Roman ruins, bars and bull-fights

Southern France has become a whole lot smaller thanks to the fantastic TGV.

Southern France has become a whole lot smaller thanks to the fantastic TGV.

Marseille

Bohemian Marseille, with its melting pot of cultures, is a bit like Paris was 20 years ago. Check out the reclaimed docklands, enjoy the vibrant nightlife, hang out with the café society and pay homage to "the Good Mother" at Notre-Dame de la Garde. After soaking up some rays on the beautiful Plage du Prado, take a boat trip to Chateau d'If, the setting of The Count of Monte Cristo. Refuel with a big bowl of bouillabaisse, Marseille's tasty signature dish.

By car: take the A7 south and follow signs; journey time one hour. By train: frequent fast service from Avignon TGV; journey time 30 minutes.

Montpellier

Montpellier's huge student population brings the average age of city residents down to 25, so expect a city with a lively bar and club scene. Hotspots come and go, so grab a copy of the free weekly listings rag, Le Sortir, and check out what's current. Old favourites include L'Abbaye and Café de la Mer, the main gay venue.

By car: take the N100, followed by the A9 west; journey time one hour. By train: frequent service from Avignon Centre: journey time one hour.

Aix-en-Provence

Know simply as "X", this quintessential market town (take your pick from fruit, flowers, veg and flea) is also home to plenty of festivals from the Tambourine Festival in April through to the Jazz Festival in July. It has masses of museums to visit and great historic sights to see, including the Gothic Cathédrale St-Sauveur. Famous Aixois include Cézanne and Zola and you can follow the well-marked Cézanne Trail to see where Aix's celebrated son worked and played.

By car: take the A7 south, followed by the A8; journey time 45 minutes. By train: frequent service from Avignon TGV; journey time 20 minutes.

Arles

As seen on many a van Gogh canvas, Arles, at the edge of the Carmargue with the grand Rhône river running through it, is awash with some fine Roman ruins. At the centre is Les Arènes, which started life as a Roman amphitheatre in the first century and today draws capacity crowds of 12,000 who flock to witness traditional and Carmargue-style bullfights (the latter without a bloody ending.)

By car: take the N570 south; journey time 30 minutes. By train: frequent service from Avignon TGV; journey time 20 minutes.

Nîmes

Nîmes is mostly known for its multitude of Roman ruins and for first producing serge de Nîmes, aka denim, back in the 18th century. At its heart is Les Arènes, famous big brother of the Arles amphitheatre, with a capacity of 24,000 and a removable roof, making it a year-round venue, hosting everything from bullfights to plays. Other top sights include the Square House dating from the fifth century and the Fountain Gardens.

By car: take the N100, followed by the A9 west; journey time 40 minutes. By train: frequent service from Avignon TGV; journey time approx 15 minutes.

Orange

More Roman remains, including another theatre – although this one holds only 10,000 spectators – and a triumphal arch, are best seen from the peak of the adjacent St-Eutrope Hill. Feeling lazy? Jump aboard the Orangeois tourist train on its hour-long tour of the major sights.

By car: take the A7 north; journey time 30 minutes. By train: frequent service from Avignon Centre; journey time 15 minutes.

French Travel Service (0870 241 4243; www.frenchtravelservice.co.uk) offers a three-night b&b break in Avignon from £245 per person, including return rail travel by Eurostar and TGV. Europcar (0870 607 5000; www.europcar.com) offers weekend car hire in Avignon from £100.40.

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