Provence, Part 2 - From the sparkling sea to the ochre hills

Last week I talked about the Provence that lives along the Rhone river, with it's wine regions, Roman ruins, and artistic legacy.  Now we move a bit farther east, where some say you find the "real" Provence.  There really is just SO much to love and to see and do in Provence, so for this part of the region I'll detail some of the areas you could consider either as home base or at least for a visit, going from the coast up to the north.  There are wineries sprinkled all over, but this eastern part is much less about being a "wine region" that even the area along the Rhone.  SO - with wine as a back ground aspect, let's focus on some of the can't miss spots:

1) Marseille - the second largest city in France after Paris, and very much a "second" city, in many ways.  It used to be a bit rough, and frankly many still advise skipping it, but it's been changing A LOT, and so I popped in for an afternoon to see what's what.  I really didn't have much time to do much besides an overview tour, which really is a shame because there is some amazing stuff I'd like to go back and explore.  Firstly, there is some gorgeous coast line, and even some city beaches - with sand!- and the drama of of that cathedral up on the hill overlooking the entire city really is impressive.  Secondly, the brand new MuCEM, a world class museum focused on European and Mediterranean culture, features some super cool, innovative architectural design which is an attraction in itself.  And finally, the FOOD.  I didn't get to eat while in town, but it's the home of "Le Petit Nice Passedat", which is one of the few three-star Michelin rated restaurants found outside of Paris.  Also, in general, it features much more seafood and lighter fare than often found in other parts of Provence, and is home of the famous Boulliabaisse.  So, you may not want to spend ALL of your time down in this major metropolis, but I do think it's worth a visit, for sure. 

2) Cassis - a little seaside village about a half hour from both Marseille and Aix-en-Provence.  This was recommended to me by my host in Aix, and OH MY GOODNESS - I was THRILLED with it.  First of all - village is basically surrounded by vineyards, most of which are up on hillsides and feature a lovely view out onto the sparkling sea.  Also, the vineyard I visited (Bodin, also known as Chateau de Fontblanche) is where I really discovered not only some FANTASTIC wines, but also that French wine is not necessarily expensive.  I loved every wine I tasted, but was sure they were going to be in the ~$50 range, but in actuality they were all under $20!  The problem is that all these great, inexpensive wines don't get exported, so everyone in the States thinks that all French wine is so pricey.  In any case - if you're looking for some delicious Rose or crisp whites - Cassis is a particularly beautiful spot to stop in.  The town also has a lovely little port (complete with men playing boules - a Provencal staple!), some great restaurants (both casual and high-end), and it's a great launching spot for a boat trip along the coast.  The area of the coast from Marseille to Cassis is full of these little inlets, called "calanques" which are just ridiculously gorgeous.  My quick (and inexpensive) hour and a half tour was seriously one of the most lovely and relaxing experiences of the entire trip.  Again- this may not be a place you want to stay overnight (though you definitely could!), but it is WELL worth a visit, either for a whole day or an afternoon.  Here are a few of my favorite shots:  

3) Aix-en-Provence, for many, is really the capital of Provence.  The location is really pretty central - it's about a half hour from Marseille, an hour from Arles & Avignon, and maybe an hour and a half from of the Cotes du Rhone region. It is a vibrant small city, full of fountains and known for it's great open-air market.  It's a university town, so there is a youthful vibe, with great boisterous sidewalk cafes and bars, yet it also has elegant museums and restaurants.  Notably, it was home to the artist Cezanne and you can visit his studio, which is now a museum set up exactly as if he'd just left it.  As an example of little treasures you can just run across, during my visit, I happened upon a little local festival celebrating traditional Provencal culture.  Locals - adults and kids - were dressed in traditional costumes and did all kinds of typical traditional dances, music, and games.  Tons of people were gathered in the square, all waiting for the final moment of the little festival, when a traditional bonfire was lit, and the revelry really began.  It was unspeakably charming, and such a special thing to have happened upon.  You find these kinds of things all over Provence, as the locals really are proud of their history and culture, and there is a movement to keep the traditions alive.  I don't have too many photos of Aix somehow, but it really is a lovely town - hopefully these few selections will help you decide that this strategically located town could be a perfect home base for your next trip to Provence.  

4) The Luberon is probably the Provence of your imagination.  It was made famous by Peter Mayle's book "A Year in Provence" (a must read before visiting!), and has since really experienced a huge increase in wealthy Parisians (and foreigners like Mr. Mayle) who have restored old farmhouses as second residences.  This really is such a perfect location for a family or group of friends to rent a house together and spend a week relaxing and puttering around the region.  It's basically situated right between the Cotes du Rhone and Aix en-Provence, only about 30-45 minutes east of Avignon. There are hill towns galore, quaint little markets basically each day, and yes some vineyards and lavender fields.  In fact, when I was planning my trip back in 2015, it was my plan to park myself in some cute little farmhouse or B&B (known as a "gite", or sometimes as a "chambre d'hotes", which is more of a guest house) in a town like Rousillon or Gordes and explore from there.  Sadly, there is too much else in the region that I got distracted and moved all around.  As an fyi, I did one night in Orange, one night in Arles, two nights in Aix, and one night near the Gorges de Verdun to the east, and I must expose my shame and admit: I did not even get to the Luberon!!  Yet another attempted visit to this mythical region thwarted!  I basically went all around it, and touched on the far southern and eastern end, but just never quite made it to the D-900, which is the road that really cuts through the heart of the area.  Next time, for sure!!  Just to give you an idea of what you might see when driving through this area, I included a shot of Gordes from a Provence tourism site.

I hope these last two posts have helped convince you that Provence is a must visit, and it offers SO much for so many different interests.  Art lovers, food lovers, wine lovers, history buffs, or even just fans of lovely scenery will all find something to enjoy, but do yourself a favor and give yourself enough time.  Life moves slowly here, so you don't want to be the only one rushing from place to place.  Next up: a potential side visit if you're headed to the Riviera after Provence, or if you're just a nature fan: the Plateau de Valensole and the Gorges du Verdun!