3 weeks in Nīmes, Marseille, and Arles

Old Oct 18th, 2021, 08:43 PM
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3 weeks in Nīmes, Marseille, and Arles

This was my second trip to the south of France, and I thought that I would come out an expert whenever people asked which town is best as a base? I certainly googled that question enough. However, my visits were so different that it's hard to compare. I've now spent time 5 days each in Nīmes and Avignon without a car; five days in Arles with a car and during the Feria du Riz; ten days in Marseille for work; and a single afternoon in Aix.

And yet I have some thoughts!

I thought Avignon and Nīmes were comparable in that each were pleasant towns, each has enough to occupy you for a few days, and each had good connections to nearby sites. Nīmes had far fewer tourists, and hence less English was spoken; for me it was perfect because I wanted to practice my French. I talked to people who drove through it and didn't find it attractive. They are missing out. Avignon had a bit more of a tourist-support system. When I was there I took a wine tour to Chāteauneuf-du-Pape, and I remember having a choice of more day trips I could have taken. I didn't notice any such tours out of Nīmes; I did everything on my own.

Aix-en-Provence felt more bourgeois, though that might be just the center. There were certainly more ads for real estate in the shop windows - something I didn't notice at all in the other towns. It was attractive, though I can't say it was any more attractive than other southern French towns. I know it's not fair to judge a town based on a single afternoon. There seemed to be a lot more options for taking organized tours to nearby sites. There also seemed to be more art museums and fine-dining options here.

Arles was my favorite - there was something about the old town that I enjoyed, though I can't put my finger on exactly what made it stand out. It felt like there was a little bit more to do, and more to explore, than in Nīmes and Avignon. I am not sure how good public transport is here, though; I used my car to take day trips throughout the region.

Marseille is a world apart. It's worth a visit for a few days, though I don't think it works as a base for seeing the area.

I'll flesh out the details in the next couple posts.





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Old Oct 19th, 2021, 01:49 AM
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We spent six months in Nimes and it was fabulous. Our regular cafe was Horlage and the staff were brilliant. The people of Nimes will always hold a place in my heart for welcoming two Aussies who could speak very little French.
So many other good day trips than those places you have mentioned by public transport to Montpellier, Sommiers, Pont Gard, to name just a few.

Glad you enjoyed your trip.
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Old Oct 19th, 2021, 08:16 AM
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I would agree about Arles, michael_cain. We based in Aix and loved the area away from main street. We bused to Marseille's train station for our day trips as that was less expensive. Cheska has a nice TR about her time in Nimes.

I think you'd like Montpellier.

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Old Oct 19th, 2021, 10:57 AM
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You write very well! I read your whole Greece report and I'm not planning a trip to Greece anytime soon. Looking forward to reading more about your journey in France. Thank you.
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Old Oct 19th, 2021, 07:14 PM
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I am interested in your France report, too! Our daughter lives in Provence with her French husband, so we have visited many times. We love Provence, and we do have a special affinity for Aix. Our daughter lived in Aix for a couple years when she first moved to France. I think it's a beautiful small city. The Old Town is lovely with so many squares, fountains, cafes, markets, etc. We have been to Marseilles for a few quick visits, but I would love to spend more time there so interested to hear what you did and saw in Marseilles. You are right in that it doesn't work as a base for Provence.
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Old Oct 19th, 2021, 11:14 PM
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Prelude: Saint-Victoret

My flight arrived at 7:30 pm, and after 24 hours of travel I knew that I'd be in no mood to wait another hour-plus for a train, nor deal with the stress of missing the train if the flight was late. The airport hotels were obscenely overpriced, and the best I could find was the B&B Hōtel Marseille Aéroport Saint-Victoret. At 90 euros per night it was by far the most expensive room of the trip, and the most basic. It was near a small town with one Italian restaurant, L'italiano del sud, open on a Saturday night, and a free shuttle to and from the airport. The family that owned it were pleasant, and the room served my needs. C'est tout.

Nīmes

Sunday. I was picturing a pleasant train ride through the French countryside. Instead we were packed in like sardines, and I stood the whole way. I have no idea where all these people were going. This was my first time in any kind of crowded situation since covid arrived. Everyone was masked, but it was still uncomfortable. And hot.

