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The Old Port at France’s Oldest City, Marseille

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At the core of France’s second largest city is the Marseille Vieux Port (Old Port).

Old Port with boats, Marseille

Early history of Marseille

Marseille’s history began over 26 centuries ago. The Greeks founded it in 600 BC, making it the oldest city in France. At the time the area was inhabited by Celto-Liguarian people. Legend has it that a young Greek sailor exploring the coast. He landed in the bay and was invited by a local to a banquet held for the leader’s daughter to choose a mate. She fell in love with the sailor at first sight and the two were married. This started a long-lasting tradition in Marseille for welcoming newcomers and immigrants to the area.

Through the middle ages, Marseille continued to grow, developing one of the most important ports for trading. This was especially true for growing cannabis, or hemp to make nautical rope. This is reflected in the name of one of Marseille’s main streets today, Canebière, which leads to the Old Port.

During the 1800s the port could hold over 1,000 ships at a time and 18,000 would pass through each year. With the invention of the steam ship, however, the port proved to be too shallow and new docks were built elsewhere. During World War II, the port and historic town were completely destroyed during the Battle of Marseille. In 1948, reconstruction was begun to rebuild.

Repurposing

Though it is no longer used for industrial or commercial purpose, the Old Port of Marseille still remains an important cultural, historical and social center of the city. It remains in use for leisure or tour boats.

Marseille Old Port with Saint- Ferréol Les Augustins in the background. Taken by Ralf Smallkaa via Flickr.
Marseille Old Port with Saint- Ferréol Les Augustins in the background. Taken by Ralf Smallkaa via Flickr.

On any given day, you can find locals and visitors alike walking around, enjoying a drink or shopping at one of the market stands. There are also countless restaurants and cafes that line the promenades along the port. They looked very expensive at first glance!

Some of the main sites of the port include:

  • The Ferry Boat dating back to 1880.  It shuffles passengers from one side of the harbor, Town Hall (La Mairie) on the quai du Port, to the other, Bar de la Marine. This a free boat ride.
  • The many elegant hotels and buildings that were built along the port, such as the former Grand Hotel du Louvre et de la Paix at no. 53, now renovated to be a clothing store, or the former Grand Hotel, which is now a police station.
  • Victor’s Abbey, located on the south side of the port, is one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in France.
  • Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, MUCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean civilizations). Especially in the area around it where you can find people hanging out, enjoying the views of the Mediterranean, young kids playing football and even people swimming in the harbor.
Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée. Taken by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr.
Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée. Taken by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr.
Old Port by the
Old Port by the MUCEM.
  • The view of the Château d’If, the setting for The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Featured image from Min Zhou via Flickr.

Where to Celebrate Carnival in Europe!?

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Carnival in Venice. Taken by Salvatore Gerace via Flickr.

The time for Carnival celebrations has begun throughout the world!

History of Carnival

The exact origins of this festivity is not certain, though it may be traced backed to the Medieval Latin word(s): carnem levare or carnelevarium, which mean to remove meat. Because the celebrations are thought of as the final festivity before the period of Lent during which Roman Catholics would abstain from eating meat in earlier times, this derivation makes perfect sense.

Where the history of Carnival begins is also unsure. It may be rooted in the primitive festival, which honored the beginning of the new year and rebirth of nature. Or, perhaps it is linked to the pagan Saturnalian festival of ancient Rome. Either way, the founders of the idea probably didn’t imagine it would turn into the eccentric dance, drink and be merry festival it has today!

Worldwide Carnival Celebrations

Probably the most famous Carnival celebration takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find elaborate and fabulous festivities here in Europe either! Where are the best places to celebrate Carnival in Europe?

Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain.

Carnaval at Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Taken by Philippe Teuwen via Flickr.
Carnaval at Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Taken by Philippe Teuwen via Flickr.

