Bonjour mes amis,
When we said goodbye to Penelope and left Italy, we flew to Marseille on the Côte D'Azur, the second largest city in the France and the main city in Provence. We had planned a short visit, partly to visit is historic port area and partly because its airport was a convenient stopping point for our trek across the south of France.
After waiting an interminable time for a checked bag, we were met by a blast of heat on leaving the airport late in the afternoon. It was an easy decision to take the first taxi we found. It was driven by a very friendly, chatty Frenchman who wanted to ask me questions and give me helpful information. My brain was a bit addled from the heat and also the challenge of dropping Italian to focus on French again.
When we arrived at the hotel, conveniently located a few minutes from the train station so that we could take the train to Avignon a couple of days later, the driver remarked that we were in an Arab quartier and close to a Chinese one. That didn't mean much to us until we noticed a large number of men sitting outside all the cafes, shops and restaurants along surrounding streets. Whenever we walked in the vicinity of the hotel, we had to negotiate our way past the men. Needless to say that we didn't feel comfortable to eat out close to the hotel.
For the first time we were not content with our hotel facilities even though the room price was comparable to others on this trip. It was quite basic and we were surprised to find there wasn't a hair dryer in the bathroom. When I asked at Reception, I was told that I would have to book a time to use the dryer because they only had FOUR for use by all guests in the hotel. OMG, there were four stories of accommodation in this hotel. Unbelievable! I certainly gave them a frank review.
The highlight of our stay in Marseille was a three hour walking tour of the Old Port and the Panier district in heatwave conditions. Lorri and I have no shame in using UV protective umbrellas now so we can take our shade with us. The young ones were walking around without hats! Crazy kids!
Our guide told us the history of the area and how much had changed when Marseille had been named the European cultural capital in 2007. The city had received a massive injection of money to clean up its image of a dangerous, sleazy place, full of drug dealers and Mafia gangs. There have been a lot of improvements and some of it is quite lovely and gentrified but it still has two faces. Apparently, a lot of the money they received was spent unwisely and we saw some "white elephant" projects.
Marseille is the home of pastis (licorice liquor), the most petanque (boules) players for capita in Europe and of course, its perfumeless blocks of soap (savon de Marseille) which is made from olive oil. No matter your experience in Marseille, you can't deny that the yacht filled harbour, Notre Dame church on the hill and the majestic buildings in the more touristy areas are quite beautiful.
One of our challenges when leaving Marseille was to get our baggage up the three flights of steep, stone steps to the train station. That was after walking up the very steep hill from our hotel. Being crafty, we scoped out the journey the afternoon before, hoping that there might an escalator or lift. No, not near the stairs. What do people in wheelchairs do? Who knows! But we found a longer walk that led us to a mid level where there was an escalator and a lift that got us into the station. While we were waiting in air conditioned comfort with a cool drink, we were all evacuated from the station because of a security issue. While we stood in the heat, the police and fire fighters dealt with an abandoned bag.
We were so looking forward to Avignon and it didn't disappoint. It is a very elegant, old city with a beautiful bridge, narrow back streets that give on to local, lively squares and an abundance of places to eat and drink outside.
On our first full day here we took a tour of the lavender fields in the Luberon Valley of Provence. There were eight of us, with a guide who drove us in air conditioned comfort. He was such a card and we laughed a lot, even if the other participants didn't get his sense of humour. He made stops to photograph the lavender in bloom, he told us about how it is grown, havested and interesting facts, e.g. that 140kg is required to distil 1 litre of essential oil from lavender while only 14kg of the hybrid lavendine distils to 1 litre. We stopped at an organic lavender farm where the owners had set up a stall to sell their products. The smell and the sight of the lavender was magnificent. It will be a lasting, happy memory that Lorri and I have shared.
We went on to spend some time wandering through Roussillon, one of the most beautiful villages of France (so the sign said,). Most of the buildings are painted one of 17 different shades of ocre from the area. I'm not sure if I could see 17 but there were many. As the area is famous for its lavender ice cream we had to have one. It was so delicious with a creamy texture and a distinct flavour and perfume of lavender. Our guide took us on to see Gordes, another picturesque village on a hilltop in the Luberon Valley. It was a great day that we'll never forget.
One of the highlights should have been the Palais des Papes (Popes' Palace) and it would have been if not for the hordes of tourists in our way. However, it was very beautiful and very grand. We had a tablet that activated in each room, telling the story and allowing you to point the screen in any direction to see what it looked like when the palace was used bt the popes.
After the heat started to get to us, even with our umbrellas, we missed a turn on the map and happened upon an alternative cafe with organic wines and interesting food so we decided to stop. We ate a tartine topped with ricotta, courgettes and parmesan with a fresh green salad, accompanied by a glass of prosecco and lots of cold water. It was just what we needed.
The Festival of Avignon started yesterday and the city was over run with posters for activities and shows, more than we'd ever seen at home. There is even a different poster on every bedroom door of our hotel. I think it's going to get crazy here but good if that's why you're visiting.
Today we are travelling on to Toulouse and getting closer to the French border with Spain. Another day, another city.
Stay safe until we see you again,
Lorri and Jude xx