It was market day in Arles, so off we drove to the ancient little town in search of fabric, lavender, cheese and chanterelles. Along the way we discovered the trails that VanGogh followed and the wonders that Caesar left behind.
A ring road circles the inner city; on Saturdays wall-to-wall market stands blanket the ring road.
Van Gogh’s life and paintings tapped us on our shoulders, demanding attention, wherever we traveled in Provence. Arles was ripe with reminders of Van Gogh’s prodigious work.
The Fondation Van Gogh
The Foundation van Gogh is a beautiful gallery that features the works of van Gogh alongside modern-day artists whose work relates. (Here’s an interesting article from the NY Times about the gallery opening in 2014.) We raced through the works of Glenn Brown, not quite understanding the connection, and a bit horrified at the personal agony undertaken in the art. But we were rewarded with the lucious paintings of Van Gogh.
My favorite part of the day – lunch! We strolled around until we spotted the Bistrot Arlesien near the center of town. The cafe was empty (it was early) and we chose the perfect shady seats just out of reach of the hot sun.
Caesar comes to Arles
I was surprised at the huge presence of Rome in southern France. Every city seemed to have a bit of aquaduct or an arena to call their own. Those Romans were wiley! First they provided extraordinary infrastructure – roads and water – to their conquered citiies. Then they added government buildings. Entertainment soon followed housed in centrally-located arenas and coliseums.
Arles takes its treasures seriously and established the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence antiques in 1995. Of course, we had to see it!
So what do you do when your city is under constant attack in the middle ages? How about building your city inside the walls of the long defunct coliseum? That’s what the people of Arles did during the 1500’s.
According to the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antiques: “In 49 BC, in the midst of civil war, Caesar who wanted to take the City of Marseilles that supported his opponent Pompeii resolved to build 12 ships at Arles which being completed and rigged in 30 days – from the time the timber was cut down – and brought to Massila (Marseilles)” (De Bello civili, I-36).
“At the end of the conflict with the supporters of Pompeii in the Iberian Peninsula, victorious Caesar rewarded Arles for its help by founding in 46 BC a colony under Roman law and granting it with part of Masilla-confiscated territories. He settled there the veterans of the VIth legion who had remained faithful to him during the civil war, whence the name of the new colony Colonia Julia paterna Arelate sextanorum this decision allowed the free Arlesian people to become Roman citizens.”
So how did all this stuff get to Arles? Much of it was created onsite but much also arrived by boat. The museum features a preserved merchant boat that carried everything from rocks to wine.
We only scratched the surface of Arles during our day trip. You could spend days here roaming the countryside, visiting the shops, enjoying cafe life, and meeting the residents. And I will – on another day!
We were so very lucky to be introduced to Marseille by our new friends Carole and Daniel. Daniel grew up in Marseille and graciously showed us his favorite places in this French city by the sea.
It was an especially exciting time to visit Marseille because France was playing Portugal in the finals for the Europe Cup that day. Fans started celebrating early, carrying drums, wearing blue jerseys and filling restaurants up and down the sparkling beaches. Flags flew from balconies in every direction I looked. Excitement was electric in the air! Here’s a very short video of fans gathering to watch the game on big screen TVs.
I was tickled to see David standing in a traffic circle in downtown Marseille.
Daniel first took us to see the sea. We enjoyed the wind that wasn’t quite Mistral strength, but gusty winds blew steadily on us from the water and cooled us a bit on a hot and sunny day. Lots of people were strolling next to the sea on a Sunday morning so we had to wait for a break in the “traffic” to get a photo.
Daniel then took us to a huge housing tower that we never would have seen on any packaged tour of Marseille. The building is a self-sufficient city within a city with housing, shopping, a school, recreation, restaurants, and a hotel. The hallways are called streets and resident committees create a rich social life.
Swiss-French Architect Le Corbusier designed several of these all-inclusive habitats around 1950 but Marseille’s is the most famous. He strived to build modern living quarters for people in crowded cities; these were buildings where residents would never have to leave the building unless they wanted to.