I liked my first look of Nīmes, though.


J'arrive


Th urban-planner in me loved all the green space surrounding the historic center



I was staying just outside the historic center, at Patrick & Pierre BnB Nīmes. The building was historic by my American standards, it just wasn't European old. It was a great choice - the couple was trčs sympa and full of advice on where to eat, it was an easy walk to the center, it was near a broad tree-lined boulevard where the sidewalks were wider than the road, and near the gardens and public park. As a bonus, the hosts asked if I preferred English or French. I am not fluent, but told them I preferred to at least try to stick with French. They never switched to English with me, even when I struggled. This was a nice change from Paris, where no one has patience for us non-native speakers.

That afternoon I took a wander through Les jardins de la fontaine, one of the oldest public parks in Europe. The Emperor Augustus had a cult center for himself built around the springs, home to the Celtic god Nemausu. The "modern' park was built around this Augusteum around the 16th century. In the hills behind the park was the Tour Magne, the last remnant of the Augustine walls.

This was a pleasant introduction to the city!


Les jardins de la fontaine


Stairs up Mont Cavalier. My lazy walk in the park turned into a workout


The 2000-year old Tour Magne. The inside had been stripped after Nostradamus predicted that there was treasure hidden in the walls.

Monday: This was my day to see the main historic sites in town. I started with the Maison Carrée, one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world. It's a beautiful building, and I enjoyed the short movie they show inside. It covers the history of the indigenous tribe that allied with Caesar during the Roman conquest, and almost felt like an HBO episode of a longer series.

The Arena of Nīmes also surprised me. I have seen a fair amount of amphitheaters across the Mediterranean, and I wasn't sure that this one would stand out - or if it would just be one more arena. It turned out to be pretty cool, and I liked that you were just set free to wander around once you bought your ticket.

The museum, however, didn't inspire me. Partly I was tired, but also - like with the arena - I have seen so many Roman museums that I'm a bit jaded. Still, it was a pretty solid second day in the city.


The Temple made a beautiful landmark to help me stay oriented in the city

That night my body had to go through some ... adjustments ... to the meat-and-potatoes diet in Nīmes. I'm not a vegetarian by any means, but I also don't eat meat-centric meals t multiple times a day. I was fine, there was just a transition period here. Witness a standard lunch in tauromache country:


Burger de taureau (bull)


Meet the baba au rhum that killed me: a cake soaked in rum, a raspberry & myrtle berry sauce, and a pile of chantilly cream. I could barely walk after this

One night I took a break from pork and bull to order what I thought was grilled calamari - seche ą la plancha. Turns out that my French needs some work ... seche in Provencal (seiche in proper French) means deep sea monster.


Now I know that seche means cuttlefish. I've never seen it fresh before. Or whole. Served with red camarguaise rice

Tuesday: Road trip to Pont du Gard.

I tried to visit a few years ago from Avignon, but there was a transport strike. I was not going to miss it this time! It was an easy bus ride, and I had plenty of time to climb to every lookout and to have a light picnic by the water. The museum was mostly dark (perhaps due to Covid?), so I ended up having a few hours to kill before the bus ride back. This should absolutely be a stop if you are in the area! I wish I had brought a bathing suit and a more substantial lunch; I would have spent much more time by the water.


View from the bridge over the Gard


View of the bridge from the river

Wednesday: Road trip to Aigues-Mortes

Some quick history:

In the 13th Century Louis IX wanted to go on Crusade, but none of the other kings wanted to go with him. France didn’t have a port on the Mediterranean, and the other kings wouldn’t share theirs, so Louis built Aigues-Mortes in the middle of the Camargue salt ponds. From here he launched a fleet of 700 ships against Egypt.

The troops camped on an isle in the Nile. The Nile flooded, the troops starved to death, Louis was caught by the Ayyubid army. End of Crusade No. 7.

A few years later Louis tried again. He died. End of Crusade No. 8.
.
I spent the day exploring the ramparts and the dungeon (super cool), walking a bit in the salt marsh, eating, and exploring the town.

All that only took a few hours, and I still had four hours before my train. I nursed a pastis for awhile. I went to another café and nursed a coffee for awhile. I went to the river and read awhile. Finally I went to the train station - and there was a note on the door saying the train was supprimé (deleted?!) and there’d be a bus instead. But there were no seats on the bus, so I stood the whole ride back to Nīmes.

