The Côte d’Azur, the Mediterranean coast of southwestern France, is one of Europe’s greatest gems. With crystal clear seas to rival the Caribbean, terracotta orange rooftops, grand villas of La Belle Époque, millionaire yachts, a balmy climate and an abundance of fine cheese and wine, it really is the ultimate driving holiday. The best way to see the French Riviera is by car, not least for the beauty of the ability to make unexpected stop offs and discover villages off of the beaten track en route, and Hertz were kind (or mad?) enough to let me loose on the roads in a large Toyota. 14,000km, 9 cities, an aqueduct, a vineyard, 2.5 tanks of diesel and a flock of flamingos later and I’m here to tell the tale…
After flying into Nice airport I drove westward along the coast before heading north toward the west coast where I ended my trip in La Rochelle in the Charente-Martime region. You could start and end at any point along the French Riviera, though it’s worth bearing in mind that some airports are seasonal. When booking accommodation it’s also important to consider that whilst four wheels is by far the best way to make the most of the area, some of the cities are not particularly vehicle friendly. Ensure that you arrange accommodation with secure (ideally off street, especially in Nice and Marseille were thefts are rife) parking because the likelihood is that you won’t get behind the wheel for a few days at a time!
DRIVING THE FRENCH RIVIERA WITH HERTZ
France’s fifth largest city and the capital of the Alpes-Maritimes region, Nice is incredibly popular with holiday makers from across Europe. At the foot of the Alps, it offers stunning scenery and water so blue you’d think it had been filtered. The cities most famous street is the Promenade des Anglais (or Walk of the English – told you it was popular!) which stretches for 7km along the pebbled beach of the Mediterranean but the real charm lies in the Old Town. Cobbled alleyways, pastel coloured shutters and wrought iron balconies make for a picture perfect scene as locals and tourists a like sip beers in the sun under striped umbrellas at pavement cafes.
Where to eat:
I’m going to be totally honest here, I had my fair share of drama in Nice and so wasn’t quite on my game when it came to hunting out the best restaurants and just generally making the most of my limited time in the area. Dinner the night I was burgled consisted of a tube of Pringles and a bottle of wine (the latter was OH so needed). However below are a few foodie havens I had my eye on:
Where to sleep:
the Old Town (Vieille Ville, on the maps) is where it’s at in terms of proximity and character though I would recommend the Hotel Ellington, which is where I moved following the burglary, for it’s friendly service, beautiful garden and spacious rooms. Be wary of just booking a hotel on the Promenade des Anglais without actually checking where it is on a map; the street is 7km long and you may end up being a little far from the action.
- Monte Carlo
- Antibes, a local town enclosed by 16th-century ramparts overlooking the waves and many a designer yacht
- Colline du Chateaux: a large clifftop park with stunning views across the city and the beach
- Old town: take your camera and wander the cobbled lanes
Monte Carlo, Monaco
The principality of Monaco is only a short drive from Nice and Monte Carlo really is a capital like no other. A weird and wonderful place, expect to see cars that cost more than your house parked casually on the roadside, super yachts (mine’s the one with the hot tub in the deck) and designer shops galore. Be sure to visit the famous Casino Monte Carlo, where visitors are welcome to wander round the grand lobby and marvel at the Belle Époque architecture.
Day 3 – 5
via Cannes or St Tropez
The harbour town of Marseille is France’s second largest city, after Paris, though it doesn’t really feel like it. A 3 hour 45 minute drive from Nice via St Tropez, or 2 hours 20 minutes directly, Marseille feels the perfect place to take things a little slower. Wander around the old port and explore the steep cobbled back streets of Le Panier where you’ll find quaint soap shops and buzzing squares, before whiling away the afternoon drinking vin rouge in the sunshine.
Where to eat:
L’Entrecote du Port: mirroring the classic Parisian L’Entrecote formula, the restaurant serves fantastic steak with unlimited fries and secret recipe house sauce on a hot plate to share between the table. The price per head is great value and the food is delicious!
Where to sleep:
Stay anywhere around the port and you’ll be within a short walking distance to all the amenities and attractions! Marseille is renowned for having some districts that are not as safe for tourists or lone females so it’s best to stick to the more populated areas rather than try to veer from the beaten track.