I was thrilled to meet the artist Felice Varini as he finished his dizzying graphic in the building’s gym. The design offers a different perspective if you move even a few inches forward or backward, left or right. The Swiss-born artist lives in Paris and is known for his urban paintings on buildings, walls and streets.
On his website, Varini writes, “My field of action is architectural space and everything that constitutes such space. These spaces are and remain the original media for my painting. I work “on site” each time in a different space and my work develops itself in relation to the spaces I encounter.”
The designer of the building itself is LeCorbusier. He, perhaps, launched the Brutalist movement in architecture which used “raw” (brutal) materials such as unfinished concrete. (Some folks say the huge buildings are just brutally ugly but I like them.) In the photo below, the 66-year-old building is getting a bit of a face lift but the redesign still incorporates raw materials.
Brutalist buildings often incorporate repeated modular units and exposed building functions. You may have lived in a brutalist building while a university student. I can think of a couple twin towers at The Ohio State University when I was there (known facetiously by students and parents as Sodom & Gamorrah in the age of free love).
I kept thinking that this building reminded me a lot of the Habitat 67 at the World’s Fair in Montreal. Then I realized, this building was a bit of a deconstruction of Unite d’Habitation.
I’m no architect or even a critic. But I do find it fascinating that minds sharper than mine are working to explore new and better ways to live. I am thankful to Daniel and Carole for giving me the chance to tour Unite d’Habitation.
NOTE: We saw so much that I’ve split Marseille into three separate blog entries.
Our friends Carole and Daniel planned the perfect day for us in Marseille, complete with sunshine and breezes in this beautiful French coastal city. After touring all morning, we were hungry! So we looked for parking and lunch in a town crowded with soccer fans and Sunday strollers.
Here’s a tiny video of Denise and Sher trying to figure out a French menu before they were brought the menu in English.
We ate outside on a screened porch but this is the interior of the L’Ecailler Restaurant in Marseille, France
Full and relaxed, we headed out to explore the waterfront of Nice. As we walked, we passed a small market, a mirrored shaded area and the huge ferris wheel we had seen from the basilica.
There was a Picasso exhibit in Marseille but we had already visited Picasso museums in Barcelona, Malaga and Paris and we had viewed his art at numerous galleries throughout Europe (damn, that man was prolific!). So we skipped this exhibit although the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations building, itself, is stunning. It’s called the J4 (the name of the pier) for short.
See that lacy work extending out from the museum? That is concrete! It encases the building and provides shade.
The walls of the Museum of the European and Mediterranean Civilisations building features quotations from the Universal Declaration for Human Rights which I teach in my ethics courses. It was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and set out for the first time fundamental human rights to be universally protected (United Nations). It was thrilling to see these words written on walls for all to see.
The real reason we stopped at the museum was to use the restrooms and take the exterior spiralling walkway to the roof. Once on the roof we climbed round and round the building to a bridge that connected the museum to an old sea-side port. The port has been rennovated into a relaxing space for concerts, cocktails and relaxation next to the sea.
As we crossed the bridge, several young teenagers were stopped in the middle of the bridge calling down to boys diving into the sea and urging them to “Jump!” Here’s a little video of their antics. And here are the boys, below, swimming. And here’s a very short video of a boat coming into port.
We often stumbled upon choirs singing in unexpected places. This choir was singing in the courtyard of the old port next to the Marseille waterfront. Here’s a little video.
The bridge/walkway is a beautiful place to view Marseille. Here’s a city view I took while strolling.
Now here’s why we were going to skip Marseilles. Back home in the states, just before we left, I binge-watched the European crime drama series The Last Panthers. The series is set in Marseilles and concerns Balcan jewel thieves called the Pink Panthers. It shows a dirty, gritty harbor-front city where no one is safe. Ever. Alors, that’s television for you. Thank goodness Carole and Daniel changed my mind entirely about this wonderful, clean, happy city of Marseilles.
At the end of our very long and rich day in Marseille, we were blessed with a gorgeous sunset at our swapped home in Mallemort thanks to Pascale and Renee. We also swapped homes with Carole and Daniel in Paris and I look forward to lending them my home next spring. Homeexchange.com gives us such a rich experience when traveling in Europe because we get to live in real homes in real neighborhoods. More important, we meet the most wonderful people!
