A 4-day journey through quaint little villages to France's multicultural mecca
Londoners often get annoyed with me when I mention that the best thing about living in London is its proximity to France. Ok, a bit of an exaggeration, but what can I say? I absolutely adore that country.
My love affair with France started from an early age, as I was educated in a French school in Brazil and attended extra curricular classes at a French cultural institute. My first visit was a month-long trip to Paris when I was only 12 years old, and since then, I have gone back countless times, often also trying to get acquainted with new regions and cities, such as Bordeaux, Lille and Lyon. It never ceases to impress me just how diverse the country is, and how much it has to offer.
I had read about Provence - its world famous gastronomy and lavender fields - for as long as I can remember, and was just thrilled to have the opportunity of spending 4 days travelling in the region that was such a source of inspiration to artists like Van Gogh, Cezanne and Monet among other Impressionists throughout the years...
Aix en Provence, Arles, and the Louberon villages - Provencal markets and some of France's most beautiful villages
In order to fly into the Provence region, travellers can chose from two airport options: Avignon further north or Marseille in the south. Unfortunately, the French railway is rather costly, making the option of catching an Eurostar to Paris and continuing on the TGV high-speed train down south a lot higher in cost.
From Marseille's airport, frequent shuttles are available to Aix en Provence, the second favourite French city to many French citizens, second only to Paris.
Aix is also one of France's richest cities, with most of its prices ranging from 20 to 30 per cent higher in cost than the rest of the country. It is an absolutely lovely mid size city, packed with shops, restaurants and cafes throughout its old centre. Aix is well known for its fountains, beautifully spread all around the tree-lined Old Town.
Most people visit Provence for its world famous cuisine and wine, so needless to say, restaurants are all around, and constantly packed with travellers seeking to experience the intricate taste of Provencal Gastronomy.
Before leaving Aix for the day to further explore the region, I woke up really early in order to experience its Saturday food and flower market - one of the biggest in the region. I observed market stall owners arriving, unloading their trucks and setting up their stalls, as they had their morning coffee and greeted their earlybird clients. The herbs, olive oils, cheese and fruit options were sensational, but the flowers were indeed the market's highlight.
Arles Saturday market and the Luberon villages
I wasn't thrilled about having to take a tour to visit the region, but as public transportation is somewhat limited, there wasn't another suitable option. Much to my privilege though, nobody else had joined the "Provence in one day" tour, so I pretty much had a private car to myself with a very nice driver/guide, who would drop me off at a certain location, give me a bit of an explanation, then meet me later at whichever time and place we agreed upon. Couldn't have worked out better.
Arles was the first stop. This is a town of over 60,000 inhabitants and made famous by its once-upon-a-time resident, Vincent Van Gogh, its Saturday Market and Roman ruins. It was somewhat crowded as it was its big market day, but lively and incredible nevertheless.
Our next stop was on Les Baux de Provence, a medieval town positioned on the top of a rock outcrop by the Alpilles Mountains. Listed as a heritage site for its medieval walls and castle, it is constantly referred to as "one of the most beautiful villages in France". Although it is indeed pretty, overlooking the Provencal plains down south, it is nowadays a village that lives exclusively off tourism, without any real residents, a bank or a pharmacy. I did enjoy strolling around and feeling the Provencal breeze against my face, but it didn't feel like a very authentic experience.
We drove through the beautiful villages of Gordes and then Rousillon, also extremely charming and boasting incredibly views, but the actual village of Saint Remy, the following stop, felt like a much more authentic French village experience - the village where the famous Van Gogh painting, Cafe de La Nuit, is in fact set.
The experience kept on getting better as we reached Bonnieux, another village described as one of France's top 10 most beautiful villages, in the top of the Luberon Mountains - a much more authentic village to wander around. But Lourmarin was by far my favourite of them all, not only for its beautiful old castle, but for the village's local atmosphere. It was full of ateliers and cafes, but rather than travellers like myself, it mostly had residents from Aix, spending the afternoon there, sampling its famous regional wine and shopping at its trendy original clothing shops.
As it was no longer lavender season, I couldn't see the famous Lavender Fields images so frequently painted in the 19th century - but I could get an idea of it, and it gives me a great reason to go back!
Marseille - French's second city, and just SO different to Paris!
Oh, Marseille! What a city! France's second largest city in terms of population and first in terms of territory, is an explosion for the senses! Located right by the Mediterranean shore and hosting the largest number of immigrants in all of France, (which at times, makes it resemble more a North African capital than Paris), Marseille is charming, while raw and authentic. Locals are known for being a bit in-your-face and short tempered, but are warmer than residents of any other French city I've ever visited and are as real as it gets.
From the Old Port one can see the Old Notre Dame Cathedral rising on a hilltop, overlooking the city, and right behind the Old Port area, continuing further uphill, is the beautiful Panier district - one of the oldest neighbourhoods of one of Europe's oldest cities. A delightful area to walk around.
At night, a good alternative to the Old Port Area is the trendy Corniche – the sea wall of the Prado Beach, also lined up with restaurants and small boutiques all along, catering mostly for Marseille residents rather than tourists. An area not to be missed though, especially for those young at heart, is the Cours Julien, also on the top of a hill, not too far from Marseille's University, in the city centre. It's the Bohemian part of town, lined up with cafes and bars around a big square, where most business only operate during evenings and weekends. Like most of the city, it is an extremely multicultural area with people of all sorts and places, making it beyond special.
When it comes to street markets, the multicultural aspect of the city is highlighted more than ever. The Noailles Market in the city centre gives the passer-by the impression of having left Europe momentarily. Products of all ranges are available for purchase, as one walks around listening to several languages other than French.
Live music-wise, I was rather fortunate. Although the Jazz bar I was planning on going for a night of music by the ocean was closed for the season, many bands, mostly composed by young musicians, were regularly playing outdoors in the Old Port Area. Quite a treat.
Marseille just breathes such a relaxed energy, usually found in coastal cities, and I particularly liked how casual it is, when compared to the rest of the country. The "Lasseiz faire laissez passer" attitude seemed to prevail, where people could just be what they were, from wherever they were and all was respected and acceptable. My kind of city!
The Calanques – Mediterranean Miniature Fjords
A must-see highlight on any visit to the Provence region, this natural area of massive limestone cliffs falling into the Mediterreanean Sea can be found on the way from Marseille to Cassis, along the Blue Coast. They can be easily visited on a boat trip from Marseille, ranging between 2 to 3.5 hours. More adventurous travellers can access it by road and embark on long hiking trails that can then be finished off with activities such as cliff diving, rock climbing, or simply swimming in the small beaches formed in between the miniature fjords.
Truly spectacular, this natural wonder is not to be missed, particularly for the offering of a very affordable boat trip organised by Marseille's tourism board.
A new French favourite?
After four days that seemed to have flown by, it was my time to return to London. I was thrilled to have finally have gotten to visit a new region in one of my favourite countries in the world, and even more, for having really connected with Marseille: It's laidback rhythm and lifestyle, its multiculturalism as well as its unbelievable natural scenery. It is possible that I might have liked it so much that it may have replaced my much-loved Paris and its contender, Lyon, as my new favourite French Metropolis. Whilst being dirtier, louder and much hotter than the capital, Marseille embraces the world, and in such a generous and relaxed way, that all its small imperfections became rather irrelevant, as it won a special place in my heart.