When someone mentions the South of France, the first thing to pop into your head is likely the French Riviera, non? Well, it is for me at least. So when we were trying to decide where to go for a few days in mid-September and my friend suggested France, visions of the turquoise waters immediately popped into my head. And so the trip planning began…
We started our trip off in Marseille, France’s third largest city and known as the oldest city in France. This place is an old port city in Southern France, founded by the Greeks circa 1660. It’s a busy, cosmopolitan city with a huge port packed full of all kinds of boats just waiting to set sail into the gorgeous Mediterranean sea.
Our flight arrived in Marseille around 10:30pm, so we didn’t get into the city until 11:30 or so. We got through customs fine, but the first strange experience with France for me was that the toilet in the airport bathroom had no seat. No, it wasn’t a squatter, and it wasn’t just that toilet without a seat… none of them in this bathroom had seats. I’m not sure if it was under construction, but the rest of the airport did seem to be a bit of a dump, so I couldn’t tell you if this is how it normally is or not.
We decided we would get a bus into the city centre, as the airport is about 15 miles outside of the city, and we could see a couple of them sitting outside already. There were ticket machines right there, so we figured it would be just as easy as hailing a cab.
Despite my friend speaking French, we could not figure out which ticket to buy, or if those tickets would work for the buses lined up there, or if the 24 hour tickets were for that day only, or if the 24 hours started when we first used them, or what. And of course, none of the other tourists there knew what to do either, so we tried to ask one of the French-speaking people who appeared to be a local.
At first, she blatantly ignored us. Then looked so disgusted by us even speaking to her at all I felt like gum stuck to the bottom of her shoe. Needless to say, she didn’t help much and we had to reluctantly ask another guy that came up to the machine to buy a ticket. Luckily, this fellow was much nicer and we managed to get our bus tickets.
The bus ride took half an hour, and we arrived at the bus/train station around 11:30pm. We decided to walk to our Air BnB as it was only a 15-20 minute walk away, according to Google maps.
Well… It was sketchy. I’m talking rats, gangs, and prostitutes sketchy. And naturally, this would be the time one of the wheels on my suitcase decides to fall off. Perfect. After a quick little “Oh my f’ing God” moment of terror, my friend swiftly picked up my broken luggage and we basically ran the rest of the way to our Air BnB.
Obviously, I’m here writing this today so we survived the rest of the terrifying trek, but it wasn’t without panicking the entire way. We did happen to walk into a nicer part of town, where we saw the Arc de Triomphe (aka Porte d’Aix)…
Finally, we found something nice in France! This triumphal arch dates back to the 1700s, when it was decided that an arch would be erected to honour King Louis XVI and celebrate the end of the War of Independence of the United States. However, the build was delayed and construction didn’t actually begin until 1825, when the mayor of Marseille wanted to pay tribute to one of the Dukes in Spain. Either way, the thing is old and beautiful and triumphant so they got the job done. Eventually.
We also stumbled across this lovely building all lit up. So, this is the Hotel Dieu – now the Hotel Intercontinental – a five-star luxury hotel. But prior to hosting guests from all over (it just became a hotel in 2013), it was the city’s hospital for more than 800 years.
For us cheap folk who can’t afford such luxurious accommodations, Air BnB was the better option. Ours was a really lovely loft apartment, with a great view of Vieux Port (the Old Port). It was in Le Panier district, a trendy area full of narrow streets, small cafes and street art.
We had a great view from our Air BnB, with Notre Dame beaming at us across the way, and boat masts peeking out from the marina.
The next morning, we got up and had to head back to the airport to get our rental car. Marseille is much nicer during the daytime. This walk to the bus station was actually a great morning stroll, compared to the frightful experience of the previous night.
Once we got the rental sorted, we quickly realized that driving in France is awful. There was an accident in the car rental parking lot – we hadn’t even started the car yet and already saw an accident. We also witnessed a couple of near misses before we even got out of the airport. And there were two or three on the highway too.
It’s no wonder, though. People don’t look both ways, and hardly anybody actually drives the speed limit – which is 130 in most of the places we were and people were doing well above that.
But alas, we made it to the Camargue Natural Regional Park about an hour’s drive away from Marseille. It’s a beautiful wetland area, with wild horses and flamingos. Sadly, since I was behind the wheel I didn’t get to snap any pictures, but take my word for it – it’s a really nice area. We spent that afternoon on the beach in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Which is where I had my second experience with public toilets…
This one you actually had to pay for, which is annoying when you grew up in a country where you never have to pay to use the bathroom. But I wasted my precious pocket change on it anyway, and the woman coming out of it didn’t hold the door for me. Which I thought was quite rude, again, coming from a country where people are so nice they hold the door when you’re still an awkwardly far ways away from it.
However, this was one of the few times during our trip to France that people weren’t being rude. As it turns out, with this bathroom, it automatically cleans after every use. So as soon as the door shut, it locked, and the whole bathroom was hosed down. Had I entered before the door shut, I would’ve been soaked head to toe. So thanks lady, for not holding the door for me.
When we arrived back in Marseille, we went for a walk around Vieux Port, taking a little ferry boat from one side of the marina to the other for 50 cents.
