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On today's show we go to Marseille and Provence with a French Expat, Isabelle Hall, who has been living in Texas for a long time, but grew up in Provence and knows it like the back of her hand! If you like this episode, you will also probably like episode 66 on Arles, episode 65 on the Pont du Gard, and episode 33 on Aix-en-Provence. At the end of the show [1'07"] I also answer a question from a listener about whether to book your SNCF train tickets in advance or not.
Places Mentioned in this Episode: Marseille, Corniche, Calanques, Sausset-les-Pins, Carry-le-Rouet, Venise Provençale, Martigues, Château d’If, Iles du Frioul, Cassis, Vieux Port, Canebière, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, Baux-de-Provence, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Aix-en-Provence.
A French Ex-pat Takes You on a Visit to Her Home in Provence
[7’42”] Find the Beach First
Because I grew up in the Provence near the water, I just love the water. One of the first things that I’ll do is I’ll try to get to the beach, and to be able to smell the sea. The salty water and the noise of the waves. And so, wherever I am, I will try to reach the water first and walk along the beach and smell the sea hear the sounds and think I am home! So that’s the first thing I’ll do: take my family and go to the beach even if it’s not to swim because the water is sometimes cold, especially in June.
- Where do you go to the beach near Marseille?
- La Corniche (old harbor or Vieux Port)
- The Calanques
Martigues is also called “la Venise Provençale” (Venice of Provence). Martigues is between the Mediterranean Sea and the Etang de Berre and it is surrounded by water and has canals. There are a lot of small boats, the downtown is very old, and offers a lot of activities: for instance you can just walk around Martigues, rent a boat, go to one of the restaurants, it is very colorful just to look around. You also have the international folk festival every year in July. It’s not just of French folk Festival but you will have dancers from America, Italy, Russia etc. It’s very animated and very beautiful.
When you think about Marseille for Americans at least we often think of the Count of Monte Cristo, and they know about the Château d’If. Even teenagers have read some about it or have seen the movie and so they are aware of that and they would like to go. If you go to the Vieux Port the old harbor in downtown Marseille, you can take a boat that will take you to the Château d’If for a visit. It is something you want to do at least once. Especially because when you take a boat and you go off the coast, Marseille is actually more beautiful when we see it from the water than when you are on land. You can also visit the Iles du Frioul and go swimming there. You can also bring a picnic. It’s a good thing to do with children.
Marseille has an undeserved bad reputation. Yes, there are certain parts of the town where you don’t want to walk around by yourself, especially at night, but that’s true anywhere. But La Canebière is a long street that go between the Vieux Port (old harbor) and goes up to the church, it’s a 10 or 15 minutes walk (city buses and the tourist train also go up there). But in Marseille the have a song that says that that street goes around the earth, they tend to exaggerate in Marseille!
There is also the story of the sardine that blocked the entrance to the old harbor.
You can see the Virgin Mary from almost anywhere. She's prominently displayed on the hill. This church is dedicated to the protection of sailors and is well-worth a visit.
The Mistral is the northern wind that often blows in Provence. It brings colder air to the area. It does not blow every day, but it blows very often. That is why you should pack a wind breaker when you go to Provence! They say Chicago is the Windy City, but they haven’t tried Provence! Most cities in Provence get a lot of wind! We mentioned the Mistral which is the northern wind that they have in Provence, if you want to go to , Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde ladies, do not wear a skirt or you may end up with that Marilynn Monroe experience as the skirt my end up on your head!
[23'00"] Camping in Provence
When we talk about camping in France don’t think that it’s going to be like camping in the national forests in the US for example. Campsites are types in France, campers are packed in close, you may hear your neighbors snore. But now campsites have small cabins that you can rent and those are pretty nice. Much nicer than a tent and more privacy. By now a lot of these bungalows have air-conditioning and those campgrounds offer activities such as dancing on Friday and Saturday night. French people like to party and we like to dance, especially in the South.
You can also do another type of tour along the Calanques which are on the coast between Marseille and the Riviera to the East of Marseille.
The Calanques are a rocky beach with a cliff (falaise). To the east of Marseille you don’t have any more long sandy beaches, what you have are a series of cliffs with rocky beaches. You can take a boat that will take you around to visit the Calanques, but you also have tours that will actually drop you off, will allow use of time to go and swim and enjoy the Calanques.
- To find a tour where you can swim in the calanques, google terms such as “balade en bâteau calanques avec baignade”.
- If you have a car I would say go to the Calanques by road and walk down (it may take 1/2 hour each way).
- You can also take a city bus from Marseille (the bus company is called RTM (Régie Transports de Marseille). Bus #20 will take you to the Calanque de Callelongue. There are restaurants and services there.
- Before you go make sure that the Calanques are actually open. They sometimes close in the summer because of high fire risk. You can find out about closures on the Internet or at the local tourist office.
