Colourful, cosmopolitan Marseille, France’s second city, oldest port and home of fish soup and fine soap, has not been known for tourism in the past.
It’s a down-to-earth place and certainly, like other large cities, there are no-go areas. But do a little homework first and Marseille will reward you with riches.
The city has had a turbulent history surviving plagues and revolution - religious, royalist and republican.
The nation’s anthem - La Marseillaise - was rechristened by revolutionaries from Marseille marching from the Rhine to Paris in the eighteenth century and the city has been used as a backdrop since the silent movies of the 1920s. Film buffs can have fun spotting locations from 1970s classic ‘French Connection’, comedy with Gerard Depardieu and ‘Love Actually’.
Central, busy La Canebiere leads down to the port. Shop on streets to the south like rue St-Ferreol and rue de Rome. Visit Musee Cantini nearby with art by Picasso, Matisse, Le Courbusier and many more.
Marseille has so many fine galleries and museums, like the ceramics Musee de la Faience in Chateau Pastre, it’s worth buying a city pass from the Tourist Office giving free admission plus bus and metro travel. Also included are the ‘Grand Tour’ by open-topped bus with English commentary and entry to Chateau d’If of Count of Monte Cristo legend.
Visit the cathedral and watch fishermen unload the morning’s catch at the old port, then climb or take the tourist train to Notre Dame de la Garde for breathtaking views over the town and sea. Marseille has several sandy beaches particularly Plage du Prado.
For atmosphere, nothing can beat the city’s old quarters; ancient ‘villages’ of steeply twisting lanes, little shops, amazing architecture and full of fascinating stories. Follow the trail of artists Cezanne and Braque in L’Estaque. A red line painted on pavements of Le Panier guides you through the maze of lanes without missing a gem. Stop for a pizza or buy orange navettes biscuits and wonderful savon de Marseille soap made from 72% pure olive oil on the rue Caisserie.
Marseille has all the nightlife you’d expect in the big city. Why not make your way back to the 1930s for an aperitif in the iconic Bar de la Marine in the Vieux Port, famously featured in the films of playwright Marcel Pagnol who was born in Aubagne.
The picture-perfect resort of Cassis, 20km east of Marseille, nestles below steep white cliffs including Cap Canaille, Europe’s highest sea cliff at 395m .
Take a stroll around the quayside below the town’s fourteenth century fortified castle and choose from Cassis’s many cafes and restaurants. Enjoy a pate of fruits de mer as you look across the beautiful bay. Traditional fishing boats bob in the harbour alongside visitors’ yachts and motor boats.
Take a boat trip along the ‘calanques’. These enchanting mini fjords cut into the limestone cliffs stretching east have tiny beaches and offer fantastic opportunities to swim in crystal clear water. Swimming and sunbathing are favourite pastimes today in this one-time fishing village backed by vineyards. Experience for yourself the colour and light which made this little gem such a favourite with artists such as Matisse, Dufy and Derain.
This elegant city has a fascinating medieval quarter, a magnificent Cathedral (if on a guided tour, ask to see the beautiful carved main doors, normally covered) and superb seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings and fountains, especially along the Cours Mirabeau.
Paul Cezanne was born in Aix in 1839 and you can visit his studio. His contemporary, Zola, was brought to live in Aix, at the age of 3 years, in 1840.
Aix is known for its plaster figurines, ‘santons,’ for its almond-paste sweets, ‘calissons’ and for its excellent shops and markets.
The River Rhone splits into 2 at Arles. Its geography attracted the Romans and their legacy is very much in evidence, especially the beautifully preserved Arena. Built in 1BC, it seated 20,000 spectators. It is still in use today for Spanish and Camargue-style bull-fighting. In the latter, a rosette is tied to the bull’s forehead and the bull-fighter has 15 mins to grab it with a hook.
Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888 and painted some of his most famous works there, including ‘Sunflowers’.
Salon-de-Provence is one of the region’s oldest villages, found half way between Arles and Aix-en-Provence. Olive plantations fill the surrounding hillsides, and olive oil and the wonderful soap made with it, known as savon de Marseille, have been produced in this village of medieval buildings and pretty squares for centuries.
The museum of Salon and Crau tells of the region’s customs and traditions and a museum in Chateau de l’Emperi exhibits 3 centuries of military regalia. The Chateau dating back to the tenth century and once the residence of archbishops of Arles dominates old Salon. Look for the Fountaine Moussue in place Crousillat. Moss covered limestone deposits give it an amazing mushroom shape.
