Things to Do in Provence
Everywhere you go in Marseille, you'll see the golden statue of the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, the Romano-Byzantine basilica rising up from the city's highest hill, La Garde (530ft/162m). Built between 1853 and 1864, the domed basilica is ornamented with colored marble, murals, and intricate mosaics, which were superbly restored in 2006 after suffering damage from the atmosphere, candle smoke and war. Bullet marks and vivid shrapnel scars on the cathedral's northern façade mark the fierce fighting that took place during Marseille's Battle of Liberation in August 1944.
Its bell tower is crowned by a 30 ft (9.7m) tall gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on a 40 ft (12m) high pedestal. Locals see her as the guardian of their city and call her 'la bonne mere' or the good mother. Each year on August 15th, there is a popular Assumption Day pilgrimage to the church. From the dome you get a 360-degree panorama of the city's sea of terracotta rooves below.
Marseilles has grown from being a tiny trading port established by the Greeks in 600 BC to being France’s second largest city. Topped by the hilltop Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde cathedral, it rises from the lovely harbor front of the Vieux Port or Old Harbor out into a sprawling, modern metropolis.
Given its role as France’s major port and its proximity to Africa and the Mediterranean, it is not surprising that Marseilles is an extremely culturally diverse city with great transport links to most of the country. Marseilles is the gateway to Provence, an area famed for its cooking and its artists.
As well as being an important port and industrial city, Marseilles is also an important center for culture with the Opera de Marseille and the Ballet Nationale de Marseille housed in the historic Opera House. It has also attracted many famous artists over the years, including Renoir and Cezanne, and spawned much of France’s hip hop music.
The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM; Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée) is a national museum in Marseille, France. It was inaugurated in 2013, the same year Marseille was designated as the ‘European Capital of Culture,’ and is dedicated to showcasing the multifaceted history of the Mediterranean and its different landscapes, cities, and shores.
The museum is built on reclaimed land at the entrance to Marseille’s harbour. Its exhibits are devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations in the Mediterranean basin, taking an interdisciplinary approach to presenting the different societies who have called this area home throughout the ages and in modern times. It is the first museum in the world to focus entirely on the cultures of the Mediterranean, and it includes all the social sciences: anthropology, political science, sociology, history, archaeology, and art history.
Winding along the Mediterranean coast along the South of France, La Corniche is a waterfront roadway that stretches five kilometers through Marseille. As both a walkway and a road for cars, it offers wonderful views of the sea and coastline. It was a particularly popular promenade for residents of Marseille in the 1920s. From there you can also see the Iles du Frioul, elegant villas of the late 19th century, and the Prado beaches. The Chateau d’If (of the Count of Monte Cristo fame) is also visible.
Along the way sits the Maregraph Building, which took measurements over thirteen years to determine France’s sea level elevation. The bench of La Corniche runs three kilometers between the Pont de la Fausse-Monnaie and Hotel Sofitel Palm Beach, making it the longest bench in the world. Part of the roadway is named after President Kennedy, who was assassinated during its construction.
Wouldn't it be nice to be a prince, to be able to go to seaside town, decide you liked it and wouldn't mind having a little holiday home there, then have the city give you the prime location on the waterfront to build your palace? Welcome to the mid-19th century world of Prince-President Louis-Napoleon. In September 1852, he visited Marseille, said he liked it, was given the Pharo headland overlooking Vieux Port and Ile d'If, built the magnificent Palais du Pharo, then never even stayed there. Luckily his wife seems to have had a more generous nature and the Empress Eugenie gave it back to the city.
In 1904, the city of Marseille turned the building into a medical school. This necessitated some architectural changes and the balance of the building's appearance was altered losing some of its beauty. Since then, the building has been again modified to become a modern conference centre, with many of the auditoriums skillfully concealed underground below the forecourt.
Following extensive renovations back in 2013, the Marseille History Museum is now one of the largest history museums in Europe and it’s a fitting homage to France’s oldest city, showcasing a fascinating array of archaeological finds. Exploring the interactive exhibitions and multi-media displays, visitors can follow the evolution of Marseille from its founding by the Greeks back in 600BC, to the early Christian settlers, through to medieval times and the redevelopment of the city under Louis XIV.
Notable highlights include an impressively preserved 3rd-century Roman cargo boat, a remarkable collection of 13th century pottery and a series of architectural works by Pierre Puget. Also worth a visit is the open-air Jardin des Vestiges, which displays excavated remains, including a paved Roman Toad, necropolis and antique Greek walls.
