By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
A trip to southern France lets visitors marvel at brilliant works created by man and nature, from the glorious Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard, to the spiky pinnacles of the beach town Cassis.
Pont du Gard
The Pont du Gard, a 50-minute bus ride from Avignon, is one of Europe’s blockbuster sights. Throughout the ancient world, aqueducts were like flags of stone that heralded the greatness of Rome. A visit to this sight still works to proclaim the wonders of that age. This perfectly preserved Roman aqueduct was built as the critical link of a 30-mile canal that, by dropping one inch for every 350 feet, supplied nine million gallons of water per day (about 100 gallons per second) to Nîmes — one of ancient Europe’s largest cities. Though most of the aqueduct is on or below the ground, at the Pont du Gard it spans a canyon on a massive bridge — one of the most remarkable surviving Roman ruins anywhere, second in height only to the Colosseum.
There are two riversides to the Pont du Gard: the left bank (rive gauche) and right bank (rive droite). Park on the Rive Gauche, where you’ll find the museums, ticket booth, ATM, cafeteria, WCs, and shops — all built into a modern plaza. You’ll see the aqueduct in two parts: first, the fine museum complex, then the actual river gorge spanned by the ancient bridge. The state-of-the-art museum’s multimedia approach (well-presented in English) shows how water was an essential part of the Roman “art of living.” You’ll see examples of lead pipes, faucets, and siphons; walk through a rock quarry; and learn how they moved those huge rocks into place and how those massive arches were made. While actual artifacts from the aqueduct are few, the exhibit shows the immensity of the undertaking as well as the payoff. Imagine the excitement as this extravagant supply of water finally tumbled into Nîmes. A relaxing highlight is the scenic video helicopter ride along the entire 30-mile course of the structure, from its start at Uzès all the way to Nîmes.
While it’s free to see the aqueduct, the various optional activities each have a cost: parking, museum, corny film, and a kids’ space called Ludo (scratch-and-sniff experience in English of various aspects of Roman life and the importance of water). The extensive outdoor garrigue natural area, featuring historic crops and landscapes of the Mediterranean, is free (though a few euros will buy you a helpful English booklet). All these attractions are designed to give the sight more meaning — and they do — but for most visitors, only the museum is worth paying for. The combo-ticket — which covers all sights and parking — is a no-brainer for drivers, and the best bet for most visitors. Families save even more money with the family ticket (covers two parents and up to four kids). If you get a combo-ticket, check the movie schedule; the romancing-the-aqueduct 25-minute film is silly, but it offers good information in a flirtatious French-Mediterranean style...and a cool, entertaining, and cushy break.
Crouching in awe of impossibly high cliffs, Cassis (kah-see) is an unpretentious port town that offers travelers a sunny time-out from their busy vacation. Two hours away from the fray of the Côte d’Azur, Cassis is a poor man’s St-Tropez. Outdoor cafés line the small port on three sides, where boaters clean their crafts as they chat up café clients. Cassis is popular with the French and close enough to Marseille to be busy on weekends and all summer. Come to Cassis to dine portside, swim in the glimmering-clear water, and explore its rocky calanquesand fjord-like inlets.
Calanques (kah-lahnk) are the narrow inlets created by the prickly extensions of cliffs that border the shore. Until you see the intimate beaches and exotic fjords of translucent blue water, it’s hard to understand what all the excitement is about. You can hike, or cruise by boat or kayak, to many calanques, all of which are located along the 13 miles of coast between Cassis and Marseille. Bring water, sunscreen, and anything else you need for the day, as there’s nary a baguette for sale. Don’t dawdle — to limit crowds, the most popular calanques can be closed by 11:00 in high season (July–mid-Sept) and on weekends. When they are “closed,” the only way to see the calanques is by boat or kayak. The TI can give you plenty of advice about enjoying the calanques. Besides exploring the calanques, plenty of other activities abound, from lounging on the rocky beaches to scuba diving and sea kayaking.
Above Cassis — La Route des Crêtes: If you have a car, or are willing to spring for a taxi, you must take this remarkable drive. Ride straight up to the top of Cap Canaille and toward the next town, La Ciotat. It’s a twisty road, providing access to numbingly high views over Cassis and the Mediterranean at every turn. This road is occasionally closed (because of strong winds or road repair), though you can usually get partway up (check at the tourist information office before renting a car for this).