If I were to say that we have travelled the long road from East to West, touching two mighty seas, many would think I was talking about the USA’s Route 66. In fact , our latest travels have taken my husband, Bob and I from Marseille, on the Mediterranean Sea, to Bordeaux, seated on the inlet to the Atlantic Ocean.
A straight route is nigh impossible but the joy of finding villages, towns, and cities on the way is immeasurable. As many readers might be thinking of Marseille for a long weekend, I have shared some of our experiences around France’s second city.
We landed at Marseille Airport, one evening, just before Christmas 2019 and picked up a hire car within minutes. This led us to believe that we would be happily ensconced in our hotel in Marseille in no time. Mais No! The traffic to rival London at rush hour was awaiting us! Sitting on what resembled spaghetti junction for nearly an hour led us to wonder what trials and tribulations would affect a family with young children endeavouring to complete these few kilometres in the middle of summer.
Marseille proved an enigma to us, we tried hard to find its heart. We stayed in the Juliette neighbourhood near the gentrified Docks Village, which appeared eminently safe, however, even a three-minute car journey encountering the slum area of Marseille, proved very uncomfortable at night. Even though we pride ourselves as being hardy travellers we were glad to be back in the confines of our hotel by early evening, thankful that we were fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to stay in an hotel when many do not have the luxury of a bed for the night.
Driving east from our hotel to the Vielle Port was a completely different vibe, with bright lights, a big wheel and lots of bars and restaurants offering a whole range of tempting fare. Obviously, many were seafood restaurants where catches of the day were soon resplendent on huge tiered plates. We visited La Caravelle on the Quai du Port , where we were fortunate to bag two seats and a table, on what must be the most coveted spot in town – namely a tiny balcony leading out from a small dining room resplendent with piano in readiness for the Jazz nights that are often held here.
Perhaps this was the heart of this huge Mediterranean city, or perhaps the graffiti streets of Panier district – behind City Hall – certainly I believed this area was nearer to be so. It’s no Montmartre but it’s definitely cool, with its bohemian boltholes and boutique bistros, art shops, antique shops, tiny museums, the La Vielle Charite – a former alms-house now a museum – a poetry centre, and of course a provider of the sound of Jazz!
Perhaps the entrance to the Vielle Port the Pharo, area of the city was the heart? Here we found the Mucem billed as ‘Marseille’s Must-See Museum’. It is certainly a huge site with a whole host of exhibitions encompassing fine arts, anthropology, history, archaeology and contempory art. The Mucem is linked to the Fort Saint-Jean by a soaring bridge offering breath-taking views. The area of Vielle Port is a huge area and certainly it would be difficult to cover it all in a day and certainly if you were a weekender and wanted to encounter a variety of other experiences.
After dark the 5-star Sofitel Hotel offers fabulous views over the port, but again if you choose to walk check your distances on the map! We decided to take a taxi to ensure we arrived in style and dressed appropriately in order to visit the hotel’s roof top bar and sip the contents of a delightful bottle of rose wine while we watched the sun slip away from Marseille. A word of advice, at sunset, the bar fills up quickly.
If you enjoy driving and exploring new places, then Marseille is a good base from which to discover other towns and cities. We chose to visit St Tropez, a two-hour drive away, where the sun shone brightly on the boats and yachts as they were gently buffeted in the winter wind in the harbour. No beauties were lounging on their decks and all tops were definitely on persons! It would have been lovely to have bumped into the ultimate screen goddess and resident of the area, Brigitte Bardot, however we were mollified when we saw a beautiful magazine display in a shop, the editorial obviously relaying details of her relentless work for our furry feline and canine friends. The harbour still offered a suntrap, enough for us to sit outside and enjoy the view. This was a completely different St Tropez than those heady days of summer, but the charm was still there and obviously others agreed as many of restaurants were full to bursting.
We chose Aix-en-Provence for our second sojourn from Marseille and were not disappointed. Aix- en-Provence, was known to the Romans as ‘Aquae Sextius’– after the thermal springs that flow through this sophisticated town. How fortunate are the students who study here, as the Aix-en- Provence University is one of the oldest in France and their presence adds a youthful facet to the town. It was easy to find the heart of Aix-en-Provence as there is a beautiful tree-lined boulevard, the Cours Mirabeau, where in the summer, the many beautiful fountains must add a touch of freshness for the many people sitting in the cafes and bars, their seats no doubt spilling out on to the wide pavement.
Many people flock to the town to follow ‘In the footsteps of Cezanne.’ There are various points from which one can start the journey, a pedestrian route marked by studs stamped with a “C” allows you to discover the landmarks of this artist’s early years. We started at Number 55, (Paul Cezanne’s father’s hat shop) the shop was closed when we visited, but we were told it is now a linen shop. Sadly, for us, Number 53 was closed too, hopefully for renovations, the building houses Café des Deux Garçons on the ground floor of the Gantès Hotel.
The venue is where Cezanne would meet with his artist friends. On 7 October 1906 Cezanne wrote to his son “Yesterday evening before dinner, from 4 to about 7pm, I was with Capdeville (the pharmacist), Niolon (the painter), Fernand Bouteille (president of the Bar), etc., at the Café des Deux Garçons.” Nearby is a tiny walkway ‘Agard’ which leads to the Old Quarter and here you will find many shops selling the ‘colissons’ which are yellow candied sweets made with almonds and fruit and topped with a layer of icing.
We returned to Marseille and promised ourselves that someday, we would be back for a longer visit to Aix-en-Provence. We would complete the Cezanne trail and would sample some of the produce and browse the antiques and clothes that Aix Market has to offer. We would also stroll the Quartier Mazarin-where in the 17th-18th century the town’s nobility lived in gorgeous town houses, each one more ornate than the last. Cezanne was not the only artist to adore this area, in fact Picasso’s former home and his burial place, Chateau de Vauvenargues, is only around 10 miles away, on the northern slopes of Mont Sainte Victoire. We would like to experience this mountain’s magic that so captured Cezanne that he is said to have painted its changing hues in over 60 different paintings.
Our last morning in Marseille provided an enduring memory for us. We drove up to the of Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica – resplendent in its brown and white striped stone, complete with Madonna spire. The Basilica sits on a cliff top, and, unless you are very fit it is not a hill to be taken lightly! There is a tourist Petit Train available to convey you to experience the beauty of the city’s best-known symbol and of the panorama below.
We visited on Christmas Day, the sun shone, the Christmas hymns sung by the choir filled the air…. perhaps this was the heart of Marseille after all.