I was one very tired puppy. I would have loved to have spent the night. I would have been able to have a siesta in the afternoon, perhaps take a bike ride into the Camargue, and enjoy the fortress in the evening. Still, it was worth a day trip.


The fortress walls


My first view of the Camargue. I will have a full day to explore it later.

Final thoughts: Nīmes was a great choice for me, and absolutely worthy of consideration as a stop for a few days during a tour of the south. The city itself can occupy you for a day or two, and for those without cars there were also easy transport options for day trips to Uzčs (same bus as to the Pont du Gard), Arles, Montpellier, and Avignon. I looked for wine-tours to join, but didn't see any. Most visitors here, at least in these times, were from other parts of France. The ticket-taker at the Arena says I was the second American that week. I enjoy these places that are off the main tourist-track.

Next up: I switch to work-mode and head to Marseille.

Last edited by michael_cain_77398; Oct 19th, 2021 at 11:17 PM.
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Old Oct 20th, 2021, 06:22 AM
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Bonne continuation with the trip report, Michael. I like your travel style. I can tell you savor everything that you come across.
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Old Oct 20th, 2021, 06:33 AM
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I enjoyed your report on Greece look forward to following along here.
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Old Oct 20th, 2021, 06:57 AM
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I love your photos, and I agree that Nimes looks lovely! We have been to the Camarque and saw hundreds (maybe thousands?) of pink flamingoes. The Pont du Gard is amazing! We were there in the summer one year and brought bathing suits with us so we could cool off in the water.
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Old Oct 20th, 2021, 08:12 AM
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Nimes is great but many people find Arles even better, in terms being wonderfully ancient and yet not touristy at all, at least out of the busy season and not during the fantastic photo festival in the summer.

I too feel a need to spend a night in Aigues Mortes one of these days.
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Old Oct 20th, 2021, 10:31 AM
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Very nice TR and photos! Looking forward to Marseille.
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Old Oct 21st, 2021, 03:55 PM
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Enjoyed your TR. I spent a little time in Nimes several years ago and really enjoyed the leafy boulevards and the friendly people. I figured out the bus to Pont du Gard and wished I had spent more time there, just soaking it all in. Ah, the memories.
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Old Oct 22nd, 2021, 01:22 PM
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Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts and excellent photos. Some of the places I’ve been, others
are still on my list.

My last trip to France was Oct/Nov 2019 and the Pont du Gard was one of the highlights so I especially enjoyed you covering that.
Your baba au rhum photo made me laugh. It’s quite surprising how much rhum they pack into those
little cakes. Takes your breath away!

Looking forward to more.
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Old Oct 22nd, 2021, 01:35 PM
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Marseille 1 - Is it dangerous?

I've been pondering how to present a trip report on Marseille. I was there to work at the World Conservation Congress, and we usually didn't finish until after 8 pm. We went out each night, but I only saw Marseille by day a few times. Instead of a day-by-day account, I'll break my Marseille report up by theme. Starting with the one that seemed to be on everyone's mind - how safe is Marseille? Because I had been warned by numerous people - Europeans and Americans - that Marseille was a very, very dangerous city outside of the Vieux Port.

And so I was a bit apprehensive when I got off the metro at Chartreux, in the fourth arrondissiment and encountered a near-empty plaza. And I was confused when google maps instructed me to walk through a wall to get to my rental:


What in the Harry-Potter Station Nine and Three Quarters nonsense is this?

On closer inspection there was a stairway hidden between two buildings



Am I really going to have to walk up this staircase every night?

I came out in an alley that would have been picturesque if it were in a quaint village, rather than in the middle of a sprawling metropolis



Still no signs of life

The view from my air bnb was nice, at least - but I was thinking that maybe I had made a huge mistake in staying outside the tourist area.



