Named the European capital of culture in 2013, France’s second-largest city is making a comeback.
The first, heady whiff of the saffron-laced bouillabaisse broth at Chez Fonfon in Marseille, France, summed up the sea in a bowl. As I added the fish and croutons smeared with aioli and roux to complete this classic provencal dish, I savored the moment. It wasn’t just the restaurant, tucked away in a postcard-worthy fishing port about 20 minutes’ walk from Marseille’s main harbor, that seemed so right, but Marseille itself. Long in decline, France’s second-largest city is making its comeback, after having been named the European capital of culture for 2013.
This sublime culinary moment helped inspire a new travel mantra—“There’s nothing wrong with France”—as I sampled the range of Provence. I visited cities large and small (Marseille and Aix en Provence), seaside resorts (Cassis with its dramatic cliffs) and the countryside (the lavender fields and charming villages of the Luberon Valley). In all my stops, I experienced the requisites for a memorable trip: sun-kissed Mediterranean cuisine, rooms with a view, and plenty of options to do as much or as little as I wanted in terms of museums, shopping and other attractions.
Marseille: City on the Comeback
From its recently refurbished Vieux Port with Norman Foster’s mirror-ceilinged sculpture that’s perfect for the selfie age, to the hilltop perch of the early 19th-century Neo-Byzantine church, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille offers stunning views of the Mediterranean. The sea lends a powerful aura, no more so than during a day trip across its cerulean waters to Chateau d’If, an island whose notorious, 16th-century real-life fortress housed political prisoners and provided the inspiration for the fictional Count of Monte Cristo.
But the urban scenery of this diverse city, which is home to one of France’s largest North African populations, also proved surprisingly picturesque. I saw signs everywhere of Marseille’s history and rebirth, including the brand new Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean, the very old 12th-century Fort St.-Jean and the majestic Palais de Longchamp, a 19th-century palace that is now home to an art museum showcasing French painters and a natural history museum.
Cassis: The Fjords of France
The less-than-one-hour drive from Marseille to Cassis is more transporting than the short distance would suggest. Cassis is a small town that becomes a bustling resort in the summer, with crowds flocking to its pristine beaches, narrow streets filled with upscale shops and its star attraction–the Calanques. The latter, which have been dubbed the Fjords of France, are a series of towering limestone cliffs with jagged cutouts that create intimate bays for boating, swimming and lounging.
Wanting to get the big picture first, I opted for a boat tour that zigged-zagged its way around these sculpted waterways. Later, I decided to get up close and personal and hiked to some of the nearest calanques, where my reward for several hours of sweaty hiking was a dip in the crystal waters. On my final morning, I skipped the hike and made a beeline for the local beach.
Aix en Provence: In Cezanne’s Footsteps
Leaving the coast, I headed to what must be one of France’s most orderly towns—Aix en Provence—and one that promises sunshine 300 days a year. I was taken by the pedestrian-only, cobblestone streets of its historic core, its signature fountains and trees, with greenery and flowers everywhere. But I also had a more specific mission than a typical tourist’s wanderings: I wanted to trace the footsteps of Aix’s most famous native son, post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne.
Armed with a special brochure, I followed a trail that uses special markers headed to Atelier Cezanne, a modest home on the outskirts of downtown that housed his final studio. The high-ceilinged, second-floor studio is frozen in time, like a deconstructed still-life, with rustic wooden tables, a fruit bowl and skull on display. At the Musee Granet, a former art school where Cezanne won a second-place prize, I got to see eight of his works, along with pieces by some of his contemporaries and those he inspired. Just outside of town is Jas de Bouffan, a country estate occupied by the Cezanne family for some 40 years and where Cezanne began his famous series of paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire.
I finished my explorations at a favorite Cezanne brasserie Les Deux Garcons, a restaurant and bar dating to 1792. Sitting in the period rooms or at a table fronting Cours Mirabeau, a street designed for a promenade, I could conjure a scene created by the master himself.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue: Country Charmer
To wrap up my intro to Provence, I wanted to fulfill the fantasy of having my own country estate. The warm embrace of Les Citrons Bleu, a meticulously renovated farmhouse-turned-bed-and-breakfast owned by a painter, Elisabeth Grende, and her businessman husband, Jacques, helped me realize this dream, if only for a few days.
Situated about 10 minutes’ drive from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and about 30 minutes from the walled city of Avignon, the property offers guest rooms adorned with Elisabeth’s colorful paintings with spa-like bathrooms and an outdoor pool that offers the perfect, end-of-day cool-down.
In L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, built around a series of canals, I perused the famous Sunday antiques and flea market, and in the shops oohed and aahed over high-end furniture and collectibles, including a memorable $20,000 “statement” chandelier. I also dined at a local favorite spot, La Villa, a restaurant built around a pool that’s like a private party presided over by its gregarious owner-host Jerome Arnoux.
As I sat down to breakfast among the lavender plants and olive trees at Les Citrons Bleu, the carefully set table a work of living art with fine china and array of fresh fruit and baked goods, I repeated my French mantra and plotted my return.