There are certain places in the world that everyone seems to want to visit. Australia, Paris and New York are almost always on these lists, but so is the south of France and I’m not quite sure why. It probably has to do with the weather and its ability to attract wealthy celebrities, but whatever the reason everyone seems to dream of visiting the villages and cities that comprise southern France. Last year I had the chance to explore parts of both Southwestern and Southern France and I think enough time has passed that I can finally pass some judgment.
From an American point of view, I think that we tend to look at other countries and almost always think, “Well that’s not so big.” And while this may be an accurate geographical description, it does little to reveal the true nature of the destination. France is about twice the size of Colorado yet the thousands of communities that comprise this great country are each unique, interesting and completely different from almost all of the others making it seem colossal. After spending just a week exploring several parts of the country I quickly decided it would take decades, if not a lifetime, to properly explore France. So, it is with all of this in mind that I am not going to discuss entire regions, but instead only cities I have been to. Luckily, these are amongst some of the most popular for travelers.
My first foray into what is classically known as southern France is the border town of Arles. I say border town because even though it lies in the Provence-Alps-Côte d’Azur region, I think an argument could be made that it has more Southwestern sensibilities, but that’s just me. Arles is well known for having welcomed Van Gogh during a particularly tumultuous period in his life, namely when he cut off his ear and was briefly institutionalized. It’s so much more than that though, the city boasts a history that extends to the Romans and beyond and much of that legacy can still be seen today. The open-air arena in town that is still used for events was built by the Romans, as are countless other sites still seen today. It’s a beautiful town and the colors and light that first attracted Van Gogh still bring people in droves. It’s a great place and I was sad to leave, but I was excited to visit a city that had been on my bucket list for a very long time: Avignon.
If you studied French in school, then no doubt you will remember the popular children’s song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.” I never forgot it and indeed it became sort of an obsession. I REALLY wanted to visit Avignon. I didn’t know a lot more than the song when I first arrived, but I was instantly surprised by the size and feel of the city. Arles felt small because, well, it is. It also felt touristy, which it also is. That’s not a big deal for me, Paris is touristy but I love it. Avignon was different though; it’s a prosperous city with a large student population all of which can be sensed right away. There’s just an energy, a vibe that proclaims Avignon a young city with plenty of cash. I enjoyed my time there as well, but for different reasons. I appreciated the history of the city and its urbanity. I liked being anonymous in a big town instead of sticking out like a lost tourist. Also unlike Arles though, which felt ‘southern’ to me, Avignon did not. I don’t know if I expected beaches everywhere and fields of wildflowers, but it just didn’t seem to match my expectations of what southern France should be like.
Then I hit Aix-en-Provence, one of the most longed after and visited towns in the south of France. Again, I’m not really sure why. It must be because it’s relatively close to Monaco making it an important pit stop on the way to the famous country of the rich and beautiful. The city’s wide avenues and endless fountains made it pleasant to walk through, the southern air warming me after several chilly days in the north of the country. The main pedestrian zone was lined with dozens of sidewalk cafes and bars, most of which were packed with a mixture of locals and tourists. Other than that, I’m not sure what the real attraction to the town is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very pleasant and I went through all of the tourist sites but still, I can’t imagine traveling there with that as my sole destination. There’s just no there there.
I am purposefully excluding Marseille for two reasons. 1) I spent very little time there and didn’t get a chance to learn more about it and 2) I really hated it. I place Marseille in the category of cities I need to visit for a second time before passing final judgment. Sorry about that.
So, in the end is the south of France really worth visiting? I think I would tentatively answer yes, but with a caveat. I don’t think an entire trip should be devoted just to the south of France and instead you should journey a bit further to southwestern France and visit cities like Albi and Toulouse. From what I could see in my admittedly limited experience I don’t think that the reasons why southern France seems to be a dream destination are necessarily there. Arles isn’t full of rich celebrities, it’s full of camera toting tourists. Avignon isn’t a cute little town known for a history that took place 600 years ago, it’s a thriving city that is very much focused on the future. Then there’s Aix, oh Aix. You are very pretty but I don’t sense a lot of substance. Like a high class hooker, you’re pretty to look at but I don’t think I’d really want to spend a lot of time with you.
I’m not sure why or even how certain parts of the world make it into our collective consciousness, but there they sit, tempting us to visit them and be amazed. Most of the time these places live up to their hype. Then there’s another category, one that doesn’t match expectations but not in a bad way. I loved touring around southern France for the most part, but in order to really enjoy it I had to dramatically shift my expectations. And that’s one of the great things about travel, isn’t it? That it’s almost never what we imagine it will be like and I personally am thankful for that.
Have you been to the south of France? What did you think?