Salon-de-Provence was the final home of sixteenth century French physician, astrologer and prophet, Nostradamus, where he wrote his famous prophecies. Learn more of this enigmatic figure at his house, now a museum. A 4 day festival in summer celebrating life in Salon during the time of Nostradamus has become a great tourist attraction.
Set at the foot of Les Alpilles, the small market town of St-Remy-de-Provence makes an ideal centre for touring the area.
Folk traditions and festivals are important in St-Remy’s calendar and there’s plenty of information on folklore, crafts and festivals in Musee des Alpilles, place Favier. On Whit Monday, the Fete de Transhumance marks the moving of animals to high pastures for the summer with a parade of 2000 sheep and goats through the town. A similar parade at the end of September marks their return.
Other festivals take place in the summer months (see www.saintremy-de-provence.com for details). St Remy’s Wednesday morning market is the place to source Provencal products. Circled within the old town amongst fountains and shady boulevards are Renaissance facades and bourgoise town houses.
Michel de Nostredame, known as Nostradamus, the physician famous for his prophecies, was born on rue Hoche in 1503.
Walk in the gardens and cloisters of the hospital of St-Paul-de-Mausole where Vincent Van Gogh was cared for in 1889 and where he painted 2 of his most famous works – ‘Self-Portrait’ and ‘Starry Night’. Almost 30 years later, German Dr Albert Schweitzer spent an enforced ‘hospitalization’ in St-Remy during the later part of WWI. The Centre d’Art Presence Van Gogh in Hotel Estrine has Van Gogh exhibits and memorabilia.
Make time for a trip to the famous Gallo-Roman ruins at nearby Glanum. This important archeological site includes a Roman spa, mosaics, forum and theatre and is open daily April-Aug and Tues-Sun the rest of the year.
Ruins of the feudal fortress of Les Baux-de-Provence high on a limestone ridge of the Alpilles, seem to form part of the rocky landscape. This once spectacular citadel was the stronghold of the medieval Provencal lords of Baux - reputed to be descendants of Balthazar, the Magi King.
They ruled the region with terror although by the thirteenth century the court became a centre for chivalry. A demolition order by Cardinal Richelieu in 1632 in retribution for a Protestant uprising resulted in the ruins seen today.
The village below Baux’s fortress became deserted until the discovering of bauxite in the early nineteenth century. Local mines are now exhausted and it is the beautiful Renaissance village houses and picturesque ruins which now attract tourists.
Baux has museums of typography and art and the Musee des Santons in the town hall displays traditional clay figures used to decorate Provencal Christmas cribs.
Enter the Citadelle de la Ville Morte (open daily from 9am - 6pm) through the fourteenth century Tour du Brau with its own museum. Medieval catapults are placed amongst the ruins. Distant views stretch to the Camargue and Mediterranean and below lays the Val d’Enfer or Valley of Hell.
The valley is said to be the haunt of witches and to have inspired the poet Dante’s descriptions in his ‘Inferno’ seeing its eroded rocks and tortured cliffs. Visit the Cathedral of Images in Vale d’Efer old quarry workings for an amazing audio visual display. Open day 10am - 6pm.
Legend has it in 40 AD a number of Jesus’s followers including Mary Jacobe, Mary Salome, Mary Magdalene and Sara fled from Palestine by boat, landed and built a shrine at what is now translated as Saints Marys of the Sea.
Once a small fishing village of simple whitewashed houses close to the mouth of the Petit Rhone, Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer is now a popular summer resort. The church of Notre Dame de la Mer dominates this watery peninsula landscape. Begun in the ninth century it was enlarged and fortified in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries against pirates and invasion from the sea.
Look for its unique Camargue Cross representing an anchor, a cross and a heart. A shrine to Ste Sara, patron saint of gypsies, lies below the main nave. Gypsy (Roma) pilgrimages have been made to the village since medieval times and gypsies and visitors alike now flock to their colourful festivals which include processions to the sea honouring Sara and Mary Jacobe on 24 and 25 May and later in October for Mary Salome.
Ste-Maries hosts traditional Occitan dancing, guardian (Camargue cowboys) games and bull running on 26 May and there is more of the same in July. Visit the Musee Baroncelli in the former town hall to find more on local history and folklore.
Take a Jeep Safari into the Camargue or a steam boat trip on the Petit Rhone for a leisurely cruise. There are also opportunities for horseback tours from Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer and bike hire is available where you see ‘location velo’ signs.