Avignon & Marseille

The region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur lies just across the Rhône River from Occitanie, occupying the rest of mainland France’s Mediterranean coastline. With cities like Nice, Cannes, and Aix-en-Provence, this is the region that is known for its beaches, yachts, film festival, and lavender fields rolling against a backdrop of mountains.

During my stay in Montpellier, I took advantage of the fast and convenient bus connections to hop over into Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur a couple of times – first to Avignon, and the following weekend to Marseille.

Avignon

The city of Avignon lies on the Provençal side of the Rhône River, making it a crossroads for southern France. Interestingly, though, one of its most famous landmarks is a bridge that does not even make it to the other side of the river. Most of the medieval Pont Saint-Bénézet was destroyed in a series of floods, leaving only a short span stretching out into the river. No matter though – there are several more modern bridges to take you across the river to the old town.

Le Pont Saint-Bénézet in Avignon, France
The Pont Saint-Bénézet not quite spanning the Rhône River in Avignon. Although ineffective as a bridge, it is known to all French children through the famous song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon“.

The old town of Avignon is encircled by a high wall that is still intact over its entire length. Within the wall, the town is a charming combination of café-filled squares, narrow alleys, and shopping avenues. In July, the atmosphere is particularly lively, as it is both high season for tourism and also the time of the Festival d’Avignon.

As I walked through the old town, I noticed the walls were plastered with playbills and the streets littered with flyers announcing the various events happening around town. During the festival’s three-week run, hundreds of different troupes and performers present over one thousand theatrical performances. While most of the performances take place in venues scattered throughout the city, the main events happen in the very heart of the medieval city, in the Cour d’Honneur (“Courtyard of Honor”) at the Palace of the Popes.

City Wall around Avignon, France
A fortification along the city wall around the old town of Avignon.

In the fourteenth century, Pope Clement V moved the seat of the papacy from Rome to Avignon for political reasons. There, on a hill overlooking the Rhône valley, he built a palace for himself and constructed a wall to fortify the town. Over the course of the century, the subsequent popes modified and expanded the palace, resulting in a massive, asymmetrical structure marked by several turrets and towers of various shapes and sizes.

Le Palais des Papes in Avignon, France
The Palais des Papes overlooking the main square in the old town of Avignon. The main tower is crowned with a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary.

Marseille

Marseille is a major port city. Two imposing fortifications flanking the entrance to the Vieux-Port testify to the city’s historic connection to the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile, the strong Middle Eastern and African influence speaks to the continued role Marseille plays as a gateway to Europe for migrants. This metropolis has a reputation for being unsafe. However, though the city faces social tension like the rest of France, I did not feel unsafe in Marseille.

Quite the opposite – I received a warm welcome to Marseille by my friend Marion, who was my neighbor when we were both exchange students in Sweden. We explored the historic district together, enjoyed some delicious seafood and crêpes, and took the tourist “train” up to the city’s highest point, where the Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde towers over the city.

The basilica’s dedication to the “Our Lady of the Guard” refers to the historic devotion of sailors in Marseille to the Virgin Mary for her protection and their safe return. As a result of many successful voyages and endeavors, the walls of the basilica are lined with plaques and other offerings known as ex-votos given as a sign of thanksgiving. The ex-votos commemorate everything from the safe return of a sailor to a victory of the city’s football team!

Marseille, France
A view of the Vieux-Port and historic quarter of Marseille from the terrace of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde.
The Vieux-Port in Marseille, France
The Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde towers above the Vieux-Port of Marseille and its fortified entrance.
Selfie with Marion in Marseille, France
My friend Marion gave me a tour of her hometown, Marseille. Of course, we only spoke French the whole weekend! #BrainOverload
Savon de Marseille in Marseille, France
One of Marseille’s specialties is its unique soap known as Savon de Marseille. The soap is made from olive and palm oil, and is used for skin, laundry, and many other purposes.

The geography of Marseille at the western end of the Riviera is characterized by limestone cliffs and outcroppings rising out of the sea. The effect is a dramatic coastline dotted with islands and pocked by bays called calanques. The four islands of Frioul lie a short distance from the Vieux-Port. One is the tiny yet imposing island of If, known for its prison, the Château d’If, which is a setting in “The Count of Monte Cristo”.

The larger islands are more welcoming, with a sprawling yacht and ferry harbor to accommodate the summer crowds heading to the islands’ many secluded beaches and coves. The day was scorching and I really should have brought my bathing suit, but the trails (and occasional shady overhangs) on Île Pomègues made for a pleasant and scenic afternoon before catching the bus back to Montpellier for my final week of language classes.

View from Frioul, Marseille, France
A view back towards Marseille from the Île Pomègues.

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