I spent last week traversing France on my own, starting by taking a train south to Marseille and then flying to Tours. I hiked, I biked, I spent idle time reading in parks, I ate lots of cookies, I saw castles, I saw the sea, it was sunny and I was sweaty the whole time, my feet were covered in layers of blisters, and I discovered that I'm worryingly good at being alone (and I talk to myself a little too much). All in all, it was absolutely fantastic. I saw something new every day, came back each day exhausted in the best possible way.
I was both excited and nervous to go on my first solo trip. On the one hand it meant complete freedom to do whatever I want, but on the other hand it meant that I had to stay on top of everything by myself, make sure to wake up on time, find my housing on my own, get my butt to airports and train stations, etc. And despite my love for being alone, I'm still mostly a human and the idea that I might get lonely crossed my mind once or twice. In the end though, traveling along was amazing.
Overall, I loved Marseille. It's an effortlessly amazing city where North Africa mingles with France, with that specific spark you find in the south, on the boarder between exciting and slightly unnerving. Would I like living there? Eh, I'm fine where I am, I like the people here better. Would I go back? In a heartbeat.
When I got to Marseille I had a bit of trouble finding my way (surprise surprise, I get lost a lot). I kept trying to find the city center and the Vieux Port (Old Port), which I assumed would be easy with all the signs pointing to it, but I quickly found that they all seemed to be leading me in a different direction. I ended up at some random Arc de Triomph thing that smelled like pee and was surrounded by sleeping hobos (that's the politically correct term, right?). I walked a little further to an area that made me feel like I had stepped off a plane in Morocco and not off a train in France. An hour and a half of aimless wandering later I finally found a Ferris Wheel which obviously meant I had made it to the center: the beautiful Old Port, full of boats (as any good port should be), with a great view of the Notre Dame de la Gard and the surrounding buildings.
I spent the day walking around the whole city, seeing all the main sights. I started by walking around the Old Port before finding my Airbnb, dropping off all my stuff, and talking to my host, a really nice, slightly awkward 30-something year old. Then I hiked up to one of the main "must-see" Marseille sights: Notre Dame de la Gard, a stunning church built on the highest point of the city which offers an amazing view of Marseille and the Mediterranean. After that I wandered through a really artsy part of the city (I'm sure it has a name, but I don't know it. Bad tourist). It was full of colorful graffiti and random art at the end of little streets. I pet a dog and saw some guys get in a really heated argument in Arabic. I ended the day by walking on the other side of the Old Port and watching the sunset over the water. By the end of the day my feet were killing me and I had successfully fallen in love with Marseille.
A quick note on the men of Marseille: something that became glaringly apparent the moment I arrived was that there is a different mentality in the south. It existed in Montpellier but I didn't experience it much. People are more...I'm just going to say "open." Within the first two hours of stepping foot in Marseille I was hit on more times than I have been in my whole life. No, this is not an example of hyperbole. A lot of "Mademoiselle"s, a lot of "tu es belle"s. I know a lot of girls get this wherever they go, but for me it was new. On the train ride over, while I was waiting at my stopover, this short, very tan, possibly buzzed or slightly crazy, definitely weird, middle-aged man came up to me and started talking to me as I was finishing my yogurt. He threw away my trash for me, told me his wife-less life story, guessed that I was Polish, said I had beautiful grey eyes (then got up too close and said "wait, no, blue eyes"), and then offered to buy me a cell phone as a gift when I responded to his request for my number by saying I didn't have a phone. Eventually he left me alone, but he was quite persistent. It was creepy at the time but as I write this I'm laughing.
The people in the south in general are different. To be honest I found them a bit rude. It was a strange for me, coming from Grenoble where the people are generally all very friendly. But the accent almost makes up for it. Oh that southern accent is adorable.
My second day in Marseille was devoted to the whole reason I had wanted to come in the first place: the Calanques. These gorgeous rocky inlets line the coast from Cassis to Marseille and beyond. I decided to visit the Calanques closest to Cassis, and little town near Marseille that proved to be a nightmare to get to. I waited for the bus for an hour before going down into the metro station to try to find someone who had a clue, but everyone kept telling me to go ask someone else. I overheard an old man asking the same question, and I ended up sticking with him and two Spanish tourists he had met at the bus stop. Eventually we gave up hope on our original plan and found another more expensive, less efficient route. Note to self: next time just take the train, assuming they aren't on strike, they run much better. But in the end we got there, and that's all that mattered.
The old man and I talked the whole time there, and he alternated between speaking French with me and then turning his head and speaking Spanish to the other two. He was very open, pretty much telling me his entire family history (he had been attacked twice in Marseille, a city he hated, his Jewish mom had been in a concentration camp, his daughter had just had surgery, his son was an architect like him, and he didn't like women over the age of 50, despite being at least 60 or older, because he still felt young. You know, the light stuff you tell a stranger on the bus). Then he started telling me how nicely he had decorated his apartment and he invited me to come over and see it after we got back from Cassis. He didn't seem like a creeper, and I'm going to assume he was just a lonely old man, but at this point my red flag went up and once we got to Cassis and the Spanish tourists had ventured off, I declined his invitation to have lunch with him and made my escape.
With all the bus troubles, it took a while to get there, but the whole ordeal was so, so, so worth it. The weather was beautiful and hot and I was immediately drenched in sweat (another reason it was nice to be alone: I didn't have to worry that I smelled like a cow). I walked around the town briefly, being reminded that when visiting beaches in the south of France there will inevitably be lots of boobs. I forgot about that. The town itself wasn't too interesting and I headed straight for the Calanques.
