Two Weeks in Southern France

Two Weeks in Southern France

Places I visited: Marseille, Frioul Islands, Nice, Saint-Paul de Vence, Monaco and Cannes

Smoke billowed out of the oven, filling our tiny Airbnb with polluted air. I looked at Niko with wide eyes. CRAP! 

We came verrry close to setting off the fire alarm in our Nice Airbnb; a blunder that would’ve led to dealing with French firefighters and a lot of angry apartment residents.

We had been craving a laid-back night after spending all day out and about, so we bought two frozen pizzas for dinner. While cooking the first one, we noticed the flimsy dough drooping through the oven grates and turning into burned mush at the bottom of the oven.

I quickly removed the pizza rack while Niko took out the platter at the bottom of the oven with the charred dough. Smoke flooded the 10×12-foot room. We yanked open our only window and used towels to direct the fumes out of our flat.

Once the kitchen chaos was settled, the pizza actually ended up being delicious (we used tinfoil underneath the second pizza). Niko made a pitcher of mojitos, and we ate, drank and laughed as the room slowly became less hazy.

We weren’t going to let one cooking hitch ruin our perfectly good evening.

* * *

Several months ago, Niko and I were mapping out our travels. We spent hours contemplating every European country and city on Google Maps until our eyes glazed over. Southern France was a top destination for me because I studied French throughout high school and took two courses at UNC. My grandfather was a French professor at Virginia Tech for over 30 years, so the language and country have always held a special place in my heart. Paris was the only French city I’d visited prior to this trip.

The French Riviera did not disappoint.

* * *

M A R S E I L L E

The first stop on our Southern France journey was Marseille, the second largest city in France and also a major port city founded by the Greeks in 600 B.C.

Niko and I stayed in a spacious, centrally-located Airbnb just minutes from the waterfront for five nights. Our host, Emmanuelle, was wonderful and gave us a long list of recommendations and advice. She rents out her personal flat, so whenever it’s booked, she stays at her boyfriend’s place. Honestly, I can’t imagine constantly lending my place to someone else. I would begin to feel like a guest of my own home as I continuously packed and unpacked my suitcase!

 

Emmanuelle told us from the get-go, Don’t be alarmed by Marseille’s dirtiness! Marseille has suffered a bad reputation over the years for being dirty and crime-ridden. While the city lacks the glitz and glamour prevalent along the French Riviera, it is a lively and diverse area with many notable sites. There has been an influx of people from Morocco, Algeria and Italy, which has enriched the culture and culinary scene in Marseille. In addition, the French government funneled billions of dollars into renewing the city in recent years.

Homemade dinner consisting of a chorizo, tomato and baguette mixture with red wine on the side

Unfortunately, our trip took a turn for the worse when Niko was hit by a full force wave of the stomach flu for three of our five days in Marseille. There’s always a risk of catching random illnesses while traveling, especially due to water contamination, exposure to new foods and bacteria, and sleep deprivation. We picked up some medicine at the pharmacy to soothe his stomach (we thought it was food poisoning at first), but it barely helped.

It was agonizing seeing him suffer, especially since the stomach flu is a pretty helpless illness. You just rest and wait until that magical morning when you begin to feel normal again.

I went to the market a few times to replenish Niko’s BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) diet provisions. Aside from those few short trips, we spent most of the time inside our Airbnb, which was cozy and well-equipped, luckily. I caught up on reading, writing, poring over travel blogs and binge-watching YouTube videos (Ellen DeGeneres gives me life). It actually felt really nice getting a little break from the go-go-go nature of traveling, but I was also going a little stir-crazy by day three!

However, I made a critical food discovery during my time in Marseille: Speculoos cookie butter. There was a jar of Speculoos that had been left behind by a previous Airbnb guest, so I helped myself to a spoonful.

