one. We stayed in an AirBnB and rented a car* and took several day trips, which was great. There's also lots of gorgeous scenery in Provence - driving around can be a lovely activity on its own. We went to Avignon one day - it actually felt more touristy than Arles to me (but its touristyness was slightly more hip than the touristyness of Arles?), but it is also a much bigger city so one presumes that the less-touristy parts are larger (we didn't see that much of Avignon since we only went for the day). Both cities were chill. We did not make it to Aix or Nîmes - we did some more outdoors-y kind of stuff.

*We also had our rental car towed because we parked on the location of the market! So I got to visit the Arles impound lot, an authentic French experience that I would rather have skipped (although honestly it was the nicest impound lot I've ever been to).
posted by mskyle at 3:55 AM on July 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

We stayed in Arles as a base for a week about 5 years ago and found it perfect. We did a wine tour of the region, visited Nîmes , Avignon, the Camargue/ Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the Pont du Gard and a few more places. Everything was easy to get to and Arles made the perfect base for us. We'd also considered Aix but it seemed less central. There were also some events going on in Arles that we were able to just walk to which was just fantastic, that was a nice bonus. The town itself has everything you need and is quite nice.
posted by Laura in Canada at 7:52 AM on July 31, 2018

This was the wine tour:

I would highly recommend it. It was one of the highlights of our week.
posted by Laura in Canada at 7:57 AM on July 31, 2018

Huh, I stayed in Arles and found it kind of disappointing. Hotel wasn't great, no fine dining of the kind I enjoy when traveling in France. I'm absolutely a snob though, often the hotel and restaurant are the reason for my trips. To that end there's a lot of great little country inns and fine hotels in the more rural areas in this part of Provence, they are definitely more my speed. I had an excellent lunch at Le Patio in Fontvielle and thought "this would be a nice town to stay in and explore Arles".

If you want a high end hotel in the countryside in this area, Baumanière Les Baux-de-Provence is great and has an excellent restaurant. Near the Pont du Gard I stayed a few years ago at Le Vieux Castillon and it was also very nice, if bafflingly empty.

If you want super high end dining from a three star Michelin restaurant with a female chef, Pic in Valence has been one of the best restaurants in the world for many years now.

Places to be a tourist in this area: Arles, Nimes, and the Pont du Gard for Roman ruins. Les Baux-de-Provence for a perfect Provencal hilltop town, super super touristy (the light and sound show in the nearby quarry is surprisingly good.) I also like the Camargue with a visit to Aigues-Mortes, that could be a whole vacation in itself.

Avignon and Aix are both nice but feel much more like real cities, not little tourist towns.
posted by Nelson at 8:08 AM on July 31, 2018

If you're looking for Roman stuff, yes, Arles, Nîmes, and the Pont du Gard. The amphitheater in Names does (or used to do, anyway) re-creation gladiator shows, which are super nifty to see, so I would try to time a visit for that if it's still an option. And for the Pont du Gard, there at least used to be some way to do a tour that actually takes you inside (otherwise, it's just a piece of an aqueduct, pretty, but not mind-blowing).
posted by lysimache at 10:46 AM on July 31, 2018

I vote for Arles since your dad is interested in history. The Arles arena is fabulous as is their Roman theater. These are in the central core of the oldest part of the city up on the hill. We rented a fantastic, not expensive airbnb house in the old city but kept the rental car down in the parking lot in front of the railroad station. Do not park in the old city. A little shuttle bus circulates up to the old town frequently or you can just walk up the hill. The arena changes with the lighting; it's stunning at all hours, but especially at night walking home from the many wonderful restaurants. Visit the Roman cemetery and the incredible archeological museum where a phenomenal Roman boat was dug out of the river and put on display. Do not miss this museum. It's a bit of a walk, but go along the river, and you'll be there in no time. The walls of the river as you walk to or from the museum date back to ancient times. Arles's 2x weekly market is the largest in Provence and totally wild. Again, keep the car at the railroad station, so you don't get caught in the traffic madness on market days.

With the car parked down the hill, it's an easy exit out of town for excellent day trips . Travel to the hospital ib St. Remy where Van Gogh painted some of his greatest works. Directly across the street is Glanum, another great Roman ruin. Have a picnic out there. Drive to the Camargue, especially St. Marie les Bains. ***** Rent a kayak and float below Pont de Gard, the best way to see this awesome Roman structure. These are all superb day trips. Feel free to skip Les Baux even though its history is fascinating. Pont de Gard by kayak is unforgettable.

I love Aix, but it's mainly for sitting in a café facing one of their beautiful fountains. (OK, the Cezanne studio is fantastic.) Right now, there is still major construction on the Cours Mirabeau, the stunning people watching boulevard in Aix. So lots of noise; hard to cross the streets. Aix is like a mini-Paris, but since you're going to Paris anyway, go to Arles instead. (Sorry, Aix. I love you, but not while you're undergoing renovation.) Also getting in and out of Aix for day trips takes a lot more time than getting in and out of Arles.
posted by Elsie at 5:00 PM on July 31, 2018

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