Within most major cities—including Nice, Marseille, and Avignon—public transportation is efficient, comprehensive, and cheap. Distances between each destination are too short to be covered by air, but are the perfect length to zip among by high-speed train. Indeed, no two towns in the region are much further than 3 hours apart by rail. In smaller towns, such as Cannes, Arles, or Antibes, it’s easy to navigate the city center on foot.
The most charming châteaux and country hotels always seem to lie away from the main cities and train stations. Renting a car is a good way to travel around the Southern French countryside, especially in the Lubéron area, the vineyards north of Avignon, and in rural Provence. Day car-hire is inexpensive, so visitors may want to rent a vehicle just for a day en-route if they wish. After all, driving around the Monaco Grand Prix route sure is fun.
Driving schedules in Europe are largely a matter of conjecture, urgency, and how much sightseeing you do along the way. Driving time from the most westerly town in this book, Arles, to the most easterly, Menton, is just over 2 1/2 hours by car.
Rentals -- To rent a car, you’ll need to present a passport, a driver’s license, and a credit card. You will also have to meet the company’s minimum age requirement; 21 or above at most rental agencies. The biggest agencies have pickup spots all over Southern France, including Budget (www.budget.com; [tel] 800/472-3325); Hertz (www.hertz.com; [tel] 800/654-3001); and Europcar (www.europcar.com; [tel] 877/940-6900 in the U.S. and Canada).
Note: The best deals are always booked online, in advance. Rental companies won’t generally mind if you drive your car into, say, Italy. After all, the border is only a five-minute drive from Menton, the most easterly town covered in this guide.
In France, collision damage waiver (CDW) is usually factored into the overall rate quoted, but you should always verify this before taking a car on the road. At most companies, the CDW provision won’t protect you against theft, so if this is the case, ask about purchasing extra theft protection. Automatic transmission is a luxury in Europe. If you prefer it to stick-shift, you must specifically request it—and you’ll pay extra for it.
Gasoline -- Known in France as essence, gas is expensive for those accustomed to North American prices, although the smaller cars common in Europe use far less fuel. Depending on your car, you’ll need either leaded (avec plomb) or unleaded (sans plomb).
Note: Sometimes you can drive for miles in rural France without encountering a gas station; don’t let your tank get dangerously low.
Driving Rules -- Everyone in the car, in both the front and the back seats, must wear seat belts. Children 10 and under must ride in the back seat.
In France, you drive on the right. Drivers are supposed to yield to the car on their right (priorité a droite), except where signs indicate otherwise, as at traffic circles.
If you violate the speed limit, expect a big fine. Limits are 130kmph (80 mph) on expressways, 110kmph (68 mph) on major national highways, and 90kmph (55 mph) on country roads. In towns, don’t exceed 50kmph (31 mph).
Note: It’s illegal to use a cellphone while you’re driving in France; you will be ticketed if you’re stopped.
Maps -- While most French drivers are happy with Google Maps, traditional motorists opt for the large Michelin maps of the country and regions (www.viamichelin.com) on sale at all gas stations. Big travel-book stores in North America carry these maps as well. GPS navigation devices can be rented at most car-hire stations.
Breakdowns/Assistance -- A breakdown is called une panne in France. Call the police at [tel] 17 (if calling from a landline) or [tel] 112 (if calling from a mobile phone) anywhere in France to be put in touch with the nearest garage. Most local garages offer towing.
The world’s fastest trains—known as Train à Grande Vitesse, or TGVs—link all the major cities and resorts in the South of France, allowing you to travel within the region at speed. First class travel by TGV is an experience in itself, with at-seat dining, picture windows, and train interiors courtesy of fashion designer Christian Lacroix. Booked in advance, it’s not much more than second class. SNCF (French National Railroads; www.voyages-sncf.com, or call [tel] 36-35 in France) also runs local trains that connect rural areas, as well as along the resort-heavy French Riviera. It also operates trains running into the mountains above Nice, and over into the Italian border.
For information or reservations, go online (www.voyages-sncf.com). You can also visit any local travel agency. If you have a chip credit card and know your PIN, you can use your card to buy your ticket at the easy-to-use billetteries (ticket machines with an English-menu option) in every train station.
Rail passes -- Rail passes as well as individual rail tickets are available from Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com; [tel] 800/622-8600 in the U.S.). Options include a 5-day rail pass usable within France for a 1-month period for $322. Eurail (www.eurail.com) offers regional rail passes throughout Europe, including a France-and-Italy combined pass for $540, allowing 6 days of first-class travel within a 2-month period.
Over the past few years, most cities and towns throughout Provence and the French Riviera have initiated bike-sharing schemes. You can register online or directly at one of the city’s dozens of bike stands; in most cases, you’ll need a credit card and a mobile phone. Average fees range from 1€ for 1 day to 7€ for a week, and entitle you to use any of the city’s hundreds of bikes for up to 30 minutes at a time. When you’re finished, just slot the cycle back into any allocated bike stand around town. Among many others, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, and Nice all offer citywide bike-sharing. Monaco, being the showiest town in the South of France, introduced an all-electric bike-share scheme in 2014.
France’s ancient Sentiers de Grande Randonnée (www.grsentiers.org), or “GR” walking routes link many of the country’s prettiest towns. Close to two centuries old and stretching over 112,000 miles (180,000 km), these footpaths ripple through vineyards and along the coastline, crisscrossing picturesque towns and mountain passes en route. Regional favorites include the GR 51, looping above coastal Provence, the GR 52A, in the Mercantour National Park, and the challenging GR 20, a mountainous trail along Corsica’s spine. Keep an eye out for the routes’ red and white way-markings. A new section of the GR network, the GR 653A, connects the towns of Menton and Arles with the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim’s route in Spain.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.