What to do with a long four day weekend and a weather forecast that invites everything but setting a foot in front of the door? First of all, of course, defying the weather and then go somewhere near: Boulogne-sur-Mer, a surprisingly short two hours from Brussels.
Of course, it rained upon arrival but not too heavy to withstand a short city visit including the remparts, the cathedral and the harbour where we eventually started to walk direction Calais. Just follow the beach. Calais itself is not really a place to stay for more than a day unless it is one with sunshine and some warmth.
However, the way in between was amazing, involving sand dunes, surrounding caps before the incoming tide could cut of the way, sliding clay, jumping rocks, climbing cliffs, and eventually some easy-walking though less exciting coast wander path.
After a first day, the second, third and forth brought unexpected sunshine, siesta in the dunes and the worst sunburn in years. With the English coast always clearly in sight, the walk between Boulogne and Calais, passing by Wiméreux, Ambleteuse and Wissant, is very pleasant. The coast is much more beautiful than in Belgium thanks to the far less dominant use of concrete with the exception of the remnants of the Atlantic wall.
The whole region has something soothing with its small villages and the friendly people. And what could be better than a weekend of constant wind in the hair, the feed in the water and the taste of salt in the air?
- Better speak some French: Actually, in Provence; it is possible to travel well and have a good time without speaking French. Maybe it’s because tourism is a big source of income. Still, the moment the online booking didn’t come through and you risk finding yourself without a place to stay and arguing with the hotel staff; it comes in quite handy.
- As of the third day – and of the third city – it’s getting difficult to tell the places apart. Never mind weekdays…
- Getting into a city later than 20:00 is not a good idea. In the small cities in the South, public transport doesn’t run later than this. Unless you enjoy a 30 minutes walk with 15kg luggage at the end of the day.
- I only realised on my way that I was following down le Rhône from Lyon, over Avignon to Arles. Not planned but very pretty!
- Provence smells like a mix of goat cheese, ripe peaches and lavender. Yamee!
1) Sunshine is addictive.
2) La Cagole is THE beer of Marseille. Though it’s brewed in Czech Republic as the owner of a tourist souvenir shop told me. From a taste point of view, it’s equivalent a Stella or a Heineken; i.e. it really makes you miss a good Belgian beer. The only interesting part is the branding. Une cagole – in the slang of Marseille – is a woman of rather liberal morals using more men make-up than is good for her.
3 & 4) The great wall of Marseille – or better what is left of it – was meant to stop the citizens of Marseille to leave the city. As a harbour city, it had business but this came with a price: constant arrival of unwanted guests, especially diseases such as the plague.
5) While the sand on the beaches here in Belgium is incredibly fine and soft, the beaches in Marseille are all stony. But as the sea is incredibly blue, nobody is complaining about it. Sun beats stone it seems, not paper.
After the windsurfing classes in the morning, my afternoons in Marseille were mainly meant to be relaxing. Therefore no overload of tourist activities. Juste ce qu’il faut.
Among others, we went up to la bonne Mère and saw the old harbour. Despite Marseille being founded by the Greeks, there isn’t much left of the old city as it was heavily bombarded during the 2nd WW.
One of the things the Germans did not manage to destroy (even though they tried) is the church de “Notre Dame de la Garde” commonly called la bonne mère.
Small from the outside, the church is richly decorated with mosaics on the inside. What’s most impressive though are all the gifts – replica of boats, paintings and ’tiles’ – offered to the la bonne mère either as prayers for her protection or as thanks after the safe return of the beloved ones.
It felt as if the church belongs to the people and the people to the church.
Actually, this day wasn’t about Arles at all but about the huge marshlands south-west of it: La Camargue.
The Camargue is famous for three things: it’s horses, it’s buffalo and its salt. What I didn’t know is that 80% of the rice grown in France comes from there and that it is an important natural reserve especially for migrating birds.
The visit was organised in cooperation with the Office de Tourisme d’Arles (no way of finding this on their website though) and a professional ornithologue. In a bit more than 5 hours, we drove and walked through a very small part only but still saw horses, buffaloes and all kinds of birds and learned more about the history of La Camargue and the efforts made today to protect it.
Have to start thinking about a better camera…
Though the audioguide visit in Nîmes wasn’t bad, the ‘human version’ in Arles confirmed again that these are simply the better ones. The audioguided tours are 100% rehearsed. There is no spontaneity, no irony and no comparisons like the one about “house saints”. House saints are little statutes of – guess what – saints each family owned and put on the outside corner of the house. When the family moved, they took ‘their saint’ with them. As our guide put it: “Like the garden gnome*”.
* Gartenzwerg, nain de jardin,
The third stop on this journey. Though only 28 minutes from Avignon by train, it is a totally different city. Nîmes had it’s best time roughly 2.000 years ago. It’s maybe thanks to the fact that the city lost it’s importance and shrank after 400 AC, that the amphitheater – commenly called Arena – is one of the best maintained world-wide instead of being used as a quarry like the Collosseum. Though it must have been even more ‘outstanding’ when the sourrounding buildings were only one or two stories high; it is very impressive to see and the audioguided tour is well done.
The most interesting part of that visit was the discussion I had with a Canadian. We were comparing European history and tininess to Canada’s geography and huge spaces. Summary: Canada has a beautiful landscape and simply more if it; Europe has more history. We were both quite pleased with this outcome.