Wednesday, 19 September 2012


I first came to the capital of Provence as a 20 year old girl, not knowing a soul in town; and after a matter of days, I was head-over-heels in love with the city of Marseille.

Marseille has a bad reputation, let's not pretend. We've all seen the films and read the newspapers... Some of these representations are founded, many are not. I firmly believe that Marseille is no more dangerous or threatening than any other big city. Like any city, there are parts of town into which I do not stray; I drive with my car doors locked, buy practical handbags that can't be snatched and don't leave my phone on café tables for passers-by to slip into their pocket. But I would behave in the same wary way in London, Paris, Lille or Lyon. 

In France, the socially-deprived areas tend to be built around the outskirts of cities, thereby (in theory) making the city centre a safer, more friendly environment. This is how Marseille has been constructed, with huge council high-rises colonizing the quartiers nords on the fringes of the city. It is in these concentrated districts that a lot of the crime, drug-dealing etc takes place. It's a sad fact of society, but these things have to happen somewhere. But the city itself is far from the gang land territory that the media make it out to be.

Need convincing? Let me take on a little walking tour of Marseille, you'll see what I mean.

The view from St Charles station

 Most people's first contact with Marseille is the enormous St Charles station, bang in the centre of town. This vast building is perched on top of a hill, giving the traveller a spectacular first view over the rooftops as he leaves the station to descend the 50-odd stone steps down to the road.

The St Charles station

In the shadow of the station lies the long boulevard of the Canebière, Marseille central street. Sloping gently down to the portside, the Canebière draws its name from a time when the large mechant ships would lay their hemp ropes out straight along the street to dry, after the long crossing from North Africa.
Trams, buses, cars and scooters all fight for right of way along the Canebière, and you really get the impression that you are in the nerve of the city.

A large pedestrianized shopping street, the Rue St Ferréol,  runs perpendicular to the Canebière, as does the Rue de Rome, leading straight up to the busy roundabout of Castellane.
At the top of the Canebière, the church of Réformés, with its two proud spires, stands watch over the city centre. When I first moved to Marseille, I lived in the shadow of this spectacular building, and was awoken by its bells each morning.

Réformés church

On the other side of the Canebière, up a steep hill, lies the bohemian district of Cours Julien, a network of small streets packed with artisan workshops, boutiques, tattoo parlours, clothes and jewellery shops, and interesting and unusual bars and restaurants. The streets are papered with spectacular, original and witty street art.  

The Cours Julien is an excellent place for a night out, especially in the summer months, when you can drift from one café terrace or boutique to the next, and then take your pick of café concerts, small clubs or cocktail bars.

Down the hill from the Cours Julien is the arab district of Noailles, which plays host to one of the busiest permanent markets in town. Small shops crowd the narrow streets of Noailles, offering exotic spices, unusual fruit and Japanese soft drinks. A place to watch out for your wallet, and not flash your camera about, but certainly worth a visit for the sights, smells and sounds. And north african pastries, sold by the kilo and dripping with honey...

Cour Julien's main square
One of Marseille's largest markets, La Plaine, can be found just off the Cours Julien, on a Saturday and Thursday morning.
Selling everything from fruit and veg, to clothes, jewellery, kitchen ware, radios, leather bags, books... it is well worth braving the crowds to browse the hundreds of stalls - there's no way you can't come away with a bargain.

Let's return to the Canebière, and make our way down to the Vieux Port, around 1km down from the Réformés church, pretty much due south.

What to say about the Vieux Port?
It's enormous, it's beautiful, it play host to hundreds of hotels, bars, cafés and restaurants, for all tastes and budgets. Its fish market (every morning, except Mondays) attracts tourists, local chefs and residents alike. It is surrounded by spectacular monuments, including the Fort St Nicolas, the town hall, the cathedral and the Palais du Pharo.   All of these places merit visits, time...

