If you can’t spend a year in Provence, you’ve got to at least grab an opportunity to spend a day exploring it.
Carnival Cruise Lines offered numerous options on Carnival Sunshine’s visit to Marseille. While most of the passengers were choosing shore excursions to of better known Avignon or Cassis, I chose a couple of smaller places off the beaten path.
Well, I thought they were less known by tourists– but they’re certainly on the radar of the French when they go on vacation in the south of France.
And this being a weekend at the start of the annual August vacation season, the roads were packed with holiday makers. Rather than take the autoroute around the city, our guide apologized for giving us a bonus scenic tour of downtown Marseille, whose narrow streets actually provided faster going than the bumper to bumper traffic on the expressway.
Finally escaping the big city we headed out into the countryside where the hills were covered by bushy pines and vineyards growing Grenache grapes in rocky limestone soil.
Our day would be split between visits to two notable villages with quite different personalities. First stop is Bandol, a fishing village that we’re told was not unlike what St. Tropez might have been like in the era before it was discovered by the yachting set and Euro playboys.
Maybe if Brigitte Bardot had frequented Bandol, it might have had the same cachet as the gold coast of the Riviera further to the east. But maybe having no local celebrities is a good thing, because while the town gets its share of yachts, it’s still relatively sleepy. It has a crescent of golden sand, but most of the coast is ruggedly rocky.
Mornings find inhabitants and visitors alike having coffee and croissants at outdoor cafes.
I was fascinated by the morning market where farmers bring their freshly picked produce for sale on the town square. It’s a place to be explored with our eyes and your nose. The fragrance of fresh strawberries, flowers and vegetables is intoxicating. Some photos speak better than words about what you’ll see:
Sounds are unique here too. There’s a constant chirping of cicadas, insects that look like a cross between a fly and a grasshopper. They’re a symbol of the Riviera and the French think of their rhythmic sound as the background for vacation fun and a harbinger of good fortune. Local shops sell a wide range of cicada souvenirs, if you’re in to hanging sculptures of insects on your wall.
After a morning in Bandol, our bus climbs steep mountain roads for an afternoon in the walled village of Le Castellet, a medieval village surrounded by thick stone walls with only two gates to provide access. The road is so narrow that we have to exit the bus and climb uphill for the last 500 yards to the entrance.
Built perched on a hill for defence, it now offers a panoramic view of the Bandol valley. Its maze of cobble stone streets is lined with shops and artists’ galleries and at the very top of the hill is a church, which is unfortunately closed to the public.
Every building in Le Castellet has been renovated, our guide says, but some of the renos were done 400 years ago. For lunch, the specialties are seafood, crepes washed down with a local wine.
Best buys in the villages are local textiles and flower essences as well as paintings and sculptures.
I skipped the cicada sculptures, but couldn’t resist taking home an atomizer of another local specialty: a blend of grapefruit and rose essence.
It was a successful day and I couldn’t help feeling envious of the French vacationers who were just arriving from their day on the road for a more leisurely stay in this relatively unspoiled corner of Provence.