Tuesday, April 12, 2016


The beautiful countryside of Provence
Between the ship being quite late getting cleared at the port of Toulon and some difficulty finding the gentleman that we were sharing the tour with, we did not get going as early as we had wanted for our day in France.   We finally located our fellow traveler and Véronique, our tour guide for the day, and set out on the drive to Aix-en-Provence at 9:45am.

There are some sights to be seen in Toulon but we were most interested in experiencing Provence and were all looking forward to seeing the countryside and the city of Aix-en-Provence.  It took about an hour to drive to Aix and we passed by Mont Sainte Victoire, which was the subject of many of Paul Cézanne’s paintings. 
Once we had found a parking garage, we were able to start our walk at La Rotonde.  La Rotande is a very large round-about at the beginning of Aix’s main boulevard, Cours Mirabeau.  It sports a beautiful fountain, the first of four fountains to be found along the Cours.  There are not really any ‘touristy’ attractions in Aix except perhaps Cezanne’s last painting studio.  The city itself is the main attraction and Véronique was full of information on its history and sights.
The Cours Mirabeau is designed for strolling.  On each side of the street, there are wide promenades with a small street in the middle for vehicle traffic.  It is not a wide street and there were not a lot of vehicles as the road ends at a turn-around area and goes right back the way it came.  You can’t park and leave your car so anyone travelling up the street is just doing so to see and be seen and then turn around again.

Cours Mirabeau

Strolling along the boulevard

A brocante (flea market) set up along the Cours
The upper class lived on the right side of the street in beautiful mansions (hôtels particuliers), all built in a similar manner:  three stories - the first story was for the kitchen and public rooms, the second for the private family rooms and the third for servants.  The windows on the first two levels are generally large but the third level windows are small in comparison.  The left side of the street is where all of the cafés, restaurants and shops are located.

A stunning hôtel particulier

What is more typically French than a lady reading a paper in a café on a beautiful, sunny morning?
When we reached the ‘mossy’ fountain (which is literally a fountain covered in green moss), we were able to put our hand in the water to find that it was quite warm as it is fed from a thermal spa underground.  These hot springs were part of the appeal for the original settlers in the area and the fountains were to show off the abundance of its waters.

The 'mossy' fountain
We walked almost to the end of the boulevard absorbing the quality of the light, the little side streets, the colour of the buildings and the relaxed pace of the residents as they went about their Sunday morning routine.  Nobody was in a real rush to get anywhere!

Véronique then led us into the warren of narrow streets off to the left of Cours Mirabeau and into the Old Town area.  It was so picturesque!!  The streets were narrow and the buildings were generally a warm gold coloured stone or cream stucco.  There was lots of wrought iron Juliet balconies and shutters painted in subdued earthy tones.  We enjoyed the simple pleasure of wandering through sun-speckled streets on a quiet Sunday morning in the south of France.  A dream come true!

We learned about the town’s history with the plague and the background behind all of the effigies found high up on the corner of many buildings.  When the plague broke out, it spread very quickly.  To help quell the spread, it was not permitted for any large gatherings to be held and that included church services.  People started to put up statues on street corners so they could worship out in the streets whenever they walked by one of those spots. 

Our next stop was at Place Richelme to visit the market.  This was quintessentially French right down to the red and white checked tablecloths and baskets of fruits, vegetable, breads, and cheeses.  There were lots of free samples and we tasted our way around the market.  We all picked up some bits and pieces to contribute to our picnic lunch that we planned to enjoy in Cassis.

We made a final quick stop at Monoprix to see what a French department store would have to offer.  It was good we did not have much time to browse as I could have done some damage with all of the French skincare products!!

I made a stop for some sorbet at a gelateria that looked just too quaint to pass by.  I chose raspberry, mojito and lemon and they were deliciously tart and smooth.  Nothing I have found at home has come close to the taste of the sorbet we enjoyed while in Europe.

We walked back to the large fountain where we started our day and Véronique picked us up and headed to Cassis.  Cassis is a small fishing village located on the coast.  Our first stop was way up at the top of a huge cliff called Cap Canaille where there was a scenic overlook.  Cap Canaille is the highest Maritime cliff in Europe and people come from far and wide to climb the rock face of the cliff.  We spotted a couple of climbers during our visit.  We had a bird’s eye view of the beautiful azure water, the craggy coastline and the town of Cassis below.  It looked very small from our very high perch.  Definitely not for the faint of heart!

The view from the top of Cap Canaille

Rock climbers

We then made our way down the very twisted road to Cassis.  Due to our late start that morning, we did not have much more than an hour and a quarter to spend otherwise, we would have loved to take a boat tour to the nearby calanques.  They are large inlets found along the rocky coastline and are mostly only reachable by boat or after a long hike.

We wandered through the town to the beautiful sandy beach and found some spots on the stone bleachers to lay out our picnic offerings.  It was windy but the sun was warm and the salty air just made us feel at home.

Enjoying our picnic at the beach

The harbour at Cassis
We devoured our picnic and then those that had not had any gelato or sorbet in Aix went on the hunt for a gelato shop.  As soon as the treats were finished, we all climbed in the van for the drive back to Toulon.  We arrived back at the pier around 4:15pm with about 15 minutes to spare before all-aboard was called.

We had a delightful time exploring Provence and it was a beautiful day with perfect weather and a very relaxed pace.  Véronique Flayol, from Made in Provence Tours, was so very pleasant and accommodating and she certainly added much to our wonderful day in Provence.  She has won several tourism awards and we can highly recommend her services for an excellent tour experience!!