EuroTrip 2017: Marseille to Aix en Provence

Market stands in a square with trees and buildings in the background.

After about 36 hours in hectic Marseille, the group was ready to check out the more quaint side of southern France. The next portion of the itinerary called for a breakfast in Marseille, followed by a drive up to Aix en Provence.

Priorities:

Day 4: Marseille/Aix en Provence

Day 4 started with another early morning run down La Canabiere to the port area, followed by checking out of the hotel and heading to Coogee for some breakfast and coffee. This was low-key one of the best meals we had on the whole trip. Nothing out of the ordinary, just very good coffee, muffins, and a fresh avocado toast with delightful smoked salmon, in a very interesting but peaceful space.

Next, before leaving Marseille for good, we wanted to get one more great panoramic view, and we had heard that there was a great one up at Notre Dame de la Garde. We heard right.

A cross and bushes in the foreground overlooking a city and mountains in the background.
The view over Marseille from Notre Dame de la Garde.

With our Instgrams all set to blow up with those sweet vistas, it was time to hit the road north to Aix en Provence.

We arrived around 12:30 at Le Pigonnet, about 5 minutes outside of downtown Aix. In the planning phase, we had made the conscious decision for the hotel in Aix to be our “splurge” hotel, since we were only staying there for one night. As we did our research we found that Le Pigonnet had a nice suite called “The Garden Apartment” available for $340. From what we could tell, it had two bedrooms, two nice bathrooms, and a big common area for the four of us to hang out in.

That was a heck of an undersell; this place was unbelievable. After checking in, we were escorted through the gorgeous grounds, back toward the pool, and through an iron gate with a “PRIVATE” sign. Through the gate was a private garden with a picnic table and lawn chairs, with a stone path leading up to a door. We stepped inside, expecting to be led down a hall to our suite, but instead, our escort simply said, “Bienvenue, enjoy your stay!”

We were in shock. The Garden Apartment consisted of a magnificent foyer, two large bedrooms each with an accompanying newly renovated luxury bathroom, a massive stocked kitchen and dining room, and a huge great room. It so exceeded our expectations that we spent probably about an hour just marveling at the place, and wondering how we got it for only $340. On our way out the front lobby we noticed a rate sign on the wall which confirmed that we had somehow landed this room at over a 50% discount. An off-season steal!

After exploring the grounds a bit, we were off to Chateau la Dorgonne, a winery about 35 minutes outside Aix, between the towns of La Tour d’Aigues and Mirabeau. Visitors to the winery are given a map of the vineyards, and have the option of taking the short route (45 minutes) or the long route (about 90 minutes) self-guided walk around the property.

Vineyards, olive trees, and mountains under a blue sky.
Mountain views on the walk around Chateau la Dorgonne.
Two women walking up a dirt road toward the setting sun.
The ladies walking into the sunset.
Olive trees, with mountains in the background.
Olive trees – the Chateau produces olive oil as well.

Upon our return to the small shop, there was a tasting set up for us, mostly consisting of their reds and Provençal rosés. The wines were very good, and the tasting was free! We bought a few bottles, and grabbed some house olive oil, with the intention of picking up a fresh, warm baguette on the ride back that we could dip in some olive oil in our *private* garden! We did just that (buy one get one free baguettes!), and enjoyed the fruits of our travels. It was a blast!

Dinner, however, presented a bit of a challenge. We wanted to check out Aux Petits Oignons, a raved-about cheap eats spot in Centre Ville, but upon further review it was closed on Tuesday evenings. Bummer! But not to worry – we had backups. Or so we thought…we made a last-minute reservation online at a place that Google Maps said was open, but when our Uber dropped us off, it was closed. WTF!? The place took the online reservation when it was closed? Poor design. I didn’t even take down the name of the place, I was so flustered.

Anyway, at least we were still feelin’ good from all that wine earlier, so our spirits were still up. We wandered around Centre Ville to see what looked good, and ended up popping into an Italian restaurant called Le Four Sous le Platane. It was a solid meal, and the first place where I tried the Provençal favorite, pastis: an anise-flavored apertif.