As do many of the bars and restaurants. My favourite place to eat is the restaurant La Nautique. Situated on the first floor of a floating pavillion, which belongs to one of Marseille's most prestigious yacht clubs, you eat surrounded by beautiful classic sailing yachts, watching the deckhands coil ropes and sand the decks. Contrary to appearances, this restaurant is fabulous value for money, and not too snooty - if you want to dress up, you won't be alone, but if you want to join the sailors who prop up the bar in shorts and tattered t-shirts, drinking whisky and swapping stories, nobody will bat an eyelid:

And if you're looking for a night out, the combination of Exit Café (whose happy hour seems to have no real concept of time), Shamrock and Trolleybus, a nightclub in the old winecellars beneath a ship chandler's, has never fallen short of the mark for me.

On the Western side of the Vieux Port, the Rue de la République, a Hausmannien boulevard, leads off to the new business district of La Joliette, where skyscrapers are beginning to emerge from the field of terracotta rooftops. A fabulous conversion project, Les Docks, has recently been completed just off La Joliette's square, and the ground floor is open to visitors.

A little further towards the sea, within easy walking distance of the port, is Le Panier, the oldest residential district in Europe. Saved from the otherwise liberal bombings of Marseille during World War II, Le Panier is built largely around a small hill, on top of which stands the church of Les Accoules. On the Place des Pistoles, a beautifully calm, leafy square spotted with pleasant, reasonably priced restaurants, is the Vieille Charité, a vast old poor house, recently restored as an exhibition centre. Some of the expositions are a bit pricey, but it's free to enter the main courtyard and wander through the cloisters, or into the spectacular domed church. In the summer months, the Panier rivals the Cours Julien for its bohemian atmosphere, with concerts, soirées and chic second hand boutiques, but in the winter it is largely deserted and can feel a little unsafe.  

Let's wind our way back down to the port, and perhaps stop a while on a terrace to rest our weary feet, sip a café au lait and watch the world go by. As we are about to climb up to Notre Dame de la Garde, and you'll need all the energy you can muster.

The church of Notre Dame de la Garde stands on the highest hill over-looking the town. Originally a sea-farers' church, an enormous golden statue of the Madonna and child look out over the waters. The inside of the church is decorated with sea scapes, and model boats hang from the ceiling amid curls of incense. But the climb up to Notre Dame is rewarded also by the spectacular views from its panoramic terraces, from one end of Marseille to the other. If you only spend one day in Marseille, you must go there.

Let's turn now towards the sea. Marseille has some 13km of coastline, including some wonderful sandy beaches. The main beach area of Provence, l'Escale Borely, is completely artificial, and was apparently constructed using the earth and debris dug out in the making of the metro. It's now a haven for wind- and kite-surfers, fishermen and sunbathers alike.

The best way to get to the beaches is via La Corniche, a road clinging to the cliffside, offering an unparelled view over the sea. Around halfway round is the beautiful fishing cove of Vallon des Auffes, hidden beneath the road, with two of Marseille's most famous fish restaurants, L'Epuisette and Chez Fon-Fon.

And finally, as we laze on the beach gazing out to sea, let me tell you a little about the islands in the bay of Marseille. The islands of Frioul, around 4kms out to sea from the Vieux Port (although you'd think they were closer), were formally a military base, and the old military hospital there is currently undergoing renovation.

There are a total of four islands, the most famous of which being If, home to the famous Chateau d'If, the prison from which Dumas' fictional Count of Monte Cristo escapes.
The Frioul islands are now a residential district of Marseille, despite the fact that they are only accessible by boat. Navettes run from the Vieux Port several times a day, ferrying tourists and residents to and fro.

Whilst there are several restaurants open on the quayside of Frioul's largest island, I would recommend taking a picnic, wandering around the island and settling down on a pebbly beach somewhere, either to gaze out at miles and miles of uninterrupted sea, or back towards the hubbub of Marseille.

View from inside the Chateau d'If, looking back towards Notre Dame de la Garde

Thus ends our whistlestop tour of the sights of Marseille. There are many that I have not had time to tell you about, and some that I have surely forgotten. Why don't you come and find out for yourself? You won't regret it.

