The fourth road trip I took across France has to be my favorite so far because of the stunning scenery and incredible cities and sites that it took me through. This is also the one where I set up a dashcam to record large segments of the trip and edited the segments into an awesome video montage of the journey set to some good techno music. But be sure to read all about the journey in addition to watching the video, if you haven’t already, so that you know what it is you’re seeing along the way.
So Toulouse to Nice…
The Capitole, or City Hall, and La Place Capitole in Toulouse.
NOTE: This is part 5 in a multi-part series on road tripping in France. Be sure to check out the other parts detailing other French road trips linked below. And definitely don’t miss the awesome dashboard video montage I compiled of me road tripping across the French countryside, linked below here and also following each article in this series.
I always say that I’ve left places unseen, intentionally or unintentionally, on previous road trips and, therefore, have to go back through those areas again in the future to check them out. But this is one journey where I would seriously love to go visit the same places again and again. This ride was so beautiful and the cities along the route so charming that I can’t wait to go back and spend more time there. And Avis hooked me up with a sweeeeeet BMW for the journey too, which was super cheap (as in around a hundred bucks) even as a one-way rental.
This road trip started out again in Toulouse as I finished up visiting my good friend who is living there for a while for work. I had never thought about visiting Toulouse before because my impression of it was that it was just a mediocre industrial city since Airbus is based there. But boy was I wrong. It’s a charming medium-sized French city, and I have definitely enjoyed the times I’ve spent there now with my friend.
After saying goodbye to Tina, I loaded up the BMW, turned on the GPS, and started heading east. Almost immediately after getting out of the city, the Pyrenees Mountains appears on the horizon to the south. They remained a gorgeous backdrop off in the distance for most of my journey due east, until the route started turning a little northward and they receded from sight.
The southern French countryside was especially Picturesque with the snow-capped Pyrenees Mountains visible in the distance.
The immediate picturesque scenery prompted me to try to take some video while driving, which became a bit difficult once I got off the highway and onto the smaller and narrower country roads with oncoming traffic. This gave me the idea to try to find an electronics store so I could buy a dashboard mount for my iPhone. So that I did. Thanks to the iPhone, GPS, and Google Maps, I was able to pull up a few stores in the next decent sized city in front of me, so I took a little detour in pursuit of capturing and sharing this road trip experience across the south of France.
I had to bounce around to a few stores in order to find a place that carried the right type of equipment, but eventually I found one and got a dashboard iPhone mount for about 20 euros. At first, the footage was shaky, but I eventually figured out that if I also tied it to the rearview mirror with the charging cord, the image would stabilize enough to get some decent footage of the ride. Kind of ghetto-fabulous, huh? Damn right. I do what it takes to make stuff happen!
So once my homemade dashcam was rigged up, I was off. Next stop, Carcassonne. I honestly didn’t plan to really spend much time in Carcassonne, but it was on the way across the south of France so I had to drive through it. My friend Tina had recently visited there and said she loved it, but I didn’t really take note of that until I arrived. I was more interested in the cute little random villages I got to drive through en route there since I was intentionally driving off the major highway.
Those villages were certainly quaint and cute and all, but oh boy was I ever not prepared for how incredible Carcassonne was going to be! I had seen on the map that there was some kind of fortress in the city center, so I navigated my way there and BAM. This thing was huge and beautiful, and everything you would imagine some kind of medieval movie set to be. Except it was real, and it was stunning.
Panorama of the expansive Fortress of Carcassonne.
I knew I hadn’t allotted myself enough time to actually go inside and explore this ginormous fortress and make the entry fee worth it, so I had to suffice with driving around it up close and then driving a little farther away to see its full grandeur. Needless to say, I’ll be back to Carcassonne before too long to spend more time there and explore the fortress (anyone want to join?). But alas on this day I had to move on and continue my journey.
This particular road trip was a 24-hour event, by the way, because I had a flight to catch out of Nice the following day. So unlike the 5-day Paris to Monaco road trip the previous year, this one covered about 360 miles (580 kilometers) all in one VERY long day plus one extra morning.
