Since Marseille is the capital of Provence, I didn’t want to spend a few days in that city without taking at least a full day to explore the notoriously lovely surrounding countryside. However, as I’ve mentioned a flobbityjillion times on this blog, I don’t know how to drive! So getting around the various adorable Provencal towns could be tricky for me. Lucky for me I found this tour that leaves from Marseille every Monday and Saturday. The itinerary included Aix-En-Provence, Marseille, and Cassis, in other words all of the places that I wanted to see most in Provence. Join me for 24 Hours of saucisson sandwiches, vertigo inspiring cliffs, moss-covered fountains, and religious rocks. On y va!
The first stop on our tour was the criminally charming city of Aix-En-Provence. On our way there, our guide Cedric told us everything we would need to know about the place so that we would be prepared to explore for a couple of hours on our own. Like many cities in Provence, Aix used to be a Roman city, so there’s enough history there to satisfy the buffiest of history buffs. But I will leave you with a mere…
three fun facts about aix-en-provence
1) Aix is sometimes referred to as “the city of a thousand fountains”. It has about as many fountains as New York has subway stops or grown men in funny costumes standing around in Times Square asking for tips. The fountain above is the famous Fontaine de la Rotonde, which depicts Justice, Agriculture, and the Fine Arts, but there are so many more to discover. Here’s a kind of hidden fountain:
And here’s my favorite, which is entirely covered with moss:
Pretend the fountains are Pokemon and try to catch all 1,000!
2) Aix wasn’t just a Roman city, it was also an important medieval city. In fact, in medieval times, it was the capital of Provence. There are many examples of Aix’s medieval history in the city, but my favorite was the Cathedral. The baptistery dates from the 5th century, but most of the construction was done from the 12th to the 18th century, so you can feast your eyes on a variety of styles of art and architecture.
My favorite piece was this green and gold organ case. I’ve never seen an organ case that color before! You can tell this was created during the rate of a Later King Louis because the art in France just kept getting more gold and decadent until someone decided to chop all the aristocrats heads off.
3) The most famous son of Aix is the behatted fellow immortalized above, Paul Cezanne. Cedric told us that Cezanne’s work was not popular with art critics during his lifetime, but a lot of young artists admired Cezanne and would come visit him at his studio. Why are great artists never properly appreciated during their lifetimes? I suspect some sort of extraterrestrial conspiracy.
Travelerette Tip: You won’t have time to sit down for lunch at a restaurant, so I suggest getting a sandwich to go at the open air market at the Place Richelme. I had the most French experience possible buying my lunch because I stopped at a stand that was selling meat and cheese sandwiches for five Euros.
I requested a particular sausage, and I asked the girl working behind the counter which cheese would go best with that sausage. She selected a goat and her boss told her that she was not allowed to use that goat cheese with the sandwiches because it was too expensive. The girl insisted that she had no choice because I had requested the best cheese to go with the sausage and this was the best cheese to go with the sausage. Faced with this inarguable logic, the boss told her she could use the expensive goat cheese on my sandwich, only not too much of it.
When the girl was done making my delicious sandwich, she only charged me three Euros, as she had made me a half sandwich because according to her, I did not look big enough to eat a whole one. I’m going to take that as a compliment, French girl! (The sausage and goat cheese went perfectly together, in case you were wondering.)
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite attraction in Aix was the Tapestry Museum at 28 Place Des Martyrs de la Résistance. It only costs 3.5 Euros to enter, and the staff speaks English. The place is full of 17th century tapestries. My favorite part of the museum is that there’s nothing preventing you from getting as close as you want to the tapestries, as long as you don’t touch them.
See what I mean? I took this photo of a tapestry without any close up. I really was that near to the fabric. So if you’ve ever wanted to get so close to a tapestry that you could count the threads, don’t miss out on this museum.
