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Michael’s Travel Diary

Wednesday, 12 Aug 2009

Location: Toulon & Marseille, France

MapOn Saturday, I took Charlotte to the south of France for her birthday. It was a week early, but with a wedding this weekend on her birthday, we decided to head off on the 8th. We flew out Saturday evening, and as the airport is beyond the balloon fiesta, we gave ourselves a bit of extra time for the trip, but almost not enough. The traffic was horrendous, and with the Red Arrows doing a show at the time we were making our way to the airport, traffic slowed even more to look out their windows.

The trip was supposed to be a surprise, with Charlotte only knowing she needed to take Monday and Tuesday off of work. I had her convinced that we were headed for a weekend away somewhere in the UK, and a bit of a road trip. Unfortunately, a few weeks earlier after our last football match when discussing with a few people what weekend would be ideal for the presentation evening, instead of saying “on the 8th we’ll be away for your birthday” I said “on the 8th we’ll be in France”; ball dropped.

We arrived into Hyeres airport and cleared customs just after 10 pm, and headed out to try and get to Toulon, our base for the weekend. Unfortunately, the weekend didn’t start as expected and the “frequent all day busses” as suggested on the airport website finishing about an hour earlier than our arrival. We were stuck at the airport, forced to cough up for a 20 km, €50 taxi ride. Thankfully the information desk at the airport was staffed and told us how much to expect. The taxi driver took us right to the door of our Hotel Little Palace, and I was pleased to find that the hotel booking had been successful, despite my doubts regarding the language barrier in the booking process and arriving after 11 pm.

The night we arrived we had a quick wander around town and headed to the small port that was still full of French tourists holidaying in the warm southern Provence region of France. The air was still warm and humid; the restaurants were still full of people dining al fresco, and sipping drinks; and plenty of people wandering along the marina with ice creams.

The following morning we arose reasonably early and grabbed some breakfast in the old town before heading off to Marseille by train. The 45 minute train ride was a scenic journey along the southern coast line, and before long we arrived in the France’s second largest city. Immediately as we emerged from the train station we headed to the marina area of Marseille, essentially walking downhill until we reached the water. It was a picture perfect day, and the Vieux Port marina had the looks to match. After walking through the Vieux Port fish markets, and getting our bearings, we decided to head to the city’s highest point and visit the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde (Lady of the Guard).

It was a sweaty walk up the hill, but was well worth the trip – admittedly, we could have caught the bus! The views over the Vieux Port, the city itself, and out over the Mediterranean to Chateau d’If. The hill rises 148 meters above sea level, and the basilica towers further above, with a tower and finally the 10m high statue of the Virgin Mary carrying baby Jesus. The place of worship dates back to 1214 when a hermit came to live on the hill top. In 1218, Peter the hermit built a chapel which he dedicated to “Our Lady the Guard”, looking over the many sailors who used the port. The chapel has been rebuilt and enlarged over the years as the numbers of pilgrims increased. The current incarnation of the chapel was begun in 1851 and consecrated in 1864.
Having explored the basilica, we made our way back down the hill and headed back to the Vieux Port. The next item on the agenda was to get onto Ile d’If and visit the chateau that was the inspiration for the book “The Count of Monte Cristo”. We caught the short ferry ride across to the Ile d’If, and ventured into the chateau which began construction in 1524 as a defensive structure for the city of Marseille. It wasn’t much later, in the late-16th century that the fortress was being used for incarceration. At its peak in 1852, 304 detainees were held in the small chateau, which can’t have been anything near comfortable at all. But the most famous of these prisoners is the fictional character Edmond Dantes from the Alexandre Dumas novel The Count of Monte-Cristo, who spent 8 years in captivity on the Ile. From the Ile we headed back to the mainland and wandered along the harbor, stopping to take some pictures of the La Cathedrale de la Major which despite its grand design and location at the mouth of the harbor, appeared to be entirely deserted.

Walking back into the harbor, past all of the local fishermen, we stopped and had a beer at a small cafe before heading off to find some dinner. The pedestrian zone just to the south of the Vieux Port is rammed full of restaurants, all serving seafood dishes, most commonly the French Riviera specialty Bouillabaisse. Essentially the dish a mix of seafood, including different fish, prawns, mussels, crabs all in a broth soup, served with crusty bread. Admittedly, both Charlie and I found the seafood taste it a little too overpowering, as it essentially tasted as I imagine the floor of a fish market would taste. After dinner we wandered the night market before heading back to Toulon.

The following morning we woke up and decided to take a boat cruise around the harbor of Toulon and past the naval installation to get a good look at all of the French naval ship stationed there. It was a great sight, and sitting on the deck in the Sun was glorious, but of course we didn’t stop and think that the tour commentary would be in French, so for 45 minutes we sat and listened to incomprehensible French nonsense. Getting up and close to the Charles de Gaul aircraft carrier was amazing and it was good to see just how large the ship was.

After the ship tour we decided to spend the afternoon on Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer, and 15 minute ferry ride from Toulon. It was a thin strip of beach, but it stretched for quite a distance, and seemed as if half of the French population was visiting. More importantly though, it was a proper soft sand beach, and not one of coarse sand, or even rocks, that you see so often on the Mediterranean. We lazed away on the beach for a while, getting some Sun, shade and a swim, before having a couple below par mojitos at one of the local bars overlooking the beach. It was a pretty cool set-up in the town, with carnival rides and games for the kids as the Sun started setting – I could see why so many French families were visiting. That night after we caught the ferry back to Toulon we had a nice meal on the harbor front before grabbing a couple of drinks and a massive ice-cream dessert.

The following day we had most of the day to kill before flying out to Bristol. As such we decided to head to the local beach in Toulon, in a suburb called Le Mourillon. It was about a half hour walk in the scorching Sun to get to the beach from our hotel and by the time we arrived we were ready too cool off. The beach was one of the coarse sand varieties and was surrounded by lush green parkland, with many of the visitors preferring to set their beach towels on the grass under a tree than on the sand. The beaches seemed to comprise of 3 small bays, and we ended up on the thin strip of sand separating the 2nd and 3rd bays, underneath a small coconut tree that really didn’t offer much shade. As the day wore on, I had to continually readjust my blanket, turning with the Sun to catch the shade cast by the thin tree. Again it appeared half of France was at the beach, and with the narrow beaches, towel space was at a premium.

After a healthy lunch of crème Brulee, we had one last dip and a thorough rinse under the showers before heading off to pick up our bags and head to the airport – this time on a much more cost effective bus, rather than taxi. Arriving in plenty of time, we had a bit of a wait before flying safely back to Bristol, and thus ending an awesome weekend in France.