Traveling the world, learning languages, and immersing myself in new cultures.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Aix-en-Provence and Southern France: Rollin' with Le Mistral

Synopsis: I've been searching for somewhere to go to immerse myself in the French language and truly put my language skills to the test. Stephanie just so happens to have an aunt who married a frenchman and had some french kids who had french grandkids. And they will let us stay with them and give us the real french way of living. We need enough time to do some touristy stuff, me practice my french, and Stephanie to catch up with family. So, 18 days should cover all of that.

Trip Overview:

Day 1: We take the bus down to Charleroi for our early Ryanair flight to Marseille. Sally and Pierre, Stephanie's aunt and uncle, meet us at the airport. Sally speaks French and English, while Pierre only speaks French. We get to their house and sit out on the patio for an aperitif just before we eat lunch. Stephanie and I venture out into the city a bit...which turns into traversing the entire city, twice.

Thoughts: We are so excited to be here that we tried to do everything in one day. Sally and Pierre are very nice and excellent hosts. They make traditional southern french food and as long as I don't ask the ingredients, I'll keep eating it.

Pierre, Stephanie, and Sally

My wonderful room with direct access to the garden

We ate our meals here outside everyday with beautiful scenery

They had grapes growing on their patio, and we got to eat some and they were delicious

Exploring the main street, Cours Mirabeau, in Aix

Fontaine de la Rotonde

Armenian refugee statue

Cité du Livre, Stephanie blogging our trip, old school style

Checking out Cezanne's workshop

French baroque period Fountain of the Four Dolphins

Pierre grilling chicken and Tim standing by to eat said chicken, then lick his fingers that touched the aforementioned chicken

Day 2: Sally and Pierre take us down to the weekend market, which is packed full of people buying and selling fresh food, clothing, knick-knacks, books, paintings, and anything else you can think of. After experiencing the market we go home for lunch. In the late afternoon, we head over to Vauvenarge to check out Picasso's residence and a local museum. Next a short hike to Bimont Dam and lake Bimont at the base of Mt. St. Victoire. Aperitifs and dinner back at home.

Venture out at night to check out the local nightlife scene. We are clearly too cool, too foreign, and/or too tired to stay out much longer than a couple of hours.

Thoughts: Sally and Pierre have some getty-up in their step! They were up before us. We walked and hiked and drove around all day. Then Pierre was still awake when we got home at night. These are my kind of people.

Stephanie Cezanne... he might be a bit old for her... or a bit dead

Whole gang heading to Vauvenargues

Our fearless driver

Pablo Picasso's house in the distance

Bimont Dam good time
The many faces of Mount St. Victoire

Aperitif before dinner

Aix's relaxed, but busy, night scene

Day 3: Wake up to the light of a beautiful day. Pierre, Pétanque player/supporter, and local legend, teaches Steph and I how to play. Since this game originates from this area, there are playing areas nearby. After kicking metal ball butt, we head out through the town of Le Tholonet and stop at Cezanne's windmill and other sights. We head back for dinner. Afterward, there is a french children's movie on a giant inflatable screen in the park. It is packed. The french have the weirdest cartoons for kids.

Thoughts: This is great. I don't feel like I have to rush and see 50 things in one day. We just went and saw one thing today and the rest of the time was leisurely spent hanging out. What a great vacation!

How I woke up every morning

I learned what is, and how to play, the game of Pétanque

Women are from Venus and men are from Victory-planet

Huge park nearby. This was the only time we saw it empty

Cezanne's windmill in Le Tholonet

Another side of the mountain

It was pitch black until I took this super bright photo and had everyone looking at me

Day 4: Early morning and we head to Marseille via bus. It's super cheap so we buy 12 voyages (6 round trips). We walk down to the port. From there we can see many of the popular attractions, and we can head in the direction we want to go to see whatever (that was so non-descriptive). We walk to one side and take pics and weave in and out of the houses and monuments. Head over to Catalan Beach and then up to Notre Dame de la Garde. The city is amazing from up here. Next, head back down to Old Port and hop on a boat to go out to Isle de Ratonneau, since the Chateau d'If island is closed due to choppy waters. Isle de Ratonneau is very nice and we walk the rocky beaches and do a bit of swimming in the pleasantly artic waters.

