As a travel destination, France is one of the most popular countries in the world. It’s got a bit of everything from culture, history, architecture, culinary gems and a whole host of things to do and see. As one of the country’s most beloved regions, Provence is always a hit, but going past the oh-so-popular lavender fields can lead to some very interesting off-the-beaten path travel discoveries. Previously, we’ve showed you how to explore the Gorges du Verdon. Now follow along on an other unique French travel experience as guest contributor, Teresa Otto, takes us on an art and animal-filled Provence road trip.
I slowed the car down well below the speed limit, did a three-sixty around the next round-about and cruised into the parking lot to get a closer look. My travel partner and I had stumbled upon industrial buildings transformed into artists’ canvases. Dizzying patterns of regressing green and red squares on one facade, an abstract flowers on another, a three-story wizard cradling a spray paint nozzle and giving a hint about the mural’s creation on the third.
Where were we and what had we found on a road trip through Provence?
The saying, ‘all who wander are not lost’ wasn’t true today. We were lost. It had a little to do with poor planning and a lot to do with no reading glasses. The tiny rental car map showed a straight shot from Aix en Provence to the flamingos and horses of Camargue France, our crowd-free, after-lavender-season destination. Minutes before, we’d driven under dappled light on a narrow country road lined with iconic plane trees, marveling at nature’s beauty. Now our eyes feasted upon man-made beauty in mint green and candy apple red, hot pink and lavender. This road trip had become a journey, not just a destination.
Art Stop on a Provence Road Trip
(Provence Road Trip Route: Saint-Etienne-du-Gres on Highway D99)
Saint-Etienne-du-Gres (not to be confused with Saint-Etienne near Lyons) is an agricultural village in grape and olive growing country within the Regional National Park of Alpilles. Buildings at Alpilles Cereales, an agricultural co-op, provide the canvas for several artists participating in the A-part International Festival of Contemporary Art each summer. A-Part (or Alpilles-Provence art) features local and international contemporary artists. Artists also meet in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, Aux Baux-de-Provence and Paradou-all within a ten kilometer radius of Saint-Etienne-du-Gres-and farther away in Marseilles each July and August. You are free to interact with the artists, get their insight and ask questions about their inspiration or process. Entrance to all exhibits is free. The outdoor murals remain in some locations after the festival closes.
Stay longer in Saint-Eitenne-du-Gres:
Start your search for lodging in Saint-Etienne-du-Gres here.
Road Trip to Arles
(Provence Road Trip Route: Highway D570N to Arles)
Having embraced the journey, our Provence itinerary stops next in Arles. The tourist office, 9 Boulevard des Lices, proved to be a goldmine. Filled with brochures on things to do in Arles and tours to Camargue, we settled on parking the car in Arles and joining one of several guided Jeep tours to Camargue. The tourism office also provides maps of the Camargue region for self-guided car and bicycle tours.
While at the tourist office, we took in the heartfelt mural in black and tan commemorating the fallen cartoonists and satirists of Charlie Hebdo who lost their lives in the January 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. Artists painted caricatures of Stephane Charbonnier, Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac on the tourism office’s eastern wall.
If time permits, you can take a Vincent van Gogh walking tour with a map from-you guessed it-the tourism office. Arles was his home from 1888 to 1889. Passionate about the area’s light, van Gogh painted three hundred pictures during his time in the city. The map retraces his footsteps and highlights nine places of inspiration for his paintings.
Stay longer in Arles:
- Start your Arles hotel search with us.
- Discover Van Gogh in Provence on a tour from Arles
- Two-hour private walking tour of Arles.
Road Trip to Camargue
(Provence Road Trip Route: Highway D37/D36b to Carmargue)
Camargue is the second largest delta after the Nile, bordered by two branches of the Rhone River and the Mediterranean. It has ideal growing conditions for rice, alfalfa and wheat. Migrating birds, indigenous white horses and Spanish bulls make their home here. The guided tour proved educational from start to finish.
Our guide, Alain, was particularly enthusiastic about the black bulls. When he started talking about the bull games. I feared the worst. As it turns out, the bulls are celebrities. During the bull game, the bullfighter plucks ribbons or rosettes from between the bull’s horns. No bloodshed in this sport. Alain pointed out particularly clever or aggressive bulls that are a source of pride for the ranch owner and the entire town as we drove past family-owned farms.
Alain then turned his attention to the marshland’s Camargue horses, used by local cowboys to herd bulls. No longer wild, the horses vied for attention when we hopped out of the Jeep to photograph them. If you opt for a self-guided tour, maps identify ranches offering horseback rides and signs indicate ranches that own winning bulls. The tourism office in Arles provides maps and schedules for local arenas that host bull games if you are traveling during the summer or early autumn. These events are often free.
Inspired to hit the road? Check out a few of our favorite boomer road trip adventures!
(Provence Road Trip Route:Highway D570 to Carmargue)
After a stop in Saintes Maries de la Mer and a sumptuous dessert at La Boheme on Place de l’Eglise, we traveled to the Ornithological Park of Camargue. It is home to 350 bird species including greater flamingos, herons, egrets, storks, spoonbills and moorhens. The area is a breeding ground for pink flamingos and a rest stop for migrating birds between Europe and Africa.
The 4×4 was ideal for navigating the unpaved, pothole-filled roads. Once off the highway, you’ll find flamingos and egrets wading in shallow water and herons taking flight. Taking a walk on the park’s meandering wooden boardwalks offers even more bird watching opportunities.
If you’ve chosen a self-guided tour and want to get more fresh air or work off a La Boheme dessert, bicycle rentals are available in Saintes Maries de la Mer or book a bicycle tour from Vauvert.
Stay longer in Camargue:
Start your search for hotels in Camargue with us.
My hope for this off-the-beaten-path Provence road trip was to see Camargue horses and pink flamingos. I didn’t expect to be wowed by the beauty of the A-Part murals, the local pride in the Spanish bulls or the elegant silhouettes of the egrets. This side trip from Aix en Provence, Marseilles or Avignon can be tailored to your interests and activity level. Don’t hesitate to hop in the car and explore the beauty of Provence.
Prepare to be wowed, even if the lavender is no longer in bloom.
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