We are forever grateful for this wonderful day with Carole and Daniel.
NOTE: We saw so much that I’ve split Marseille into three separate blog entries.
What better way to discover the south of France than by planning our two weeks around the market days of the charming towns and villages scattered one next to the other throughout Provence? It was Thursday, so it was time to visit Aix-en-Provence (locals call their town “Ace”). Not only would we get to shop, we’d also get to see where Cezanne hung out, see the local cathedral and visit the “most beautiful tea room” at Caumont. We’d also learn that Aix is so much more than we had expected.
As usual, we got turned around and lost as we approached town. Sometimes we just had a hard time believing our GPS really wanted us to travel left down a tiny little street next to a crucifix attached to a wall in the middle of a road.
But we did find our way to the center of the old town. One of the very first things I spotted was a landmarker in the midst of sales booths and vendors’ cars.
Here stood 22 August 1944 one of Sherman tanks of the armed Allied liberation of Aix in Provence , surrounded by the population of the city in jubilation . Landed 15 August on the beaches of the Var , the armies lost more than 2,000 men before reaching Aix , while the provencal resistance saw 140 of its guerrillas die under enemy fire, often summarily executed. They joined forces August 19, 1944, to all liberate the city from Nazi barbarism.
These men, those of Aix , those of the American 3rd Division , and those of the 1st Armee Francaise Libre, leveed in North Africa and Corsica , commanded by the Marechal de Lattre de Tassigny. These men coming from all walks of life, had all skin colors and all religions. They mingled their destinies and their blood for human dignity in the defense of democracy and the liberation of Provence.
This is the beauty of the south of France. Next to a profound statement is the fruit of struggle. People are free to explore the countryside and meet one another thanks to the sacrifice of others. I am grateful.
Market day has been held in the same area for centuries. The Romans traded on these very streets before Christ was born.
The Cafe du Palais
We arrived at the market hungry and bought up clusters of fresh fruits and vegetables for our home fridge, then we went in search of a cafe for lunch. We were more than happy to discover the Cafe du Palais with its hearty lunches for about $15 plus wine. Lesson learned from this restaurant: Before collapsing into chairs at the closest cafe, take a moment to see how the servers treat the guests. If the servers look like they are going to spend as little time as possible with you because they’re Jonesing for their next cigarette break, you might be better off somewhere else.
After lunch, we strolled and shopped, enjoying the windows and gasping at some of the exorbitant prices.
Enough shopping! On to some culture.
Based on collections once owned by leaders of Provence, the Granet Museum houses about 12,000 works of art in the former Palace of Malta and at a chapel down the street and around a corner. You can actually take a virtual tour of the Granet Museum on their website but these are a few of my favorites from the collection.
Cezanne is the star of Aix-en-Provence but the Granet displays just 10 paintings and owns another dozen, not displayed. Still, restaurants and shops are named after the all-star impressionist and you can see metal plaques capping cobblestones throughout town where Cezanne once painted. The capstones lead from the house where Cezanne was born to St. Jean Cemetery where he was buried.
Caumont Center for the Arts
The Caumont Center for the Arts is recommended for its elegant tea room but the place is extravagently expensive. We stopped in for for a cup of tea and a dusty-looking pastry only to be shocked when we were charged twice as much for the “tea of the day”. Two cups of tea and a bottle of water came to just under $30. Service was very poor and we had to track down a server to take our order. They simply could not be bothered to bring us our check and we had to find a manager to help us with that. Luke-warm tea and a close and humid room on a hot, sunny day contributed to the discomfort and rude atmosphere in the beautiful tea rooms.
The restrooms were the real treat at the Caumont. We avoided the lower-level restrooms and used the first-floor toilet tucked into a small passageway near the outdoor formal gardens. Best restroom in all of France!
The gift shop is another delight. Tables are elegantly staged and everything is for sale.
So my advice for the Caumont is to peek in the tea rooms – but don’t bother eating – tour the verdant gardens, enjoy the gorgeous gift shop, and leave with lovely memories.