Monday, 17 September 2012


Several rivers criss-cross the region of Provence. Some of them start their lives as sources in the hills, or from glacial waters in the Alps, tumbling their way down towards the warm waters of the med.

There is, of course, the Rhone, over which stretches the famous Pont d'Avignon, and whose delta forms the salt marshes and creeks of the Camargue. There is also its famous tributary, the Durance, a rocky, chilly alpine river running through Sisteron and Cavaillon before converging with the Rhone near Avignon.

View from the Palais de Pâpes onto the Pont d'Avignon

Water from the Durance was brought to Marseille in the 19th century, via the Canal de Marseille, an artificial concrete channel running some 80-odd kilometers to supply the city with running water, after outbreaks of disease such as cholera. So great was the need for water, that its arrival was celebrated by the construction of the fabulous Palais Longchamp in the centre of town, with its spectacular fountains and lush green gardens. The gardens behind the palace originally housed a zoological park, and the old enclosures still exist, including a quaint giraffe house. The palace now plays host to a fine art museum, and a small natural history museum.


On my first day in Marseille, flat-hunting, I remember stumbling across the Palais Longchamp on the tram - noone really sings its praises or tells you to go there. And yet it is, for me at  least, one of the most spectacular sights in the city. Go there. Climb the palace steps and look out over the city, then climb a little higher, find a spot under a tree and read a book, or sip a café crème and watch the pony-and-trap take children for rides around the park. A little haven of calm in the middle of France's busiest city.

Water from the Verdon river was also later brought to Marseille - and to some of the other large towns nearby - in the 1970s via the Canal de Provence, which runs almost totally underground (and uncelebrated!). The Marseillais are unusually proud of their water, and cannot understand why tourists might prefer bottled varieties to the stuff that comes out of taps. Apparently, a real pastis is made with water from Marseille; if not, it doesn't taste the same... Mind you, it was a marseillais that told me that, so take it with a pince of salt. 

But water is not only celebrated in Marseille; the small village of Eyguières, north of the military town of Salon de Provence, claims to have the largest number of fountains in any village in France. Istres, a small town on the Etang de Berre, has the highest single water jet (Geneva-style) in France. The beautiful town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is, perhaps predictably given the name, built on an island in the middle of the Sorgue river, connected to the shore by a series of bridges. A walking tour of the waterwheels that surround the town - as well as its antiques markets and bookshops - is well worth doing.


You cannot, however, visit Ile-sur-la-Sorgue without going to the the church in the centre. On a scorching hot day strolling around this town with a friend, we decided to nip inside just to cool off a little. Decorated from floor to ceiling with wonderfully detailed, flaking paintings, it is simply breathtaking.

Nearby is the wonderfully green village of Fontaine de Vaucluse, which is built around France's largest natural spring, in the shadows of a set of magnificent cliffs. Famous french diver Jacques Cousteau attempted to dive the spring, but didn't make it down to the bottom. Pictures of this place speak for themselves.


Thursday, 13 September 2012

Le poisson

Provence's southern border is the salty, glittering mediterranean sea, and so it is unsurprising that fish and seafood play essential roles in the Provencal diet.

Daily or weekly fish markets are a common sight, and fishing forms a significant part of the local economy. Perhaps the most famous market is that of Marseille's old port, where the fish arrive on tiny boats to slip and slide their way into large trays, and are sold within seconds. It doesn't get much fresher than that.

And all sorts of interesting and unusual creatures can be found on those markets - shell fish, urchins, rock fish, oysters by the hundred... And you can be sure that there will be an army of mamies hovering like seagulls, ready to elbow you out of the way for the freshest catch.

There are countless fish and seafood recipes that I could mention here, but I cannot realistically introduce you to fish in Provence without talking about two fantastic dishes: bouillabaisse and aïoli.