Early Afternoon: Driving Tour
After leaving Aix-En-Provence, we headed back to Marseille to begin the next portion of the itinerary: the driving tour. This was very convenient because on my own, I never would have been able to see so many different places in one day. I’m sure there’s about a billion interesting things to see in the Marseille area, but for now let’s just stick to…
the Approximately Top Five best things to see near Marseille
1) Our first stop was at the Abbaye St Victor, which is dedicated to a local martyr, Victor of Marseille, who was a Roman soldier who was executed for converting to Christianity and refusing to worship the Roman gods. Those Romans were not fooling around. The most interesting part of the abbey is the crypts underneath the church, where it is said that the relics of several saints are kept.
Travelerette Tip: It costs 2 Euros to go down into the crypt, and the lady working there doesn’t always have change or take credit cards, so make sure you have 2 Euros on you if you want to do some crypt keeping.
2) Our next stop was the amusingly named La Corniche Kennedy, which was indeed named after our dear departed president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The Corniche is just a long boulevard that runs along the Mediterranean and gives spectacular views of the water. It was named after Kennedy because it was remodeled in the 1960s right after the Kennedy assassination, and around that time if you were naming anything new, it needed to be named after our 35th President.
3) This monument is the monument aux morts de l’armee de l’Orient. It is dedicated to soldiers from the French colonies who died fighting for France. It is particularly symbolic in Marseille because Marseille has so many residents who come from former French colonies, especially ones in North Africa. Looking out across the Mediterranean, it’s easy to remember that North Africa is not actually that far away from the south of France.
Travelerette Tale: At this point on the tour, we passed a gray-haired lady wearing shades and going along very fast on a motorbike. “Oh, that is my mom,” our guide remarked, and we all laughed, assuming he was being sarcastic. Then he stuck his head out the van window and yelled, “COUCOU, MAMAN!” and she immediately turned and yelled back, “COUCOU, CEDRIC!” So at least we knew our guide was a real local, and we even got the bonus of meeting his mom.
4) Our next stop was the major stop on the tour, the basilica Notre Dame de la Garde. It is a fairly modern church, as it was completed in 1864. It’s quite ostentatious because it was designed in the Neo-Byzantine style, which basically means that it’s supposed to resemble an Orthodox church like the Hagia Sophia. Our guide referred to this as the “bling bling” cathedral because…well, I think a few pictures will speak louder than words.
I’d say that’s about as “bling bling” as any church ought to be. But dated slang aside, Notre Dame de la Garde, or NDDLG as its friends call it, is often considered the symbol of Marseille. It is the most popular attraction in the city, and you can find its image on all manner of tourist merchandise. Part of the reason for its popularity is how striking its exterior is.
See what I mean? You can recognize its black and white stripes from anywhere in the city.
5) Our final stop on the driving tour was the Cap Canaille just outside of Cassis. This cliff is the highest sea cliff in France, so it’s a terrific spot at which to take photos. I like anything that’s a cliff because it reminds me of the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride. Also, I am not scared of heights. In fact, I am not scared of anything except dying old and alone with seven cats, and this seems pretty easily avoided because all I need to do is stop with six.
There was one girl at the Cap, however, who was not so lucky, and kept walking near the cliff, screaming, and running away. I don’t really get the point of screaming at a cliff. I mean, I get the point of screaming if a clown is trying to murder you because maybe the clown will get scared and run away, but a cliff has no ears and can’t hear you, so I doubt your screams will have any effect on it.
Late Afternoon: Cassis
Cassis is a popular seaside tourist town with colorful houses, small beaches, and cute little shops. But the main reason anyone comes here is to hop on one of the tour boats and sail around the famous calanques, which are mysterious looking limestone inlets that are scattered around the Mediterranean coast. The tour boat trip around the calanques is included with the price of the tour, so Cedric picked up our tickets for us as soon as we got to Cassis and we set off on the boat straight away.
Travelerette Treasure: The calanques are maybe the most wonderful sight in all of Provence. There’s just something magical about the white of the rock combined with the blue of the sea.
The boat ride is smooth and the weather is warm, so it’s easy to stand on deck and take all the photos you want. You don’t have to worry about people thinking you’re a tourist because you’re on a tour boat, so everyone knows you’re a tourist already!
The calanque d’en Vau here was my favorite because the beach is so hidden and mysterious looking. Apparently it’s popular for people to try to hike here from Cassis, but it takes a couple of hours each way.
