We disembarked in the naval military port of Toulon and were taken by bus to visit the city of Marseille. The air was cold a crisp and the sun was out. The freeway traffic into the city was congested so we traveled by a country road which was very scenic. After an hour on the road, we entered the coastal city of Marseille which is the second largest city in France (Paris is the largest).
It is said that the Marseille region was first settled about 30,000 years ago. It was also settled by the Greeks and Romans. The historic background to its location as a major commercial port with open access to the Mediterranean Sea has made this area a major economic center. Very little area of southern France is coastline with major ports.
The city is in a very hilly and dry region of the country. The city itself has many high rise living complexes. Many of the structures were built to house French citizens returning from Algeria after it became independent in 1962. The area is very dry and receives the heat, during the summer months, from the south direction across the Mediterranean which is Africa and the Sahara desert. The yearly rain fall is minimal. The day we visited it was the beginning of December and the weather was sunny and the daytime temperature in the 60s.
Our first stop was the Catholic basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde. The foundation where the basilica is today was once a chapel built in the 1200s. It was built on a high and strategic location where you can see practically the entire city. The inside is beautiful and unique in that it has many art pieces relating to maritime themes. We noticed that many mosaics on the walls in the basilica were broken and we wondered why they were still on the walls. We found the answer once we left the church.
We boarded our tour bus to continue the city tour. We started toward the middle of the city. As we were just starting to drive down from the basilica we saw a real WWII tank that was facing toward the basilica. It was in the middle of the road. We learned that Marseille was a historical site during the war. The city was bombed when France was invaded by Germany. The French military ships that were in the harbor were also bombed to make sure they were not used by the Germans.
During the liberation of France by the Allied the invasion included Marseille and thus there was a great deal of street fighting. Of course the basilica building was damaged due to the fact that it was a military strategic viewing area and had to be captured. Thus the bullets damaged the tiles in the basilica and it was left that way. Several years ago we were visiting England and the building of the RAF Museum had to be rebuilt due to the WWII bombing.
The back wall of the building was left intact and one could see where bomb shrapnel had struck. Our travel guide explained that the invasion by the Allies was fierce throughout the city. The French Resistance was a major force in the city. The Germans were well entrenched throughout the city and order to hold on to the harbor. I remembered reading that 6,000 Jews, that were living here, had been sent to German concentration gas chamber camps.
Because of the war, much of what we saw of the city had been destroyed and had to be rebuilt at war's end. I recall that the same held true when we visited Brussels in Belgium.
Our next stop was the marina area which is in the middle of the city. The shops and caf?®s are lined up around the waterfront. There is a large Ferris wheel (about half the size of the one in London). The building all around are in the Parisian architecture style. We strolled through the temporary booths that were selling a variety of local crafts and goods for gifts during the Christmas season. We were in the city for about an hour and then we returned to the bus to travel for an hour to visit the city of Aix-en-Provence. It was along our way on our way to Toulon.
We spent several hours there and I loved Aix-en-Provence. It's a very charming city with the feel of a small town. It is a city that caters to the wealthy and university students. There are three universities and several language schools for international students in the city. The universities are regarded as the Ivy League institutions of France.
One of the educational institutions is the Paul C?¿zanne University of Aix-Marseille which is a law school dating back to 1409. C?¿zanne is best known as a painter who was born and raised here. He also attended law school in the city. Many of his famous paintings depict scenes from the local countryside area.
The city abounds with large tree laden streets. It is clean and there are many distinct water fountains throughout the area. The main street is a smaller version of the Avenue des Champs-?ëlys?®es in Paris but the charm is clearly there. Trini and I enjoyed sitting in one of the street side caf?®s and enjoy the local wine. From the outside cafe table we can observe painters, writers and of course the energetic intellectual conversations over some glasses of Bordeaux. I think it would have been wonderful to have been a college exchange student here.
As we were heading back to our ship I quickly realized that visiting Aix-en-Provence was a unique and wonderful experience. I think that thus far I have enjoyed being in France. Four years ago several family members and myself traveled by car throughout France for a month. We started that particular road trip in Paris. It's a trip I hope to repeat and set aside time to live in Paris for several months. I like France.
After a memorable adventurous day we set of toward Spain. Our next destination was Barcelona, Spain. It was the first time that we visit the country. I had read and heard many personal stories about the city and now we would find out, for ourselves, if it was fact or fiction.
After Spain, we would begin getting ready to cross the Atlantic on the ship and head for Ft. Lauderdale in Florida. At that time, I didn't want to think of the future. I wanted to enjoyed our time in France.