We often changed our minds about where to spend our time in France, or for how long--Paris for a weekend, even though it would be the third time? (But it's PARIS!) Or no, let's go camping in Corsica, that teeny island close to the neighboring Italian island, Sardinia, where we could spent a couple weeks, sleeping on the beach and eating fresh fish.
So many options. All luminous. None of which would be disappointing.
Ultimately, we settled on a different experience altogether.
Stop #5 of the Euromoon: a road trip through the cities and villages of the South of France, manifesting fields of lavender and markets full of cheese along the way.
Quick Facts / FAQ's:
Timing: We flew into Marseilles from Venice on August 10th, and flew out on August 17th, which gave us seven nights to explore. Given what we could afford (both money-wise and time-wise on this trip), a full week made sense for us. Any less, and we would have felt rushed. Any more, and we would have missed Maggie's wedding! Were we to go again, or if we were giving advice to fellow travellers, I think 10-14 days (if not a month) (or a summer) (or a YEAR) would be a good amount of time to relax into that part of the world, and give yourself some buffer travel days on either side.
We missed lavender season by a few weeks, and arrived on the heels of the end of sunflower season. Lots of dried up, alien looking Van Goghs dotting the fields as we whizzed past.
Season: Summer. By which I mean, we ruled out any potential Airbnbs that didn't have air-conditioning or a fan, and we tried to get to the markets before the epic sun was in full force. And hats. Always hats.
Itinerary: Three nights in Aix-en-Provence; two nights in Lauris (our base camp village for exploring the Luberon Valley); two nights in Marseilles.
We stayed at this Airbnb in Aix, and it was a gem. Super walkable to everything, quiet, affordable, charming with its French ceilings and tiny winding stone staircase up, but extremely comfortable with modern amenities. 100% recommended. Only drawback was no easy parking, if you have a car.
In Lauris, we stayed in this private extension of a huge, gorgeous house, situated on an olive grove (!!!) but right in the heart of the village. Again, walkable to everything, affordable, 100% recommended. Helene was an extremely gracious host.
In Marseilles, we stayed in a private room of a house which had a fun deck and garden (with flourishing marijuana plants), but it wasn't close to very many things to eat or see. We were in the 12th arrondissement, which felt a bit like no man's land. Also, as I get older, I realize that privacy really affects whether I love an accommodation or not, and that essentially, I am a social recluse who doesn't like sharing bathrooms with strangers.
Transportation: An easy, and cheap hour flight from Venice. We had pre-booked a rental car for the week at the airport, and compared to how much a car rental was in Iceland, it felt like paying for five cent candy from the corner store. You'll have to confirm with Bry, but I think (from the passenger seat), it was fairly seamless to drive in the South of France, and there were plenty of windy roads to keep our attention captivated, and rocky cliffs in the distance to look at. We had to get creative about parking when we got into the cities (our first naive night in Aix, we paid $40 CDN in an underground parking lot close to our apartment), but having a car otherwise was well worth it to explore.
Clothing: Birkenstocks and cut off shorts. In the summer, I am wildly unimaginative in terms of my wardrobe. Luckily, people are very casual in this region. Luckily, it's too hot for me to care.
Parlez-vous francais?: Just so you know, I held my own in terms of textbook Gr. 10 French (specifically, chapters like "Les voyages!": thank you for your vocabulary). One time, I popped out of the car and bounded in a restaurant in Lauris and exclaimed "Pouvez-nous faire un reservation pour ce soir? Peut-être sept-heurs et demi?"
APPLAUD ME. Are you proud, Mme. Arquilla?
Why I would come back: The markets of Aix-en-Provence. There was a moment when we descended upon our first market, where I got overwhelmingly flooded with happiness, and my eyes started tearing up like an idiot; me in front of an olive stand, while vendors on either side of me sold plump peaches and every flavour of goat cheese that exists in heaven.
Cortina and Venice had been a lot of action for us, so France was an excuse to do less.
