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Traveling in the South of France

In August, a girlfriend from the United States visited me with an ambitious plan to go sightseeing in southern France. Since she was willing to drive, we rented a car and took off for Marseille, Cassis, and Aix-en-Provence. We also wanted to go to Monaco, Cannes, and other areas as the mood struck us and as time permitted.

With Google Maps to help us navigate, we were confident we could find our way. Silly us!

The Yacht Cyos

We’d booked our first night on the yacht Cyos, smack dab in the middle of the harbor of Marseille. We anticipated a glamorous evening in a spectacular setting. At least we got the second part right.

After a terrifying drive through unmarked streets full of crazy drivers, we were happily surprised to find ourselves in the right place! With more good fortune, we found the parking garage we’d been instructed to use on a wide street across from the harbor where the yacht was docked.

Our night view from the deck of the yacht Cyos (Photo courtesy of Canva)

We enjoyed the amazing view once we’d relaxed with a glass of wine over lunch. Across the harbor were various stores and restaurants. We saw even more shops and restaurants along the boulevard close to where our yacht was docked. We’d have no trouble finding a place to enjoy dinner. High on a bluff overlooking the town was Notre-Dame de la Garde, a cathedral that is the most visited site in Marseille.

About Marseille

Marseille, the second most populous city in France, has about 900,000 residents. If we include people living in the surrounding suburbs, the population reaches 1,600,000. Given the amount of housing we saw as we drove to the heart of the city, we got a sense of how massive the metropolis was.

Taken over by the Greeks around 600 BC, the port city is nestled on the Mediterranean Sea. With a lovely harbor in its center, Marseille is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the south of France.

The hundreds of acres of green space and the newest national park, Les Calanques, contribute to the beauty. We learned that the coves with steep limestone cliffs at the water’s edge are called calanques. The park is a hiker’s paradise.

Hiking paths are everywhere (Photo by Gus Tav on Unsplash)

For history buffs, Marseille also has dozens of monuments like the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde and the medieval Saint-Laurent Church, along with an entire museum, the MuCEM, dedicated to 21st-century people and cultures around the Mediterranean. And like Castelnau-le-Lez, where I live, Marseille enjoys 170 days of sunshine yearly.

Problems in Paradise

I anticipated that our cabin would be small, given that space on a boat is always at a premium. Even so, our tiny bedroom challenged us to fit in—and we’re both small people.

The tiny cabin, which was belowdecks, was suffocatingly hot. When I reported the problem in fractured French to the attendant (a young woman whose job we deduced was taking care of guests), she assured us that the air conditioning would be turned on.

A few minutes later, she reported to us in fractured English that the air-conditioning system was broken. Not to worry, she assured us. She would arrange a quick repair, and all would be well when we returned after dinner.

But when we re-entered our cabin after dinner, we still had a problem. Instead of cooling the room, the air-conditioning unit had released a chemical into the closed space of the cabin.

To avoid the headache-inducing smell, I slept on a sofa in the lounge that night. My friend toughed it out in the cabin—but she opened a porthole to bring in fresh air. Alas, mosquitos rode in on the breeze. My friend had dozens of bites all over her body the following morning.

The yacht Cyos

Unsurprisingly, we were happy to depart the Cyos. We’d had one of those experiences that was miserable at the time but memorably laughable once safely in the past. We didn’t know it then, but we would have more.

After lunch, we boarded a pontoon for a three-hour boat ride along the coastline. The boat accommodated about 60–70 guests, among whom were members of the Australian men’s rugby team. Their presence enlivened the party!

The scenery was picture-postcard gorgeous, the food more than adequate, the company fun, and the ride primarily smooth. At one point, the pontoon was anchored, and guests could swim in the Mediterranean. My girlfriend and I were happy to watch the enthusiastic swimmers dive off the pontoon into the warm water.

Some Places Are Hard to Leave

By early evening, we were packed up and headed to our next destination, Cassis. Although on the map Cassis was only ten minutes away, it took us two hours to reach it. We blamed Google Maps’ limited and incomplete instructions. Moreover, Google’s pronunciation of French words was terrible! Even worse than mine.

Starting out, we had trouble finding our way to the main road that would take us to Cassis. After a half-hour drive, we finally found the freeway, but shortly after we got on, the four-lane highway divided. We had to make a quick decision whether to stay on the freeway or go left into a tunnel. We went right. We made the wrong choice.

That decision forced us to double back. Twenty minutes later, we made another run for the main road and succeeded where we had failed before. We went into the tunnel. But alas, a mile down the highway, we screwed up on another decision point.

Without warning from our Google guide, once again the road divided. This time, we were in the wrong lane and were routed off. We realized our mistake, even without Google’s insulting comment about making the wrong turn.

Once again, we had no choice but to double back and make a third run for Cassis. We were determined to make it out of Marseille.

The Hysterical Laughter That Comes with Relief

We did! Safely on the correct road to Cassis, we breathed a sigh of relief. No longer stressed, we could laugh at the misery we’d just endured. Later, we learned that even French people are intimidated by driving in Marseille.

However difficult to find, Cassis was worth the effort. Our motel sat on the edge of a steep street that led down to the harbor. We also had a magnificent view of a medieval castle high on a bluff that guarded the harbor.

View from the Italian restaurant in Cassis (Photo courtesy of Canva)

We walked down the hill for dinner and chose from a dozen or more restaurants. After a delightful Italian meal and a few glasses of wine, we engaged in some recreational shopping—always an aid to digestion.

The following day, we had a fabulous breakfast at the motel. We sat at a table overlooking a beautiful swimming pool. Beyond the pool, we could look toward the picturesque harbor with bobbing boats. Beyond the harbor was the turquoise sea and blue sky, as far as the eye could see.

We enjoyed Cassis so much that we decided to spend an extra day there. The decision wasn’t easy because that meant we’d give up on going to Monaco or Cannes. But after our experience in Marseille, natural beauty rather than urban sights appealed to us more.

When we left Cassis two days later, we headed slightly north and west to the Parc Natural du Luberon. After visiting the park, we passed through delightful little villages and eventually ended up in Aix-en-Provence.

About Aix-en-Provence

Home to the artist Paul Cezanne, Aix-en-Provence has a rich art history with dozens of museums to visit. Settled in 123 BC by the Romans, the city was later ruled by the Visigoths and other groups throughout the Middle Ages. The vestiges of these periods, as well as modern influences, are visible throughout the city.

We discovered an open-air market in a square near our hotel and found some irresistible items.