Photo Tour - Provence
Where? When? How?
The Provence is one of the most famous and most visited regions in France. Located in the Southeastern parts of the country, it extends from the left bank of the Rhône river on the west to the Italian border on the east, and is bordered by the Mediterranean sea on the south. The area famous for its lavender fields, Roman ruins, scenic villages and architecture that will make any photographers heart skip a beat.
With the mild Mediterranean climate is a region worth visiting year round. I went in late February and got pretty lucky with the weather. Day temperatures where normally around 15-19 degrees and apart from one rainy day I had perfect shooting conditions with sunshine the entire time. The wind did pick up in the afternoon, but it wasn't really any problem.
The Provence is connected to many major European cities by Marseille airport. There's also airports in Avignon, Nîmes and Toulon, however, it might be difficult to catch a direct flight for most of you. There's also excellent train connections from Lyon and Paris. The area itself can best be explored by car (or bicycle, for the more sportive folks among you). To thoroughly explore the region you should at least schedule 2 weeks. This will give you enough time to at least cover the main cities. Although, the area is so rich in photographic opportunities that even 2 weeks might not be enough.
First things first: I absolutely love Marseille! The city has a truly unique charm, combining the bustling atmosphere of a Mediterranean port city with French Joie de vivre and the cultures of African and Middle-Eastern immigrants. All this makes Marseille a cosmopolitan melting pot. That being said, Marseille is not a city that will capture your heart right away. It has a rough charm, one that is not immediately visible. It is a city full of contrasts, but it is these contrasts that make it so inspiring. You will always discover something new about Marseille every single day. The city never stops to surprise you.
Of course, one can't write about Marseille without mentioning certain safety issues. The city holds a somewhat dubious reputation for being a dangerous, violent place. When I first started researching for my trip I stumbled across numerous reports from tourists mentioning violent assaults, burglars, auto theft and what not. In fact, some stories were so horrifying that I seriously considered cancelling the trip altogether. But I'm more than glad I didn't! While social problems certainly do exist and shouldn't be negated, I haven't once felt in any way unsafe or in danger during my stay. And this was certainly not because I didn't look like a tourist (because if a DSLR camera and a huge bag with camera equipment doesn't spell tourist than I don't know what does). Marseille is no more dangerous than any other large city and standard precautionary measures apply here just like anywhere else. But don't let horrific reports scare you off as you would be missing out on a truly inspiring, captivating city full of pulsating life.
I explored the city by foot as I honestly believe that this is the only way to really experience a city. You can't ever fully feel the energy and experience the atmosphere of a place if you're driving around in your car. This holds especially true for Marseille. The omnipresent scent of garlic that fills the air, the Arabian music and the sea breeze all have to be felt and experienced to really get an understanding of the city. Marseille is a fairly walkable city. Getting around by foot is also less stressful as parking (and sometimes driving) in the city can be a bit of a hassle.
The Vieux Port (Old Port) is basically the center of life in the city. It has been the natural harbor of the city since 600BC. These days, there's a large commercial harbor further north where large cruise ships and container ships anchor. The Vieux Port itself harbors an uncountable number of sailingboats and motor boats (I tried making a rough count but gave up pretty soon, so let's just say there are MANY). At the head of the harbor a Ferris Wheel invites you for a ride. Along the harbor you will also find a number of restaurants, bistros and cafés (can't tell you if they are any good though, because I didn't try any of them).
The MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) is located north of Vieux Port. I was mainly fascinated by the facade of the structure as it is a bizarre looking latticework. I didn't go inside the museum, though, as I was running a bit short on time (well, that's only partly true, because I am also a bit of a philistine that way and museums don't really thrill me all that much). The Cathedral de la Major is located more or less right next to museum. However, the area was undergoing some reconstruction when I was there, so getting good shots of the church was a bit of a hassle.
One of the most rewarding areas of the city (speaking from a photographer's point of view here) is definitely Le Panier. Once home of the middle-class, it became refuge for the working-class in the 17th century. Situated on a hill, it was often dubbed the Montmatre of Marseille. The Panier has had a bad reputation for a long time, however, times are changing. Nowadays, Marseille's oldest district is enchanting in its own way. Narrow streets, laundry hanging on lines between the houses, cafés and restaurants create a mesmerizing atmosphere.
Throning high above Marseille, Notre Dame de la Garde is impossible to miss. It is visible from nearly everywhere in the city. Built between 1853 and 1864, it is a fairly "new" church. The views over the city and the Mediterranean are worth the climb up the hill (there's also a tourist train that departs from Vieux Port, but where would be the fun in that?)
Cassis is a picturesque little village like many others in the Mediterranean. While it is difficult to point out anything special about Cassis, the village does have a certain charm. The quaint little fishing port is the center of the village with many restaurants lining up along the waterside.
The area surrounding Cassis is blessed with a very unique natural beauty. The famous Calanques (narrow bays) are well worth a visit and will make any landscape photographer's heart beat a wee bit faster. Some Calanques can only be reached by foot. Calanque de Port-Miou can be reached from the old harbor after a walk of about 30 minutes (you can also go by car, though). The path along the cliffs around Calanque de Port-Miou is well kept, but the rocks along the way are quite sharp, so solid shoes are always an asset.
When in Cassis it also pays to take a drive along Route des Crêtes, a narrow winding road connecting Cassis to neighbouring La Ciotat. The road will take you up to the highest bluff in all of France, rising an impressive 394 m out of the sea. From the numerous view points along the road one has the most breathtaking views (and I mean literally b r e a t h t a k i n g) over the Mediterranean and the Calanques of Cassis. If you're afraid of heights this tour might not be for you though, as some view points will take you right to the edge of the bluff with the waves crashing against the rocks some 200 m below you.
Aix-en-Provence is only a short drive from Marseille. It is a cultural hotspot of France and was home to famous painter Paul Cézanne. With its university and numerous language schools it is also very popular among students. Aix, owing to its relatively small size (when compared to Paris or Marseille), is a very walkable city. You can cross the center in give or take 15 minutes. The city is famous for its many fountains, the largest of which is on on Cours Mirabeau, the city's main street.
While Aix is definitely a pretty and clean city, I didn't find it all that captivating, to be perfectly honest (or maybe it was just some kind of cultural shock coming from Marseille). The numerous narrow streets do offer numerous photo opportunities, though. And anyone interested in architecture is going to love Aix, for sure.
Pont Du Gard
Pont du Gard is an ancient aqueduct bridge near Remoulins that crosses the Gardon river. Its name translates to Guard Bridge. Pont du Gard is part of the Nîmes aqueduct. The entire aqueduct stretches over 50 km and was built by the Romans to carry water to the Roman colony of Nemausus. Built in the 1st century AD it was declared a World Heritage site in 1985.
The entire structure has three tiers of arches, standing nearly 50 m high. The aquedcut as a whole descends in height my only 17 m, while the bridge descends by barely noticeable 2.5 cm, thus proofing the high levels of expertise that Roman engineers had without the use of any high tech equipment.
Pont du Gard can easily be reached by car and shouldn't be missing on any photo tour through the Provence. If you can, make sure you choose a sunny day for your atrip to Pont du Gard as the contrasts between the stone structure of the bridge and the blue skies create some very nice contrast (also, don't forget to bring your wide angle lense).
Well, I can honestly say that the Provence region is definitely worth visiting. The 7 days that I spent there weren't nearly enough to cover all cities and places I would have liked to see. There's still Avignon, Toulon, Arles, the Camargue and the Valensole Plateau (just to name a few) that I didn't have time to visit. Time permits, I plan on coming back and see those places as well.
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