The heart and soul of the Vieil Aix (Old Town) the historic Cours Mirabeau is the main thoroughfare of Aix en Provence, passing between the ring roads that mark the boundaries of the old medieval center and the new town. A broad tree-lined avenue crammed with shops, restaurants and cafés, Cours Mirabeau runs from the iconic statue of King Rene (Fontaine du Roi René) in Place Forbin, to the stately Place du General de Gaulle.
Simply strolling the wide avenue – a spacious 42 meters wide - is enough to unveil many of its charms. Elegant 17th-century mansions, walled gardens and ornamental fountains line the sidewalks and a pit stop at one of the many alfresco cafés is the perfect way to take in the scenery. Once home to the city’s elite, Cours Mirabeau boasts one-time residents like a young Cezanne and architectural highlights include the monumental entrance of Hotel de Villiers and the regal Hôtel d'Arbod Jouques.
The Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) is one of the largest Gothic buildings in all of Europe and was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. Avignon became the residence of the Popes in 1309 during the period of the Avignon Papacy. It was then expanded and grew to occupy an area of 11,000 m² (2.6 acres). The papacy spent a large amount of money on the building during construction. The interiors are no less grand than the exteriors; the rooms were luxuriously decorated with expensive frescos, tapestries, paintings, sculptures and wooden ceilings.
The palais deteriorated for the next couple of hundred years despite restoration efforts and was then sacked during the Revolutionary period. The Palais was eventually taken over by the Napoleonic government for military use during which time it further deteriorated. It finally became a national museum in 1906, and most of the Palais is now open to the public.
More Things to Do in Provence
Calanques National Park (Parc national des Calanques) sits in the south of France between Marseille and Cassis. The area boasts dramatic rocky inlets, azure waters and pebble beaches, making it a popular destination for tourists looking to hike, swim and sail.
The park is relatively large and composed of nearly 20 acres (8,500 hectares) by land and more than 100 acres (42,000 hectares) by sea. Visitors can spend their time keeping an eye out for some of the 140 land animal species and 60 marine species that live here. These creatures are protected in the park, which is the only one in Europe to contain land, marine and semi-urban areas. The calanques themselves are also main attractions and include Calanque de Sormiou, Calanque de Morgiou, Calanque d'En-Vau, Calanque de Port-Pin and Calanque de Sugiton.
Marseille Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral and basilica minor located in the Old-Port of Marseilles and a national monument of France. Far from being just a run-of-the-mill church, it is the seat of the Archdiocese of Marseille and the hobbyhorse of Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who laid the first stone of the new building in 1852. The foundations, commonly referred to as the Old Major, date back to the 12th century and correspond to a sober Romanesque style. Only the choir and one bay of the nave persist today, as a new, more opulent cathedral was built next to the remains in 1852. The new Marseilles Cathedral was built on a gigantic scale in the Byzantine-Roman style from 1852 to 1896.
The colonnaded Palais de Longchamp, constructed in the 1860s, was designed in part to disguise a château d'eau (water tower) at the terminus of an aqueduct from the River Durance. The building of this water storage and the associated canals and aqueducts was a major turning point in the history of Marseille as it allowed the city to expand, building new districts. One of these was the Boulevard Longchamp, laid out by the city then developed by private business people who profited from providing a grand boulevard of similarly styled, gracious houses.
In the Palais itself, the 2 wings house Marseille's oldest museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle, which have extensive displays of the arts and the sciences respectively. Its lovely gardens with lakes, fountains, waterfalls - not surprisingly water features heavily! - and a children's playground and carousel are a good spot for bored children.
Abbaye Saint Victor in Marseille may not be at the top of everyone's to-see list, especially when the nearby, picturesque Notre Dame Basilica and its bird's-eye view are such a big draw. But there are two reasons this abbey should be added: First, it's a convenient stop on the way to Notre Dame, and secondly, it is commonly considered the oldest church in France–which is quite a claim, considering that thousand-year-old churches seem to be a dime a dozen here.
In fact, the abbey's history dates back to the fifth century, was in ruins by the ninth century and by the 13th century, when other world-famous churches were first being built, Abbaye Saint Victor was being renovated. Martyrs died here, the library was dismantled simply to please a de Medici family member, and in the late 18th century, the site was stripped of all of its finery. In short, it's had quite a history.
