The South of France – where we learn there is more to this country than Paris
Most of the 43 people on the WYSU/Go Head Tour have the same goal: they want to see the City of Light. But before we do, we will explore other towns in France, all very different than Paris, but just as important to the rich history and culture here.
After spending time on the Cote d'Azur in Nice and navigating the calanques (rock formations) near the tiny harbor town of Cassis, the group heads to Aix en Provence and Avignon. The folks at Go Ahead tours are very good at lining up local tour directors that give us the basics in history and culture, as well as some pointers for getting around in each town.
Number 1: People walk a lot here. It is nothing for them to walk 20 minutes or more one way, a few times a day, to get their errands done. Go Ahead travelers are expected to do the same when not on the tour bus.
Number 2: All towns and cities have a promenade (or main drag) attached to a square. If you can find that, you can figure out where you are.
Number 3: Don't be late for the bus or you will be stuck!
Aix en Provence
Aix has a main street (like a smaller version of Chicago's Magnificent Mile) with big fountains, banks, shops, offices, cafes and eateries. You might see a tiny Gap or a Foot Locker (!) but there is no McDonald's and no Walmart. Open air markets and street vendors fill the old squares of the town under rows of sycamore trees.
On the horizon is Mount Saint-Victoire - which seems familiar to anyone who admires the art of Paul Cezanne, the late 19th century painter. He was born and raised in Aix en Provence and lived most of his life there. His favorite subject was the surrounding countryside, and he was especially fond of the mountain, which he captured on canvas 87 times!
Our time here includes a tour of Cezanne's studio which is tucked under the trees of an overgrown lot, still intact —thanks to some wealthy American investors. They saved it from demolition in 1980 and donated it to the local university, which now runs it. Cezanne, who was not well liked during his own time, is now beloved, and his studio is a popular attraction in Aix en Provence.
Avignon and the Papal Palace
While staying in Aix (this sounds like "eggs" when JJ, the tour guide says it!) we board the tour bus for an excursion to Avignon and the Papal Palace there. Until the 14th century, Avignon was the center for the Catholic Church and 9 popes made their home there. The Palace is massive – something that you have to climb to the top of –which Lucia and I do – for the view of the Rhone River and the Le Pont – the Bridge – of Avignon. Just 4 of the 20 arches are left over the river. It is breathtaking!
At the foot of the Palace is the old town, with two squares, many more modern cafes, a historic theater, shops selling the local lavender products, and a good old fashioned carousel. (The two children on the trip and a handful of the adults take advantage and jump on.) It is all walkable, of course.
Our week in the South of France ends with a very short tour around the amazing port town of Marseille. The second largest city in France is proud of its large harbor and renovated promenade – a striking WWI memorial is a highlight. We are on a driving tour around the city and harbor, but walk the steps up to the Notre Dame cathedral which perched above the Mediterranean. This Notre Dame is five times the size of the more famous one in Paris, and is called "The Elephant" by people of Marseille. It took 40 years to build. Our guide Carrine explains, "We are always late, but we do things."
Carrine also tells us that the local dish is bouillabaisse (a fish stew) and that it is so good here with all the seafood available, it can be as much as 65 euros for one bowl of it in local restaurants. She seems truly sorry that we are not spending enough time in Marseille to enjoy the soup and see more of the city and its people. "Sometimes people say they think French people are rude, but they have only been to Paris!"
We will find out tomorrow. As I said, Paris is what we are here for!