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September 12, 2008

Villefranche-sur-mer to Cassis and on to Arles

Filed under: Provence 2008, Travel — anotherheader @ 5:15 am

Villefranche-sur-mer in the morning light

Villefranche-sur-mer in the morning light

Our day started with coffee and pastries on our room’s balcony while watching the port in Villefranche-sur-mer gradually spring to life under the colored morning sky. On checking out, we headed west

Trophee des Alps

Trophee des Alps

towards Cassis and then detoured to the Grande Corniche heading east towards Monte Carlo. The Grande Corniche is the highest of the three main roads that connect Nice to Monaco. The road was originally constructed by the Romans (The Julia Way) and had to be an amazing feat of engineering at the time. Clinging to the top of the ridge, the road was made famous in Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief ” from 1956. Grace Kelly (Princess Grace) who starred with Cary Grant in the movie, later died after crashing her car on this very road in 1982.

Our transit on the Grande Corniche was uneventful as we headed along the road to the village of La Turbie. From the outskirts of La Turbie, we happened view the

French signs

French signs

remains of the massive ancient Roman ruin “Trophee des Alps” and decided to make a brief visit. The monument was built in the years just before the birth of Christ by Augustus to commemorate the conquering of the local tribes. Although the structure has not stood the test of time intact, it is still quite impressive. From the monument site, there was a tremendous view of the Mediterranean Sea and the Principality of Monaco far below.

After our drive on the Grande Corniche, we let the GPS direct us to where we thought our hotel was located in Cassis. The GPS system in the rental car works adequately, particularly after coercing it into speaking English. This particular system did seem to be inferior to the one we rented in Germany

View from the room in Cassis

View from the room in Cassis

this spring. On starting the car, two messages pop up on the GPS screen. The first message reminds us to get an oil change which we blindly ignore as it is a rental car, after all. The second message reminds us to obey all traffic laws, a point that we have to acknowledge reading by pressing “Enter” on the system. Invariably, soon after agreeing to obey all traffic laws, the GPS system tries to direct us down the wrong way on a one-way street. We’re pretty much figuring that the GPS system is testing us to see whether we were listening or not.

The road route we took to Cassis was largely made up of superhighways. In France, the superhighways are mostly toll roads. The tolls are significantly higher than in the states and they add up quickly. If you go, bring plenty of change and be prepared to try to quickly decipher the initially confusing tollbooth signs.

Cassis lighthouse

Cassis lighthouse

On the road, the drivers are generally courteous and polite. The top speed limit is 130 kph (about 80 mph) for cars. Trucks and the frequent slower cars (many cars don’t seem to feel compelled to drive near the speed limit like they do in the states), stick consistently to the right lanes. We were given a wide berth on the road, perhaps a result of the massive rental car logo affixed to the front of our vehicle that labeled as likely foreign tourists and thus a potential serious road hazard.

Sun through the lighthouse in Cassis

Sun through the lighthouse in Cassis

When we neared Cassis, the GPS system directed us off the highway and down the road towards the village. As we entered in the destination into the GPS at the beginning of the day’s trip, we realized we did not have the address for our hotel. Not having the guidebook where we found the hotel handy, we found an entry for L’Hotel des Jardin… in the Michelin Guide and used that address. Soon after we entered Cassis, the GPS told us that we had arrived at our destination so we quickly pulled into L’Hotel des Jardin Cassis. We were a bit surprised at the location as we thought we were nearer to the water. I presented a computer printout of our registration information at the registration desk. The receptionist quickly explained that this was not, in fact, L’Hotel des Jardin d’Emile but the L’Hotel des Jardin Cassis instead. She directed us to our “much less nice place” down near the water.

A game of boules in Cassis

A game of boules in Cassis

When we eventually worked our way down to our hotel, we found it to be a small, older place across the road from a sea inlet and beach. Though perhaps not as luxurious as L’Hotel des Jardin Cassis, it was clean and full of character with a large balcony overlooking the water below and was more to our liking. It was more like a B&B than a hotel. We later found another hotel, Hotel du Grand Jardin, in Cassis. We don’t have a complete count of the number of “Jardin” (“Garden” in English) hotels there are in Cassis, but there are at least three. Fortunately, we did not have to do a complete survey of the Hotel Jardins before we found our room.

