24 July 2014

Mediterranean Travels, Part 2: Provence and Monaco

One of the most surreal parts of traveling through Europe on a cruise ship is going to bed at night and waking up in a different country the next morning. Still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that we'd just explored Barcelona, it took some serious effort to switch from "gracias" to "merci" overnight! But I can't begin to explain how excited I was to disembark in France! As some of you may remember, we spent our honeymoon in Paris, and ever since then I've been dreaming about finding my way back to France. Our ship docked in Marseille, and after a lot of debating back and forth between all of the options Provence has to offer, we chose to take an excursion to the city of Aix-en-Provence.

Aix-en-Provence: We chose to visit Aix (pronounced "Ex") because it's just a short drive from Marseille and from the pictures I'd found on Pinterest, it looked to be a good representation of Provence. There are so many other villages I'd love to visit in Provence like Gordes, Roussillon, and Les Baux, but with limited time, we chose not to spend a good portion of the day on a bus. Aix is a university town, known for being the artistic center of Provence and the home of the painter Paul Cezanne. The city's history dates back to Roman times. While we were there, we took a walking tour of the medieval area of the city, including the Cathedral of the Holy Savior (Aix Cathedral), a beautiful example of a French cathedral with an attached Romanesque cloister. Aix is filled with beautiful architecture and landmarks, but my favorite part was passing the most charming cafes, bakeries, and markets. Wandering up and down the narrow streets, I couldn't help but think that the city was every bit of what I'd hoped Provence would look like!

My mother-in-law and I stocked up on soaps, kitchen towels, and lavender sachets to bring home as souvenirs. We were also surrounded by an abundance of sweet treats and after wandering past French bakery after bakery, we couldn't help but indulge in some Calissons, an Aix-en-Provence specialty made from almond paste and crystallized melons. (Delicious!)

We also might not have been able to pass up a box of colorful macarons. My brother-in-law shares my affinity for them!

You can't visit Aix without strolling down the Cours Mirabeau, a picturesque tree-lined pedestrian boulevard. On both sides of the street, there are stylish, centuries-old mansions and cafes that have been there for almost as long.

You may notice the lack of crowds in these photos-- it was raining most of this day. We were thankful to only get sprinkled on most of the day, but eventually it started to pour and my husband was holding our umbrella over us and it might have collapsed and completely drenched me. That was definitely the low point of the day-- time to head back to Marseille!

Marseille: Marseille turned out to be one of the unexpected treasures of the entire trip. I hate to think that we almost missed out on seeing it! The travel book we read before coming on the trip, Rick Steve's Mediterranean Cruise Ports, which proved pretty trustworthy overall, described Marseille as "a seedy port city," so we chose not to include it in our itinerary. But after returning to our ship with hours to spare, I suggested that we check it out. Plus, the sun had finally come out! As we took a shuttle from the cruise ship terminal to Marseille's Old Harbor, we all stared out the window in amazement. This place was gorgeous!!

We had just enough time to explore the Old Harbor area and sit down for a nice lunch of Nicoise salads, a platter of cheese and bread, and a bottle of Rose. Just as we started to head back to the ship, storm clouds began to roll in. Couldn't have asked for better timing!

Monte-Carlo, Monaco: Our next stop was Monaco! This trip took us to some pretty amazing places, but from the beginning, Brandon and I were both especially looking forward to this stop. For me, Monaco has always been one of those magical places that just doesn't seem real-- I've never known anyone else who's been there. I was just so curious about what it would be like! And I'm just going to be upfront with this-- Monaco is hands down one of my favorite places I've ever been to! I'm obsessed!

We first walked up to the old city, Monaco-Ville, stopping to admire the beautiful views along the way. Entering the old city, we were all struck by how surreally perfect it all was. We loved Aix-en-Provence, but this felt like Aix meets Disneyland. Everything about this area is so pleasantly clean and well-kept, it was hard to believe this was a real place! 

Below is the Prince's Palace of Monaco, the official palace of the Grimaldi royal family, who first captured it in 1297. Everyday at 11:55, you can watch the changing of the guards.

The colorful streets are free of cars, lined with sherbet-colored shops and restaurants, and really couldn't be more picturesque if they tried.

When our walk around the city took us past the Oceanographic Museum, we couldn't resist visiting the inside. It is another beautiful building that you've probably seen famous views of from the ocean/cliff side. Inside, there's an aquarium and rooms of marine-themed curiosities and exhibits. For thirty years, the museum's director was Jacques Cousteau.

After the museum, we finished our walk around Monaco-Ville, which really is a very small area. Below is the church where Prince Rainier married Grace Kelly, Saint Nicholas Cathedral.

We stopped for lunch at a great little restaurant called Freddy's, where I had this delicious seafood salad served in half a pineapple. Obsessed-- I seriously wish I could eat this everyday. In my opinion, the food in France is almost always amazing and the creative presentation always manages to make it even better!

Next we walked to Monte Carlo Casino, and although Monaco is a tiny principality, this was a much longer walk than it appeared to be. Once we got there, we all marveled at Casino Square, which includes the casino, the elegant Hotel de Paris, a couple fine restaurants, and a mall of extremely high end shopping.

Honestly, this is just not real life. We were disappointed to learn that you have to pay to enter the actual Casino. (This is also not Las Vegas.) We peeked into the lobby, and after failing to see the "No Photos" sign,  I took a picture and got full on yelled at by a member of security. Like-- instant tears of embarrassment yelled at. That kind of killed the mood for us so at this point we decided to get ice cream. Because ice cream fixes everything. Especially when it's a banana and chocolate ice cream sundae topped with whipped cream, hazelnuts, bananas, and a chocolate cup of Nutella sauce. And you just have to suck it up and ignore the fact that this sundae costs 18 euros, because you're in Casino Square and you shouldn't expect anything less.

Regarding Monte-Carlo, I got the feeling that you're not really welcome in the Casino area if you're not a billionaire. But Brandon remained positively enthralled by the sheer splendor of it all and all the men in our group were loving the parade of Rolls Royces, Maseratis, and Ferraris. In another life, maybe I'll get to whip around La Corniche in a vintage convertible Porsche with a silk scarf tied around my head, but this time around, I'm perfectly content to visit for the day. 

Overall, the French Riviera is a dream, and in my head I'm already planning a trip back there. From what I hear, an easy train ride connects Monaco to Villefranche, Nice, Antibes, Cannes, and St. Tropez. I'm imagining finding a cute little place to stay in one of these towns on Airbnb and taking day trips to the other towns on the Riviera. Imagining these future vacations is how I keep myself from falling into a serious post-trip depression. ;)

Thanks for sticking with me through a long post! Have any of you visited Provence or the Riviera? 
I would love to hear more perspectives and recommendations!

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