Daniel and I flew out of Fes, Morocco and into Marseille, France, where we stayed for three days. We didn’t have much choice; Fes’s airport is small and it serves very few international destinations. We wanted to eventually end up in Rome (which we did, right before it got locked down), and Marseille had lots of connecting flights. Rather than just transfer, we decided to stay for a few days since we had heard the south of France was a beautiful area.
We actually stayed in Aix-en-Provence (pronounced “ex-in-pro-vonse”), which is a city about 20 miles away from Marseille. I’m not sure how much I can really say about this area, because we were only there for three days, one of which was spent recovering from Morocco. (We had to wash all of our clothing and navigate the French postal system to send some things back to America, which was a complete nightmare.)
My impression of Aix-en-Provence is that it has a similar vibe to Napa, Carmel-by-the-Sea, or Montecito. The city has a coastal, moneyed feeling. It’s full of little boutique shops that sell expensive knick knacks and restaurants with high prices and small portions.
During the summer months many visitors come to Aix to visit the fields of lavender grown outside of the city. Since we visited in the middle of winter, seeing these wasn’t an option. (I mean, I guess we could have, but there would have been no flowers.) However, year-round the city shops sell lots of lavender scented soaps, candles, and perfumes. It gives the entire place a flowery smell, which is nice.
Aix is also known for making a sweet known as a calisson, a diamond-shaped candy made out of candied melon and marzipan. I had never heard of or seen these before, but it seems like every store in Aix sells them. We tried some; they are chewy with a very fruity flavor.
Daniel and I spent a rainy day in Aix at the Musée Granet, an art museum spread across multiple buildings.
Unexpectedly, one of the things I appreciated most about Aix was how well-stocked the grocery stores were. I hadn’t realized how limited the options had been in Morocco, Portugal, and Spain until I was reminded of all of the variety we’d been missing. Even in the big chain grocery stores in Porto there were only a couple of options for most items. You could choose between two types of green vegetables, one type of milk, one type of oil, etc. If you wanted a specialty item like tortillas, cake mix, or dill, you were out of luck. The basics were well covered, but there was no diversity.
Going into the grocery store in Aix felt like returning to grocery civilization. We spend a lot of time in America talking about how we consume too much, but the flip side is that we are very fortunate to have the supply chains that provide us our purchasing options.
On our last full day in Provence we took the train from Aix back into Marseille. Marseille is on the Mediterranean and has a less stuffy feeling than Aix. Daniel and I saw the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde and the Cathédrale de la Major, two historic churches that both had black-and-white striped exteriors. The Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is on the top of a hill in the middle of the city. Since it’s so high up you can see it from almost anywhere in the city and it looks very striking. The downside is that visiting it involves a very steep climb up a very windy road.
We also went to the Palais Longchamp, which is a giant monument and garden. While there we saw two separate weddings taking place.
Both Aix and Marseille are in Provence, a region in the south of France. If you’ve ever seen a spice labeled “Herbs de Provence” in the grocery store, it’s referring to the same Provence. (Before visiting Provence that spice blend was basically the only thing I knew about it.) I was surprised to learn that Provence historically spoke a language called Provençal, until the French government made an effort to replace it in the early 1900s. Today a small number of elderly people in the area still speak it.
I’d love to visit this area again in the spring or summer, when the weather is warmer and the lavender is blooming. We only stayed a short time, mostly just so that we could regroup and recoup from Morocco before continuing on. We didn’t know it then, but due to the coronavirus outbreak Provencal France was the last place we visited where our travels went as planned.