We stopped boating for a moment here, and the tour boat drivers helpfully started dropping some bread into the water so the fish would come closer and amuse us. They look like of like ghost fish in this picture. Could a fish haunt someone? What would a ghost fish even want?
Speaking of ghostly apparitions, this rock formation at the Calanque d’en Vau is known as the “Finger of God”. I imagine that is because it looks like the rock is pointing straight to heaven. But wouldn’t God’s finger be pointing down at us from heaven? Am I missing something here?
Travelerette Tip: When your boat returns, you’ll have one of three options for the rest of your time in Cassis. Choose just one because you won’t have time for more. You can hang out on the beach…
You can sit down at one of the bars at the harbor and get a glass of Provencal rose. (Cassis the drink, while delicious, comes from Burgundy and not Cassis the town, so there’s no point in ordering it here.)
Or you can explore the town! Just like in Aix-En-Provence, there are fountains.
Some of the fountains even have a ducky resident or two.
You can check out the cute pink City Hall in town (aka the Hotel de Ville).
Or just find some buildings covered in moss and flowers. Cassis is definitely charming enough to sustain your wanderings for an hour.
After all that, it’s time to head back to Marseille and say goodbye to your tour guide. I would definitely recommend the tour company Provence Reservations because our guide was very entertaining, the tour was well organized, and they run tours out of Marseille every day, so no matter what your schedule looks like, you can find a day trip around Provence to suit your needs. I have no affiliation with the company at all; it’s just my honest opinion.
Evening: Une Table au Sud
Address: 2 Quai du Port
Une Table Au Sud is a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Vieux Port run by a young chef named Ludovic Turac. He is very proud of using traditionally Provencal ingredients, but he adds his own imaginative twists to classics like bouillabaisse, aioli, and tarte au citron. I started my meal with a cocktail of champagne mixed with basilic, which was very refreshing and summery.
My drink was accompanied by these four adorable little amuse bouches, each of which had a different taste: sausage, caviar, truffle, dill, etc. It was like a feast that some mad scientist had miniaturized.
Next came the real amuse bouche, which was a cauliflower, herb, and vegetable cold soup served with a side of anchovy paste on a cracker. The concept reminded me of a peasant soup that someone had deconstructed. But of course the taste matters more than the concept, and I found the soup very refreshing.
I ordered the signature set course menu, and the first course of that meal is a reimagined grand aioli. Grand aioli is a traditional Provencal dish involving cod, vegetables, and aioli itself, which is garlic mayonnaise. Une Table au Sud’s version has housemade bread, paper-thin sliced raw vegetables spread with aioli, and salted cod with citrus zest on top. The flavors are the same as a grand aioli, but the whole effect is much lighter and more delicate.
The main part of the tasting menu was a lobster prepared three different ways. The first was the lobster knuckles put inside a delicate tortellini served with orange blossom bisque. This tasted exactly like summer to me. There’s nothing better than lobster and orange blossom.
After that came braised lobster claws served with zucchini stuffed with a sort of ratatouille and little potato waffles. I thought this was a really clever way of making the humble ratatouille haute cuisine. I wondered if Remy himself had prepared it, and then I realized that Ratatouille the movie just has a major problem because no one ever wants to think about an actual rat going anywhere near food.
This last course was roasted lobster served with turnips, basilic, and a bouillabaise reduction. The lobster was so tender and extraordinary, like eating the dreams of a mermaid. I had never eaten lobster and basil together before, but they’re both such summery tastes that it makes complete sense.
The dessert was an updated version of the classic tarte au citron, so this square tart is itself made up up nine squares, each with a different taste or texture. There was something like the traditional lemon curd, there was also a tart crust, but there were squares made of lemon ice cream as well. I enjoyed this dessert because each bite of the tart had a different kind of sweetness.
I really enjoyed this restaurant and would go back any time I was in Marseille. I loved how the tasting menu provided all the Provencal classics: aioli, ratatouille, bouillabaise, and tarte au citron, but presented them in clever new ways. It was a treat for my brain and for my belly!
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Provence!
What would you do with one day in Provence? Has screaming at a cliff ever done you any good? Does your mother know how to ride a motorbike? Please leave your thoughts below!
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