- Météo France Météo Marine
[25’00”] The Marché de Provence
These are the open air markets. You will want to go, my kids also always look forward to going to the open air markets because that’s where you are going to see the farmers come and sell their fruits and vegetables, you have all the colors of the rainbow. You will find olives, all sorts of olives. My husband always wants to go get some olives right away. He has dozens to choose from, so he will try a few one day and a few different ones another day. He wants to try all of them over the time we are there. At the market you will also find clothes, fabrics, table cloths, curtains. We have special fabrics in Provence and also decorative dishes.
[32’22”] Les Baux-de-Provence
Les Baux-de-Provence are more in-land, it is at the heart of Provence. You need a car to get there. It is a typical Provençal village which means that it is on top of a hill, it is going to be a very tiny and very old village. Of course, there will be a church that will stick up above the other roofs in the village. Don’t even think about parking up there! You need to be able to walk! There are two small parking lots in the village and there is one road for people who are in a wheelchair. This last time I went there was actually a police officer directing traffic and he was very friendly very helpful. Usually the best you can do is park along the road. Now they have installed parking meters [which is good because then people don’t stay all day and take a nap under a tree or something!] And some places you pay with a credit card, others you pay with coins, it is not excessive, it was five euros for the whole day. We chose to go up the stairs but there is another way that can be used with people who are wheelchair users.
We went up the village and visited the Baux-de-Provence Museum and Castle, it was very nice. You have audio guides. The audio guide was well done, it takes you back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
This is also a small Provençal village with some Van Gogh things that you can visit [it is called Saint-Paul de Mausole]. Annie found this particular site to be a bit underwhelming. There isn’t that much to see and it’s not presented very well. Starry Night was painted in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, it is the view that he had from his window. That makes it a significant site, but Annie wishes that the Museum was more up-to-date in the way it presents the area. As it stands, it’s a very simple Museum. They just kept everything the way it was when van Gogh lived there. You need a good imagination to fully picture what was happening. If you love van Gogh it is probably worth the visit.
Isabelle: if you go to Aix-en-Provence you will see a lot of Cézanne painted a small mountain called la Sainte Victoire over and over again. You can actually see it also from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. This mountain is not much to look at for most people yet to Cézanne it was at the center of his work. If you have good legs you can hide all the way to the top or you could just go up part of the way.
Aix-en-Provence calls itself “ville d’eau et ville d’art” (city of water and city of art) it is not close to the sea, but it is an old spa town. Marseille was well-known for its commerce and harbor, but Aix-en-Provence is well-known for its baths. Aix-en-Provence had a lot of fountains and a lot of waters. Aix-en-Provence is a very walkable city because it has a lot of pedestrian only streets. There are also a lots of students in Aix-en-Provence because there are several universities. There are lots of international students including many from the US. Aix-en-Provence is a very pretty town with a small center, you can visit it in a day. You should visit the cathedral in Aix-en-Provence inside of the church they found an old baptismal font that dates back from the times when Catholics did baptism by full immersion instead of sprinkling. You can also visit the place where Cézanne painted, and Annie recommends that.
[43’27”] Look up!
In general in France you need to look up because there is all lots of lovely architecture everywhere. This is definitely the case in Aix-en-Provence, every house has something pretty on the façade. The people of Aix-en-Provence take pride in their city and keep it very nice. Unfortunately this is not always the case. For example, Naples in Italy has so much amazing architecture but the city is dirty and full of graffiti and you can tell that the people do not take care of their heritage as well as they do in the city like Aix-en-Provence.
[45’00”] Herbes de Provence
At the market in Provence you will find many opportunities to buy local herbs and spices. But if you just take a walk in the hills you can pick your own because those herbs grow wild in the area. You can just pick, when you go walk on Sainte Victoire.
[45’21”] Saucisson and Cornichons
When we go to the market we also love to buy some saucisson which is cured sausage. It is like Italian salami just better! Not as greasy and has more flavor. There are dozens of sorts of saucisson such as bull meat, ostrich meat, pork meat, duck meat, you will find some with mushroom or with herbs or with pistachio. This is something I miss as a French ex-pat, but my American husband also loves this stuff. Unfortunately you cannot bring it back to the US in your suitcase as it will get confiscated at the border. The herbs are usually okay (but maybe not if you picked them yourself), olives are okay especially if they are in a can. In general commercially canned goods can be brought back to the US but the rest cannot. Meat products cannot be brought back into the US so you have to eat them all while you are in France! Cornichons are French style pickles and they are very different from what you can get in the US most of the time. For one thing, French pickles are usually much smaller than American pickles. Maybe 10 times smaller. The caller is a very dark green in France. They are very vinaigry and we don’t put dill in our pickles. You can find some sometimes in the US but they are much more expensive over there. Amora is a big brand of cornichons in France and also Maille. But honestly those things are better when eaten in France because it’s a whole package. You have the sun, the wind, the people talking loudly and using their hands, the cicadas and it makes it real.
