1. Millau Viaduct, southern France
Taller than the Eiffel Tower, Millau Viaduct is the world’s highest bridge. As well as being an engineering masterpiece, it also looks like a work of art – typical of the French. It opened in 2004 and was built across the Tarn valley to alleviate holiday traffic between France and Spain. The bridge is 2460 metres long and is found on the A75-A71 autoroute axis from Paris to Montpellier.
2. Back Roads of Province
The full 224-mile (360-kilometer) loop described above begins in Avignon, heads east through the villages of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Roussillon, and Moustiers-Ste-Marie, then circles back west through Les Baux-de-Provence to Avignon again.
Just about every village in Provence boasts its own workshops and boutiques dedicated to the local specialty, so a leisurely four-day drive through southern France offers the ultimate souvenir crawl as the two-lane rural back roads wind past olive groves, cherry orchards, vineyards, and the stony medieval hilltop towns.
Start the Provençal version of a grand tour in Avignon. The Popes’ Palace is where the Roman popes temporarily decamped in the 14th century and is now a maze of elegantly unadorned chapels and banqueting halls with a basement wine cellar and sommelier.
From Avignon head 16 miles (25 kilometers) southeast on the N7 (then switching to the D907, the D900, and the D938) to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for another lesson in regional taste for the hectic Sunday market. La Maison Biehn has brightly colored Provençal textiles, hand-blocked printed cotton called ‘les Indiennes’ because they came from India through the port of Marseille, as early as the 16th century.
Continue heading east another 18 miles (28 kilometers) (take the D901 to the D900, then turn left on D149) to the hill town of Roussillon, a rose-colored beauty spot framed by red-ocher cliffs. Then prepare for the most dramatic drive, a 65-mile (104-kilometer) version of a carnival ride (follow the D900 through Apt, then switch to the N100, right on D907, right to D4, left on D82, and the remaining way on the D952) that leads you along narrow, corkscrew mountain roads, past the valleys and bluffs of the Alpes de Haute-Provence region, until you reach Moustiers-Ste-Marie. The village perches precariously on its cliffside and is known for its fragile craft—the vividly colored, glazed ceramic called faïence.
La Bastide de Moustiers, a gourmet inn opened by global top chef Alain Ducasse is a stone country house framed by olive groves. Head back west, 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Avignon, to Les Baux-de-Provence (the 97-mile/156-kilometer route—the most direct—follows D952 west to E712, then E80 to N569, D113, D5, D17, and D27). Another vertical village, Les Baux-de-Provence, climbs up to the ville morte (the dead town), a former village from whose spectral fortress ruins the medieval lords of Baux once dominated more than 80 Provençal towns.
Don’t stop there though, before your 22-mile (35-kilometer) drive back north to Avignon (taking the D27 to the D78F, the D17, the D33A, the D33, the D32, the D570N, and finally the N570). The best Les Baux landmark may be the Santons D’Arts producing another local specialty, Santons, the terra-cotta, hand-painted miniature figurines that depict regional society, are made everywhere in Provence
Spring, summer, and fall are all delightful times to visit Provence.
A Joan of Arc inspired drive through northeast France traces the route of her extraordinary early triumphs and through what is now Champagne country.
This pilgrimage starts with a two and a half hours’ drive from Reims, a short train ride from Paris. Verdant pasturelands, forested hillsides, and meandering rivers lead to Domrémy-la-Pucelle, the 150-person hamlet where Joan’s childhood home still stands, the daughter of a farmer. At the age of 13, Joan began hearing celestial voices that would later instruct her to drive the British out of her homeland. The Church of St. Rémy, where she was baptized, is a few steps from the farmhouse.
And so, at 17, driven by her divine mission, Joan left home, ultimately traveling more than 400 miles to the Loire Valley to meet with Charles VII. After convincing him of her purity, Joan (clad in male attire) led an attack on the British troops in Orléans to a pivotal victory that was followed by a string of successes, including the taking of Troyes, the ancient capital of Champagne.
Continue your mission on a two-hour drive west to Troyes, a Roman trading hub on the Via Agrippa connecting Milan, Italy, to Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. Today Troyes remaining a center of French knitwear. Tennis champion René “the Crocodile” Lacoste founded his sportswear empire here in 1933. Visit flowered squares, courtyards, and cobbled alleyways, such as the Ruelle des Chats, over which the buildings lean gently toward each other. Other sites include the Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière and the Musée d’Art Moderne.
After taking Troyes, Joan marched straight to Reims, but a slight detour northwest celebrates another symbol of French heritage: sparkling wine. The road traverses peaceful Champagne-Ardenne countryside—vine-latticed fields, flourishing crops, and the sinuous Seine glinting in the distance. At Sézanne, the Côte des Blancs Champagne trail flows north to Épernay. Moët et Chandon, founded in 1743 is Épernay’s oldest and largest Champagne house along with eight other Champagneries on the Avenue de Champagne.
The drive’s next and final stop is the glorious city of Reims. You could spend days exploring Reims’s riches. The Palais du Tau, located next to the grand Cathedral (together a UNESCO World Heritage site) has many gilded treasures. Any Joan of Arc odyssey should culminate in the magnificent 801-year-old cathedral. Here on July 17, 1429, was crowned King Charles VII, with Joan at his side.