After dinner, we walked around Centre Ville a bit more in the dark, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that there was actually quite a bit of life in this small town on a Tuesday night. It seemed like there were a lot of students hanging out at various bars around the area. That said, we couldn’t agree on where to go next. What we could agree on was that we were already sad that we’d have to leave Le Pigonnet in the morning. So, we decided to close out the night with the delightful bartenders at the hotel bar, where we learned the phonetic difference between “beaucoup” and “beau cul.” Definitely look into that if your a first time visitor to a French-speaking country…

Day 5: Aix en Provence (morning)

We woke up the next morning planning to check out of the hotel and head back to Centre Ville to walk around in the daylight and grab some breakfast, before hitting the road back to Spain.

People on a narrow street, with a pink sign in front of a building to the left.
The narrow streets of Centre Ville, Aix en Provence.

We explored for a while before stopping at Cafe Weibel for breakfast and pastries, which was amazing – exactly what you would imagine breakfast at a French pastry shop to be.

Plates with breakfast food on a marble table and a napkin that says "Weibel."
Simple, yet delectable.

After breakfast, we perused the small market that was right outside Weibel, and picked up some aromatic Marseille soaps for Christmas stocking stuffers.

Market stands in a square with trees and buildings in the background.
A small market in Centre Ville, Aix en Provence.

And with that, we were on our way back to Barcelona, with a stop to see some sights in Girona along the way.  Or so we thought…stay tuned…

Highlights:

  • Le Pigonnet
  • Chateau la Dorgonne
  • Baguettes and olive oil
  • Centre Ville – on a Tuesday!

Next Time:

I hope to return to Provence very soon.  What else should be on the list for next time?  Leave a comment!

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EuroTrip 2017: Collioure to Marseille

Three people walking down colorful stairs with graffiti.

Part 1 of EuroTrip 2017!  I was unbelievably excited to get this trip underway – my first time in Europe!  I was a a little bit concerned that jet lag might put a damper on our enthusiasm once we touched down after the overnight flight from JFK to Barcelona, but trusty old adrenaline kicked in, and Part 1 was a grand success.

Priorities:

  • Seafood
  • Hiking in Les Calanques
  • Bouillabaisse
  • Putting our French skills to the test

Days 1 and 2 – Flight to Barcelona and Drive to Collioure/Marseille

When it was all said and done, we spent about 24 hours traveling before we could officially say that we had made it.  We had found a $400 round trip flight with Iberia from JFK to Barcelona, which meant that we had to start it all off with a 6-hour drive down to JFK from Rochester.  Add in the roughly 8 hours of flight time to Madrid, another hour to Barcelona, and some layovers, and we were just about 20 hours into the trip before we were on the road in our rental car for another 5 or 6 hours en route to Marseille!

After a lovely flight with some better-than-expected food and less-than-ideal sleep, we landed in Barcelona at around 10am on Sunday morning and got on the road in our Citroen Picasso minivan around noon.  Driving out of the airport, we were struck by how much the area around Barcelona reminded us of San Francisco.  Neighborhoods built into the hills, the dry, 60-degrees-and-sunny weather, and the water brought me back to the drive from SFO to San Francisco on West Coast Trip 2015.

After getting over some initial nerves about how I would cope with European driving (turns out they do drive on the right side of the road!), we were on our way to Marseille.  We had picked out a few options for cities and towns to check out along the way to split up the Sunday drive.  Girona, Perpignan, Collioure, and Bouzigues were all on the list, but we ended up choosing Collioure based on when we started to get hungry.

Collioure is a beautiful, tiny, fortified coastal town in France, just across the Spanish-French border.

The first order of business was finding the castle and waterfront, and snapping some pics for Instagram!  We walked through the narrow streets to get to the main waterfront area, and took in some lovely views of the Mediterranean and the castle protecting the town.

A stone fortress overlooking a small inlet of green water.
The fort protecting Collioure.
Two people sit on a rock ledge near the water, looking across the water to a hill with houses and a castle at the top.
Looking across the bay from Plage de Collioure.

Next, it was time to find some food.  Being careful to avoid the potential tourist traps near the water, we ventured back inland and checked out a few menus before landing on L’Ostra, a small oyster, tapas and wine bar.

Pan con tomate, oysters, and a bottle of wine on a wooden table.
Tapas at L’Ostra. Wine, oysters, and pa amb tomauqet – these are a few of my favorite things.