Bouillabaisse is a wonderfully rich fish soup, garnished with potatoes, vegetables, toasts with a garlic and safran mayonnaise, and of course a magnificent selection of fresh fish and sea food. I have heard many stories about the origins of bouillabaisse, and the meanings of the name of this dish itself. My favourite, which may or may not be true, is that the bouillabaisse was originally a peasant dish, for fishermen and their families, made by boiling all the ugly, misshapen creatures caught but not sold that day, in the bottom of a barrel, with some veg thrown in. The fishmonger who told me this tale also reliably(??) informed me that the word bouillabaisse is a combination of two old Occitan words, meaning "boil in the bottom". I like this story a lot, mainly because it is true that the rock fish traditionally used in the soup are fantastically ugly things that you would never want to find steamed, whole, on your plate. Whatever its origins, bouillabaisse is one of the most famous and most expensive dishes in France, and there are several great places to eat it in and around Marseille. Having only tasted it once, albeit it in one of the most famous bouillabaisse restaurants in town, I would not dare to make any suggestions as to where to go. But I will offer one bit of advice - the portions are so vast; don't eat for 24 hours before you have bouillabaisse!

Aïoli, however, is a much more affordable, every day dish which I personally appreciate just as much as a 100 euro bouillabaisse. It consists of a fiercy garlicy mayonnaise (the aïoli) which accompanies a plate of simple tastes. These usually include desalted salt cod, boiled in unseasoned water, a selection of boiled vegetables (carrots, courgettes, potatoes, beetroot, green beans...), boiled eggs and, if you're lucky, bulots (sea snails). This selection of delights, dipped into the mayonnaise, often grace the lunch specials menu in Provencal restaurants on a Friday, and early Friday morning chefs can be seen whipping up enormous bowls of yellowy, garlicy dips.

Aioli is relatively simple to make - all you need to do is crush up plenty of garlic in a pestle and mortar, to which you add egg yolks. Once nicely whisked, slowly drizzle in olive oil, whisking continuously, until the mayonnaise begins to form.

Or you could just cheat and buy it in a jar, like I do!

Le pastis

Pastis is widely considered to be the drink of Provence, and not without good reason. It is rare to come across a man in this part of the world who does not like a Pastis or four before tucking in to dinner.

An aniseed flavoured spirit made from licorice root and sugar, pastis is a dark golden coloured liquid which must be diluted for consumption. It is often served neat in a tall glass, with a jug of water and ice cubes, and it is up to the drinker to dilute it to perfection (the recommended dose being 5 parts water to 1 part pastis). The end result is a milky, cloudy coloured liquid, with a strong aniseed taste.

Pastis was originally marketed by Paul Ricard, an entrepreneur marseillais, between the two world wars. (Production of pastis was actually banned under the Vichy regime, but the right to manufacture it was reinstated in 1944.) The Ricard name has since become synonymous with pastis, and it is not unusual to hear locals ordered a "Ricard" in a bar. A second brand, 51 (so named because of the recommended 5-1 dosage), later became equally as popular, and all serious pastis-lovers are faithful to one brand or the other. Several other brand names exist, such as the Corsican Casanis.

It's all a bit hazy, but I vaguely remember a night in a Marseille bar where a friend decided that it was time for my pastis education to begin... This particular bar stocked several varieties of pastis, and so a glass of each was ordered for me, so that I could taste them all and choose my favourite. After the third or fourth glass, they all begin to taste the same, and I couldn't remember the names of the ones that I had already drunk...! Luckily, women in Provence tend to prefer a glass of vin doux, a sweet wine made with the muscat grape, or a glass of local rosé with an ice cube, and so I rarely have to call on my blurry pastis knowledge...

Several traditional Provençal dishes use pastis, including the famous gambas flambées au pastis - fat prawns fried in pastis and garlic, and then set fire to to burn off the alcohol. But perhaps my favourite is a daurade au pastis - Jon Dory marinaded in pastis and baked in the oven (or on the coals of a barbecue).

This recipe couldn't be simpler:

For one person:

 - 1 Jon Dory, cleaned but whole
 - 1 small glass of pastis
 - 3 glasses of water
 - 1 small onion, or 2 shallots
 - A few thin slices of fennel

Marinade the fish in a bowl with the pastis and water for at least 2 hours.
Gently fry the onion and fennel slices in olive oil, until just cooked.
Remove the fish from the marinade, and stuff it with the onion and fennel mix.
Wrap in silver foil or baking parchment, and roast for 20 minutes in a hot oven (200°C) or on a barbecue.