Thoughts: Full day in Marseille and we only saw half of it! This is really a city worth visiting. Lots of culture and history and fun things to do. Plus, it's on the Mediterranean so there are nice beaches.

The Arc de Triomphe in Marseille, as the locals see it, down the street

"Look up, its a bird, its a plane, no, its a mirror with two awesome people standing below it!"
Vieux Porte (Old Port)

Do what it takes to get the best photos
Fort St-Nicolas with it's leader

I clearly have my camera pointed the wrong way, with the view behind, unless I'm taking a selfie
Oh, but this view is good too. You're welcome, gentlemen ;-)

After a 4km walk + stairs, to the Notre Dame de la Garde (La Bonne Mere)

Its so funny to me when people take photos with their iPads

Filming an episode of Baywatch, Marseille edition

Chateau d'If from The Count of Monte Cristo

Port Frioul

The island map

Night shot in Aix

Day 5: Head back to Marseille to do the other half of the city. Le Panier and some churches. Head to Pointe Rouge via boat, and spend a day at the beach. Then catch a bus back to downtown Marseille, passing through the city and seeing the area.

Thoughts: In Le Panier, they were filming a movie and we and several tourists tried to movie-bomb, but they made us leave.

In front of Nouvelle Cathédrale De La Major

To Le Panier

Notre Dame de la Garde on the hilltop

Headstand at Pointe Rouge

Day 6: So, wake up to another beautiful day and Sally recommends we go on a hike. She and Pierre walk with us to Bimont Dam again, and then Sally recommends WE go on a hike. She and Pierre leave us. Hmm, we are climbing Mount Saint Victoire. It is a beautiful sight. Now to go back down. Once back at the house, we decide to go swimming at the pool. Pierre is at the house preparing fish with the head on it for dinner, yum!

Thoughts: I've never been tricked into wanting to go hiking before. Thanks, Sally, as it turned out to be a fun experience and offered a spectacular view from Mt. St. Victoire.

Beautiful view
Hiking companions

We reached the summit

It's a shame what we did to that fish

Day 7: Day trip to Avignon, where for 68 years in the 1300s, it was home to the pope. We walk around the main street, full of life and people, food and local culture, which finishes at the main square. Head to the Palace of the Popes and walk up le Rocher des Doms (the Rock of the Domes) to get a view of the countryside and the castle in the distance. Take a ferry across the river and have lunch. After having our fill of Pope Clement V's home, we head back to Aix.

Thoughts: Great weather always makes history less boring. We decided on this trip at the behest of Sally, and it turned out to be a good experience.

Whatcha thinkin' about?

Avignon Cathedral (left) and Palace of the Popes (right)

Typical tourist pose

Avignon upside down

Saint Benezet's bridge to the middle of the river

Day 8: Takin' a day to just relax and be on vacation. Sally and Pierre have cooked for us every day so we go to the market and buy some food to make them dinner.

Thoughts: Stephanie is getting a bit better at french. Not as good as me, of course, but I kinda had an 8-year head start, and I'm still not even fluent! (insert sad face here)

Saturday market in Aix

Sunburn and peeling, no bueno

Steph and I cooking. She's doing all the cooking and I'm standing around taking pictures and distracting her. Teamwork at its finest

Final product that was so yummy

Day 9: Head downtown to check out the Fête Mistralienne, where they dress in traditional clothes and dance up and down the road, and eat some calissons prepared by bakers on the streets. Then, go hang out in the park nearby and do a mini wod on the hill. People are staring at our awesomeness. You're all welcome, people of the park.

Thoughts: In the park we noticed about 4 or 5 groups of people practicing tightrope walking. Another day to just relax, hang out, and be on vacation. And we are only halfway through our vacation!

La Fête Mistralienne

Pistols in the park

Magnum .44's in the park

Day 10: Take the normal-speed train over to Montpellier. Arrive at the city around lunch time. The city is preparing for les estivales de Montpellier. We walk about the city, looking at monuments and the parks, and the street performers. We then head over to Antigone and walk around there. Hop on two of the trams and take them around to see the rest of the city. Head back to the central area for dinner.

