Labor Day—and the unofficial end of summer—may be coming up this weekend, but I’m still stuck somewhere in early June, as I continue telling you about our France trip. I know, I’m ridiculously slow. Case in point—this past weekend, I just finished a photo book of our trip to Spain, where we spent our honeymoon. More than one year ago. Eventually, stuff gets done.
Anyway. Today, we’re moving on from Paris to the South of France. We spent the second week of our trip in that region, starting in Marseilles, going through Provence, and ending up in Nice. Along the way, we noticed some big differences between the Northern region, where we started our trip, and the South. Of course, since it’s closer to the Mediterranean, the South is warmer and the food and architecture are typical of the region (it reminded me of Italy). In addition, the people are more laid back and welcoming. Even the language is different. The French spoken in the South is harsher and lacks the smooth, lilting quality that we had become used to hearing in the North.
We took a short flight from Paris to Marseille, the second largest—and oldest—city in France. Because of it’s location on the Mediterranean and it’s longstanding tradition as a trading port, it has long been a major point of entry for immigrants to France. Italians, Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Spanish, North Africans, and Arabs have contributed to the diversity of the city.
The Greeks settled Marseille in 600 BC. After that, it was one bad thing after another. The Romans conquered it. Then, the Visgoths did. Then, the Franks. Then, the Aragonese. The plague came through and killed 100,000 people. It was heavily bombed during World War II. An oil crisis and economic downturn in the 1970s gave rise to increased crime and poverty. The city does look a little beat up.
On the other hand, there are some beautiful views to take in. We stayed at the Hotel Alize, which faces the Vieux (Old) Port. This area is really lovely, and is filled with cafes and places just to sit and gaze at the crystal blue water. If you take a ferry from the port, across the Bay of Marseille, you can visit the The Château d’If, the prison, which was the setting for Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.
We took a bus tour of the city, which stopped at the Church of Notre Dame de la Garde, which is situated on a hill, at the highest point in Marseille. It’s worth getting off the bus and climbing the steep steps to this church in the hillside, to take in some of the best panoramic views of the city.
The food was probably our favorite part of our time in Marseille. For lunch, we went to Au Falafel, an Israeli restaurant on a little side street, which was walking distance from the port. I will forever be in search of hummus that will live up to what we had here—it was velvety smooth, with just the right mix of garlic, chickpeas, tahini, lemon, and olive oil, and was served with warm, chewy, pita bread. I could have made a meal out of just the hummus, but I couldn’t resist the kabab sandwich, which was stuffed to the point of bursting with turkey, lamb, fresh veggies (including eggplant, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes) and topped with a yogurt sauce.
Bouillabaisse, a rich, hearty fish stew, is one of the specialties of Marseille. The dish was invented there by fishermen who were looking for a way to use up what they couldn’t sell from their catches. For dinner, we headed to Chez Fonfon, which is frequently cited as being one of the best places to sample it. The restaurant is little off the beaten path (we had to take a cab there, and then descend a flight of dark creepy steps and walk through a little alleyway) near a small port called the Vallon des Auffes.
When we sat down, the waiter already knew that we were there for the bouillabaisse. Although there is some version of fish stew in many parts of France, bouillabaisse is distinctive in the way its prepared (the name of the dish is a combination of the French words for “boil” and “simmer,”) its use of herbs de Provence and bony fish, and the method of serving it.
First, our server gave us only the broth, with a bit of toasted bread. This is kind of like an appetizer and lets you appreciate the hearty tomato and saffron infused base of the soup. Then, he brought out a plate of fish and potatoes, ramekins of aioli (garlic mayo) and rouille (kind of like mayo as well, but with saffron and chile peppers), more bread, and refilled our bowls with the broth and left us on our own to add the fish—which included eel, scorpion fish, gurnard, John Dory and weever—and all of the toppings. The server will keep bringing broth until you are too full to eat anymore. The dish is so rich and hearty that it doesn’t take long for a food coma to set in—I think I made it through a bowl and a half.
Aside from the food, Marseille honestly wasn’t one of our favorite stops on the trip. There are still some neighborhoods that are kind of underdeveloped and sparsely populated. Then, there are some streets that are so crowded, you feel like you can’t even breathe. We felt a bit uncomfortable walking around.
Nevertheless, it served our purposes of an entry point into the South of France. We picked up our rental car the next morning (a debacle, but I’ll spare you the details) and made our way out of the city, to Salon de Provence.
Salon’s principal claim to fame was that Nostradamus lived out his final years and is buried there.
The home where he wrote his famous prophecies is now a museum. Basically, it’s a series of rooms with wax dolls, depicting different scenes from his life (from his childhood, his time training to be a doctor, the plague, etc.). You stand in the room, stare at the dolls and commentary plays out of the speakers to explain the scene. It was interesting to learn a little bit more about his life and where his ideas came from, but it was a little strange.
After lunch, it was back on the road again to head to Avignon. The town is situated along the Rhone River and the ancient town center is still surrounded by walls.
Avignon became the seat of the popes for 68 years, beginning in 1309, when Pope Clement V decided that he wanted to stay in Avignon, instead of moving to Rome (which at the time was pretty chaotic and violent). He and his successors took up residence in the Avignon monastery, which they gradually expanded into the Palais des Papes, the largest Gothic palace in Europe. The palace, situated in the center of the town took about 20 years—and most of the papacy’s money—to build.
Dinner that night was at Restaurant L’Essentiel. If they had a location in Philly, I might eat there three times a week. The food was wonderful, and the presentations were so pretty. Some of the highlights included Chester’s marinated sardine appetizer; my chicken in a flavorful mushroom cream sauce with olive oil mashed potatoes and both of our desserts. I went with the warm chocolate cake (of course) with tart strawberry sorbet and Chester had cottage cheese topped with cherries and cotton candy. I know that probably sounds like a weird combination, but all of the flavors worked together and the pink spun sugar on top was unexpected and fun.
By the end of the day, I decided that I am going to retire to Avignon. It is the perfect combination of old and new, trendy and simple, upscale and simple. You can walk down the main street and be surrounded by shops and restaurants or walk through the winding medieval back streets.
Oh, retirement. Such a long way away. At least I still have plenty of time to start learning French.