Sunday, October 20, 2013

Excursion à Marseille et Aix-en-Provence

Dimanche, 20 octobre.

Yesterday, Molly's host mom offered to take us to Aix-en-Provence for the day! She used to live there and wanted to visit a friend, so we profited from a free car trip and a great tour guide. Although we didn't spend a ton of time in Aix, we did get to walk along the Cours Mirabeau (the city's main street) and explore the surrounding neighborhoods.


Many of the city's buildings have been meticulously renovated to their original appearance. Owners have to be careful to use the same styles and paintcolors as the original buildings, so the process is apparently painstaking and expensive. And in a way, the unaltered appearance is more picturesque -- especially if you're trying to channel the turn-of-the-century-starving-French-artist vibe. But I definitely prefer the renovated buildings. They're just so bright and lively ... like Provence!

Although Aix is a relatively large modern city, there were definitely a couple of street corers and old buildings that I bet have appeared on more than one idealistic postcard. Our tour was a little bit chaotic, so I'm not entirely sure what all we saw -- or if we even really saw anything of any importance whatsoever! Just enjoy the pictures of pretty buildings. (:


Allthough Aix would be more than enough to occupy a day of photo-taking and window-shopping, it wasn't all we had in mind! While Molly's host mom spent some time with her friend, the two of us spent the other half of our day in Marseille. Although the city had been quickly struck from my list of "must-sees" in France after a little bit of research revealed its not-so-picturesque-side, Molly's host mom encouraged us to go visit. Since it was only a short bus ride from Aix, it was definitely worth the trip -- if only to say that we've been!

The oldest city in France, it was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. (Although some nearby underwater cave paintings exist that suggest that the city was inhabited as early as 30,000 years ago.) The city, which the Greeks named Massalia, has existed ever since. Because of its harbor, it has been an important city for trade and, recently, immigration. It is is even the namesake of the French national anthem (la Marseillaise), inspired by the songs of soldiers who marched from Marseille to Paris to aid the new government set up by the French Revolution.

Marseille is an ancient city, it doesn't seem like it. And not in a positive "wow, William and Mary is old and has WiFi" kind of way! There were definitely some beautiful historic buildings and churches, but to me, Marseille just felt like any other crowded modern city. I'm not sure why this is, but suppose it has something to do with the fact that the city has been perpetually inhabited for so long and was constantly being built up, torn down, and built up again. Most ancient Greek ruins were replaced by Roman architecture, which was then rebuilt during the Renaissance. More recently, during World War II, the city was bombed by both the Axis and Allied powers; the damaged parts of the port and city were rebuilt in the 1950s. Now, it's a huge city for trade and culture has the second-largest population of any city in France. It's also a huge center of immigration, which I found to be really evident as we walked through different neighborhoods that surround the historic center of town. Oh, and it's getting a reputation for gangs and drug violence. (Immigrants aren't the only thing coming into France by way of Marseille!)

Unlike Montpellier, there isn't a specific "old town" part of Marseille. However, I think most tourists spend their time at the Vieux-Port, the city's ancient harbor. My thoughts? It was crowded and sunny and there were lots of boats.

We walked a little along the harbor and stumbled across the old walls and, as we stepped away from the crowds and the cars, it started to become a little more clear why people are so keen to visit Marseille. (A beautiful blue sky and stumbling across a beautiful church around the corner didn't hurt either!)

On our way back around to La Canebière (the historic main street next to the port), we wandered through the streets a little bit. The next two pictures were taken on the same corner ... just a little taste of the diversity of Marseille, and the less glamorous sides of France! (Have I mentioned that graffiti is partout?)

Making friends wherever I go!
The best part of our visit to Marseille was definitely Notre-Dame de la Garde, the basilica that overlooks the city from a giant hill 150 meters above the harbor. The mountain has been the site of a church since the twelfth century, although the current basilica wasn't constructed until the late 1800s. From the outside, the church's style is reminiscent of Florence (or so my buddy Wikipedia tells me)...

But the real appeal of the basilica is the inside! Molly and I had never seen anything like it. All of the church's columns are made of striped white and red marble and the ceilings and walls are covered in paintings and mosaics. The church underwent a serious restoration a few years ago and all the hard work shows -- the gold tiles in the mosaics just gleam. It's amazing!

Because Marseille is a port city, the entire basilica is covered with images of boats! You can see one in the mosaic that decorates the apse, just behind the altar and the silver statue of the Virgin Mary in the photograph above. My favorite, however, were the model boats suspended from the ceiling! I'm not entirely sure where they came from or who decided to hang them from the ceiling, but there was something so fitting and whimsical about them that you couldn't help but smile.

Oh, and remember how it's located 150 feet above the city? Well, the view isn't half bad either... as it turns out, Marseille is a much prettier city from high above!

On the opposite side, where the church overlooks the port, you can see l'Archipel du Frioul -- an archipelago of four small islands. One of them, If, is home to the Chateau d'If. The famous fortress became a prison soon after its construction and is the setting for part of Alexandre Dumas' Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. (Which part? Well, the part where Dantès is stuck in a prison ... on an island ... off the coast of Marseille.)

My verdict on Marseille? I'm definitely not a fan of the city itself and I feel like I've seen more stunning harbors. Still, the view from the top of the hill was pretty breathtaking. I think if I were to come back, I'd focus on the history: explore more of the city's museums and maybe take a ferry out to Chateau d'If. All in all, though, I'm glad that I went ... and that I left!

As for Aix? I was originally expecting a smaller town and was definitely surprised by the city's size. Still, it's a very vibrant city with a super cozy downtown area and it was peaceful, even on a busy Saturday in October. Heck, I'd live there!


  1. Very interesting! Beautiful weather you are having!
    Love, Mommy

  2. Oh my how gorgeous all this is===your fan club is reading avidly and are amazed at all you've seen, done and absorbed. At lunch today we talked about your journey and how much fun it was to read about it. Thanks for letting us live vicariously. Sometimes I cannot comment because there is no place but here is one so here am I. We love this and read it not just once but 2 or 3 times. LOL Did you take your Starbucks coupon to Marseilles? There was one there I noticed. LOL Gosh you looked amazing with Sir Rhino, he had flair. Love you.

  3. This is the most beautiful place! Love it and hope you had fun!

  4. Les photos de Marseille sont superbes! Continue tes decouvertes et fais les nous decouvrir. Merci!

  5. I love reading about your adventures abroad and seeing all the great pictures. Thank you!

    Paula Plachno