Feeling at Home in Provence
"Dantes rose and looked forward, when he saw rise within a hundred yards of him the black and frowning rock on which stands the Chateau d'If. This gloomy fortress, which has for more than 300 years furnished food for so many wild legends, seemed to Dantes like a scaffold to a malefactor."
These are the words used by Alexander Dumas to describe the place where Edmond Dantes, the main character of his famous novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, was imprisoned for 14 years. And this is the place I had the pleasure to visit during a recent weekend trip from my home in Italy.
But this wasn’t just any weekend trip. It was unique in that my friends and I were using a “home exchange” service. While this practice has yet to take off in Japan, in Italy it is becoming a popular method of enjoying a low-cost holiday. The logic behind it is really simple: I will lend you my apartment when you want to visit my city and I will borrow yours back. No money, no hotels, no stress.
So when a couple of friends said they had made arrangements to exchange their apartment for one in Marseille, France, I happily agreed to tag along. It was my first experience so I don’t have much to compare it with, but generally speaking it was not bad. Since the apartment was within walking distance from Vieux Port, the old Marseille harbor, we were able to reach the city nightlife in just a few minutes. But while the little harbor is rich in pubs and restaurants, they unfortunately carter more to tourists than to locals.
But the best part of the house exchange program is the fact that you can rely on your hosts to recommend the best places around so that you can eat where the locals do. This is how we discovered La Grotte, an unexpected place hidden in a little dock along the coast route to Les Calanques, 30 minutes by car from the city. From the outside it looks like a normal very little restaurant, but inside is a big yet cozy space, elegant with a Renaissance taste. If you are lucky, you can have dinner outside, under a shower of blossoming bougainvillea. Once you manage to find the place, you can start enjoying the tasty menu: a very good selection of Provence cuisine, not exactly cheap but undoubtedly worthy.
Apart from the food, I enjoyed Provence, since, for the first time, I found a place in France that made me feel at home. Everybody says Italians and French are—more or less—cousins, but to be honest, neither side particularly likes this description, especially when talking about food, fashion, and wine. But during this trip to France, I can assure you, I didn’t “challenged” at all. On the contrary, all the people we met were very kind and welcoming. Maybe it is true that Marseille is the France’s Naples (where, in Italy, we have the most colorful and creative people).
The Provence region has plenty of places to go and things to do but, being only a three-day vacation, we had to choose our sites carefully, and I think we did well.
If you like gothic churches, getting lost in narrow streets, and feeling like you’re inside a Paul Cezanne painting, Aix en Provence is your destination. It’s only 20 minutes from Marseille and in one day you can explore all the city and satisfy all your artistic needs by visiting the little galleries in the city center.
Arles, instead, is called “a little Rome along the Rhone.” This is because it used to be a Roman province and traces from its history can still be found in the picturesque town. The most impressive part is, without a doubt, the remains of the Roman theater and the amphitheater or arena, where, nowadays, bullfighting takes place, especially during summer. Arles is also the place where Vincent Van Gogh used to live and took inspiration for many of his most famous paintings. Just by taking a walk in the city center, following the “Arles Antique” pathway, you can feel like an impressionist and enjoy the hot sunlight spreading over the buildings.
Avignon is permeated by a mediaeval aura, above all inside its most important place: a huge building full of story, even if a lot is left to your imagination, since the Ancient Palace of the Popes is actually empty. Anyway, it’s worth going even just for the view from its towers (Game of Thrones fans, like me, will love it!).
After choosing to venture to these neighboring towns, we were left without much time to explore Marseille itself. But even if you have just a little time in the city, a must-do experience is to climb up to Notre-Dame de la Garde (literally Our Lady of the Guard), the highest natural point in Marseille, a 149-meter limestone outcrop on the south side of the Vieux Port. From there you can have an extraordinary view of the bay and the city all at once.
Last but absolutely not least: save some of your time to take the ferry from the Old Port to the Chateau d’If. It only takes a few minutes to arrive (and if you want you can continue to the Frioul archipelago for a little sunbathing), but the air you can breathe inside the fortress is really special. From the courtyard you can enter different cells, and only try to imagine how difficult living there would have been. Dantes’ cell is also there, and from the top of the main tower you can have an amazing view of Marseille, where each prisoner dreamt to go return (although only one was successful).
Which brings me to my final Marseille recommendation: make sure you go there after reading the book, as you will appreciate the place even more. I enjoyed my trip so much that I decided to read it again!