Located in the Canary Islands of Spain is perhaps the most famous Carnival celebrations behind Rio. This year’s celebration runs from February 3-14th, so preparations are in full swing! The festival is one of the most important to the people of Tenerife, and the entire year can be spent planning the floats, costumes and designs. During the peak times, more than 250,000 people can be found in the main streets and squares dancing to traditional Latin music, drinking and dressed up in elaborate costumes.

Venice, Italy.

Carnival in Venice. Taken by Salvatore Gerace via Flickr.
Carnival in Venice. Taken by Salvatore Gerace via Flickr.

The Carnival of Italy’s city on water began January 23 and runs through February 9th. During the Carnival you will find masked party-goers invading the streets, singing dancing and simply enjoying the party! The biggest excitement comes during the weekend and the not to be missed is the election of the year’s best costume- decided on the final day, February 9th. The most famous spot to join in is at St. Mark’s Square, so get a mask and get over there! Only a few days left!

Nice, France.

Like the Venetian Carnival, masks are an important part of the costume. This year’s celebration takes place from February 13th-28th with the theme being “King of Media”. The final days of the festival culminate on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) where the people each as much heavy, fatty food as possible before the abstinent period begins the following day. Not sure what to expect? Check out the video here!

Cadiz, Spain.

Carnaval in Cádiz. Taken by Alcalaina via Flickr.
Carnaval in Cádiz. Taken by Alcalaina via Flickr.

The Carnival of Cadiz is one of the most extravagant in Europe, taking place this year from February 4th-14th. There are processions, concerts, shows, fireworks and tons of dancing, drinking and singing in the streets. The “Chirigotas” or satirical songs about the current Spanish news and politicians are a popular aspect of this Carnival!

 

My favorite small European cities (#10-5)

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City street in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Taken by Kirstie.

Europe is full of magical cities to be discovered!

Although I love visiting world famous cities such as Paris, Madrid or Berlin, there is something special about smaller, more local and charming small cities. You can easily explore them in a short period of time as well as the prices tend to be a bit lower and the locals a bit friendlier.

Here are my 5 of my 10 favorites thus far:

  1. Heidelberg, Germany

Nestled into the Rhine Rift Valley along the River Neckar in southwest Germany, Heidelberg is a really charming small city. With lots of winding, small stone streets in the Baroque style Old Town, you could spend the afternoon wandering around stopping for coffee at one of the many cafes or simply just enjoying the romantic atmosphere. Heidelberg is also famous for the Heidelberg Castle, which stands over the city, with great views of the landscape.

The Heidelberg Hauptstrasse (main street). Taken by Nelson Minar via Flickr.
The Heidelberg Hauptstrasse (main street). Taken by Nelson Minar via Flickr.
View of Heidelberg from the Heidelberg Castle, Germany.
View of Heidelberg from the Heidelberg Castle, Germany.

 

  1. Ljubljana, Slovenia

If I’ve ever been anywhere that looks like it’s straight out of a postcard it’s Ljubliana, Slovenia. The old city center features a mix of architectural styles, and the older buildings are kept up in great condition. The Ljubljanica River also runs through the old city center, creating a really cool, calming feeling over the city. It is a popular Erasmus destination for students, so expect there also to be a great nightlife!

Shoes hanging in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Taken by Kirstie.
Shoes hanging in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Taken by Kirstie.
River in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Taken by Kirstie.
River in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Taken by Kirstie.
City street in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Taken by Kirstie.
City street in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Taken by Kirstie.

 

  1. Lagos, Portugal

Right on the Algarve coast of southern Portugal, Lagos is more of a town than a city with only 22,000 inhabitants. Despite its small size, Lagos attracts tons of visitors in the warm weather for its beautiful beaches, many cliffs and caverns as well as the many bars, restaurants and especially nightlife. As well, it has a huge historical significance for not only Portugal but for Europe in general, as it was a vital port and, at one point, center of the European Slave Trade.