Being so close to the Spanish border, we noticed that this place almost had more of a Catalan influence than French.  We ordered pan con tomate, jamon iberico, and of course, oysters and a bottle of red wine.  The food was fantastic, and the owners of the bar were very friendly (and spoke just enough English).  It couldn’t have been a more perfect first meal of the trip.

With a little bit of daylight left, we walked around the town some more, this time getting some pictures of a tiny church on the other side of the waterfront area.

A small church and a cross on a rocky cliff by the water.
Small church on the other side of the beach. It was crazy windy over here.

With the sun starting to set, it was time to complete the journey to Marseille.  Our destination was Le Ryad boutique hotel, off of La Canabiere, which is one of the main avenues in Marseille.  After a minor mishap that resulted in me driving around the tiny streets of Marseille by myself with no phone or directions (it’s a long story), we were checked in and ready to go find some grub.

We had just enough time to walk from the hotel to Toinou for some really great seafood.  We got a huge platter of seafood with dippin’ sauces, a bunch of baguettes, and a bottle of house wine at a very reasonable price.  We were off to a great culinary start.

Several oysters, clams, and other seafood on a platter of ice.
Seafood platter from Toinou. Tres bien!

Word to the wise – I would recommend taking an Uber around La Canabiere at night, especially on a Sunday night or weeknight when the area is kind of dead.  As we walked around the corner on the way to dinner, we walked right by a legit brawl in the street, and the rest of the walk to Toinou was very desolate.  Be careful out there!

Day 3 – Marseille

The plan for Day 3 was to start off with an early hike in Parc National des Calanques, on a route that we had identified that starts in Cassis, about a 35 minute drive outside Marseille.  However, an early morning run beforehand down to the port and back revealed that it may have been a bit too cold for hiking.  We decided to bundle up anyway, and head out to Cassis.  We parked the car, got out, and instantly decided that it was indeed too cold for a hike.  But Cassis looked nice, so we decided to explore and try to find a spot for breakfast.

Three people walking next to a marina with houses in the background.
Looking for food in Cassis.

Not much was open in Cassis on a Monday morning, except for some bars on the harbor with locals drinking pastis or espresso or who knows what, curiously watching a confused group of Americans wandering aimlessly at non-peak tourist time, incredulously wondering why nothing is open.  Finally, we found a pastry shop and filled up on croissants before grabbing a “takeaway” cappuccino at one of the aforementioned bars.

While the day was off to a bit of a rough start, we figured we might be able to still catch some sweet views if we drove around the Calanques. And we were right!

Three people on the sidewalk of a windy road overlooking water and cliffs.
Travel companions clamoring for views down below. Don’t they know you gotta go UP for views?? Amateurs.

With lunchtime approaching, we headed back to the hotel to change before heading out for dejeuner at Le Fantastique. Lunch was terrific; the menu rotates constantly, as they select only three meal options to serve each day. Everything was very fresh, and reminded us all of a great home cooked meal. I chose chicken thighs over a bed of yellow rice, topped with a lovely gravy. It probably has some kind of French name, but I forgot. Oh, and good cheap wine!

Next up on the agenda was walking around Le Panier district, which is the part of town just north of the port with quiet, narrow streets and old beautiful architecture.  There was also some colorful street art in the neighborhood.

After some exploring, it was time to do some more exploring! We took a ride over to the Cours Julien neighborhood, which is supposed to be the diverse, eclectic, hipster neighborhood of Marseille – and also known for having a lot of street art. We arrived at Le Quartier de Createurs (that’s “creators,” not “creatures”) just at sunset, which allowed us to get some great pictures of the colorful “Escaliers du Cours Julien” and views out over the streets below.

Orange and pink sun setting over a busy street.
The sun sets over Marseille.
Three people walking down colorful stairs with graffiti.
Travel friends descending the Escaliers du Cours Julien.
A man and a woman posing in front of a building with colorful graffiti.
Rachel and I being edgy.

We didn’t have too much time to lollygag around unfortunately, but we had reservations for bouillabaisse at the old Marseille stand-by, Chez Fonfon. A couple of us had tried bouillabaisse in America, but it is a whole different experience in its homeland of Marseille. Or at least at Chez Fonfon.