Back on the road, I spent a couple more hours meandering through the countryside on small, tree-lined, two-lane roads past farmland and vineyards and through villages and hamlets. Once I arrived at the coast, it was time to start heading northeast along the famous French Riviera. I had never been south of Cannes on the French Riviera, so I was excited to see what the rest of it looked like on this road trip. I was particularly excited to finally get to see St. Tropez, which I’ve always heard is much more of an elite and exclusive French Riviera getaway than Cannes.
I came upon the ocean in the small coastal town of Agde, which isn’t too far south of the city of Montpellier. The small coastal road going northward from Agde turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, not only with the unspectacular view but it was also quite congested and slowed me down quite a bit. I had planned to get to St. Tropez by late afternoon and have time to walk around it, have a nice outdoor dinner, and sip wine overlooking the beach, but all the time I wasted on the beach road around Agde and Sete really put my St. Tropez chill fest in jeopardy.
Montpellier and Marseille were the next two major cities along the route, Montpellier being the first. Between these two, I had heard more about Marseille and assumed there would be more to see there. I had not heard much about Montpellier and thought I could check it out with a quick detour through the city center. But when I got into the city center, I discovered there was a lot more to Montpellier than I had realized or assumed.
Following traffic towards the city center first led me to find the well preserved double-arched aqueduct, which supplied fresh water for drinking and for the city’s decorative fountains. Just going with the flow of the one-way streets and trying not to piss off too many other drivers, I eventually made my way around a huge wall that turned out to be part of the Promenade du Peyrou, which is an enormous historic plaza featuring not one but two ginormous commemorative arches (an Arc de Triomphe and the Peyrou Gate), an imposing statue of King Louis XIV on horseback, and a water tower so fancy they call it a “water chateau,” which probably holds only Evian.
The aqueduct, Arc du Triomphe, and Place de Peyrou in Montpellier.
Strolling along this expansive promenade would make for quite a lovely afternoon, especially since its prime elevation offers sweeping vistas of the whole city and region. In character with the rushed nature of my dwindling day, however, I had to be content with driving in circles a few times around the crazy traffic patterns running through this area, then head on out of the city.
Speaking of dwindling daylight hours, as I left I had to make the difficult decision to just skip Marseille and head straight for Saint Tropez. If I had to pick between the two, and I did, I’d prefer to see St. Tropez. Besides, I knew that Marseilles was a big enough French city that I’d likely return for some reason or another anyway. So on to St. Tropez I drove… and drove… and drove.
Saint Tropez is only about a two-hour drive from Marseilles, or so says Google Maps, but what Google Maps won’t tell you is that the approach to the area from the southwest is particularly harrowing, especially at night. I’m talking roads winding across steep cliffs and dark forested mountains and hairpin turns for nearly 45 minutes before you get to the coastal area. Next time, despite the extra time required, I would solidly recommend driving past Saint Tropez and doubling back from the northeast approach. That route is relatively flat and routine, unlike the nighttime drive of terror that Google Maps told me was the “best” route to paradise.
Speaking of paradise, it seemed quite lost on Saint Tropez when I finally arrived that night. Granted, it was around 11pm on a weeknight, but I had always envisioned Saint Tropez as kind of like a much more sophisticated South Beach or Las Vegas and always abuzz. I found it sleepy and empty with very little there to imagine even being appealing in the daytime. However, I am fully prepared to admit that this impression was highly likely due to bad timing and I will happily give Saint Tropez another try or three in conjunction with better planning. So take my advice not to take my advice on Saint Tropez, at least not yet. We shall see what charm it truly has in store on a future trip.
Since Saint Tropez was a little too sleepy and dead when I walked around, I opted not to bother spending the night in it and instead drove across the inlet to Saint Maxime and found a hotel to crash in. This not only put me a little more in the direction I’d have to continue on, but it also gave me a great view across the Golfe de Saint Tropez to the town of Saint Tropez the next morning. I skedaddled out of Saint Maxime pretty early, though, because I had a flight out of Nice later that afternoon and I still had the best part of the French Riviera left to cover. So off I went from Saint Maxime toward the Riviera coastal towns of Frejus, Saint Raphael, Le Dramont, Theoule sur Mer, Mandelieu la Napoule, and finally my beloved Cannes and Antibes.