Designed by Marseillais architect Pierre Puget and constructed between 1671 and 1749, the 3-storey, arcaded courtyard of the Centre de la Vieille Charité wraps around Provence's most imposing Baroque church. Initially built as a charity shelter for the town's poor but it was more like a prison: 17th century France was tough. Chasse-gueux (beggar-hunters) were paid to round up the poor and put them into almshouses which were effectively workhouses. In 1736, the Centre housed 850, by 1760 it was 1059 but by 1781 it was less acceptable to imprison people just for being poor and the number dropped to 250.
Nestled in the hills above Aix-en-Provence, the Atlelier Cézanne, or the Cézanne Studio, is a museum devoted to the life and works of its namesake. The studio, the upper floor of a Provençal country house, was commissioned by the artist in 1902 and remained his place of work until his death in 1906, a tranquil retreat with a blooming garden and expansive views over the surrounding countryside.
Since opening its doors in 1954, the museum has set to preserve the studio as left by Cézanne, with many of the artist’s personal effects and inspirational objects laid out around the room. Cézanne’s easel and paints lie in the spot where masterpieces like Les Grandes Baigneuses (The Large Bathers) and La Femme à la Cafétière (The Woman with the Coffee Pot) were created; elsewhere, vases, scarves and fruits are laid out into carefully construed still art creations.
La Canebiere is Marseille's Champs Elysees. Modelled on the famous Parisian boulevard, it is a wide stretch leading straight up from Vieux Port (Old Port) for about 3/4 mile (1 km). it does not quite have the elegance of the Champs Elysees being a little more a hotch-potch of shops, hotels, and restaurants, but it is a great place to get the feel of the city. Named after the city's thriving trade is nautical rope in the Middle Ages - canabe being the French word for cannabis or hemp from which the rope was made - the street is now the spine of the thriving city.
La Canebiere acts as a divider between different city districts. To its west there is the modern shopping mall Centre Bourse, to the south is the moneyed district, and to the north you'll find the quartier Belsunce where you can buy just about anything from the local Arab community if you're prepared to haggle with the street-traders.
The calanques are narrow and steep inlets along the limestone coast of southern France, the most impressive ones being located along the little stretch of coastline between Marseilles and Cassis. They are romantic, wild and, being surrounded by huge cliffs, often protrude fjord-like into the landscape. While many calanques require hours of hiking or kayaking to reach, the Calanque de Sormiou is more easily accessible and still provides a true visual spectacle for visitors.
After a 15 minute drive or 45 minute walk from the main road down the hills, a sandy beach awaits next to the bright blue Mediterranean water. A couple weekend homes dot the landscape and then there is Le Château, the modest but immensely popular bouillabaisse restaurant that requires a phone reservation well ahead of time to snag a seat. As sparse as the landscape might appear, Sormiou actually serves as a habitat for a rich flora and fauna.
Perched between the magnificent UNESCO-listed Palais des Papes and the hilltop Rocher des Doms, the Avignon Cathedral (Cathedrale Notre-Dame des Doms) is somewhat eclipsed by its neighboring tourist magnets. While the Cathedral’s comparatively demure façade fails to incite the same gasps as the castle-like Palais, its iconic bell tower, capped with a 4.5-tonne gold statue of the Virgin Mary, still demands attention from the passing crowds. The cathedral has a history dating back to the 12th century, but the majority of the present-day building dates from the 15th and 17th centuries. Most notable are the richly decorated Romanesque-style interiors, where highlights include a 12th century marble throne, a beautiful gilded organ and a chapel dedicated to John XXII, housing an array of artifacts and religious icons.
The Iles du Frioul is a collection of 4 islands off the coast of Marseilles. They are Pomègues, Ratonneau, If and Tiboulen. Until the 16th century they were largely uninhabited although visited by passing sailors needing a rest from trade or war. But in 1516, Francois the Ist visited Marseille and decided the islands were the perfect place for a fort to defend Marseille, hence the Ile d'If was developed as a fortress and later, prison.
From the 17th to the 19th century, they were used as a place of quarantine for people suspected of carrying plague or cholera. Sea birds and rare plants thrive on these tiny islands, each about 1.25 miles (2.5km) long, totalling 500 acres (200 hectares), which are sprinkled with the ruins of the old quarantine hospital, Hôpital Caroline and Fort Ratonneau (used by German troops during WWII).
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