[48’44”] Things you need to bring when you come to France
Annie: If you own a good insulated carrier, you should bring it. Even if you are staying at a hotel you will probably want to keep a few items cool for a few hours before you eat them. You can also buy one in France. Grocery stores in France not give plastic bags, you have to use your own reusable shopping bags. It has been this way for a long time in France and so you can buy nice reusable shopping bags in a lot of places.
Isabelle: I like to buy a large weaved baskets that I bring back to the US as a carry-on bag. Those are great as a beach bag or a shopping bag or as a gift.
[53’44”] Santons de Provence and Crèche
Isabelle: I think the Baux-de-Provence is a good place to buy all sorts of souvenirs. You will find ceramics, textiles, baskets, santons, etc. The santons don’t are ceramic “Christmas people” or the “Village people”! Santons are used in nativity scenes. The people of Provence like to say that the baby Jesus was born in Provence.
Annie has a Provençal village where you can find Mary, Joseph, the wise man, the animals, and whole village of Provençal characters. You will find the shepherds, the sheep, the Baker, the fisherman, the blind man being led by a young boy, you will find a crazy young man with his arms up in the air, you will also have a woman dressed in the attire of the city of Arles (she’s called the arlésienne), but it will work the lavender fields, the laundry woman, old ladies, dogs, geese, ducks, donkeys, and all these people make up a village. There is usually a windmill in your village, a bridge. It can get very expensive if you want to buy all once, but most people buy a little bit of time and collect all the village people slowly over time.
The person who makes the santons are called santoniers, each one makes things a little bit differently, becoming different sizes, so you choose a size and then stick to it.
The way we used to start these nativity scenes was to find cardboard boxes of various sizes and stuff them with a dark brown craft paper that had spots on it's of various colors and it’s made it look like dirt. There doesn’t seem to be anybody selling this item anymore. That’s too bad, it made it the to get started! Now they sell houses to go in the village which Annie thinks is wrong because we all know that Jesus was born in a stable.
Large santons have clothing on them. The large ones are not used in nativity scenes but rather as decoration around the home. They are a bit tricky to keep clean and collect dust! You will find santons makers all over Provence: in Marseille, in Aix-en-Provence, in Baux-de-Provence, Nimes. They are handmade and all have their own style. It is best to find a style that you enjoy and stick to that. If you have a chance to visit various shops you can see them being made sometimes.
Annie: pay attention to the faces of the santons, some of them are beautiful and some of them are not so nice. That’s a criteria for me.
Isabelle: I found the santons maker who specialized in making dancers in various traditional dress, so they all specialize in something or other. This particular person had a santons of Gypsy lady with her tambourine and that is not something you normally find. If you come to Provence around Christmas time you will find santons everywhere at every open-air market.
[1’00”] How can you meet more French people when you come visit?
To get a more genuine experience of the country it is important to meet locals. How do you think visitors can go about doing that?
- Hire a local tour guide, but not through the tourist office. The reason why the tourist office is not so good is that they always take large groups. When I visited the tourist office in Lyon there were hundreds of people there and you have to take the ticket to talk to somebody. You cannot make genuine connections in a place like that. So instead do a little bit of research on a local guide and go with a smaller group. It may cost you a little bit more money but you will make a real connection that way.
- You could also say at an Air B&B and just rent a bedroom and stay in the same home as your host.
- A bed and breakfast would also have that sort of connection with locals.
- You can also buy a meal in somebody’s home instead of going to a restaurant, this is called meal sharing. Viseat.com is one of them.
- Use Blablacar for your transportation within France. It’s a ride sharing site and lots of people love it.
- Go to the small villages that are not as popular and famous, especially in Provence.
- If you are cooking your own meals you will have to patronize bakeries and butchers and local stores and if you speak some French will be able to get to know them a little bit.
- Ask questions. French people open up when you ask them to explain something to you or to help you in some way.
- Express interest in the items that you are ordering. Ask questions about how the coffee is served for example. Asked them what things are on the menu that you don’t recognize. Order typically French items such as Orangina or Menthe à l’eau or Diabolo Menthe. Ask questions and be interested in the local customs.
[1’06”] French Tip of the Week: Je veux, je peux.
Isabelle: “Je veux, je peux » means that if you want it badly enough you can do it!
[1’07”] Listener Question
Should you book your train tickets in advance or buy in France?
Annie: if you are going to be taking the TGV or the high-speed train you should book your tickets in advance as much as you can because the prices go up as the number of seats goes down. Other modes of transportation such as the bus or Blablacar lend themselves better to last-minute bookings. You should book your train tickets through the official website of the train company.
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Discussed in this Episode
- Camping in Provence
- Château d’If
- Count of Monte Cristo
- Iles du Frioul
- Mistral Wind
- Provence Beaches
- Provence with children
- SNCF Train Tickets
- Venise Provençale
- Vieux Port