Oct 25, 2014

Passion for Provence

If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you'll have probably noticed from my updates, that I just got back from travels to Provence.

I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a week with my American family in what may be the most charming area of France. The best part was traveling to and discovering a new place that none in our family had visited before. I also loved unplugging and not checking email for the whole time I was gone. My idea of luxury travel.

Our days were spent sightseeing historical cities, visiting hilltop villages, walking cobbled roads, perusing markets, falling in love with places, all punctuated by eating and drinking local goodness. Most of all, we caught up on over a year of not seeing each other.

Our home base for the first half of the trip was a beautiful 14th century home in the village of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Our host told us several cardinals resided in these cloistered walls during the Papal exile from Rome between 1309 and 1377.

We criss-crossed the Rhône River taking day trips to many interesting places. The first was Arles.

Here we understood the full impact of Rome and it's expanding control of the area which lasted more than 500 years. The Roman Empire was among the most powerful economic, cultural, political and military forces in the world of its time. It's no surprise therefore that stadiums, amphitheaters and other facilities were built in southeastern France, where Rome had greatly settled.

The Roman arena built in 90 AD seated 21,000 spectators and housed bloody gladiator fights and hunting scenes for more than 400 years. With the fall of the Empire in the 5th century, the amphitheater became a shelter for the population and was transformed into a fortress. Until 1830, the structure encircled more than 200 houses, becoming a little walled in town, within the city.

That same day we visited the Pont Langlois, which is the subject of four oil paintings, one watercolor and four drawings by Vincent van Gogh, all produced in 1888 when Van Gogh lived in Arles. Today the bridge has been slightly moved from it's original location and renamed Pont Van Gogh.

Our next visit brought us to an even more important Roman settlement, the city of Nîmes.
On the way there, we visited an imposing 3-tier bridge (Pont du Gard) which is part of the 50 km-long (31 mile) aqueducts built by Emperor Augustus in order to service the city.

The major sights we visited in Nîmes were the Arena, the Maison Carrée (below), and the beautiful Quais de la Fontaine, 18th century embankments of the spring that provided water for the city.

The following day we visited St. Remy de Provence in order to live the Provençal market experience. We picked up lavender, salami studded with hazelnuts, caramel butter (which airport security confiscated because I forgot the jar exceeded TSA regulations for hand luggage), and tasted lots of foie gras in between.

One of the most striking things we visited that day however was the Carrières de Lumières, which is an ancient limestone quarry that now hosts multimedia installations that propel viewers in an extraordinary world of art and music. Images of paintings are projected onto the immense walls, pillars and ground of the dark quarry, played to period music.

We then moved to Marseille, to attend the 2014 Marseille Web Fest. The city is amazing, and reminds me so much of another city I love: Naples. The alleys and quiet corners of Le Panier district ooze charm, and beg to slow down and encourage to live the city outdoors.

The View Port (ancient harbor) is buzzing with life, art, rainbow of cultures, music and a fish market on Saturday mornings.

The Norman Foster Pavilion is a stunning thousand-square-meter slab of reflective steel held up by eight unadorned pillars. As I approached it from Rue Rèpublique, the pavillion was nearly invisible, so the harbor – a World Heritage site – deservedly remains the vast area's protagonist. But up close, the hovering mirror both transforms and multiplies the space. It directs pedestrians' gazes back out to the sea, or allow them to admire own reflections overhead, essentially making them part of the landscape. Selfies, here, take on a whole new meaning!

photo © www.fosterandpartners.com
Another wonderful place in the city is the new MuCEM museum complex, located at the Fort Jean end of the harbor. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, inaugurated in 2013, is a cube of 15,000 square meters surrounded by a shell of fibre-reinforced concrete latticework, it houses exhibits on two levels with an underground auditorium seating 400, boasts a magnificent terrace where people can relax on lounge chairs facing the sea, and welcomes gourmands in the 3 Michelin star restaurant La Table, brainchild of Chef Gérald Passédat.

If you visit Marseille, you have to absolutely visit the archipelago of the Ile de Frioul. It's a 2-mile motorboat ride east to a cluster of 4 islands. One of which, If, houses the site of the Château d'If, where the main fictional character in Alexandre Dumas, père's "The Count of Monte Cristo" was imprisoned, one of my favorite historical novels!

On our last day in Marseille, we visited the neo-Byzantine Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, which dominates the city and protects its citizens from above. Located at the summit of a 500-foot hill, the Basilica provides a sweeping 360° view over the entire city. It took my breath away.

A trip to Marseille cannot be considered complete without tasting bouillabaisse. So we sought the advice of our local friends who directed us to Chez Michel, a dressy brasserie with a varied clientele of local business men, families celebrating a special occasion, and slightly furtive couples, and THE place, we soon understood, to come for bouillabaisse in Marseille.

Yes, it's expensive. But real bouillabaisse requires a ridiculous amount of local rockfish, gallinella (I've heard it called many names, including Sea Robin, Tub gurnard, Tubfish, Yellow or Grey gurnard) reef mullet and John Dory, which are all costly Mediterranean fish. The service and production that happens around the dish is exquisite: the Maître ladles the "bouillon" in deep bowls kept warm over tea lights, while another waiter (or two depending on the number of customers) cleans the slow cooked fish and arranges it on the plate with potatoes that have been stewed along with the poisson, saffron and tomato.

photo © www.bouillabaisse-marseille.com
Bouillabaisse is eaten in an equally complex way: croutons smeared with "rouille" (a sauce made with the fish broth, garlic, pepper and tomato) have to be dipped into the soup; the filleted fish is instead slathered with copious amounts of aïoli (garlic mayonnaise) and then dipped in the soup too, and eaten with noisy sucking sounds and pleasure moans. Ok, I added that part.

Since a week is not enough to visit the area, and there are many parts of this wonderful part of France that we couldn't fit in this trip, we promised each other we'd return.

So... au revoir Provence!


  1. Funny, when I lived in Paris people used to talk about Marseille with a certain disdain... What I'm seeing here tells a different story! Looks like a wonderful trip.

  2. Great to see a picture of you and E, and I gathered your venerable father as well. Loved your post, every biteful observation.

  3. It is interesting to follow you as a tourist enjoying all the things I would so enjoy in your country.
    It is possible that you walked where my ancestors walked as they were in St. Remy back in the late 1500s.

  4. was recently in Marseille on a cruise, after having studied there 46 years ago and found a transformed city, long lines at the Muceum since it was a rainy Sunday. Must return in good weather.