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  • Tony

Exploring the French Riviera: A week in the Cote d'Azur

April 2024

With so many great places to see and visit so close to us, it's hard to choose between them or which ones to visit first. It seems like just when we check one trip off the list, a few more get added because we want to go back and experience more of what the area offers. This trip was certainly one of those that added more to the travel list.

We started in Marseille since it's an easy direct flight from Faro, two nights including a walking tour of Marseille, and a visit to nearby Aix-en-Provence. From there, we drove to Nice, stopping in Cassis and La Ciotat along the way. We were based out of Nice for a few days, touring the city and using the train to visit nearby Eze, Villefranche-sur-mer, Menton, and Monaco-Monte Carlo. On our last day, we had a late flight home, so we visited Antibes and Cannes on the drive from Nice back to the Marseille airport. A packed agenda, but some awesome places to see and a lot of walking through cobblestone streets.

This is a beautiful area at sea level and in the hills above. The farther east we went, the closer the snow-capped French/Italian Alps came into view. In Menton, I did a Sarah Palin-ish quote, "I can see Italy from here," as we were nearly at the Italian border.

The culture and the food here are very different than what you would experience in the north of France. The mix of resident immigrants from nearby Italy, Africa, Spain, and others has shaped this region into a diverse mix of people and cultures. The food is equally influenced by this cultural mix; rarely will you find rich sauces and traditional foie gras that are common in most of France, instead a heavy dose of Franco-Italian, Asian, Moroccan, Lebanese, and Spanish influences and fusions of traditional dishes on the menu. Mediterranean style better describes what you will find with abundant fresh fish, a wide variety of fresh produce from the region, and foods prepared simply with Olive oil outpacing the use of butter and cream. We missed having an extravagant pastry shop on every corner as we see in the north, but fortunately, they are still around with a bit of searching.

We're chose April for our trip, expecting fewer crowds. Some areas like Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Nice, and Monaco were surprisingly busy considering the time of year, and the trains between Nice and Monaco were jam-packed. I can only imagine what visiting during the peak summer months must be like. No thanks!

Here are a few highlights and photos from our trip...

Our starting point: Marseille is a rugged city with a reputation for gritty (dirty) streets and rough neighborhoods. Recent efforts to improve this image have cleaned up the tourist areas and higher rent districts but there are still signs as you drive into the city or walk outside the tourist areas that there is much work to be done. We enjoyed the short stay here and the sights and neighborhoods we were able to experience, but we view Marseille as a must-see stop-over city deserving of only a brief stay. This part of the country has so much more to offer. For example, when researching things to do here, one of the top suggestions is visiting the Calanques National Park between Marseilles and Cassis. The massive limestone formations are spectacular, extending out into the sea and providing hiking and water-based activities.

We stayed in the center of Marseilles, in Vieux-Port (The Old Port), overlooking the harbor. Every morning, a few of the local fishermen brought their catch to sell at the makeshift stalls.

We booked a walking tour of the city, which turned out to be more of a hike than a tour. We walked up and down the hills and through the neighborhoods between sites/Monuments (31,000 steps for the day!). It was worth the effort as we visited iconic landmarks like the hilltop Notre-Dame de la Garde and explored historic districts, including Le Panier, the Old Port, and Corniche Kennedy.

The food we tried in Marseille was just above average. There was an abundance of Italian restaurants, and pasta/pizza was well-represented on almost every menu.

Aix-en-Provence is a beautiful university city about thirty minutes inland from Marseille. It offers stunning monuments, architecture, fountains, and quaint streets to explore, as well as abundant shopping and dining. The area is famous for its vineyards and expanse of lavender fields, which we didn't see on this trip.

Cassis, a classic small fishing village known for its picturesque harbor and scenic mountains, turned into a tourist mecca without spoiling too much of its charm.

La Ciotat is most famous for the fleet of jaw-dropping mega yachts being built or retrofitted adjacent to the old port area. When we arrived, we couldn't help but notice these behemoths either in dry dock or maneuvering in the harbor. One of them just coming into port, we discovered, was recently seized by the French government from a Russian oligarch. Other than that bit of entertainment, the small town and old port area are charming and worth exploring, home to the world's oldest operating cinema.

Nice was our base for the next few days. It's no wonder some of the world's top artists hung out in the area for inspiration. Our hotel, located within the former Palais de la Mediterranee, along the Promenade des Anglais, was a great central point for us to explore Nice, and it was a short walk to the train station to explore nearby. Across the street is the pebbled beach (Most beaches are small stones here, not sand), where many of the restaurants and beach concessions were beginning to set up for the upcoming summer rush. On our last morning, a small group of classic cars gathered in front of the hotel, waiting to take a wedding party on a coastal cruise for the day.

The Promenade des Anglais is across the street, and the historic Negresco Hotel is a few blocks away. Most of the beaches in this area consist of small stones, not sand.

Walking through the streets of Old Town Nice, the Place Massena, the Saturday Outdoor Market, and 7th-century Cathedral Sainte-Reparate de Nice.