Sunrise over Saint Tropez across the bay, as seen from Saint Maxime.
This stretch of the French Riveria was an absolute dream to drive. Unlike the coastal areas south of Montpellier, the scenery from Saint Tropez to Cannes was gorgeous. The landscape varied from rolling hills to craggy cliffs all dotted with villas and villages along the way. The view of the ocean from this high road is one of deep azure as far as the eye can see. Flower-draped stone walls often go on for miles and the many twists and turns on cliff’s edge create a sense of excitement and anticipation about what vista will be around the next turn.
Between Frejus and Cannes must live the healthiest and fittest rich people on the planet because I passed no fewer than one hundred cyclists peddling away up, down, and around the windy road. With a sheer drop-off on one side, speedy oncoming cars on the other, and hard core cyclists all around, it was a little hard to put the pedal to the metal like I really wanted and enjoy the smooth control of my beamer on those hairpin turns. But alas, slowing down and enjoying the view was a nice consolation prize in this gorgeous stretch of French Riviera sereneness.
The approach into Cannes from the south leaves a little to be desired since the buildings in that area look a little dated and run down. But once you round the corner into the marina, you’re really in Cannes and it actually starts to look and feel like it. After passing about a half-trillion euros worth of docked yachts, the magnifique Hotel d’Ville comes into view as you round another corner in the opposite direction and head toward the Croisette. More yachts and sails waive you onward as you approach the Palais des Festivals, site of many a ceremony, awards presentation, and screening during Cannes’ frequent festivals throughout the year, the most famous of which is the annual Cannes International Film Festival each May.
Barely a taste of all the yachts and luxurious sailboats docked in the two marinas of Cannes.
I love coming to Cannes during film festival time, by the way. Even if you can’t score a ticket to an official screening, the festival hosts nightly public screenings of classic movies on a giant screen erected on the beach and you can still bar and club hop with celebrities and other festival-goers all over the little town. It’s quite fun and quite fabulous to be in Cannes during this time, especially during the last few days of the festival when news coverage is heating up over which film will win the coveted Palm d’Or.
But this road trip was later in the summer, not May when Cannes is as its peak of glamor. And since I was driving the remaining stretch of my route in the early morning, it was even quite dead. Street cleaning trucks were humming about, a few locals were walking dogs or jogging, vendors were getting set up for the day’s work, and delivery trucks were making their rounds. It wasn’t the regular Cannes social scene I was used to, especially since I’m never up by mid-morning when I’m actually staying there, but it was pleasant and refreshing nonetheless. It’s Cannes – how can it not be?
The Croisette, Cannes’ famous half-moon shaped beach and seaside promenade, flashed by me as I necessarily kept driving through the town. But I knew I’d be back to Cannes. And further up the road awaited more scenic eye candy, first in the form of Antibes. Antibes is a beautiful village just slightly up the coast northeast of Cannes. Antibes is where many who visit Cannes go to get away from the hustle and bustle that can fill Cannes during major international events. Antibes is less commercial, less touristic, and much more French. It’s also smaller and more quaint, which makes it a great romantic getaway. Antibes still has some major venues that tend to host elite parties, receptions, and soirées during major event weeks and weekends in Cannes.
After reminiscing with Antibes, I hit the road again to set out for my final destination on this road trip, Nice, or more specifically the Nice airport. I’ve covered the drive north through Nice and toward Monaco in a previous installment of this series, and that’s an incredibly beautiful drive too, especially the northern part of Nice along the soaring cliffs that let you look back over the city. But alas this road trip met its fin at l’aeroporte de Cote d’Azur de Nice, where I turned my rental car back into Avis, checked in for my flight, and said au revoir to France and yet another wonderful road trip experience she delivered to me.
To round this one out, as promised, I compiled some of the best clips from this road trip from Toulouse to Nice across southern France and the French Riveria and set it to some cool music to try to convey the awesomeness of the experience. I hope you enjoy the short video, and I really hope you’ll let me know what you think of this entire series on road tripping in France.