Cliffs in Lagos from boat, Lagos, Portugal
Cliffs in Lagos from boat, Lagos, Portugal
Boats at the bottom of the cliffs, Lagos, Portugal
Boats at the bottom of the cliffs, Lagos, Portugal
View from the cliffs, Lagos, Portugal
View from the cliffs, Lagos, Portugal
Beach in, Lagos, Portugal
Beach in, Lagos, Portugal
Market street, Lagos, Portugal
Market street, Lagos, Portugal
City street, Lagos, Portugal
City street, Lagos, Portugal
Harbor in Lagos, Portugal
Harbor in Lagos, Portugal

 

  1. Niš, Serbia

After attending an amazing wedding for a friend from Niš last weekend, I may be a little bias, but in any case, it is a really great city to visit! You can easily walk around the city center in a few hours, and visit some of the main sites such as the Niš Fortress or Tinker’s Alley. As one of the oldest cities in the Balkans and Europe, it is full of history too! Make sure to visit one of the “kafanas” or traditional restaurants where you can try common foods, drink some “rakija” (a fruity brandy popular in the Balkans) and listen to traditional live music. We went to this really cool one Nislijska Mehana during our trip there.

Niš skyline. Taken by Monika via Flickr.
Niš skyline. Taken by Monika via Flickr.
Entrance to the Niš Fortress, Niš
Entrance to the Niš Fortress, Niš
Nislijska Mehana in Niš.
Nislijska Mehana in Niš.
Nislijska Mehana in Niš with live music.
Nislijska Mehana in Niš with live music.

 

  1. Annecy, France

With charming small stone streets, mountains in the backdrop, turquoise crystal clear canals intersecting the city and draining into a beautiful lake, Annecy is nothing short of a fairytale. It is sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the Alps” and I wouldn’t disagree! It’s a really popular destination in the warmer weather, when you can take advantage of water activities such as swimming, sailing, water-skiing and diving as well as cycling and mountain exploration.

Lake Annecy, France. Taken by Pug Girl via Flickr.
Lake Annecy, France. Taken by Pug Girl via Flickr.
Annecy, France. Taken by Daniel Jolivet via Flickr.
Annecy, France. Taken by Daniel Jolivet via Flickr.
Streets of Annecy, France. Still charming in the rain!
Streets of Annecy, France. Still charming in the rain!

Still to come: numbers 5 to 1!

Some Delicious Parisian Foods

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Few places are as synonymous with world-class cuisine than Paris.

There is a reason internationally acclaimed chefs spend years honing their skills and learning the intricate techniques developed in French kitchens. If you’re thinking about heading there sometime soon, make sure to try some of the most typical Parisian foods and get a small taste of what the fuss is all about!

1. Open face cheese sandwiches

Croque Monsieur. Take by Javier Lastras via Flickr.
Croque Monsieur. Taken by Javier Lastras via Flickr.

One of the most popular Parisian foods is the Croque Monsieur (a baked or fried boiled ham and cheese sandwich) and the Croque Madame (same as the Monsieur but with a fried egg on top), this delicious combination is the quintessential Parisian dish. Traditionally a quick snack, you can find a version of the Croques at almost any Parisian café, such as the one I went to when I visited the Notre Dame Cathedral. Learn how to make your own version of this iconic sandwich here.

2. Steak tartare

A blend of raw, high quality beef, egg, typically onion, capers and various other spices, the steak tartare is a staple of French cuisine and a mainstay in the Parisian foods scene. Some say that the famous French author Jules Verne popularized the recipe in France with his novel, Michel Strogoff. At first, it was even made with horse-meat, though that was phased out for the less controversial beef over time.

The dish is typically served with potatoes or French fries, and can be prepared and presented in a variety of ways. Many chefs have chosen to construct the tartare in front of diners, so they can be assured of its freshness. Because the ingredients are eaten raw, this is of the utmost importance, especially for health reasons. Want to learn to make your own? Check out this recipe from French Guy cooking who even gives a special vegetarian twist!