The Cathedral of the Holy Saviour
The Cathedral of the Holy Saviour of Aix-en-Provence was built atop an ancient temple to the sun gods on the Via Aurelia, the Roman road built through the south of France. Begun in the 1200’s when Aix was the capital of Provence, the cathedral was completed just about the time Christopher Columbus was discovering America in 1492. The carved doors to the cathedral are made of wood and were commissioned in the early 1500’s. You can see the four old testament prophets surrounding the doorway and a dozen pagan fortune tellers above – they foretold the birth and death of Christ.
The altar piece painting is a masterpiece of the 15th century created by Nicholas Froment of nearby Avignon. Moses, guarding his flock, is astounded to see Jesus and the Virgin Mary rise from a burning bush. I’d also be pretty surprised if it happened to me. The people painted in the left and right panels are the folks who paid for the painting, King Rene (left) and Queen Jeanne (right).
This is an altar built by Audinet Stéphani for the Aygosi family. It used to be in a Carmelite church that burned down in the French Revolution so it was moved to the cathedral along with the altarpiece, above. You can see Saint Maurice in his coat of armor to the left of St. Anne, the mother of Mary.
I’m a fool for stained glass, and while I have no information, you can see that the window tells a story. Looks like maybe its the story of the female icons of the church, complete with a dog symbolizing loyalty.
End of the Day
At the end of every day in the south of France, we leave tired, happy and full of new memories. We take photographs of the parking garage and the cross streets where we left our car earlier in the day so we can find our way back. This may be the most important tip I give you in my blog! Simply pop your ticket into the machine located somewhere near an entrance to the garage and pay with your credit card. Your ticket will be validated and you can insert it into a second widow-height machine as you drive out of the garage.
Have a great day in Aix-en-Provence. Just eat somewhere else.
La Nuit aux Invalides is one of the not-to-miss highlights of a summer night in Paris. The monumental sound and light show is displayed on the interior courtyard of the Military Museum. The late night spectacle – it starts at 10:30 pm – is a sumptuous display of video, narration and music that tells the history of France in just 45 minutes.
We arrived very early because we wanted to make sure we got a good seat….meaning we did not want to stand or sit on the hard cobblestones. Turns out 30 minutes ahead of time is plenty of time. We spent our waiting time watching kickball teams of young people playing ball on the grass lawns in front of the museum.
The workers, however, responded to our request for seats and gave us a place to sit while we waited and escorted us to a small section of seats reserved for handicapped and elderly. After a month on the road we are a bit of both.
While waiting for the show we noticed hundreds of rabbits romping in the bushes outside of the military museum. One of the employees laughed and said the rabbits are very used to humans. “And what else do they have to do? So, voila! we have many, many rabbits.”
Rabbits aside, the computer-generated sound and light show gives breathtaking visuals from Gaul to the middle ages to the French Revolution and two world wars. The story line is all based on the history of the Sun King’s palace for the veterans of France’s wars and the many uses of the building for nearly 350 years.
I read about nightmare traffic jams near Nice, France so we parked our car in Frejus and took a scenic train to Nice. It seemed like a great decision until we realized we were in a little suburb of Frejus , we would have to ride to Caan and change trains, and trains home would be infrequent. On the upside, travel was cheap – less than 20 Euros roundtrip – seats were comfortable, and the view was spectacular! Well worth any time lost by training rather than driving.
Because we had 45 minutes before our train arrived, we decided to go looking for the Roman coliseum near the train station. We followed our smartphone directions and discovered most of the arena has been rebuilt right on top of the old Roman ruin. It was not open when we arrived but we did get to see how the old is made new for current use.
We enjoyed a quick look around and headed back to the Gare (train station) to catch our train for Nice.
Upon arrival in Nice, we walked out the front doors of the train station and into the Tourist Information (TI) building. We got maps and asked for details on bus service. We walked about a block to a bus stop that sold tickets. English-speaking Japanese tourists showed us how to work the machine and advised us to buy 10 tickets for 10 Euro that could be used by any number of travelers rather than all day passes that would cost us 6 Euro each. We saved 2 Euro! And it turned out we rode the bus five times so we used all 10 tickets.