This works equally well with trout, if you can't get JDs (although I do love their grumpy little faces)

Le marché

One of the main reasons that I chose to relocate from the UK to the South of France was (predictably?) for the food. The quality of the local produce here is beyond incredible; who knew that simple things like tomatoes could taste so fabulous?

Supermarket shopping is, unfortunately, not what it used to be in France. The credit crunch (la crise) has driven prices up and quality down, and so to get real top-notch nosh, I go to my local market on a Sunday morning. From the early hours of the morning, sprightly local farmers and their bleary eyed teenage assistants set up stalls around the town square, and by 8am cups of coffee from the nearby café are being handed from one grubby palm to the next in exchange for gossip.

The sights and smells of the market are just like no other thing I have experienced. Every two or three meters, your senses are invaded by a new sensation - roasting chickens, prawns bubbling away in giant paellas, melons freshly sliced open, tangy young goat's cheeses, vats of olives and garlic large enough to fit a grown man, freshly cured sausages... And all laid out for you to touch, smell and taste before you buy.

And behind each display stands César, or Manon, or Marcel, all brown as berries from a lifetime of working in the sun, and brimming with advice, recipes, and chit-chat.

Perhaps the best stall-holder that have come across was a woman selling fresh cheeses, coated with pepper corns, tiny slivers of walnut or garlicy tapenade - let's call her Margot. Margot was in her late 60s, and cared very little for cheese, in fact. She told me that her husband had invested in two goats on the day of his retirement, and set about making dairy products. Very quickly, he increased his flock and cheese-making become his number one activity. At first, Margot relished in the peace and quiet whilst her husband milked and tended to his goats. But lately, she told me, he seemed to spend more time talking to his goats than to his wife, and so she had decided to sell her husband's cheeses on the market, not to make money, but to hold a conversation longer than "Tu vas où?" - "Voir les chèvres".  I've since noticed that each customer stays a few extra minutes with Margot and her cheeses, listening sympathetically to tales of her husband and his adventures in the dairy world. And if you listen long enough, she'll pop a couple of extra cheeses in your basket, just to tide you over till next week...


La pétanque

In Provence, the people work hard and play hard.

Every possible opportunity for socializing is exploited to a maximum (unless, of course, it falls within the sacred hour of la sieste - the afternoon nap that is so necessary after a long summer lunch). And one of the most sociable activities known to les provencaux is a good old game of Pétanque.

The well-known French game of boules doesn't exist here in the south. Ask a Marseillais or an Aixois to play boules with you, and you'll get little more than a strange look and a shrug of the shoulders in return. Here, we play pétanque. To the untrained eye, this may appear to be the same game by another name. There are, however, some subtle differences... In traditional boules, for example, the player takes several steps before rolling a metal ball, with a technique similar to lawn bowls, towards a little wooden target ball (the cochonnet). The player that rolls his metal ball nearest to the wooden one wins the round.

In pétanque, however, the player keeps his feet firmly planted - or tanqués - in a set position (usually a circle drawn in the sand), from whence the name: pieds tanqués... The metal balls are not rolled, but rather thrown underarm, chimpanzee-style. Furthermore, pétanque is generally played in teams of two, each with his own strategic role. One player aims to throw his ball nearest to the target, whilst the other aims to hit the opponent's balls and knock them out of line. Pétanque can be played just about anywhere, as it requires a much shorter court than boules; the terrain just needs to be relatively flat, dry and, ideally, sandy (a gravel driveway is pretty good!):  

