By Jessie Williams
It was raining when we left Montpellier. The sky was a slate grey. The ground was glistening with pools of water; reflections danced and then burst into fragments as cars ploughed through them. Our FlixBus pulled onto the autoroute and the landscape outside blurred into one indistinguishable mass. Despite being around 927 km away, the weather was not dissimilar to that found in the UK – yes, it is a national obsession, and yes, my spring break was spent in search of that elusive white ball in the sky.
Marseille. 13.40pm. Azure blue sky. Finally, some sun on my pale skin. We walked through the old port, dragging our suitcases down cobbled streets in search of our Airbnb. Sea gulls flew overhead while buskers played down below. The smell of roasted chestnuts mixed with the salty sea air.
We visited the cathedral first – Cathédrale de la Major – one of the largest in France with a capacity for 3,000. Built in a Byzantine-Roman style, it has a distinct oriental vibe with sky-high domes, beautiful mosaic floors, and vibrant colours.
Later in the day, we explored Le Panier, the city’s arty quarter with walls embellished with graffiti, tiny ateliers, and musty antique shops. It was quiet, apart from a few locals chatting and children playing on roller-skates. We walked down to the harbour, passing skateboarders circling in front of the Hotel de Ville, the tricolour fluttering in the breeze. Hanging our legs over the side, we watched the water gently swell, moving the boats, as the light faded and the wind picked up.
Le soir; when the lights are reflected in the shiny black water and the old port buzzes with energy. For all the foodies out there, go to Bistrot L’Horloge – I still daydream about the arancini balls I ate there.
On our second day in Marseille, we ventured further afield and walked to the Calanque de Sugiton. The sky was thick with fog when we started our hike. Google maps led us through some woodland, past pale craggy cliffs which loomed menacingly as we walked further into the disappearing mist, then we turned a corner and suddenly this vast expanse of turquoise loomed before us. The Med in all its glory; sparkling under the warm spring sunshine.
iPhones were whipped out and photos taken. It really was stunning. But the best part was the fact that we almost had this paradise all to ourselves – during the summer, it would be overrun with tourists, as well as the potential threat of wildfires. The uneven path led us to a rocky outcrop where we could survey the never-ending sea. The vista was breath-taking. If only we had longer to sit and take it all in. Alas, we had a train to catch.
The journey to Aix en Provence was quick – birds dipped and soared in the amber sky as the sun sunk and we sped inland. The impressionist artist, Cézanne, lived here; walking from the station we passed a statue of him with his art paraphernalia strapped to his back – ready for a painting session en plein air. Wandering through picturesque squares with old stone fountains in the centre, I too felt the urge to crack out some paint.
On Saturday we stumbled upon the weekly market held in Place Richelme. There were stalls selling everything under the Provençal sun – olives, cheese, meat, fruit, clothes, baskets and jewellery. We slowly meandered our way through the hustle and bustle, savouring the warmth of the sun on our backs. But don’t be fooled by this climate; at night the Mistral blew through the narrow streets – catching out anyone inappropriately dressed (me).
“Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations”, said Cézanne, and it’s no wonder he – and countless other artists – felt so inspired by the natural world here. After a short walk up a hill, we sat in Cézanne’s garden with shafts of sunlight slicing through the trees, birds chirping and the view of the terracotta rooftops of Aix in the distance. It was the most relaxed I’d felt in a long time.
When we left the south, the sun was shining. It was hot on my face through the train window, and it burned on my mind for the 10-hour journey back to Reims.