3. Crêpe

A thin pancake made from wheat or buckwheat flour, the crêpe is world famous dish that comes in a variety of flavors. Sweet crêpes (crêpes sucrées) are made with wheat flour and slightly sweetened while savoury galettes (crêpes sales) are usually made with buckwheat flour and unsweetened. Because they come in so many varieties, you can literally eat crêpes for breakfast, lunch, dinner or as a snack! Sounds like a dream to me…

Want to know where to get the best version of this export from Brittany in Paris? Click here! Or check out Au Petit Grec, known for having exceptional crêpes for reasonable prices (so you can spend more on the other items on this list!)

4. Duck confit

Duck confit in Paris. Taken by Lim Ashley via Flickr.
Duck confit in Paris. Taken by Lim Ashley via Flickr.

Known in French as confit de canard, this typical dish is made from the leg of duck and is a specialty of Gascony, though it can be found throughout France and, of course, in Paris. The process of preparation requires salting the piece of meat and then cooking it in its own fat. A little research confirms that you can find some of the best duck confit in Paris at the restaurant Josephine Chez Dumonet, also known as Chez Dumonet, for a fairly steep price. But hey, you only live once, right?

Featured image from Guy Moll via Flickr.

Not everyone used to like the Eiffel Tower!

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As one of the most iconic and recognized structures worldwide, it would be difficult to find someone who hasn’t heard of the Eiffel Tower. It’s famous, its French and it symbolizes the city of Paris and all it stands for- romance, fashion, effortlessly chic and the City of Lights.

Today, La tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower) is considered an irreplaceable part of Paris. As the most visited paid monument in the world, with millions of people ascending the tower each year, you may be surprised to know that it wasn’t always so well received.

The origins of the tower date back to the 1889 World’s Fair, hosted in Paris. To celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution, two senior engineers at the Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel, Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier, were given the task of designing a structure to serve as a centerpiece for the festivities.

Blueprint of the Eiffel Tower by one of its main engineers, Maurice Koechlin (ca. 1884). Public Domain.
Blueprint of the Eiffel Tower by one of its main engineers, Maurice Koechlin (ca. 1884). Public Domain.

At the time, not everyone agreed to the decision to build the tower. Many artists and intellectuals felt that it would do nothing but destroy the “untouched beauty of Paris”. During that time, it was proposed to be that tallest man-made structure in the world, towering over other famous Parisian monuments an cultural sites such as the Notre Dame, Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome de les Invalides and the Arc de Triomphe.

Looking back, it’s possible that one can imagine how the Eiffel Tower may have appeared to be an ultra-modern “gigantic metal smokestack” compared decadent, delicately crafted structures.

In the end, the tower was built at the Champ de Mars and served as the entrance to the World’s Fair, where visitors would walk under it upon arrival. Even then, some were not convinced. Myth has it that French writer Guy de Maupassant would eat lunch in the Tower’s restaurant because it “was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible”.

Since it’s completion, the Tower has slowly gained more and more recognition, although lost the title as “world’s tallest building” many years ago. Today, it stands for the iconic symbol of Paris.

When I visited the Tower for the first time last week, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Going in the height of the tourist season meant that there would be huge crowds. I’ve also heard the tower isn’t as big as you would expect, so I didn’t expect to be blown away by any means.

The Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower.

In actuality, however, the Tower was spectacular. Though made of metal and bars, the lattice design created a delicate, artistic flow. I could really see what all the fuss is about.

Due to the huge crowds (and I mean like 20 tour buses were parked in front, not including the people that arrived on foot), we didn’t manage to make it inside for a tour. It was nice enough, however, to just walk along the grass, take a few photos and try to get the best view of the whole tower possible.

When planning a visit, I would definitely recommend checking out the Eiffel Tower website ahead of time to make the most of your time, for example, by looking at the peak vs. off peak waiting times as well as purchasing your tickets ahead of time.

[Wikipedia] [La tour Eiffel]

Marseille’s guardian: Notre-Dame de la Garde

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nterior Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille. Taken by paul bica via Flickr.

One of the most iconic figures of Marseille, France is the Notre-Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard), a Neo-Byzantine church built on the highest natural elevation in the city. It sits upon its mountain top perch, looking down at the bustling city below with a watchful and protective eye, sometimes referred to at “la bonne mère” (the good mother) by the locals.

