Let me start by saying, wholeheartedly, JE TAIME the south of France. This weekend, it was Lex and I against Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence and Cassis – so really, just a taste of this magnificent region of the world. These latter two towns were straight out of Beauty & the Beast and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the locals had greeted us in song. They left me eager to explore more of Provence and the Cote d’Azure to say the least.
To be frank, Marseilles was a bit of a dump. We had ignored warnings about this metropolitan and often dangerous center, saying that the urban grit of France’s oldest city was just part of its charm. I can’t stress this enough – there was nothing charming about Marseilles. Told you I’d be honest here, didn’t I? We chose this location because it was easy to get to from the airport, and a pretty central location for the day-trips we planned in Provence. But it definitely wasn’t worth it, and we quickly discovered most of these towns are accessible by a bus from the airport anyways. So if we could do it again, I think we’d rent a car to explore at our leisure and just stay overnight in the smaller villages as we visited them.
An incredible breath of fresh air, you step into this town and the smell of lavender immediately washes over you, transforming your entire countenance in the process. The effects are instantaneous, and you see a white-tented market in a square across the way. You’re drawn to these local treasures in the same way bees are drawn to honey in spring. It’s no secret that I’m a shopaholic, and though a small part of me did try, there was no containing my spending on this market day. The locals might have wondered if I had ever heard the word “budget!” Woven blankets + towels in characteristic French stripes greeted us at the first stall, and lavender pouches with handpainted designs at the next. Ceramics towered in precarious stacks – sauce bowls, egg crates, platters and pitchers! At this point, I accepted the fact I’d have to check a bag on the return flight. I moseyed over to a table with the exact straw baskets we have at Anthropologie (is this where they get them from?) and knew I had to have it. After scooping up one last find (a small wooden-baroque style mirror that would likely be $158 at Anthro), it was time for a bite to eat! Cafes were simply overflowing with people along this tree-lined promenade, and we cozeyed up at a little red table beneath the restaurant’s awning and ordered a truffle + artichoke risotto I’m still dreaming of.
We continued window-shopping + mansion-admiring along the Cours Mirabeau after lunch, and eventually found ourselves in Aix’s Old Town. A maze of boutiques, bakeries and intimate bars connect you to pockets of buzzing squares surrounded by shutter-clad townhomes where the plaster is peeling from history. If it were a person, Old Town would be the life of the party. We took several breaks to just sit + watch the locals go by. With baguette, crepe or cappuccino in hand, these moments were a treasure as local musicians serenaded the squares with traditional french accordion songs. Aix, we could have stayed forever… though our wallets might not be so inclined.
Oh Cassis – with your topographic mystery and captivating beauty. You were an absolute wonder, and I could have taken up residence immediately. We arrived at this little seaside town (about 25 min from Marseilles center by train) with one goal in mind: discover the turquoise waters of the Calanques. More specifically, make it to the most-pinned beach of En Vau. I’ll be honest with you – we didn’t do the research beforehand, and we faced all the consequences.
With vineyards to our right, we strolled along the road from the train station to the city center. This was a fairly easy walk, but it did take about 30 minutes that you’ll need to include in your calculations for the day’s schedule. The city center was right along the water, and the authentic french cafe’s had seaside views worth $10mil. Picture colorful sailboats bobbing in place along the harbor… Oh how I wish we could have spent more time here!
We made our way to the entrance to the national park (about another 30 minutes from the city center) and were immediately surrounded by groups in full hiking gear. This is where we started to have an inkling that our Kate Spade + Longchamp bags were probably not the best idea. I’ll be very honest with you, an hour into this hike – we didn’t think we were gonna make it. Luckily, we were rewarded along the way with spectacular views + the most authentic feeling of peace and quiet I’ve ever experienced. These winding trails are marked with directional indicators painted onto various rocks + trees, and about 1.5 hours in, you finally reach the peak! Take a minute here to stop and have a picnic, or just to take in the magnificent cliff views.
Mental preparation will be necessary before the next leg: rock climbing. Okay maybe not quite that, but we did have to get very creative with hand + foot placement all the way down. You’re traveling down limestone, which in case you don’t know is very slippery. So it’s not so much finding a footing as having quick reflexes when your footing is compromised. I’ve never felt so accomplished as I did once we reached the bottom though! About a 5 minute walk longer (and 30 min for the downward climb), we reached our destination.
The water was the perfect juxtaposition of clear + vibrant, with turquoise waters inviting you to get closer. With limestone pebbles in place of sand, it’s impossible to lay down and close your eyes because you don’t want to miss a second of this view. Mountains tower on either side of this inlet, and more adventurous locals are diving in from rocky peaks. The water cuts like an icy dagger, but if it’s good enough for the dogs, it’s good enough for me. Perhaps the beauty of seeing it all lies in the fact that it took you 3+ hours to get there (on foot), but the glittering turquoise waves crashing against the edge of my hand-embroidered towel transported me to a different world entirely. I may have cursed the whole way down, but I praised God the whole way back up.
Our short visit was gone in a flash, but it left me yearning for more. You’ll definitely be seeing more Cote d’Azure soon!