We had a nice view of the sun going down as we crossed the marina in the little ferry. Once on the other side, we ate (ironically) at the Queen Victoria, an English pub along the waterfront. The food was delicious, but our server was rude and the prices were pretty high for what it was.
This was our first time ordering food at a restaurant in France, and because the menus were all in French, and my friend can speak French, he decided to order in French. Our server responded to this by saying, “if you can’t speak French, don’t bother trying”.
I don’t know about you, but if someone is trying to speak my native language to me, and doing a pretty good job of it, I would never tell them to not bother trying. But maybe that’s just the friendly Canadian in me. Nevertheless, we had a pretty good meal and it was nice watching the sun set over the marina.
We had booked sea kayaking in Les Calanques de Cassis for the next day, and after navigating our way to the office, found the parking lot completely empty and no one to be seen anywhere near the place.
We had actually booked this excursion online, filled out forms, sent a deposit and received confirmation about a month before our trip… so we called their number, just to have yet another rude local tell us that they were fully booked with a cruise ship and couldn’t take us out that day. Since it was our last day in Marseille, we couldn’t arrange it for a different day, so we were pretty disappointed.
With our day now wide open, we decided to drive to the Parc National des Calanques, where our kayaking would have taken us anyway. If you’ve never heard of the Calanques, they are narrow rock formations with isolated lagoons and beautiful blue Mediterranean water.
So we drove into this cute little seaside fishing town called Cassis. It’s settled at the bottom of a tall cliff called Cap Canaille, and is a perfect spot for a stroll with its pastel buildings and sidewalk cafes.
Sadly, it started to rain so not a great beach day, but we went out on a 45 minute boat tour of three calanques anyway. Despite the lack of sun, it was a really nice boat cruise. I wish I could’ve captured the amazing colour of the water better, but pictures never really do things justice, do they?
After our boat cruise, we continued driving on a road which connects Cassis to La Ciotat, called the Route des Cretes. It was absolutely spectacular driving up the mountain, following along the cliff – the panoramic views were just stunning. It was a bit stressful for my heights-fearing friend, but I loved every minute of it.
Once back in Marseille, I strolled through Fort Saint Jean, a 17th century fort which has been restored and opened to the public. It’s free to walk around, and the view of the marina from there is really nice. It’s one of the best spots to watch a sunset also.
I arrived just minutes before closing, but the security guard was (surprisingly, considering the rest of our interactions with locals) extremely nice and friendly, and let me in anyway. Sadly, my basic high school French wasn’t good enough to read all of the descriptions on the plaques, but it was still nice to go through the place.
The fort is connected to Saint Laurent Church in Le Panier – a 12-13th century church, and the MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations), via aerial footbridges.
The MuCEM is a very modern museum, built in 2012, which is free to walk around but there’s an admission fee to enter the exhibits. It was closed by the time I got to it, so I just admired the unique modern architecture of it from the outside.
Sitting just behind the MuCEM and Fort Saint Jean is the Cathedrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure. Its striped design is pretty unusual for a church, but it looks pretty cool compared to the simple, traditional style of the Saint Laurent Church.
After watching another gorgeous sunset from Fort Saint Jean, we had an early night in and got up to drive to Nice the next day. We drove through Cannes to Nice, then along the Basse Corniche to Monaco, where we just did a quick loop through the city of Monte Carlo – saw the famous casino and some of the Grand Prix circuit – then back to Nice via the Moyenne Corniche.
If you’ve never heard of Les Trois Corniches, which I hadn’t prior to planning this trip, they are three roads carved into the mountainside – Grande at the top, Moyenne in the middle, and Basse along the coastline.
The Basse Corniche takes you along the coast from Nice all the way to Menton, near the Italian border. This route goes through all of the beautiful seaside towns of the French Riveria. Although we got off in Monaco, it was just as pretty as we expected – with the Alps to our left and the millionaire’s yachts floating in the sea to our right, it was one of the prettiest drives I’ve ever done.
The Moyenne Corniche was just a bit higher than the coastal one, but not nearly as hair-raising as the Grande Corniche from what I hear. I would’ve loved to check that one out, but my friend is terrified of heights and wasn’t too keen on it, so I spared him the stress.
Since I was driving, I didn’t get many pictures of Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, or the scenic drives, but they are all really gorgeous places. I can certainly see why they’re so popular among the rich and famous.
We spent the night at a hotel in Nice, with a rooftop pool and hot tub. It was a super relaxing afternoon/evening, with a pretty great view of the capital of the French Riviera.
The main attraction in Nice is the 7 kilometre stretch of beach – one of the longest and most famous beaches in the French Riviera. The old town is also pretty, with its narrow, cobblestone streets and pastel buildings, and there’s a park and garden atop Castle Hill – where there used to be a castle but no longer – with picturesque coastline views.
Despite the lack of friendliness/politeness from the locals while we were in Marseille, the incredible scenery and beauty of Southern France certainly made up for it and we really enjoyed the trip. And although we really didn’t get the chance to do anything in Nice except see the beach and relax at the hotel, I loved the city and would’ve liked more time there, as well as Monaco.
Vacations are just simply never long enough, are they?