We were lucky to enter Marseille during the nighttime. Driving in on the main road, you are almost immediately confronted with illuminated outline of the church, dominating the horizon and representing a symbol of a guard, watching over the people below, while at the same time welcoming visitors with a serene and mysterious presence (hence where it’s nickname comes from).

Notre-Dame de la Garde at night, Marseille. Taken by Selden Vestrit via Flickr.
Notre-Dame de la Garde at night, Marseille. Taken by Selden Vestrit via Flickr.

The site where the church sits today, known as Garde Hill, is 154 m tall, and has served as an observation point throughout history. A church was initially built there in 1214, where sailors would climb up to and pray for a safe voyage or pledge their gratitude for their safe return.

In 1524, the King of France, François I, feared that Marseille was not well protected from attacks. He ordered two forts to be built, one at the top of La Garde, where the chapel was, and the other on the island of If, which became the famous Chateau d’If, which was a main setting for the Count of Monte Cristo. The building of the fort on La Garde represented a unique situation where a military fortress shared the same space as a sanctuary that was open to the public.

The modern day basilica was built in 1853 and consecrated in 1864. There are two parts to the building: a vaulted low church with a crypt and a high church, with a sanctuary devoted to the Virgin Mary. One of the most recognizable features of the church is the statue of the Virgin Mary that sits on the bell tower, which stands 11.2 m tall. Looking from below, you don’t realize really how big the statue is! Each year on August 15, there is also a popular festival and pilgrimage that takes place at the site.

Notre-Dame de la Garde bell tower, Marseille
Notre-Dame de la Garde bell tower, Marseille

We chose to visit the church as the sun was setting, giving a spectacular view of the city and port below. There are many options to arrive at the church, but we decided to walk, which was a bit exhausting, but not too bad overall.

View from Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille
View from Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille

Initially, the main gates were closed, so we could not enter the inside, instead looking at the church from afar. We must have missed some important memo, however, because at some point a small group of people arrived and a priest opened the gates, letting us all into the lower exterior area by the church. There, they gave a short sermon (this was of course in French, we had no idea what was going on, but sat back silently and pretended we knew how we got there).

Then they invited all of us to continue the service inside the church. Unfortunately, we really weren’t prepared for this and didn’t wear the appropriate attire and therefore didn’t feel comfortable going inside.

I would definitely recommend to plan a bit better than we did and try to get inside the basilica, which went through an extensive restoration between 2001 and 2008. From the photos it looks really impressive and would love to have the chance to visit again!

Interior, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille. Taken by So_P via Flickr.
Interior, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille. Taken by So_P via Flickr.
Interior, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille. Taken by blue_quartz via Flickr.
Interior, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille. Taken by blue_quartz via Flickr.

[Marseille Tourism], [Wikipedia]

Featured image taken from Paul Bica via Flickr.

A real-life fairytale in Annecy, France

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Lake Annecy. Taken by Pug girl via Flickr.

Also known as the “Venice of the Alps” in the Rhone-Alpes region of southeast France you will find the city of Annecy. Romantic by nature, with stunning turquoise canals intersecting within the old, cobblestone roads of the city center, Annecy is every bit a fairytale.

Unlike the canals in many other European cities, the ones in Annecy are crystal clear, almost begging you to jump in for a quick swim (you know, right in the middle of the city center). They are running from Lac Annecy (Lake Annecy), the third largest lake in France. Formed over 18,000 years ago by large melting alpine glaciers, Lake Annecy is also known as Europe’s cleanest lake due to strict environmental restrictions put in place in the 1960s. Small rivers further feed the lake from the surrounding mountains as well as the Boibioz, a powerful underwater source that enters at 82 m depth. The result, a crystal clean lake, with stunning mountains serving as a backdrop is nothing short of spectacular scenery.

