By Lori Verderame
Marseille (Provence) is an active, exciting and picturesque site in southeastern France. Marseilles has the cosmopolitan feel of many European centers with lovely shops, fine restaurants and important buildings, yet this city simultaneously offers quiet hideaways where the beauty of the natural environment takes center stage.
Highlights of Marseille’s old quarter include remnants from the first Greek settlements dating to circa 600 B.C. and the famed basilica, Notre Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard), built by Henri-Jacques Esperandieu. The building is situated on the ancient fort at the highest point in Marseille on the south side of the old port. This basilica is a popular pilgrimage site on the feast day of the Virgin Mary’s assumption to heaven, which is celebrated annually on August 15. Established in 1864 on the same site as an earlier church dating to 1214 and a fort from 1536 built by Francis I of France, the basilica is immediately recognizable for its neo-byzantine style with square bell tower, belfry, mosaics, and monumental (nearly 30 feet tall) copper and gilt sculpture of the Madonna and Child. The basilica and its many visitors have benefitted from an extensive seven-year long restoration project that was completed in 2008.
This city mouse was most excited to see the famous post World War II apartment complex and modern architectural marvel called the Unité d’Habitation designed by Le Corbusier in south Marseille. This innovative public housing concept in the brutalist architectural style inspired other housing developments in cities throughout Europe from the late 1940s through the 1960s.
Aix-en-Provence is attractive for its Gothic portals, private mansions with wrought iron gates and walled gardens. The Provençal countryside offers scenic views including the site which inspired the oil paintings of the French post-impressionist artist, Paul Cezanne. From 1892 to 1906, Cézanne painted variations on the mountain theme—which he referred to as beau motif (beautiful motif). The mountain overlooked Aix and Cézanne captured the looming site in a series of canvases called “Mont Sainte Victoire.” The mountain was first encountered by the artist on a train ride through the Arc River Valley which sparked his creativity in 1877. Today Cézanne’s series paintings of “Mont Sainte Victoire” represent a major breakthrough in early Cubism and are housed in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, as well as other public and private collections worldwide. Cézanne painted works titled “Mont Sainte Victoire” from the mature stage of his career until his death in 1906.
Smells and Sounds of Cassis
While the sites of Provence are inspiring, the sounds and smells are unexpected and luscious. Listening to the quiet din of the cicada bugs, looking at the colorful patchwork bark on the native trees and taking in the pleasant aromas from the patisseries reflect the warmth of Provence. For instance, the small fishing village of Cassis is a romantic stop as well as a shopper’s paradise. Walking without a care in the world is the duty of the day in quaint Cassis. You will find numerous objects to attract your attention and lively squares to keep you intrigued. Offerings include original fine art at sidewalk galleries, printed textiles and hand painted porcelains from home decor shops, and inviting lavender scented soaps and sachets to scent your drawers and closets back at home. Don’t be afraid to go over your limit when you have the opportunity to buy some of the items that are only be found in this part of the world. You won’t want to regret passing up that unique oil painting or beautiful tablecloth once you return home. These products, like Provence itself, are truly one of a kind.
Take in the scenery, particularly the art and architecture, and immerse yourself in the luxurious and laid back feel of Provence and its environs.