It really would have been helpful to have a bus map but the TI did not have one and we could not find one anywhere. I should have downloaded an app before coming to Nice, but live and learn. Best of all is that Nice is pretty compact, but hilly, and good walkers can easily cover the city on foot.
Nice may be named nice because the residents are wonderful! They quickly give you directions and point you on your way. They more than make up for the rude bus drivers.
Because we did not have a bus map, we followed signs UP HILL to the Musee Marc Chagall. It was about 95 degrees with high humidity as we trudged up the hill following signs to the museum. The man in the TI told us it was a simple walk in “that direction – just follow the signs.” We arrived at the beautiful stone museum with graceful gardens red-in-the-face, panting, and covered with sweat. Turns out we could have taken a bus right to the front door.
Exhausted, we bought our tickets (bargain day! Just 6 Euro for admission and 2 Euro for headphones…supposedly because a small gallery was closed?) and strolled over to the charming cafe for lunch.
Then it was time for dessert: the art of Marc Chagall displayed in a modern stone museum built just for his work. Everything was located on one floor and the galleries were filled with light.
A vera ma femme
ma joie al mon affeguesso
…Marc Chagall (a love note to his wife)
Normally one art museum would be enough in a day, but I would only be in Nice on this day so off we went to visit two municipal museums. Tour books told me the visits would be free, but we were asked to purchase a 10 Euro ticket that admitted us to several municipal museums. It seemed a reasonable price but we were very disappointed at the lack of English signage or audio guide or printed flyer.
We took the bus downhill from the Musee Marc Chagall and a friendly rider on the bus told us where to get off and where to walk to get to the Musee Massena, a lovely La Belle Epoch house that treasures the history of Nice. While we were not sure what we were seeing, both the house and the gardens are beautiful and well kept up.
Feeling like we had the bus thing down, we strolled to the bus stop and discovered the woman from our previous ride standing right next to us. She happily gave us directions to our next stop. She was our guardian angel on this hot day in Nice!
As we rode our bus, we oohed and ahhhed over the gorgeous buildings of Nice. Every street could be a scene for a romantic movie.
We got off the bus and followed the signs to the Musee de Beaux Arts. We made the mistake of following the road signs which took us all the way around a block to our original destination because drivers need to avoid the one-way streets. But we were walking so not fun on a hot day.
The Musee des Beaux Arts was supposed to house a lot of works by famous artists and it is an odd mix of beautiful work. We found nice Picasso pottery, a couple of large works by Rodin, and lots and lots of work by Duffy. Because there was no English map or sheet, we could not find the other works even though we looked at everything in the museum. This makes a sweet little morning visit – I say morning because the building was hot and there is no lift to the second floor located up a double stone staircase. If you’re a Rodin-Picasso-Duffy fan, this place is worth a visit.
Depictions of women have come a long way in 500 years! Mary, gowned in Renaissance robes, chastely kneels to receive her crown, her head bent in humility and the weight of her halo. The swimmer below rests casually on a robe, crowned by the sun. Even her belly button shows through her swim suit.
Because of our visit to the Musee des Beaux Arts, I became intrigued with the work of Raoul Dufy (image, above). When I returned home to the US, I stumbled upon a lovely article by Ian Phillips in Elle Decor Magazine who wrote, “More than anything, the Frenchman was a painter of leisure. His favorite themes were the seaside, racecourses, and musical instruments and his canvases are filled with bright colors and a carefree spirit.”
Even though we were on vacation, we were women with a mission. So we hiked down the steep hill from the museum, waited a long time for a bus, got thrown off the bus two stops short of the train station, caught another bus and arrived at the station nearly 30 minutes early for our train back to Frejus.
People have asked about safety but there are police and soldiers everywhere. We saw this small force of three patrolling the train station at Nice. They asked a pregnant woman sitting on the platform next to me to put out her cigarette but they were friendly to the children and nodded to the waiting passengers.
So that’s the story of our day trip to Nice. It was just enough time to see the city, shop at Lafayette Galleries, and enjoy extraordinary coastal views from the comfort of our train seats. Don’t miss Nice. It’s really – sorry – nice.