After one taste of the gooey, gingerbread-like cookie spread, I collapsed into a heap of sugary bliss. I would argue that this is the best thing since sliced bread. The jar was long gone two days later. I ate the yummy spread with bread, crackers, crepes and just by the spoonful. I later discovered Speculoos cookies and ice cream and nearly cried tears of joy.

I could live off Speculoos and brie forever…

Although we didn’t get to see all of the sights and sounds of Marseille, we still had a wonderful time. One of the best parts for me was getting to practice speaking French! I was very tentative at first because my French is so rusty, but the language slowly came back to me after a few conversations, and I began to feel more comfortable. Contrary to popular belief, all of the French people I encountered were extremely patient and kind.

As always, smiling is a universal language, so I flashed a lot of smiles at cashiers and servers whenever I struggled to communicate, and they smiled right back. 🙂

Marseille Highlights
  1. Cours Julien – This is a popular street in Marseille known for its artistic, hipster flair. The area encompasses hip bars, restaurants and cafes, and the streets are covered in colorful graffiti artwork. Cours Julien has a lively, upbeat vibe because everybody gathers outside to socialize – eating, drinking, making art and playing music.
  2. Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde – This Catholic basilica sits on the highest peak in Marseille and offers the best views of the city. The interior of the church was very unique, with walls and columns made of multi-colored stone, and strings of small wooden boats and airplanes dangling from the ceiling (I have no idea what the symbolism behind those objects is, but they were cool to see!).

Posing in front of street artwork around Cours Julien

Basilica selfies

F R I O U L  I S L A N D S – DAY TRIP #1

On our last full day in Marseille, Niko got over the flu hump and was feeling a lot better! We decided to seize the day by taking a boat to Frioul Islands, a group of islands just four kilometers from Marseille. There are around 100 permanent residents of Frioul and over 400,000 visitors annually.

These islands were unlike anything I’d ever experienced (although you’ll probably hear me say that more than once this summer). Chalky white rock paths extended from one end of the island to the other, and on either side of the paths were breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. The remarkable landscape is shaped by the wind and the sea, and unique flower species have cropped up around the terrain.

The hike led us to swimming coves and abandoned forts once occupied by the French military. Niko and I went for a swim after two hours of uphill hiking. The shallow water was a translucent turquoise, and then transitioned into a sparkling blue as you moved deeper.

Niko and I spent almost five hours hiking around the islands. I was very impressed by his post-flu comeback and willingness to visit Frioul (I swear I didn’t force my ailing boyfriend to go!).  My only tip is to make sure you have plenty of water, because the walk is long, hilly and hot!

N I C E

Nice was home base for our last week in Southern France. We booked an itsy bitsy Airbnb just a quarter mile stroll from the beach. The flat reminded me a lot of my first year dorm room because it had a lofted bed with a small futon underneath. The shoebox of a home grew on us a lot throughout the week, especially because it had a kitchenette so that Niko and I could cook! …But this is also where we had our burned pizza mishap. Regardless, I always looked forward to reaching our Airbnb and making a good meal, sharing a few beers and turning the AC on full blast.

Our go-to Nice breakfast: homemade crepes stuffed with Speculoos and jam (eggs, cucumbers and tomatoes on the side)

Nice’s old town is magnificent. There are endless restaurants, cafes and bars to choose from, so you’ll truly have the pick of the litter. You also have to spend time walking around Promenade des Anglais, the promenade along the beach. It was my favorite place to go on morning runs and evening walks. With gelato in hand, of course. 🙂

Nutella smoothie!

I was really taken with Nice. The city has a very calming, comfortable energy that makes it feel like home. I felt safe and acclimated to the city very quickly. Also, Nice is only a bus or train ride away from many other desirable places in the French Riviera, so we took several day trips. This was one of the most ideal aspects of Southern France – the countless destinations known for pristine beaches, sunshine, and flashy, alluring lifestyles. Plus, the rides are very accessible, convenient and cost-friendly.