- Le Panier
- Glacier Vanille Noir: an ice cream stand serving original jet black vanilla ice cream
- Notre-Dame de la Garde: a hilltop Basilica with far reaching city views
- MUCEM: The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation
- Chateaux d’If: take a boat to this island fortress and former prison
via Pont du Gard and Aigues-Mortes
You’d be forgiven for mistaking Montpellier for a miniature Paris, it’s even got an Arc de Triomphe double, the Porte du Peyrou. The university city is full of character and was one of my favourite stop offs, from the pavement cafes in the Place de la Comédie to the remnants of the royal palace and it’s far reaching views across terracotta roof tops. A relatively compact city, you can easily see the sights in a day and then make the most of your four wheels to explore some of the beautiful beaches that are only a twenty to thirty minute drive away.
Where to eat:
The Cup: Korean style noodle bar in classic paper boxes to eat in or takeaway
Where to sleep:
When looking for a hotel or apartment, consider the Place de la Comédie to be the central point of the city. Rue Foch, which stretches from the Porte du Peyrou, is a large boulevard around which you’ll find lots of quirky little backstreets which all make for an ideal base to explore the city on foot. There is also a large, secure, underground carpark at either end of the street.
- Le Boutik R: regional produce from nougat to wine with a room dedicated to jams, condiments and chutneys!
- Place de la Comédie
- Cathédrale Saint-Pierre
- Jardin des plantes de Montpellier: botanical gardens
Pont du Gard
The Pont du Gard is an ancient Roman aqueduct that crosses the River Gardon between Marseille and Montpellier. It’s a vastly impressive structure under which, on a sunny day, you can canoe and swim or enjoy a picnic on the rocky banks.
One of the real beauties of road trips is the unexpected stop offs en route and Aigues-Mortes turned out to be an unmissable gem. Encased in huge city walls, the town is a winding labyrinth of cobbled streets, beautifully quaint houses and gorgeous shops selling local salt – the area is surrounded by marsh flats – and patisserie delights.
TIP: Keep your eyes peeled for flamingos! They live wild on the marsh flats surrounding the area and really are a surreal sight to behold when you’re minding your own business, driving down French roads!
The journey between Montpellier and Bordeaux is the longest stretch along this route, leaving behind the Riviera for the delights of the world’s major wine industry capital. Referenced as the greatest city in France by The Telegraph , it harbours a wealth of history and architecture; the historic part of the city is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Where to eat and sleep:
L’Autre Vie Bordeaux is a country guest house set right in the middle of a vineyard just outside the town of Camiran. Run by Australian expats, Vanessa and Julien, it offers a sense of peace and relaxation in amongst the vines with a particular focus on good food and wine and a community atmosphere.
- St Emillion: this beautiful hilltop cobbled town offers far reaching views across the area and some of the most stunning countryside along the journey. The town is bursting with ‘Maisons du Vin’, which quite literally translates as ‘houses of wine’. The wineries all offer tastings and a wealth of advice, as well as international shipping so there’s no excuse not to make the most of the local produce!
- The Water Mirror
- Place de la Bourse
The hilltop fortified town of Carcassonne is another road trip gem, famous for it’s medieval citadel, Le Cité, which is just like you’d imagine a bustling castle town to be. Inside the walls of the magnificent structure are boutiques, restaurants and cobbled streets with far reaching views across the town and surrounding countryside. It’s well worth a stop off!
This seaport city on the western French coastal Bay of Biscay was the final destination before I ventured into the countryside to learn to cook with one of the UK’s best celebrity chefs. On a sunny day it’s the perfect place to enjoy a beer by the port and watch the boats bob up and down. A tricolor flutters above the formidable Tour Saint-Nicolas at the edge of the old port and there is a wealth of maritime history to explore.
Where to sleep:
Look for a hotel or apartment around the old port and you’ll be in the centre of the hustle and bustle!
Where to eat:
Le Ptit Nicolas: this was by far my favourite meal of the trip. Try the truffle and Serrano ham risotto de coquillettes (like tiny macaroni!) and duck breast with fig compote. Divine!
- Île de Ré: the little island off the west coast has beautiful beaches to explore
- Aquarium de la Rochelle
- Tour Saint-Nicolas
DRIVE WITH HERTZ
Not only are Hertz one of Europe’s most reputable car rental companies, they also value younger drivers. My experience with them was smooth from start to finish and the ability to explore a new region of one of my favourite companies on four wheels was unforgettable for many reasons. Most under 25’s don’t think to hire a car because of the strict regulations and often unfavourable terms and conditions but the chance to discover gems off of the beaten track and away from stipulated public transport routes provides a whole new perspective on a country, not to mention the beautiful scenery en route.
This post is in association with Hertz Europe. All views and images are my own.