Thoughts: The tram lines are easy to identify because they are so colorful and each line has a distinct decoration. We saw most of the city today and tomorrow we will see the last bit and then head out to the beach.

First class seats... on the third class boxcar

Colorful trams

Three Graces Fountain in Montpellier

Showin' love 

I was thirsty

One of these statues is not the same
They wouldn't let Stephanie in

Walking through antigone...seriously, that's the name of this area

Triumphant Arch

Ancient aqueducts used by the Romans

Jump if you are happy to be at the Pavillon du Peyrou

Montpellier by night

Day 11: We take the last tram line to go see the last part of the city, Jacou. We go by le domaine de Méric... not like the pictures at all. We walked so far to get here, and now we walk all the way back to get to the tram. Time to go to the beach. Where are all the people? The water is nice, not too cold like in Marseille. After a few hours at the beach, we head back to town to the train station.

Thoughts: Le domaine de Méric was owned by the impressionist painter Frédéric Bazille, and all the pictures online show a fantastic field of flowers and promise glorious mediterranean aromas. We got nothing. The beach also wasn't as crowded or as interesting as I had hoped. It was nice, just not unique. Montpellier is a really nice city and I could see myself living there for awhile.

Anticipation of entering the acclaimed park

This is some bull malarky!

I did a lot of headstands

Sand angels

Heading back to Aix

Day 12-13: Stay in Aix and go check out a local santon shop and take a walk through the park nearby. Mahe and Charlton, Stephanie's cousin's kids (2nd cousins), come over to play.

Thoughts: Aaaaah, this is the life!

Stephanie and Le Mistral

Full tour of the santon shop

He is concentrating really hard


Traversing dangerous rapids

Mahe teaching Stephanie french, or Stephanie teaching Mahe how to teach someone to learn french

Day 14: Sally and Pierre take us to Les Baux en Provence to see Les Carrières de Lumières in the bauxite caves.  Every wall in the cave has a projection of changing art pieces, set to music. Definitely a unique experience. Afterward, we go to the castle and learn about sieges and castle life in this area. Later, we hike to a nice area and have a picnic.

Thoughts: The show "Voyages en Méditerranée" in Les Carrières de Lumières was amazing, and one of the best light shows I've ever seen. I would go there to see every new show, because it is that awesome. Like a legit 3D, 360 degree movie, without the glasses. The castle was also pretty cool and they had paintings depicting what you were looking at, and how it looked back in the day.

Light projection show in the bauxite caves

It was a bit chilly, so we needed jackets

You just walk around and enjoy the show, different paintings on each wall

Our shadows were part of the show

Why are there always stairs to get places?

Enjoying the view from the base of the castle

Listening to the audio guide in French, so I'm pretending to understand

Fire the trebuchets! 

Operating the battering ram

We are right here

For the crimes of 3rd degree awesomery (right) and uncontrollable gas (left)

Who is she imagining throwing off the cliff?

I wasn't scared at all of the 500ft (152.4m) drop on the right, and the stairs (see pic below) to the left. Just ignore the apparent wet spot in the armpit and crotchal regions

An American would sue

The living area of the castle

Day 15: Walk around Aix to see local bands performing everywhere. Can't leave without buying some calissons to share with friends back home.

Thoughts: Not ready to leave.

Mixed bag of calissons

One of many bands performing around the city

They should change the name to Stefen-Timz

Day 16: Stephanie's cousin picks up us and takes us to Marseille to enjoy a day at the spa. What guy turns down a day at the spa with the ladies? Not this guy!

Thoughts: Still not ready to leave. 

Final Thoughts: Of our 18 days in southern France, I would say we had ice cream 15 of those days. Häagen-Dazs has gifted us a several stock options and put our pictures on the wall of the Aix-en-Provence branch.

Sally and Pierre were phenomenal hosts and I would stay with them over any 5-star hotel any day! Quite a few places that we saw and experienced were thanks to them. And they kept us so well fed! I got to use my french all over southern France and practice with Sally and Pierre. Merci to them and merci southern France for a great vacation.



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