One odd encounter: Niko and I were both reading our Kindles on a park bench, and after a little while I curled up to take a nap. Within about 10 seconds of closing my eyes, an elderly man approached us. He was making gestures and speaking rapidly in French, so I scrunched up my eyebrows and said, “Je ne comprends pas…” It turns out, he wanted to sit with us. I slowly readjusted myself (so much for that nap) and made some room for him. Three or four minutes passed, and then he got up and went to sit at an empty bench nearby. Bizarre.

Nice Highlights
  1. The beach – Niko and I spent hours playing around on the beach. Interestingly, there is no sand! Instead, the ground is coated in rocks and stones, which are not as comfortable (in fact, they’re downright painful to walk on barefoot), but on the plus side, you don’t end up with a sandy mess. On one night in particular, we caught a glimpse of the most ethereal sunset. It looked like a pastel painting. The small, rippling waves were like fresh strokes of blue paint coupled with a sunset-streaked sky layered with pastel shades of pinks, purples and blues. In the distance, the blue horizon created a clean-cut line where the water dissolved into the atmosphere.
  2. Parc de la Colline du Chateau – We hiked up to a hilltop park on our first evening in Nice, which led us to exquisite, unexpected sites. First, we stumbled upon a beautiful cemetery. While this is definitely not listed on TripAdvisor, it’s worth seeing. The tombstones are impeccable – massive hunks of marble, granite and stone carved into intricate designs and sometimes even constructed into columns with domes atop the grave. Next, we found a flowing waterfall with impressive views of Nice and the Mediterranean. Niko and I climbed up and peered over the top of the waterfall, where we watched some distracting seagulls playing in the water. Niko laughed, “I can’t believe Nice is in front of me and I’m staring at a seagull!”

Captured one of the distracting seagulls in this photo!

S A I N T – P A U L  D E   V E N C E – DAY TRIP #2

For only €3/person round-trip, Niko and I hopped on a bus from Nice to explore one of the oldest medieval towns on the French Riviera – Saint-Paul de Vence.

I assumed Saint-Paul would be cute and charming, but I had no idea just how quickly I’d fall in love with the town. It was the most fairytale-esque place I’ve ever visited. At times, I felt like I was on the set of a medieval film.

A surreal village atop a hill, Saint-Paul is characterized by a jungle gym of narrow, cobblestone streets lined with art galleries, museums, artisan markets and restaurants. It is a small, compact town of only 2.8 square miles, which I actually preferred because you’re able to take more of it in at once. There are elf-sized doors, stone archways with flowering vines creeping up the sides, and sweeping views of the coastal towns.

The surrounding hillside is like Beverly Hills on steroids. The entire sloping landscape is dotted with million dollar homes stacked on top of each other and equipped with luxury pools I envied from afar.

One of many dream houses on the hill

Niko and I decided to grab a bottle of wine to enjoy at one of the overlooks. There was a wine and beer shop in a cave-like cellar at the foot of a hidden stone staircase. The wine vendor spoke English fluently because he had lived in Los Angeles for a while. I told him that Niko and I were moving to Oregon soon, which prompted him to pull out his favorite bottle of Pinot Noir from Carlton, Oregon. He immediately gushed about how Oregon has the best Pinot Noir in the U.S. and he had picked up this bottle during his last trip to the States!

With the help of our friendly wine expert, Niko and I ended up choosing a lovely local rosé, which we sipped on in a small cove tucked away from the throng of tourists. Niko and I slipped into great conversations about life, with plastic cups of wine in hand and the Riviera in front of us.

As expected, Saint-Paul is on the pricier end because it’s very touristy. I heard more American accents there than anywhere else I’d visited so far. I overheard one woman say to her husband, “This place was a really good choice. Everything here is a really good choice. I could stay here a whole lot longer.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Saint-Paul exceeded all of my expectations and is seared into my memory as one of the most unique, picturesque places I’ve ever experienced.