In the end I was totally fine. Marseille does have a rough look on close glance, but I never felt a sense of danger in the streets. I've lived in dangerous neighborhoods before, in DC and Detroit, and gotten myself into trouble in dangerous neighborhoods when I was younger. I have developed a pretty heightened sense of when a street is safe, and when it isn't - something I learned the hard way. One of the things I look for is how other people are behaving on the street. And though the streets in Chartreux were very quiet late at night, I would occasionally see other people walking home, including elderly people, and including single women. No one seemed tense or hyper-alert, no one seemed anxious if I walked by them on the sidewalk (and I'm a bigger guy). Once I noticed this I became much more comfortable walking back alone - though I never fully relaxed walking up those stairs each night, and was always relieved when I reached the top.

I'm aware that there are serious problems in Marseille, including turf wars among gangs in the outer arrondissiments and a frightening murder rate. As visitors, we are unlikely to see this.

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Old Oct 25th, 2021, 12:47 AM
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Marseille

I'm not having much luck putting an order on my thoughts, so this is going to be a random introduction to Marseille. I'm glad I had nine days here - each evening I grew to appreciate it more. I had some of my best meals in France here, and one of the worst. People were a little more brusque than in other southern towns, but never rude. It was more relaxed than Paris and other northern cities. I can't say I loved Marseille, though ... not in the way I love other 'rough' cities like Napoli. I don't know if I would take a vacation just for Marseille, but it's absolutely worth a visit of a few days.

I don't know how covid-related restrictions have impacted the life of the city. I got the sense that a lot of smaller businesses were still closed. Neighborhoods were lively from dusk until about midnight, then it grew quiet. Even then, the energy seemed lower than what I'd expect from a city full of young folks.

Books

Jean-Claude Izzo's Trilogie marseillaise (Total Khéops, Choumo, Solea) are classic modern noir novels. There's a fair amount of local slang, which makes the French difficult, complicated plots involving drugs, guns, corrupt copes, politics and racism, and a lot of discussions on food and music. Marseille really feels like a living character in the books. It helped me appreciate what I was seeing, and maybe understand the complicated city more than I would have as a regular visitor.

Chartreux

There are a lot of air bnb rentals in this neighborhood that are far more affordable than those along the port. It's mostly residential, and has some nice views of the city. There's nothing special to recommend the neighborhood beyond that it's an affordable base.




Rond Pont du Prado (metro stop)

This is where Parc Chanot (the convention center) and the Vélodrome are. It felt like a business area more than a night-life area. There were some very good places for lunch. I ate very well everywhere in Marseille, with the exception of the Vieux Port. I know that are some hotels near Parc Chanot, and a fair number of high-end stores for shopping.


Corsican-style tartare


Seafood plate at Coquillages Pierrot.

Vieux Port

This was where most of my coworkers stayed, and the easiest landmark for us to meet up at. It's attractive, and the port is lined with outdoor restaurants that seemed to always be full. It was more comfortable to be out at night here - you didn't need to navigate dark alleys to get anywhere! I was told that the restaurants here are for tourists, not locals - and it showed. Prices were higher, and the quality ranged from good to sub-par. Restaurant reviews were useless here - I had a good meal at a restaurant with horrible reviews, and a horrible bouillabaisse at a restaurant with great reviews.


A perfectly fine moules roquefort at Le Colins (2.7 stars on google)


An awful bouillabaisse at the well-reviewed Les Arcenaulx

Bouillabaisse

Friends had raved about the bouillabaisse they had when they visited Marseille. I'm not sure I understand it. I've had soupe de poisson in other towns, complete with the croutons, sauce rouille, and gruyčre, and it was great. And affordable. Bouillabaisse seemed to be the same thing, just with hunks of gelatinous fish thrown in --- but at astronomical prices. I'm sure it's wonderful at the places that charge a hundred euro for it, but I wonder if it's any better than the ten-euro soup you get in any
smaller coastal town.

Cours Julien

The hip neighborhood. By day it's covered in some spectacular graffiti. At night the plaza is filled with outdoor restaurants. We ended up coming here a few evenings.


Cours Julien at dusk


That's me in the left hand corner, acting all hipster in Cours Julien

Noailles

This is an immigrant neighborhood famous for it's markets during the day. I didn't make it to the market, but we had an excellent pizza there one night at Chez Sauveur. It's worth the visit.


Noailles at night

Chateau d'If

I had one morning off, and visited the prison island where Chateau d'If is located. I've read Le Comte de Monte Cristo, and is was great seeing a place right out of the novel.


