Henry Poon's Blog

European road trip 2022 – day 5 – Aix-en-Provence and Marseille

We arrived late at night at Aix-en-Provence. We had planned the trip such that the long drives would be done at night so that we would have more daylight to do things. The con was that if we didn’t time it right, we’d end up getting in late to where we needed to be and had to find food at wherever that hadn’t closed yet. Luckily, we found a place in Aix-en-Provence that was still open at 22:00 and pretty good, Le Quatre Restaurant. We had already eaten a light pre-dinner snack in Cannes, so we had another light meal, but this time an octopus salad with olives, and steak slices with grilled vegetables. Then for dessert, we had a crème brûlée and a scoop of ice cream with a light olive oil drizzle. To drink, the waiter recommended us the Domaine d’Eole (Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence) and the Domaine du Trapadis (Côtes du Rhône Villages Roaix), nice red wines from Southern France. The overnight stay here was okay – AC would have been nice for the heat (it was probably a dorm).

The “Aix” in Aix-en-Provence is actually pronounced just like the English letter “X”. It originated from its original name Aquae Sextiae named after the Roman consul Sextius Calvinus. Today, it’s a university town. Near our AirBnB, most people that were out looked like students and were all young and trendy. Maybe this was why the café nearby even expected tips, while all the other places we’d visited didn’t (though that café was pretty hipster with its dishware made of recycled coffee grounds) .

Fountains make a prominent appearance throughout the city – people refer to it as the city of a thousand fountains. The most prominent is the Fontaine de la Rotonde. Even though nobody around stands to admire it (other than us), the hustle and bustle of the city gravitates around it.

Aix-en-Provence is also known for Paul Cézanne, an artist who was born there. Small little studs embedded in the street lead people to see places of significance in his life, such as the house of his birth, but not all the spots are clearly marked and people have stolen the studs in some parts.

Along the path is a confectionary called Maison Brémond 1830, known for its calissons, a candy originating from Aix-en-Provence. I’d only read about calissons from the tourist map from the tourist info centre, and here we stumbled upon a place for them without intentionally looking (it was even its flagship store of which the address is printed on the box).

The candy itself is mostly made of ground almonds, sugar, some citrus with a crust of icing. It’s quite simliar to marzipan, but fruitier.

It’s kind of pricey though – about $20 USD for a box of 30. The packaging is quite nice though – I kept the box after as a souvenir.

The one thing we missed here were the lavender fields nearby. Unfortunately, by the time we visited in September, the fields had all been harvested so we didn’t get to see any.

Powered by calissons on the drive, we headed over to our next destination, Marseille. Marseille is the oldest city in France and is also the second most populous. It was originally settled by the Greeks before the Romans took it. Because it’s a large city, naturally we were wary of pickpockets – we even saw people secure their bags and pockets if they had to pass through narrow spaces with lots of people. The parking lot we parked at had such tight security that there was an office of people looking at the security cameras constantly, and people could only enter the parking garage by foot if they had their original parking stub.

We walked along the stone wall of Place d’Armes to take in the sights of the city on the water.

The Place d’Armes is connected to the MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations), and it had a cool architecture to it. Originally when we were looking at what to do, we considered the MuCEM, but all the pictures online just seemed to show the cool architecture which was in the free part.

Marseille is also known for its soap. Traditionally it’s made from 72% olive oil, sea salt, alkaline ash from sea plants, and water. Lots of souvenir shops we’d encountered thus far on the trip were all selling the Marseille soap, but now we were here at the source.

Other stuff like coconut oil or scents can be added to the soap to change how bubbly it gets or its fragrance, but then it no longer considered to be Marseille soap.

The olive oil is supposed to be gentle on the skin, and the locals like it so much that they don’t just use it for showering. They’ll even shred the soap and mix the flakes with water to make their own laundry detergent.

We wandered around the city looking at the different soap stores and picked up a bunch of different ones. They had all sorts of sizes, even big slabs for people to chop up however they wanted.

I got to try the soap myself – it’s not very oily, not bubbly, didn’t lather well, but it did feel good on the skin. I can understand why people in North America prefer other soaps like the ones from L’Occitane.

The Fer à Cheval soap didn’t lather well, but the Marius Fabre one did. It could have been that one soap was older than the other, but there’s no way for us to know.

For dinner we got to try bouillabasse, a type of local fish stew. It’s served with grilled slices of bread. The idea is to pour the stew on the bread and eat it together. It’s a cool concept, but the stew is only as good as the fish that goes in it and in our case, it wasn’t all that interesting. I personally would have liked it to have a thicker consistency. The local herbs and spices helped a bit though. More high end places will even charge 50€ for it.

If we had more time, we would have liked to visit the basilica and cathedral. The architecture was just asking for us to visit.

Check here to see more photos of Aix-en-Provence and Marseille

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