M O N A C O – DAY TRIP #3

Niko and I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit Monaco, the world’s second smallest country, only a 25-minute train ride away from Nice. Monaco is a playground for the rich and famous, boasting a population of 30% millionaires. Naturally, we did a lot of people-watching and car-watching. Lamborghini’s, Bentley’s, Ferrari’s and Mercedes G-Class SUVs zoomed by one right after the other. It almost feels like you’re witnessing a luxury car show, until you realize these are just every day citizens zipping around Monaco.

Then there were the yachts. The harbor was overflowing with massive yachts, which dwarfed the sailboats and fishing boats segregated in the corner of the port. Niko and I had a picnic by the waterfront, where we conferred about what it would be like to own fancy boats, cars and homes. Frankly, neither of us are interested in ever living an ostentatious lifestyle, but we still love dreaming up what-if scenarios. Would you rather have a tiny but immaculate apartment or an unsightly mansion? If you were given $20,000 dollars and only one hour to spend all of it, what would you buy? 

With so much undisturbed time together, Niko and I pose a lot of what-if questions to each other.

We covered most of Monaco during our day trip, because the petite country barely spans 0.80 square miles. We visited an automobile museum containing the Prince of Monaco’s personal car collection, with cars dating back to 1903. Niko has an affinity for cars, especially old school ones, so he was in his element. Back in high school, he took autoshop classes and developed a hobby for fixing and flipping cars, which has continued to this day. Visiting the museum with Niko was a treat because he acted as my personal tour guide, teaching me car history and pointing out car details.

This 1927 Rolls Royce was a gift for the 700th anniversary of the Grimaldi dynasty

Of course, we couldn’t leave without doing a bit of gambling in Monte Carlo! However, only high rollers dressed to the nines are allowed into the famous casino. We talked to one Finnish man that day who told us he wasn’t let in because he was wearing sneakers!

Niko and I were granted access to the casino for peasants. As we entered, Niko asked, “How much money are you willing to lose?” 10 euros was my limit, so we invested €10 in a game of roulette and cashed out 20 minutes later with €16! Gambling is a lot more fun when you’re winning.

C A N N E S – DAY TRIP #4

We arrived in Cannes in the midst of the International Festival of Creativity. We didn’t figure this out until after we left, but we knew some major event was going on because the beach was teeming with booths, tents and advertisements for various companies. As it turns out, this festival welcomes people across marketing, communications, entertainment, design and tech to discuss the future of the industry and distribute awards.

One of the first things we saw upon arriving in Cannes was a bright yellow ferris wheel with the Snapchat logo in the center. Snapchat clearly wanted to make a standout appearance at the creativity festival, and they succeeded. The other companies’ dinky booths paled in comparison. The ride was free, so we hopped on and snapped a few photos; so here I am adding to Snapchat’s marketing efforts. Good job, Snapchat. 🙂

Admittedly, Cannes did not blow me away, unlike Frioul and Saint-Paul. There wasn’t quite as much to do or as many breathtaking sites, although the beach was very nice. However, my feelings toward Cannes may have been swayed by the enervating heat. Niko and I were both physically drained and constantly craving shade or air conditioning during most of our day trip, which proved difficult to find.

We managed to find a spot of shade at a beautiful overlook in the old town, adjacent to a massive stone fort. Niko and I had one of our classic picnics comprised of salads and sandwiches from the supermarket and before I knew it, Niko was stretched out on the ground in the midst of a cat nap.

In cities like New York, you take an elevator to the top of a high-rise building in order to see the city views. For views of cities in Southern France, you climb zigzagging cobbled paths leading to hilltop parks and fortresses erected hundreds of years ago. Both the hikes and the overlooks took my breath away, literally and figuratively.

* * *

Southern France exceeded my expectations. From exploring cobblestone villages, basking in the sun on pebbled beaches, practicing my French, to filling our bellies with picnic foods, it was a spectacular two weeks. We made the best out of Niko’s illness and a few cooking failures, and every little hindrance served as a reminder to always prepare for the worst and not sweat the small stuff while traveling.

Now I’m off to meet my family in Paris, au revoir for now!

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