Wake up, go to the market for fruit and cheese, go to the boulangerie for a baguette (and a spelt loaf!), go to the patisserie for pain au chocolat, eclairs, croissants, come home to our cozy apartment, stuff our faces, nap, repeat.
I don't think we went to a restaurant once while we were in Aix.
One afternoon in Aix, after our market ritual was over and naps had been taken, we looked on a map and decided to drive west, to go search for water and stone.
What I particularly love about travelling in Europe is how young you feel when you're there; in the grand scheme of the timeline, it is humbling to be reminded that we are just blips at the end. Zygotes, really.
We passed an ancient Roman aqueduct, cooled off in a stream, and then followed a winding road that took us past limestone hills. After 45 minutes of driving, we took a stop (and a nap) in the town of Saint Chamas, where we admired the remains of a first century BC bridge, Pont Flavien. The town of Miramas was next, and we drove up to the veille ville (old town), perched on a hilltop.
Sad to leave, but excited to explore, we moved on from Aix to Lauris, only a 45min drive north.
Our time here consisted of relaxing in our own olive grove, meeting cats on the cobblestoned streets, poking through antique shops in the neighbouring town of Bonnieux, stocking up on ripe figs and strawberries, and doing a drive-by of Gordes, one of the most notable hill-top villages in the Luberon.
The photo above documents the moment that we found out Rowan Evans, our godson, was born. This is generally the disturbing face I make when I am really, really happy.
Our last night in Lauris, we had our first (and only) fancy, multi-course dinner in France. The plate of cheese they presented us after our steaks, and before the dessert, blew our minds.
(The mere act of being presented with a plate of huge hunks and rounds of cheese is enough to be spellbound. I wish that was a custom here in Canada.)
On our way out of Lauris towards Marseilles for the last stint of our road trip, we stopped at Chateau la Coste, a winery / outdoor art and architecture exhibit in one. Surrounding the rows upon rows of grapes, there are installations by different artists from around the world nestled in the trees for you to stumble upon. Some are interactive, some quirky, and some jut out really strangely against the otherwise pastoral landscape.
You can make a whole day out of it. It takes a couple hours to explore the vast grounds searching for the art, a bit more to do a wine tasting or tour, and then a leisurely hour at the cafe, resting your feet with the resident cat and some dessert and coffee.
(I'm hungry now.)
After, we drive south to Marseilles, only getting lost a few times.
Pictured below is the aforementioned house we stayed at, with flourishing plants in the foreground.
I feel ill-equipped to recommend anything from our time in this city to you. We were so tired. Had been away from home for 25 days or so, and maybe just needing a Netflix and sleep kind of weekend. We also happened to arrive in Marseilles late on a Saturday night, with nothing of interest in close walking proximity.
This is how you end up eating McDonald's and doing laundry for an evening. Remember, travelling can't be glamorous all the time.
We sleep early. Then, Sunday! In our imaginations, we had packed it full with adventure.
The plan was to leave early in the day, and drive to the nearby town of Cassis, to spend the afternoon in the Calanques and do some kayaking and turquoise-blue water gazing. Otherwise known as the main reason we left the Luberon at all. However, the winds were too strong and we had heard that being on the water in a kayak might be a shit show under those conditions, so we nixed that idea. Strike one. Also, it being a Sunday, a lot of the restaurants we had bookmarked prior to arrival, and were excited about, were unfortunately closed. Strike two. We strolled around the crowded marina a little aimlessly, and found the city centre to be a bit intense. Later that evening, we saw a pretty sunset, and then had one of the more touristy, expensive, and lacklustre meals of our lives. It took us an hour to get our desserts after the meal, and our server looked like she was going to scream at me or cry, when I approached her for the bill.
You who know and love Marseilles, please write to me and teach me how to do it better.
Sadly, it was a bit of a bust for us.
Still, I think that to have been on the road for a month and only be discontent with our surroundings a handful of times is a pretty privileged place to be in. And, even amidst this honesty, I know myself to be very lucky to get a chance to complain at all, and that for many, Marseilles is undoubtedly a fond place to call home.
(Here's our little film of Southern France, in case you missed it the first time around.)