Southern France Provence Down to the Coast
So we’re heading south from Provence to the coast, where the weather is gorgeous a lot of the year, but the countryside is dry and rocky. Don’t get too distracted by them or you’ll run out of time to see some outstanding smaller, intimate and incredible sites.
On the western edge of the department where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean Sea are vast wetland plains, ponds and rice paddies protected against the modern world.
With its Gypsies, bull breeding and Camargue cowboys on their white horses, the Camargue is a unique area lying between two arms of the Rhône River. Its vast expanses give it an atmosphere like nowhere else. It’s paradise for migratory birds, and a nesting area for pink flamingoes, herons and cormorants.
Discover it on foot, on horseback, on a bicycle or in a boat, taking it slowly, respecting the natural environment, far from city crowds, noise and pollution.
Les Saintes Maries de la Mer could be a good place to base yourself to spend time investigating this natural environment whether its horse riding on the beaches, windsurfing or going to a ranch to see bull fights. You can see the fauna and flora of Camargue at Launes Pond and take a walk along the Port Gardian, the fishing and boating port of St. Maries.
Now that we’ve reached the coast, get ready to find fantastic fish dishes. Locally grown ingredients are heavily used around France and this area is no different. Enjoy the wonderful recipes with olives and herbs of the region, garlic, tomatoes and other locally grown veggies.
The French adore mussels! Every town along the coast will have restaurants serving large bowls of steaming mussels for about 10–15 euros, usually served with fries and baguette, my son and husbands favourite dish! Another favourite is the Niçoise Salad of tomatoes, anchovies, hard-boiled eggs, olives and beans.
For dessert check out the Calissons d’Aix, almond cookies, and Crème Catalane caramelised egg-custards.
Marseille is the second largest city in France and the largest and oldest port. It is a huge city with a relatively bad reputation for crime, so keep your eyes open and your valuables at your hotels. As your concierge places to be avoided at night. Also, driving can be a nightmare in the traffic with the erratic unpredictable drivers! If you are just coming into the area from Paris, catch the fast train and hire a car when you leave the city to explore the fantastic coastal villages!
The Greeks originally settled Marseille in the 6th-century B.C. And since then it has been a port that welcomed all manner of cultures and populations. Marseille was heavily bombed during WWII, and many historic buildings were lost. The city has rebuilt itself and has some stunning modern architecture. It is a cosmopolitan centre that is having a cultural renaissance hosting over 900 cultural events each year.
Some places worth looking at include the Vieux Port with its old forts overlooking the fish market and restaurants. At Vieux Port, you can get a boat out to the island jail of Château d’If made famous by Alexandre Dumas in his book “The Count of Monte Christo”.
The cathedral Notre-Dame de la Garde has great views from its roof. On the opposite side of the port is the Fortress Saint-Jean, with its round Fanal Tower, beside the old quarter of the Le Panier is the flower market in Le Prado. Le Panier still has historic buildings worth looking at and many museums.
Another place to visit is the New Major Cathedral, which was completed in 1893, and the l’Estaque district that Cézanne and Duffy painted.
When you have seen everything in Marseille, it’s time to get in the car again and explore the coastal towns mingling and clinging to the limestone cliffs. The waters along this coast are incredibly clear and an azure colour. Take the time to find a spot and make sure you get a boat and experience the wonders of their region.
La Ciotat and Cassis
On our last trip to this region, we stayed in La Ciotat which is east of Marseille. We chose La Ciotat because not only is it cheaper to stay here than Cassis, the next town, but also it is quieter.
Both La Ciotat and Cassis are little harbour towns, fishing villages, with fantastic restaurants and beautiful harbours filled with boats of various types and colors. Wandering around the ancient harbour area is a treat with the vibrant terracotta roofs and old stone buildings. When I posted the photo we took of La Ciotat on FaceBook, I think I received the most comments of any post I’d made! It is “picture perfect” as the saying goes!
Cassis is similar to La Ciotat but can be overrun with tourists in the summer. Cassis is famous for its cliffs (falaises) and the sheltered inlets called Calanques.
Calanques are remains of ancient river mouths with a narrow, steep-walled inlet that was developed in limestone, dolomite, or other carbonate strata formed either by erosion or the collapse of the roof of a cave that has been subsequently partially submerged by a rise in sea level.
Regardless of the history of this phenomena, taking a boat ride into the Calanques is a must. Cassis and La Ciotat have boats for hire to take you out to these wonderful water features.
The narrow inlet may open to a wider area filled with tethered boats of swimmers and rock climbers scaling the rocky limestone cliffs. The waters are azure, deep and fabulous on a summers day! And, as a bonus, some have beaches at their zenith that are accessible from carparks at the top of the cliffs, some of which rise 565 metres high during high tides.
The good time to hike into the Calanques is March through May, when temperatures are still quite fresh and, unlike autumn and winter, rain is usually quite rare. As no fresh water sources are available in the Calanques, it is advised to carry large supplies of water, especially during the hot summer.
The best-known Calanques of the Massif des Calanques include the Calanque de Sormiou, the Calanque de Morgiou, the Calanque d’En-Vau, the Calanque de Port-Pin and the Calanque de Sugiton.
I hope you have enjoyed this tour of the Provence region. Basically, you should explore and check out the places that interest you; try the ones outside the tourist track. The history, beauty and sites abound, or you can just find a high spot, and check out the view whilst you eat and drink!
I’m having a week off next week. If you have any places you want to write a paragraph on in the Provence region, send them in, and I will include them in the next newsletter. I look forward to hearing from you!
Otherwise, when I return in two weeks time I’m going to a totally different area — north-west France.
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