Straddling the famed Rhône River we explore two delightful regions in the south of France —Occitanie to the west of the river, Provence to the east — while using one hotel base for the week. This sun-baked territory is rich in history and rich in its culinary offerings.
An important crossroads during the Roman Empire Nîmes is known for its antiquities such as the best-preserved amphitheater in France built at the end of the 1st century and an elegant Roman temple, but the city is also renowned for some innovative architecture, from a Philippe Starch-designed bus stop to a glittering arts glass-and-steel arts complex designed by Sir Norman Foster.
An underrated city, Montpellier exudes a graceful and easy-going air brimming with architectural appeal with stately hôtels particuliers (a type of historic urban townhouse or mansion). No Roman heritage here as the city was founded in the 10th century, becoming prosperous in the spice trade and Europe’s first medical school was established here in the 12th century. Today students make up a third of the population, lending the city a youthful vibe.
The center of Sète sports pastel-colored houses with wrought-iron balconies and a quaint old fishermen’s quarter. It’s very much a working port and you’ll see shops selling such things as ships’ lamps and propellers. The historic Canal du Midi and the Canal du Rhône both terminate here.
No other ancient Roman sight in the south of France rivals the well-preserved Pont-du-Gard, a mighty three-tiered aqueduct erected as part of a 30-mile canal supplying water to Nîmes. It rises 160 feet, the highest bridge the Romans ever built, graced with 52 arches. An estimated 1000 slaves worked on it over a period of five years.
In the world of wine Châteauneuf-du-Pape retains a special cachet. It’s certainly one of the best-known from the Rhône region. Around the eponymous town are numerous vineyards where we’ll have the opportunity to stop in for a tasting.
The papal stronghold of the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) in Avignon is one of the most dramatic historic sights in France, a spectacular and colossal 14th-century fortress-castle. Its austere interior calls for some imagination to picture the palace’s splendor in its Medieval day.
Ever since Vincent Van Gogh immortalized Arles with its legendary light this town has had a starring role among sights in the south of France. Gaugin and Picasso painted here as well. Arles is certainly charming and has a wealth of classical antiquities and Romanesque architecture; pretty shuttered townhouses; picturesque squares; and famous annual arts events. Even renowned architect Frank Gehry has made his mark here.
At the mouth of the Rhône River lies the Camargue, a beautiful stretch of land and water with salt flats, saltwater lakes and marshlands inhabited by black bulls, white horses, and pink flamingos, and traditional “cowboys.”