With such natural gifts, Lake Annecy is a popular spot for tourists to enjoy cultural and sport activities all year round. During the summer, you can take advantage of water activities such as swimming, sailing, water-skiing and diving as well as cycling and mountain exploration.

They also host many events, including a “Pyroconcert”, which features a musical concert in the center of the water highlighted by stunning pyrotechnic effects. Can you imagine something more impressive? Thanks to a comprehensive tourist website, you can find tons of information about planning a trip to Annecy here.

Lake Annecy. Taken by Pug girl via Flickr.
Lake Annecy. Taken by Pug girl via Flickr.

With about 52,000 inhabitants, the town of Annecy is also quite small. The most frequented area of the city by visitors is La Vieille Ville (the old town center), which is complete with small, winding cobblestone paths, lined with boutique shops and small eateries. It’s really pleasant (and recommended) to spend the afternoon casually strolling (perhaps hand in hand with your partner) through the streets, taking in the simplistic beauty Annecy has to offer.

We were unlucky during our visit, as it rained the entire afternoon (bad for pictures), but we managed to find a cozy corner booth in a café to sit and watch the people walk by over a warm cup of coffee, followed, of course, by a delicious crepe with Nutella from a corner shop.

Walking into Annecy. Taken by Daniel Jolivet via Flickr.
Walking into Annecy. Taken by Daniel Jolivet via Flickr.
Streets of Annecy, France. Still looking charming in the rain!
Streets of Annecy, France. Still looking charming in the rain!

Some of the main sites in Annecy include the Palais d’Isle, Église Saint-Maurice and the Château d’Annecy.

The Palais d’Isle is one of the most visible landmarks of the city, situated on an island between canals. Since its creation in the 12th century, it has served as a home for lords, courthouse, prison and today a museum and exhibition of the local architecture and history.

The Église Saint-Maurice (St. Maurice Church) is the oldest church in Annecy, built in 1422. It features gothic style architecture and has been a national monument since 1957.

Lastly, the Château d’Annecy (Annecy Castle) is a restored castle that sits upon the hill overlooking the city. Today, it serves as a museum.

Even though Annecy is quite small, getting there is easier than you may think. It is a short distance from Geneva, as well as Lyon and Grenoble. You can get there by train, bus or plane.

[Wikitravel], [Lac Annecy]

Featured image from Alex Brown via Flickr.

Top 5 things to do in Montpellier, France

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Carousel Place de la Comedie, Montpellier. Taken by Marc Meynadier via Flickr.

Just inland from the Mediterranean coast in southern France lays the city of Montpellier. Though it is just the 8th largest city in France, it has seen the largest growth percentage overall in the past 25 years. With nearly 1/3 of the total population of students, you can imagine that Montpellier is teeming with fresh energy, great nightlife and new and exciting places to see.

Thus far, I had the opportunity to spend just a short amount of time in Montpellier. We arrived in the city center (Place de la Comédie), walked around a bit and had a coffee at the Café de l’Esplanade restaurant. The small streets bustling with people, tree lined promenade and overall golden glow of the warm summer sun reflecting off the tan buildings gave me an inviting feeling, leaving me with the first impression that I have to return soon enough to take full advantage of what Montpellier has to offer.

Lucky for me, however, a friend spent some time living in Montpellier and gave me some advice on the top five things to do on a proper visit.

  1. Have drinks at Place Jean Juarés 

Also known as the “La Plaine”, Place Jean Juarés is a hotspot for hanging out and relaxing with a drink. Ample greenery shades from the summer sun and there are tons of bars and restaurants to choose from. When to go: Brunch to Late night.

Place Jean Jaurès, Montpellier. Taken by Peter via Flickr.
Place Jean Jaurès, Montpellier. Taken by Peter via Flickr.
  1. Les Estivales on the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle

Every Friday night during the summer from July 10th to August 21st, 2015, visitors and residents alike can enjoy a night out with music, wine and food (is there anything better?). Local wineries bring their finest offerings for wine tastings as well as there is a night time market with over 150 merchants, artists, bookshops and food items.