Many rooms had full-size reproductions of international graphic novels based on the novels, which added to my enjoyment of the site. It was nerd heaven.


The bed ball and chain of Dantčs



The prison

Walking in Marseille

I spent one morning walking across the city. I learned that Marseille is not a "walking" city. The sidewalks were narrow, and there was always a lot of traffic. Individual neighborhoods were walkable, but after this I took the bus or metro between them.



Aix-en-Provence

A couple of us had an afternoon off and took the train to Aix. I had originally planned on spending a couple days here, and I think I would have liked that. It didn't really work for me as a day-trip. Most shops were closed in the afternoon, and the cafes were so packed that it was hard to find a place for lunch. It was nice walking around, and I think it would be a more interesting city in the morning (when the markets are active) or evening (when the restaurants are active).

I should note, though, that I usually don't like day-trips. I like to linger, and spend my time in a place. It's a different style of travel. I was on a cruise once that stopped in Marseille, and the guys who did the Aix tour loved it.


Pretty Aix

Le Panier

I discovered this neighborhood on my last day, after all my coworkers had left. It was by far my favorite place in the city - it's a shame I couldn't share it with them. It's on a hill that was the original Greek settlement, and it feels like - as the tourist guides say - an open-air museum.


Streets of Le Panier


A rainy day lunch: Effiloché d’agneau (shredded lamb formed into a burger and fried).


There were lots of small local shops


La Vielle Charité had an excellent exhibition on "Le Surréalisme Dans L’Art Americaine"


What I Missed

The Calanques.
I really wanted to do a hike in the calanques. Unfortunately, the one that you could hike to from Marseille was closed due to rock-fall danger - you could only see it from above. I thought about doing a day trip to Cassis, and hiking from there - but it would have made for a very long day. Two different groups of co-workers did a boat trip. On one the seas were so rough that a lot of them got sea-sick. On the other they were able to go into some smaller calanques to swim, but the catamaran didn't go into the bigger, more iconic calanques. If I go back, I would spend a few days in Cassis and hike from there.

Frioul Islands. The Chateau d'If is one of them, but there are others to explore. I think this would make a nice day trip from the Vieux Port.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde and Cathédrale La Major. I had visited these during my cruise, and would highly recommend them.

MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée) - I was actually en route when I discovered how much I liked exploring the Le Panier neighborhood.

Final Thoughts

If I were visiting as a tourist, I'd stay in Le Panier if I could afford it, or the Vieux Port area. The port is scenic and has good metro connections. I would, however, choose a different neighborhood each night for dinner. I think three days would give enough time to see the major sights without rushing. There are so many great places in the south of France that are nearby, though, that I don't think I'd spend more time here.



Last edited by michael_cain_77398; Oct 25th, 2021 at 12:50 AM.
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Old Oct 25th, 2021, 03:22 AM
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Excellent report. I was in Marseille this summer and made a couple of photo reports at Anyport, one devoted entirely to Le Panier.
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Old Oct 25th, 2021, 05:52 AM
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Wonderful report! We, too, loved Arles on a long ago trip, and one of the many cancellations over the past 2 years included Marseille. I definitely hope to get there someday and your report has given me lots more to think about.
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Old Oct 25th, 2021, 06:28 AM
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Enjoyed this report immensely. As a lover of fish soups, though, I'm disappointed to learn that the legendary bouillabaisse of Marseille -- the Holy Grail of fish soups -- may not be all it's cracked up to be. I hope to get there soon, and will reread your report beforehand.
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Old Oct 25th, 2021, 10:25 AM
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Reading about more neighborhoods was a real pleasure. Julia Child's husband was stationed there and she enjoyed it very much.
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Old Oct 25th, 2021, 10:53 AM
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Originally Posted by Fra_Diavolo View Post
Enjoyed this report immensely. As a lover of fish soups, though, I'm disappointed to learn that the legendary bouillabaisse of Marseille -- the Holy Grail of fish soups -- may not be all it's cracked up to be. I hope to get there soon, and will reread your report beforehand.
Bouillabaisse in Marseille does not have to be super expensive to be good, but it should NEVER be eaten at one of the places around the Vieux Port. And it is supposed to have part of the "catch of the day" in it so the fish can be variable.
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