Fisherman's nets in Cassis

Fisherman's nets

Cassis is a beautiful village tucked in around the old fishing harbor. We wandered the short distance from our room over to the main part of Cassis and quickly found a short boat trip out to visit Les Calanques (loosely defined as a sound or water inlet). We were given a description of the trip entirely in French, but it was nonetheless perfectly clear and soon boarded the boat.

The calanques themselves were narrow, limestone slots that pushed back from the sea hundreds of yards to form idyllic coves. The steep walls of the calanques provided cooling shade to the beaches and the azure water coves making them popular hangouts for boaters and sailors.

Cassis Harbor

Cassis Harbor

Back in the port, we meandered around amongst the tourists along the harbor front as the sun slowly set. We passed a couple of groups of locals playing a slow-paced and highly social games of boules* on an uneven hard packed light-colored dirt surface in a small park area. I’d always imagined boules being played on a relatively smooth surface somewhat analogous to lawn bowling but that doesn’t seem to be a requirement. A better analogy would be to a putting green in golf where the undulations of the playing surface are part of the challenge.



After stops for a sampling of the licorice-flavored liquor of the region, pastis, and a beer we strolled along until we found a spot for dinner. Sitting outside, overlooking the harbor under the lights of the evening, we had moules and pomme frites (mussels and French fries) and a small pizza accompanied by a bottle of a rose wine from Cassis. We rolled back to the hotel at the end of the day as the strong winds of the region (Le Mistral) kicked up.


* Boules is a game played particularly in the southern areas of France that is somewhat analogous to shuffle board or curling. The object of the game is to get your hand sized metal ball nearest to a small ball that is some distance from the competitors. In the rounds, the participants either try to toss or roll their balls so that it ends up as close as possible to the small ball (or, at least, closer than their competitor’s balls) or with sufficient force that it knocks the opponents ball away from the small ball.

Cassis to Fourque

After a peaceful breakfast on the balcony of our hotel, we headed out to the Marseille Airport to pick up Ganesan and Catherine who were arriving from the UK. The Marseille Airport is not so aptly named as it is actually quite a ways from Marseille, on the opposite side from Cassis, and is in reality nearer to the town of Aix-en-Provence. On arriving at the airport, we did multiple laps through the arrival and departure area. It may have appeared to an observer that we were trying to qualify for the Grand Prix de Marseille Airport, but, in fact, we were trying to locate “Terminal 2”. It turned out that Terminal 2 was labeled as “MP2”, something that we found out only after randomly trying a road off to the side and finding Ganesan and Catherine patiently waiting.

With Ganesan and Catherine and their minimalist bags loaded, we headed to Fourques (pronounced, at least for us, as “forks”), where our rental house or, in French, gite is located. We discovered along the way that we did not have a street address or good directions to the house. I guess we had assumed that there would be an address on the print outs from the website and that we would just input the information into the GPS, like we had done elsewhere. Instead, using a combination of the GPS and the newly installed CPS (“Confused Positioning System”) in the back seat, we headed to Fourques.

On arrival in Fourques, we found a dry and dusty spot of a town straight out of a spaghetti western. With the GPS and CPS failing to find our house, we decided to stop and ask a local. It was lunchtime. Lunchtime lasts 2+ hours in the South of France and it would be awhile before all the shops and stores open. We did find a bar that was open, so we went to Plan B and had a beer. Any Plan B that involves beer is a good Plan B. Eventually, Catherine asked for instructions to Domaine de la Tourette, our gite and the bar man knew of the place. Everyone in the area seems to know where it is located, even without a street address. That’s useful as it turns out that Domaine de la Tourette does not have a street address. We understood the bar man’s directions, given in French, well enough so that we made only a couple of wrong turns in getting to the house.

The rental house is in reality two separate, but connected units. The units occupy the second floor above the owner’s quarters in a reasonably large compound that includes large patios, landscaped and grassed areas, and an unheated and chilly pool.

Later in the evening the rest of the group arrived: Julie and John (my sister and brother-in-law) and their friends Dan and Barb from Walnut Creek. About the time the festivities began, Le Mistral kicked up again and the wind blew hard through the rest of the night.


1 Comment »

  1. […] In this manner we’ve discovered all sorts of cool places like the Navajo Bridge, the Trophee des Alps, and Osoyoos’s Spotted Lake.  Our impromptu visit to the Menai Suspension Bridge followed this […]

    Pingback by Wales: Menai Suspension Bridge « Another Header — September 15, 2012 @ 12:46 am

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