Les Estivales de Montpellier. Taken by Alexander Baranov via Flickr.
Les Estivales de Montpellier. Taken by Alexander Baranov via Flickr.
Les Estivales, Montpellier. Taken by Alexander Baranov via Flickr.
Les Estivales, Montpellier. Taken by Alexander Baranov via Flickr.
  1. Walk around the old city center (L’Ecusson)

The old city center, referred to as L’Ecusson, is one of the largest pedestrian zones in France. The small winding streets features architecture from medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and 19th-century styles and are home to trendy shops, restaurants and cafés.

  1. Picnic at Promenade de Peyrou

Just off L’Ecusson, the Promenade de Peyrou is a top chill out spot of the locals. There are various sites such as the statue of Louis XIV on horseback, the Arc de Triomphe and the Water Tower (Chateau d’Eau) are all located in this area. Head to the closest Carrefour supermarket and load up on baguette and French cheese for a picnic here.

Arc de Triomphe, Montpellier. Taken by Salvatore Freni Jr via Flickr.
Arc de Triomphe, Montpellier. Taken by Salvatore Freni Jr via Flickr.
  1. Go swimming in the River Lez under the Pont du Diable

Due to its Mediterranean climate, Montpellier enjoys mostly sunny, warm weather. Just a short 20 minute drive from the city center is the Pont du Diable. Under this bridge the river forms a small lake with a few beaches perfect for cooling off and relaxing on a hot day. Also, you can visit St. Guilhem le Desert, a small very old town with Roman architecture just a short distance from this area.

Main photo: (Place de la Comédie) in Montpellier. Taken by Marc Meynadie via Flickr.

The secluded Calanques National Park, France

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Calanques National Park, France

Standing at the port in the heart of Marseille, France’s second largest city, you may think it impossible that a mere 15 km away is a pristine beach with crystal clear waters. The good news: yes, there really is, known as the Calanques National Park. The bad news: it is only accessible by boat, a rugged hike up and down a mountain, or (if you’re lucky) a short drive by car.

The Calanques National Park (Parc Nationales des Calanques) is less than 10 years old. Located between the cities of Marseille and Cassis, the calanques are considered to have some of the most beautiful landscapes, outstanding biodiversity and deep cultural heritage in all of France.

So if this magical place is located just a short drive from a city of nearly a million residents why doesn’t everyone just go there to relax and enjoy the beach?

From as far as I could tell, it’s simply that the calanques are not very easy to get to, in fact, you could even say they are hidden and secluded. As well, the mountains that surround and form the calanques are made from white limestone, with little vegetation. The reflection of the sun on the rocks and the sea can cause a fire risk in the summer months and therefore it is possible that you can only enter the park from 8am to 11am or even not at all. If you do wish to visit, check the Bouches du Rhône regional website (only available in French) before planning your trip.

How to get to the calanques

There are a few options to get there. The first is to charter a boat; the second to take a bus to Cassis and the third is to drive. I was told that if you arrive before 8 am you can drive your car all the way to the Calanque de Sormiou, but we were not that lucky. Instead, we had to park at the gate and hike for 3 km up the mountain and then down rocky trails before reaching the beach. There is a small restaurant located by the beach, and if you make a reservation (or at least tell the gate keeper you have one) you can drive through. Also, you can hitchhike, which is what we did on the way back, but not so lucky on the way there.

On one side... the view looking down on the climb up the mountain to Calanque de Sormiou with Marseille in the background.
On one side… the view looking down on the climb up the mountain to Calanque de Sormiou with Marseille in the background.
And on the other side... the view looking down the mountain that we had to hike to get to the water. Calanque de Sormiou is ahead of us...
And on the other side… the view looking down the mountain that we had to hike to get to the water. Calanque de Sormiou is ahead of us…

Take comfort in the fact that once you reach the calanques, whatever stress you accumulated during your journey will be washed away in the stunning beaches. The main beach (which is very small) is right when you walk into the area. There are a few smaller coves along the calanque, but they are not so easy to get to.