Boats in a small harbor, with homes built into the surrounding cliffs.
The quiet harbor view from our table at Chez Fonfon.

First, the waiter brings around a massive platter of pre-prepared fish, and describes each in detail. The fish used in the day’s bouillabaisse is whatever was caught fresh at the market that morning. We had 5 varieties in ours (but I cannot remember any of them at this point).

After the fish presentation, a pleasant Frenchman comes around with a piping hot pot of red fish stew, accompanied with toasted baguette slices and various aioli and sauces. He ladled out a bowl for each of us, and we went to town on the delicious broth until, some time later, an outrageous amount of cooked fish came out on a plate for each of us, along with some potatoes.

A pile of cooked fish with a green garnish on a white plate.
This picture is deceptive – this was a LOT of fish.

The socially acceptable way to proceed from that point was to take the pieces of fish and potato, dip them into the broth, and chow down! The delightful Frenchman with the stew pot came around several more times for refills, and by the end of it all we were stuffed.

Fish pieces and potatoes swimming in a red stew with a toast on the edge of the bowl.
The final product – a delicious, if a bit monochromatic, dish of bouillabaisse.

But just because you’re stuffed doesn’t mean you can’t have dessert! The group was struck by a sweet craving, so we set back out to find some tasty treats at La Cantinetta, a very well-reviewed Italian restaurant in Cours Julien that was high on our radar. We only had the amazing desserts, but the rest of the food coming out the kitchen looked incredible as well.

A chocolate and hazelnut ice cream dessert in front of a bottle of red wine.
This speaks for itself, I think.

And just like that, after finishing off our bottle of Montepulciano, Day 3 of EuroTrip 2017 was complete!

Highlights

  • L’Ostra/Collioure
  • Toinou
  • Cours Julien
  • La Cantinetta

Next Time

  • Olympique de Marseille match
  • La Cantinetta for dinner
  • Hiking Les Calanques (when it’s a little warmer)

What do you think of this trip so far?  What did we miss?  Leave a comment!

And stay tuned for more EuroTrip 2017!

EuroTrip 2017 – Preview

A small church and a cross on a rocky cliff by the water.

Welcome to EuroTrip 2017! Here is a preview of what’s to come…

I embarked on my maiden voyage across the Atlantic with Rachel, and two of our closest friends (Steve and Nicole) about a month ago in early November. Judicious usage of my vacation time at work throughout the year allowed me to take a full week off, which we used to turn this into a Saturday – Sunday (8 days/9 nights) excursion. And I still have some time left to use for a New Year’s Eve trip!

The locations for the trip were selected somewhat randomly. We knew we wanted to go to Europe, and we spent a few months keeping an eye on flight deals from various sources, eventually choosing a round trip flight from JFK to Barcelona for $400 that we found via The Flight Deal newsletter. The deal was for the time period that we were looking at going, which also happened to be outside the peak season for visiting the Mediterranean, so we felt like we could possibly find good deals on hotels too. And we did!

Here is what the overall itinerary ended up looking like:

  • Drive from Rochester to JFK airport early Saturday.
  • Fly out of JFK Saturday evening, landing in Barcelona early Sunday morning.
  • Pick up a rental car and drive to Marseille, stopping in Collioure along the way.
A boy on a cannon pointing toward a hill across a bay, with houses and a castle atop the hill.
A young lad defends the fortified town of Collioure, near the French/Spanish border.
  • Spend 2 nights in Marseille.
The sun setting over buildings in Marseille
Watching the sunset from Cours Julien in Marseille.
  • Drive to Aix en Provence for 1 day/night.
Horses grazing near a rock wall
A couple of horses on the grounds of Chateau la Dorgonne winery in La Tour D’Aigues in Provence.
  • Drive back to Barcelona, drop off the rental car and stay 4 nights before flying back home the following Sunday morning.
Two bikers in a line of cars on a narrow street with people walking on the sidewalks
Biking the narrow streets of the Gracia neighborhood in Barcelona.

Needless to say, I will be planning a return to Europe very soon. I’m super excited to share more photos and details from this trip over the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned for breakdowns of our itineraries in Collioure, Marseille, Aix en Provence, and Barcelona!