Warming Up In Provence

April was not the sunniest month in our little corner of Paris. I spent most of the first two weeks in bed due to Shigella (my lone souvenir from Morocco), and the weather following my recovery was miserable trash.

Stir-crazy, cold, wet and dangerously low on vitamin D, we knew we needed to make a break for it to someplace — anyplace — warmer. A special on TGV tickets quickly made the decision for us that we’d be heading south to Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. (A cheap high-speed train trip! A rare treat!)

France’s second-largest city, Marseille exudes a far different vibe than traditional, classic Paris. Aesthetically speaking, this gritty, colorful, seaside city resembles coastal Spain or Italy just as much as any other city we’ve visited in France.

With 80-degree temperatures and clear skies, we found it nearly impossible to do anything inside. We spent a lot of our time around the Vieux Port, filled with the crystal-clear blue water of the Mediterranean and sail boats we could never afford. The heart of the city, the port was always packed; well-dressed professionals, college students and tourists were all equally represented. It was a perfect place just to stare off into the distance.

Our days were spent wandering the various neighborhoods, with highlights including the narrow streets of the Panier (old city) and the hip Cours Julien. A diverse melting pot, we set aside the first night’s disappointing batch of mussels and fries to explore some of the city’s non-French fare. Owing to its large population of Italian heritage, Marseille is a true pizza town. It did not disappoint. We’ve had a lot of good-but-not-great pizza this year, so it was a welcome surprise.

Unfortunately (or fortunately if you want that truly authentic experience), the Mistral was in full effect during the majority of our visit. As experienced Midwesterners, we thought we knew what annoyingly strong winds were like. We were not prepared for how constant and unrelenting this was.

It made for a stomach-churning boat ride to Isle Frioule.

And a nerve-wracking ascent to the Notre-Dame de la Garde, which sits atop the highest point in the city. While the view was beyond breathtaking, it was difficult to hold the camera still for even a few seconds.

Leaving Marseille quite satisfied, we headed 40 km inland to Aix, a quaint student town that is Provence in a nutshell. The old city is a time capsule that also manages to house a great deal of cheap nightlife for the city’s sizable population of young adults. We happily enjoyed two-euro pints at happy hour.

A good chunk of Aix’s tourism centers around its most famous resident, Paul Cézanne. The artist spent the latter half of his life back in his hometown, developing into a pioneer of the modern art movement. The tourist department provides a free walking tour in the Old City featuring several sights where the artist lived, worked and played. More importantly, tourists are still able to visit his studio, which was saved from falling into disrepair after his death. It was interesting to see several of the original objects used in some of his most famous paintings. We were also able to climb to his preferred vantage points for his series of paintings of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the craggy ridge looming over the city.

Sufficiently warmed and rejuvenated, we returned to Paris to find the city had experienced its best weather of the year in the days we were gone, because of course. It didn’t last, leading to us quickly plotting a lengthy trip to Portugal and Southern Spain for the end of June. Can’t wait.

 

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