Beach houses at the Calanque de Sormiou.
Beach houses at the Calanque de Sormiou.
Boats parked in the cove at Calanque de Sormiou.
Boats parked in the cove at Calanque de Sormiou.
The beach at Calanque de Sormiou.
The beach at Calanque de Sormiou.

It is also possible the hike to the Calanque de Morgiou by following the “red path” from Sormiou, but it would take about an hour and hiking boots are required according to the park ranger.

I’m hoping in the future to be able to visit more of these natural wonders, especially one of the smaller, more secluded ones that are only reachable by boat. A great option (both for a little exercise and to keep costs low) could be to rent a kayak, which was possible at Sormiou.

[Calanques National Park] [Marseille Tourism] [The Guardian]

Creativity and culture in le Cours Julien, Marseille

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Street art in Cours Julien, Marseille.

Marseille is famous as France’s second largest city, nestled between the mountains and the coast of the Mediterranean. At first impression, it can seem dirty, impoverished and run-down- completely lacking in comparison to its chic older sibling París. Upon closer look, however, the true cultural, historical and especially artistic depth of Marseille can truly be discovered.

This is especially true of the le Cours Julien neighborhood (called “Cours Ju” by the locals), located in Marseille’s 6th arrondissement. The name refers to the street, Cours Julien, that surrounds a mostly pedestrian plaza in this area. It is considered the neighborhood of the creative, “le quartier des artistes, des bobos (Bourgeois-bohème), des rebelles et musiciens de Marseille”.

We stayed on the outskirts of this neighborhood, in a nice Airbnb apartment with a huge outdoor terrace and even a kitty to keep us company. When we arrived it was later in the evening, around 10pm. We first got to a plaza near the apartment, with a few bars open, and some people gathered in small groups drinking beers and smoking cigarettes on the benches. It was relatively dark, and the neighborhood seemed a bit run down and dirty. Not the best first impression, but we were tired and hungry after a long journey and just went to bed.

Emerging in the morning for some sight seeing by the harbor, I was totally surprised to hear from a friend looking up information about the city that the neighborhood we were staying in was actually a really popular local spot for cafés, small shops, parks and even playgrounds for children. Didn’t seem like a place people really wanted to spend too much time…

After a few minutes of walking, however, my mind was totally changed. The dark buildings by night were actually covered with intricate and striking street art and graffiti. We walked down some smaller streets towards the plaza that is surrounded by Cours Julien and I felt like I was in some giant museum, which essentially I was, surrounded on all sides  by the colorful street art of Marseilles most creative.

I was so caught up in the art, I forgot about taking too many pictures, but here are just a few of the cool street art I found:

Street art in Cours Julien, Marseille.
Street art in Cours Julien, Marseille.
Street art in Cours Julien, Marseille.
Street art in Cours Julien, Marseille.
Street art in Cours Julien, Marseille.
Street art in Cours Julien, Marseille.

We also stumbled upon tons of interesting shops such as an old bookstore, a cool vintage clothing shop and this strangely intriguing travel agency full of quirky things like bags of sand from all over the world and this collection of hanging globes.

Hanging globes at Là Bas Voyages in Cours Julien, Marseille.
Hanging globes at Là Bas Voyages in Cours Julien, Marseille.

There were also tons of bars and restaurants lining all of the small streets, serving all different kinds of cuisines- traditional French, Indian, American, etc. Unfortunately for us, during August many of the businesses are closed for vacations, so we didn’t get to enjoy Cours Julien to its full potential. However, we could appreciate that because this neighborhood isn’t in the center of Marseille, and its initial outwardly appearance could deter tourists; it was much cheaper than other parts of Marseille.

Plus, because it is the neighborhood of the artists, there were tons of interesting things to see, not just on the buildings, but also people playing music in the plaza, flower, clothes and book markets during the week, festivals and different projects throughout the neighborhood.

So do as the locals do and sit out in the Plaza at Cours Julien, sip on a Rosé and watch the world go by.

[Marvelous Provence], [Wikipedia]

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