This year, for Round 3 of Parents in Paris, we needed to find a new destination.
The first year, we stuck around Paris because there was plenty to see for my Dad’s first time in France and of course there was that little business of my wedding. The second year, we covered a few more of Paris’ Greatest Hits including a visit to Versailles, and then hit the road up to Normandy for a tour of the north’s amazing WWII history.
For this trip, we decided to head south, to Provence.
Unlike our trip to Normandy, there isn’t a bunch of war history to catch my dad’s attention, so the main attraction of the south of France was boats. My dad loves boats and being on or near the water, so putting him on the Mediterranean was the main goal. We booked a trip to the south, starting first in Marseille.
We arrived in the early afternoon, so we headed straight to our B&B to check in and put our stuff down before heading out for a walk. I had done plenty of research in advance, and had managed to map out the perfect walk from the B&B down to the old port, hitting a few major sites along the way.
First, as we made our way down the hill, we passed the Abbey of Saint Victor, but not before making a pit stop for a coffee and pastry as we passed a very tasty-looking bakery. This fortress-looking old building, rebuilt in the year 1200, is dark and impressive and holds some creepy/cool old relics. It also overlooks the port, which is where we found my dad once we realized he was not inside with us. The man wanted to see boats and boats alone.
So to the boats we went, down to the old port.
Conveniently, right along the old port and not far from a boat-facing bench is the Musée du Savon – the Marseille soap museum. This is something my mom and I definitely wanted to check out, and my dad could not care less about. So we left him happily sitting watching the water while we went to check out the (very small) museum full of soap-making history and old molds and vintage packaging. Entry was a mere 2€, or a whopping 5€ if you want to personalize your own soap. We decided to forego the soap stamping, and were pleasantly surprised to find out our entry included a coupon for a free soap at the shop next door. It took a while, but we each picked a few beautifully scented soaps and rejoined my dad with our happy purchases.
We continued our stroll around the old port, marveling at the old buildings juxtaposed alongside highly modern brands and services. This is something that still breaks my brain a little, every time I see medieval-era, impressively historic building and right next door there’s a McDonald’s or a tacky cell phone store.
We stopped in the Eglise Saint Ferréol les Augustins, a church with a beautiful white facade facing the port, to admire the interior and have a sit in the cool. We were soon hustled out as they were about to start the evening Mass, so we checked out the times for a boat tour of the Calanques we were planning for the next day, then rewarded ourselves with a refreshing beverage at a cafe overlooking the water, with a gorgeous view of the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Garde up on the hill in the distance. Once sufficiently refreshed – and hungry – we continued our stroll along the port down to Le Souk for a delicious dinner of Moroccan tagines.
We finished the night there, making our way back up to the B&B where we met Frenchman, who had to meet us in Marseille later and arrived just in time to catch us on our way back.
Les Calanques de Marseille
For Day 2, the main event was to put my dad on a boat in the Mediterranean. We had a simple breakfast before heading straight to the old port to book our tickets for a 2-hour tour of the Calanques. The calanques are a series of cliffs and inlets along the coast of Marseille, with crystal and turquoise water. You can hike on top of the cliffs, or go swimming at the beaches hidden in each. They’re impressive from every angle.
We set out for our 2-hour tour singing the theme song to Gilligan’s Island, thinking it might not be so bad to get “stuck” in the calanques for a bit… As the boat makes its way out of the port, you get a spectacular view of the two forts flanking the waterway, the Basilica up on the hill, and the MUCEM museum and ferris wheel. Further out, you see the storied Chateau d’If fortress-turned-prison, famed as the setting for the Count of Monte Cristo, as well as Turtle Island, a very, well, turtle-shaped island.
We made our way through these staggering cliffs into open water, and toured I think 3 different calanques which are, incidentally, privately owned. Whole families own these turquoise, beachy, cliff-inlets for generations and I guess graciously allow these tour boats to meander in and out. Can you imagine owning a calanque?
Though I think my dad could have stayed on the water all day, when our boat eventually docked back in the old port, we set out to find some lunch. This was, incidentally, not as easy as it sounds. Warning for anyone who visits Marseille: lunch ends early and if you miss it you’re a little bit screwed. We walked toward the MUCEM museum as we had heard their restaurant was quite good. But we soon realized the restaurant was not as easy to find as we had hoped. And, in fact, there were multiple restaurant/cafes within the museum buildings that were a) not the one we were looking for, b) highly overpriced, and c) rated really dismally. We were all hot, hungry, and grumpy, a not-great combination when trying to navigate. We eventually found our way to a different museum’s cafe but it was past 2pm and they were no longer serving lunch. We settled on their cold salad/snack offerings figuring it was good enough and it’d be dinner time soon anyway. Take it from us, plan your lunches in Marseille because you don’t want to find yourself hangry and far from any food.
Despite the poor timing and organization of our lunch, however, we lucked out in terms of location. Our next stop was a visit to the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, the big church wayy up on the hill overlooking the city. The bus that heads up that way stopped just in front of where we ate lunch.
Notre Dame de la Garde
Even once you’re dropped at the top of this towering hill and you think you have a beautiful view, you’re not done. That’s when you climb the stairs up to the basilica itself for a truly spectacular view of the whole of Marseille’s old port and the entire 360* view from the highest point in the city. Inside, the vaulted ceilings are plastered with gold leaf and details. And as the basilica is regarded as the protector of the city (and its livelihood), there are strings boats hanging all along the church and marine art covering the walls.
As we were all hot, sweaty, and not much in the mood for a big dinner, we wrapped up the day by heading back to the B&B to clean up and relax in the calm courtyard onto which our rooms opened. Frenchman and I picked up (very delicious) pizzas and a bottle of rosé from a shop up the street and we had a very excellent, low-key evening.
The next day, we were continuing our trip to Provence with a tour of the Luberon valley, visiting charming medieval villages and of course making a stop at a winery to taste some true Provence wines.