I am totally smitten by the south of France. It’s kind of like the southwest USA but entirely different: Arid, rocky hills give way to lush green mountains anchored by flatlands of lavender and vineyards. Simply, incredibly, beautiful.
And the people! They are wonderful! No one speaks English until I greet them with “Bonjour” followed by my explanation that I do not speak French, even as I speak my pathetic French. I speak a little Italian, Spanish and Portuguese but I’ve always run from the complicated French language. In fact, that’s something I hear all the time from French people: it’s complicated.
But everywhere we go, French tourists and shopkeepers are quick to point the way, describe what we need to know and do their best to communicate in English to us. While the language is not natural, the people are. We could not be treated more warmly.
Our first road trip took us to Les-Baux-en-Provence on the recommendation of our friends, the Freshmans, who visited while on a Viking cruise. We were prepared for the beautiful light show (see Carrieres de Lumieres, below) but we were taken totally by surprise by the gorgeous approach to the hill-top town of Les-Baux-en-Provence.
We twisted through tight turns even as we climbed through sun-bleached rock formations. Breathtaking both because it was beautiful and also because we were scared to death we would meet an on-coming car with no place to pull over to the side of the road to pass. It was a bit like Sedona but with white rocks towering over us on both sides of the road. Beautiful homes were built right into the rocky hillsides often incorporating caves as part of their design.
When we reached the town, we waited nearly 15 minutes for a parking spot to open in the 15-car parking lot next to the village rather than hike up the rest of the mountain. The picture below shows where we bought our parking pass – $5 for the entire day – after much coaching from some lovely French tourists. After a few hours of fabuloso shopping and gelato, we went to leave the parking lot when there was a tap on our window. “Do you speak English?” Yes, we do. “Can we have your parking pass? We can’t figure out how to use the machines. We don’t have Euro coins and it won’t take our credit cards.” Yes, you can. Where are you from? “Tampa.” No way! They live about 10 minutes away from us in the States.
The tiny village sits at the base of an old, decaying castle in a medieval town updated in a Sausolito kind of way. My friend Denise Brewster thought all the little villages would look this way. She said this was a great place to start our trip because it was such a stepping-back-in-time village.
You wander down twisty little streets that circle back on themselves then turn up or down the mountainside to be connected again by a flight of stairs. Shops the size of tiny living rooms feature timbered and plastered ceilings and lightly stocked shelves.
Shops sell honey, tiles, hats, dresses, toys, postcards, candy, carved wood…just about anything you would find in an upscale tourist town. See something you like? Ask if they have more or a different size and the shopkeepers hurry out the door to a nearby warehouse to get you what you want. We absolutely delighted in wandering through the little village imaging what life was like here 500 years ago.
One of Denise’s best memories: “We sat on a terrace overlooking the village, eating rabbit and black bull raised on a local farm Barbara had a very nice pasta which was delicious.” Oh, my good God, the French can cook! We ate at Bautezar Restaurant where we relaxed with decent service and fabulous food.
When we had exhausted all options in the tiny village, we headed for the sound and light show just down the hill. “You cannot miss the Carrieres de Lumieres,” my friends the Freshmans advised, “Great art is projected on the walls of an old limestone quarry.”
We purposely visited late in the day after the buses and hordes of tourists had left the mountain. We parked in a spot right in front of the show, walked up to the ticket office and purchased tickets for 12 Euro each.
We really needed restrooms after our very long lunch and way too much wine and we were directed down a hall to the left. Down the hall to the left ended up being a very, very long walk of about 2,000 yards down sandy paths and up short ramps! The bathrooms are immaculate but use the toilets before you arrive unless you’re ready for a very long walk.
The show, itself, was glorious! Images of Chagall’s paintings drifted through the air, landing on a stone wall or the ceiling or the floor or down a corridor. If you paused, the show landed on you and you became part of the festivities. Here’s a little video by Joelle Luce to demonstrate what a previous show was like. We didn’t see the Renaissance painters; we saw Chagall.
The show is projected on 5,000 square meters of limestone walls. The story of Russian born French Citizen Marc Chagall is told through 12 dream scenes of a summer night. Music ranges from classical to Janis Joplin as the viewer slowly falls in love with the work of Chagall.