They were absolutely stunning. They run along the coast for miles, but only three of them are accessible by foot from Cassis by way of a rocky, poorly-marked trail, each one getting progressively more impressive. I had expected a long but easy walk along the coast, only to be surprised by what ended up being a full-on hike, much more intense than I had anticipated. But take this with a grain of salt, as I think I spent about 90% of the time slightly lost (see how quickly this theme came back?) and off the trail, wandering around aimlessly, backtracking and walking through bushes, climbing nearly vertical rocks, which made it much harder than necessary. Consider this: it took me three hours to get to the end, and only about an hour and a half to get back when I was on the trail.
Oh but they were amazing, so so amazing. I've never seen water that blue before. I could have sat at the last one for hours. I took so many photos, but like all the beautiful things in this world, none of the photos did them justice.
Once I made my way down I was exhausted and relaxed on the beach for a bit, read my book, wandered around. I felt a little lonely as I walked by the ice cream shops. I sort of wish I had someone else there to justify paying too much to get some.
I slept like a baby that night. I was so exhausted, and I had already started getting blisters inside existing blisters.
On my third day in Marseille I took a trip to Aix-en-Provence, a university town which is described on one website as Marseille's slightly younger, better behaved brother. Personally, I would say it's more like Marseille's quiet grandfather who likes to take too many naps. Throughout the day I passed at least two retirement homes which really says something about the target demographic of the city. I felt like I had to walk slower, like my normal pace was disrespectful to the rhythm of Aix or something. And it felt very safe; I got off the train and immediately felt less like I was going to get shanked.
The city is very quiet, clean, and calm, with lots of little stores selling cute but useless trinkets and souvenirs. Take away all the cute stores selling cute but useless trinkets and souvenirs and there isn't much left to do, which made it a bummer that I came on a Sunday, where nearly everything in France is shut down.
I did manage to go to the outdoor market, and some of the more touristy stores were open. I went into a cookie/candy shop, a chain store you'll find in all touristy cities in France (I forget the name of it, but it's painted yellow, full of adorable tins, and the smiley lady at the counter always offers you a free cookie sample) and paid too much for a navette, a traditional Marseillais cookie (and also the word for shuttle bus, oddly enough).
Besides that I just wandered. The only real touristy thing to do is visit Cezanne's old art studio, which I did. It was kind of a ripoff, I wouldn't suggest it.
I ran out of things to do pretty quickly, so I walked a ways out of the city center and found this great rich neighborhood with an olive tree park in the middle. I love olive trees. I sat there for a while, listening to the birds and staring at rich peoples' houses with their provincial views.
Boredom pushed me to wander farther out from the town center and I ended up finding another park, where I laid out on a bench and read my book (I was getting to the good part). I soon realized that being a shoe-less person carrying a backpack laying on a bench was getting me weird looks, so I moved over to the grass under a tree. That was fabulous, and I'm pretty sure I ended up falling asleep, or at least getting close to it. I don't remember the last time I was that completely calm.
That evening was a bit... odd, though. Housing in Marseille proved to be more expensive than I had hoped, and in an attempt to save some money I decided to try CouchSurfing for the first time. If you don't know, CouchSurfing is a website where people offer to let travelers crash at their place for a night or two for free. The whole thing went fine but it was a bit awkward. The woman wasn't going to be home until seven that night, and I had planned to meet up with another assistant who I graduated with later in the evening. So I basically walked in, threw my stuff on the ground next to the couch that would serve as my bed, said a quick hello as I was catching my breath (stairs), and ran out, came back, went to sleep, got up early the next day, exchanged a few words, learned that she was an English teacher who went to clown school on the side, and then left to get to the airport. Like I said, awkward.
From what I hear people either really love Marseille or really hate it. I have no idea where the latter opinion comes from. It was amazing. I loved the city: the sun, the sea, the kind of disorganized, slightly crass, artsy, raw beauty of it.
Day One: Marseille
|View from the Marseille train station|
|And the view of the train station stairs. It's beautiful but one of the pillars is dedicated to the former French colonies in Africa, and the other to the old colonies in Asia. Um... I'm not sure how I feel about a shrine to taking over other peoples|
|It smelled like pee and hobos were sleeping in the park to the right. Beauuuutiful monument.|
|The thing at the top is the highest point in the city, pictures below|
|The Old Port. I took out a book to read but a creepy guy kept staring at me so I left.|
And about a billion more pictures of the Old Port from every angle
Notre Dame de la Garde
|I'm not sure why, but if you look closely you can see strings of boats hung from the top of the church. I thought it was cute|
|Vieux Port at sun set|
An ode to the graffiti of Marseille :
The "artsy" part of Marseille... I think
Sunset, it was really beautiful. I really need some more synonyms for "beautiful."
I loved how the sunset reflected perfectly on this building.
Day Two: Cassis and Calanques
|Cute little town, nothing much to do besides sitting on the beach though, unless you want to spend too much on food|
|Beach in the south of France? No bikini tops in sight|
#1: Port Miou
#3: En Vau
|My feet...oh my poor feet. I must have stubbed the same side of my toe 8 times. I'm surprised I still have all 10 toenails. Although I just looked down at my big toe and the nail has started to turn purple, so that might not last|
|This was the creepiest thing I've ever seen in my life. I sort of want to buy it and put it next to someone's bed while they're sleeping, can you imagine waking up with this staring at you?|
Day Three: Aix-en-Provence:
|The main fountain|
|Cezanne, this city's claim to fame|
Cezanne's old studio
|Olive tree garden|
More selfies, more shame. Shame shame.
I found a random tree painting exposition and found a goat!
|Park number two: nap time|
I ran into people doing this stuff randomly
Last look at Marseille