From Marseille to Moustiers: A Christmas in Provence
MARSEILLE, YOU DON’T SAY?
In Monday’s Nouvellettre®, I stopped short of telling you much about Marseille, because the city deserved more than just a broad stroke of the pen. As I said, until now, I hadn’t spent any time in Marseille, even after so many years living in France. Frankly, it didn’t interest me, even though its reputation has greatly improved in the last 20 years as a metropolis to be reckoned with. My dear friend, Barb, was excited to show us the city she has come to know and love — as she goes to Marseille a often from her home in Ansouis to boat and take in the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. It’s just an hour’s drive away, so we spent this past Sunday exploring it, from the new shopping center, “Les Terrasses du Port,” to the Old Port and onward to the top of the hill where the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde sits overlooking the city.
The landscape had changed so much that as we entered the city and drove past the new highrises I barely recognized it. Parking at “Les Terrasses du Port,” having opened in 2014 with 190 shops and restaurants along the water’s edge, was an ideal spot to begin our one-day discovery of the France’s second largest city. With a population of just under a million, when you count the entire metropolitan are, it’s almost two million and it’s certainly the most important port for commerce in France.
As much as I love Nice for its sunny days, Marseille beats it as the sunniest major city in France with over 2,900 hours of sunshine (the average sunshine in France is around 1,950 hours.) Wikipedia.org says it’s also the driest major city with only 20 inches of rain annually, a result of the winter-time “Mistral,” a cold, dry wind coming from the Rhône Valley bringing clear, sunny skies.
Marseille is a seriously ancient enclave in France with origins dating back to 600 BC, settled by the Phocaea (Turks) and became preeminent as a Greek metropolis before the Romans moved in during the time of Julius Caesar. Those days have long come and gone, but because it’s such a major gateway into France, the influx of immigrants have turned it into a cosmopolitan melting pot. While the North African population is known to be significant, actually one-third of its residents have Italian roots and others, such as the Corsicans and Armenians (second-largest populations), Maghrebis, Turks, Comorians, Chinese and Vietnamese. (Source: Wikipedia.org)
You may have read lots of articles with titles such as “Corrupt, dangerous and brutal to its poor — but is Marseille the future of France?” and “Marseille: A Tale of Two Cities,” but don’t let that scare you into leaving off your itinerary. I found it modern, dynamic and seriously in the midst of change — a coming of age if you will, to be reckoned with.
Is this a good city to live? Invest in? Yes! And getting better all the time. Want to be in on the ground floor? Now’s the time — in fact, that happened a while ago, but if you don’t want to miss your opportunity, put the city on your MUST VISIT list. You might not even think you’re in France, it’s taken on such a modern vibe.
On a very different note, we spent an afternoon wandering around St. Rémy-de-Provence after a delightful lunch at a local café — Le Grand Café Riche, just in front of the Place de la République whee there is lots of parking. St. Rémy was quiet, but not “dead” and about half the shops were closed on the day before Christmas.
A highlight, however, was a Christmas day excursion to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, about 1.15 hours away down very winding roads via beautiful scenery, including fields and fields and fields of lavender. We imagined them in full bloom and are already planning to visit them in high-season — late June/early July. My daughter had traveled to Moustiers this past summer, with a side excursion to the Gorges de Verdun and couldn’t stop talking about it. She made me jealous that I had never visited it before and not to be outdone, we set out to discover it, not knowing if we’d find life there or not, and especially a place to eat.
Not surprising, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is one of the most beautiful villages of France. The cascades that rush through the town provide total eye candy and the soothing sounds of rushing waters. There are only about 700 residents. Tourism and its tradition as a center of “faience” (fine tin-glazed pottery on a buff earthenware body) is what keeps it alive. A gentleman sitting on a bench in the sun with a huge Saint Bernard dog happily told us that “Le Jadis” just up the path and to the left was open and had great food. He was right…I ordered a “boudin blanc” with “purée” and salad that hit the spot (although I know lots of people who’d never even venture to try it!). Winter may clearly not the best time to explore Moustiers, but no regrets, and now we know we must go back in the summer to fully enjoy its beauty.
Over the holiday weekend, while five of us lazed around Chez Westfield, built fires in the massive fireplace, exchanged gifts and pigged out on lobster, lamb chops and enormous shrimp, while wearing special holiday sunglasses, we also intently watched the news about the chaos in the White House and sat glued to the new movie “Roma,” a film of great depth that is worth watching many times.
Happy Holidays to All, Wherever You Are!
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
(with Barb, Photo by Michael Honegger)
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