Driving around the Provence countryside can be a harrowing experience or a whole lot of fun. It can be expensive or really reasonable. Both pleasure and cost depend on how well you plan and how you approach each day.
That, in any case, is what my wife, Kathy, and I have found after three months of poking around in search of slow lane adventures in the region.
After renting cars several times, for anywhere from three to seven days, we're getting a sense of both how to pace ourselves and plan in ways that also stretch our dollars. Here's what we'd suggest to make the most of your stay:
1) If you're renting a car, book as far ahead as possible
We have found that Orbitz gives us the most flexibility and best prices. But that's only when we book early. The cost differences between renting a week ahead or a day or two ahead are sometimes staggering. And since Orbitz demands no deposit at the time of booking, there's no disincentive for booking early.
How big are the cost differences? On March 31, I used Orbitz to book a mini Europcar in Aix-en-Provence starting a week later, on April 7. The cost, for a three-day rental, was a mere $21 a day, the best deal I could find. In mid-travel, Europcar allowed me to extend for a fourth day for only slightly more than the initial daily rate. But had I waited and rented the same car two days before our planned travel, we would have had to pay more than twice as much each day. And had I rented the same day? I checked Orbitz on Monday, April 7, to see what a one-day, same-day rental of a mini would cost. The answer: $83, just slightly less than we paid for four.
2) Rent small
We're finding that we love renting minis, particularly the Fiat 500. There's good reason. As Kathy, our family map nut, said as we zigzagged up and away from the Mediterranean village of Cassis, "You need to be on one white road a day -- it will keep you alert."
But I'd also like to stay alive. That's where the minis come in. These white roads are the smallest of three types that crisscross Michelin's 45 yellow French Departements maps. Usually they have no center line. Often they have no shoulder. Sometimes, a ditch runs alongside. And from time-to-time, they narrow to a single-lane wide. Minis are small enough to maneuver the back roads without fear -- no, make that with less fear -- of oncoming traffic.
They also, of course, cost less.
3) Know what insurance your credit card provides
Rental car companies charge a lot for insurance. Had I gotten insurance through Europcar, I would have had to pay about $17.20 a day. Even Orbitz's partner, Allianz Global Assistance, charges $9 a day. But many U.S. credit card companies provide complete coverage as long as you reject the insurance offered by the carrier. Be sure to check before you leave home. There are a lot of banged up cars on the road in France, so you don't want to just wing it.
4) Don't rent at airports
Airport rentals invariably cost more. The rates at Aix's high-speed train (TGV) station outside of town also are higher than the rates at car rental agencies inside the city.
5) Buy good maps
Really seeing Provence always involves more than getting from one place to another. A GPS system can find you the most direct route, but it won't necessarily take you on the most interesting. For that you'll need Michelin's yellow Departements map, which cost a bit more than $6 each. The Michelin maps mark scenic routes in green. They also let you plan your own journey.
"This is what I don't get about a GPS; it doesn't let you make mistakes and find your own way," Kathy said today after what we thought was a wrong turn onto D232 turned into a beautiful drive across a Luberon Mountain plateau between Saignon and Buoux.
Back roads travel always involves a bit of serendipity. On Monday, we decided to take a different white road, the D15, over the Valensole Plateau as a detour on our route to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, a village in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence that is known for its artisan pottery, or "faïence" ceramics. In summer, the Valensole Plateau is awash in the sweet smell and brilliant colors of lavender. What we didn't know is that in April, fields of yellow colza, used to make canola oil, stretch for hundreds of acres, with the still snow-covered Alps beyond in the distance. Not every back-roads route proves this compelling. But Michelin maps can help you find good bets.
6) Leave twice as much time as you'd anticipate
Driving France's swift and expensive toll-roads, it's easy to cover 70 miles in an hour.
But driving that same distance through the Luberon Mountains or the back roads of the Camargue or Alpilles likely will take three times as long. The best way to enjoy Provence more is to schedule less. It is better to plan on visiting two or three villages or one and an abbey, for example, then to map a route that makes you feel as if you're on a forced march.
7) Carry bread, cheese and water whenever you take back roads
Especially in the winter and spring, the smaller villages of Provence shut down for lunch from noon to 2 or 3. Often, it's impossible to get a meal between lunch and dinner, which starts at about 7. We've learned the hard way that it is no fun to be hungry. There's a simple solution. Pack a chunk of cheese and a baguette before you leave. This also allows you to picnic whenever you come upon a beautiful spot.
8) Don't leave anything in your car
Provence is a pretty safe place. But that doesn't mean in these tough economic times that you should trust your luck. It's best to leave nothing in sight when you leave your car, even if you're in a parking lot.
9) Watch for speed bumps -- and speedy drivers
French drivers sometimes seem as if they've watched too many race-car movies. They tailgate. They pass on curves. They drive too fast. Villages have responded by installing speed bumps. Be careful. Even if you hit one of these at 30 miles an hour, it will give you a good jolt. As for dealing with those race car drivers, I've learned to drive with two hands and both eyes at all times on smaller roads. And I'll pull off to let a tailgater past. It makes for a much nicer day.
10) Avoid the toll roads -- except when you get tired.
I'm not a fan of the French péages (toll roads). They're fast but not terribly scenic. And boy can they get expensive. But on occasion, if you've miscalculated distances or how much you can pack into a single day, the toll roads provide a lifeline. That was the case earlier this week when, after six hours of winding above the white-knuckle Gorges du Verdon and across several really narrow white roads, we realized we still were only about halfway back to Aix. Rather than arriving at dusk, exhausted, we changed our route and headed for the nearest toll road. It was an expensive decision (the toll for perhaps 75 minutes drive was nearly $14), but a wise one.
Lesson: Be prepared to cut your losses if you've planned too much. That's when the pay roads really come in handy.
11) Carry lose change and small bills
The toll roads don't take bills larger than 20 euros. They do not take American credit cards.
12) At the tolls, look for the white T signs and green arrows. And be sure you are in a line for a booth that takes cash.
Once again, the tolls roads do not accept U.S. credit cards. What's more they are not manned.
So if you get in the wrong line, you'll have to wait awhile until a not very happy officials comes your way to make change. This has happened to us not once, but twice. Be forewarned.