This variant of the sport is reported to have been invented in La Ciotat, a village situated along the coast to the east of Marseille, in the early 1900s. The inventor of the game is thought to have been suffering from arthritis, and so was unable to participate in a local boules tournament. And so, on a small boules court next to the local café, he persuaded his friends to try his new version of the game. Apparently, it went down well; I like to imagine that this is because the steps required to play conventional boules become wobbly and unpredictable in the case of the serious player, who will have drunk several glasses of pastis before spitting on his hands and stepping up to take his shot. Because a real game of pétanque lasts for a whole afternoon, during which much pastis and rosé wine are consumed by the players (often accompanied by sucking of teeth and efforts to distract the opponent). Should a cochonnet be lost, it is very frequently replaced by a wine cork - so much so that the little wooden ball has come to be known as a bouchon (a cork). The pétanque world championships are held in Marseille every year, attracting hundreds of enthusiasts from all over the world. All participants are presented with a bag of goodies before they even begin to play, including a bottle of pastis per player. I can only assume that this improves performance.

Pétanque courts litter the region, my personal favourite being the one in front of the cathedral in Marseille, with its own sea view, and local bars within easy staggering distance. Ask any inebriated local if he plays, and he will regale you with stories of cheating neighbours, dogs on the court, and that time, in his 20s, when he so very nearly won the championship...

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Le Provençal

There are many things which contribute to Provence's unique identity, and perhaps one of the strongest influencing factors is its language. Provence is a bilingual region. If ever you happen to take a holiday in any one of the hundreds of its small villages and hamlets, you will find yourself immersed from the very outset in a veritable linguistic bouillabaisse. Firstly, the French spoken in Provence bears little resemblance to the French learnt in schools:

" was a rich, soupy patois, emanating from somewhere at the back of the throat and passing through a scrambling process in the nasal passages before coming out as speech. Half familiar sounds could be dimly recognized as words...demain became demang, vin became vang, maison became mesong...often with an extra vowel tacked on to the end for good luck. Thus an offer of more bread - page one stuff in French for beginners - emerged as a single question. Encoredupanga?" (A Year In Provence, Peter Mayle 2000:6)

But when you begin to understand the twangs of the accent (often blurred by one pastis too many...), and even to fill in the missing words replaced by gestures of the hands, elbows, shoulders and eyebrows, you quickly realise that these ways of communicating are mixed together with sentences in a whole other language. This code, incomprehensible to the outsider, is Le Provençal.

After my first few months here, a friend explained this linguistic duality to me, and I realised why I was struggling to understand some speakers so much! Le Provençal is not French, nor is it Italian, or even Latin, but it sounds like a melting pot of all three...

I do not intend to write a comprehensive history or analysis of the Provençal language here - if you would like to learn more about le Provençal then please do contact me, I will happily orientate you towards some good websites and books. In short, the history of the Provençal language is a history of immigration. Provence's location has made it a prime target for invaders, settlers, travelers and tourists throughout the ages (the first to knock at the door of the natural harbour of Marseille's Vieux Port being the Greeks from Phoecaea in around 600BC) and the language spoken there represents this. Many linguistic factors come together to create this unique way of speaking, itself a dialect of Occitan, the language of Southern French.

A grandmother and grand daughter in traditional Provencal dress, selling chickens from wooden cages in Allauch, a village perched in the hills overlooking Marseille. 

And the Provencaux people are fiercely proud of their language, as even today it plays a central role in the region's identity. There are now relatively few fluent speakers of Provençal, although it continues to be taught in primary schools. But many expressions have been retained, and are very frequently used - especially in modern slang. The friend who first told me about the language introduced me to it via the songs of Marseille-based reggae group Massilia Sound System, whose lyrics combine modern French with Provençal expressions such as "mettre lo oai" (to make a mess, create a scandal), "degun" (nobody) and "minot" (kid).

Road signs at the entrance to towns in Provence are often found to be bilingual French-Provençal. It was recently suggested that this was outdated, unnecessary and even confusing, and a court order was drawn up obliging local authorities to take them down. There was widespread outcry across the region, and many mayors refused and protested, including this small town near Montpellier:

Le Provençal is therefore a badge which its speakers wear with pride, and which creates a solid basis for the strong regional identity that is so apparent here.

And yes, the title of my blog is in Provençal... Uno Angleso en Prouvènço... Not an Englishman in New York, but an English girl in Provence.