Monday, May 16, 2011

May 16, 2011: Marseille/Avignon - Harbour, Cruise (Unlucky), Petit Train (Lucky), TGV, Palais

Marseille! The city was prettier than I expected, with gleaming white stone walls and sailboats everywhere. The sun was bright, the ocean was blue, and with a persistent breeze it was quite comfortable for walking around.

We started with a walk through the park across the street from our hotel - the grounds of the Palais du Pharo, built by Napoleon III. Then we strolled down the Vieux Port harbour, taking the free ferry to cross to the other side, just for the fun of it. We were a bit early for our boat tour, so we popped in to McDonald's for a quick bite to eat, since it was unclear how quickly we'd be able to get through breakfast at one of the other nearby restaurants. Breakfast was along the lines of what the French eat for breakfast - coffee, juice, and bakery products - no Egg McMuffins here.

When we returned to the departure point for our boat tour we found out that it was cancelled - not enough people had signed up. This was disappointing, but at least we hadn't booked one of the major tours of the calanques (the bays along the coast), just a shorter harbour cruise. However it was ironic that we were, in a sense, more unlucky with our boat tour here than in Annecy, in spite of the lovely weather.

So instead we hopped on the nearby Petit Train tour (and were the lucky last two people in the line who got on the first train) which took us up through the hills of the city to the impressive Notre Dame de la Garde basilica, which is on the highest hill in the city. It was an excellent tour, with an English audio guide translation and the opportunity to hop off at the basilica for as long as we wanted, catching another train down. I think we may have actually seen more from the train tour than we would have from the boat, so we were pleased with how our luck had turned out.

After the tour we returned to our hotel so that we'd have time to use the pool. Even though it was really too cold to swim (since the pool was unheated) we enjoyed sitting by the side in our swimsuits, dangling our legs in the water.

Then we were off to the train to catch the TGV to Avignon. This was a very short train ride, both because the train was so fast and the cities are close to each other. Whereas Marseille was huge and bustling, Avignon was small and a bit sleepy - I think we were early for tourist season.

Our hotel was close to the train station, which is on the outskirts. It's a completely modern new train station, built to accommodate the very long TGV trains - no room to fit this one into the historic downtown. It almost resembles an airport terminal, with long curving glass walls with no end in sight.

We took a bus downtown to the walled historic centre, and had a scenic walk through it to the Palais des Popes. The Palais is an enormous complex of buildings, constructed during the time of a schism in the Catholic Church, when a series of French popes decamped from Rome and set up in Avignon. The original decor and furnishings are long gone, but the scale of the buildings is still impressive and the audio guide was extensive. Entry to the Palais also got us access to the famous Pont d'Avignon, which is only a half-intact bridge at this point. Both were largely empty - visitors to Provence typically descend later in the summer - it's popular both with the French and with foreigners as a summer vacation destination.

We had dinner at one of the many restaurants at Place d'Horloge, where we were surrounded by other English-speaking tourists. We tried the local aperitif of pastis, although it wasn't really much to our taste. All in all this plaza was a bit of a tourist trap, but we picked up groceries on our way back to our apart-hotel, so that I'd have the option of cooking for ourselves the rest of our time in Avignon.

Multi-coloured lighting of our modern hotel in Marseilles

Our modern hotel is built into the facade of the historic Institut Pasteur

The restaurant grows its own herbs outside - their food really was fantastic

The view of the pool from our room - we were the only people who used it

Early morning at Le Pharo

A view of the harbour

Crossing via the ferry
The gleaming white city, as seen from the Petit Train

Impressive sculptures appeared along the water's edge

Notre Dame de la Garde

Us, at the top of the hill

A seagull perches comfortably on the cross

The golden statue on top of the basilica

Wild poppy growing alongside the basilica - looking at the vegetation you could think it's already late summer

On our way down a delivery truck blocked the train on a hill for several minutes - the driver had gone inside a building, leaving his truck in the middle of the road. Our frustrated driver honked and then announced to us all "Welcome to Marseille".

Place d'horloge in Avignon

The Palais des Popes

Mom has this huge room virtually all to herself

A view to the courtyard

And a view from the top of a tower
 Standing on the famous Pont d'Avignon

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