The End of France

In the last stretch of our time in France, we spent a day in Marseille, a day traveling from Marseille to Antibes via the beautiful little port town of Cassis on the Mediterranean, and a day traveling from Antibes across the dramatic, mountainous waterfront of the French/Italian Riviera.

Marseille was great. Sitting right at the bottom of France, with its arms around the Mediterranean Sea, it has a decidedly different pulse than that of its peers to the north. It shines by the harbor, where beautiful sea waters lap against the walls of a revitalized old port area, and fishmongers hawk their daily catch across the street from upscale retail and waterside hotels. Though the city suffered a lot of damage during WWII, signs of its ancient origins (it was settled first by the Greeks in 600 BC) are still visible.

After taking in the port, we enjoyed some delicious Lebanese food for lunch, and then explored Le Panier, one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods, long home to some of the poorest residents of the city, and now struggling against strong gentrification pressures.

Even beyond Le Panier, the class and racial dynamics of Marseille are palpable. Unlike in Paris, where sharp segregation obscures poverty and (to an extent) diversity from tourists’ view, Marseille is a visible melting pot of socioeconomic, ethnic and racial backgrounds, even in its wealthiest areas. In the early part of the 20th century, the city experienced a large influx of Greeks and Italians, and soon after this wave, of Armenians fleeing the genocide of the 1920s. In the mid-century, Corsicans, Vietnamese and Spaniards all arrived, and in the second half of the century, North Africans (particularly from Algeria) have added to the increasing diversity of the city. While this diversity is proudly celebrated, it also coexists with a very high poverty rate and – surprise – an uneven distribution of resources and power. In our short visit, we didn’t have or take the time to more deeply understand these dynamics, but someday I’d very much like to return to learn more.

In the late afternoon, we climbed up to Notre-Dame de la Garde, just outside of town, for some fantastic views of the city.

We got caught in a thunderstorm on the way back down to town, and took refuge in our car. We said goodbye to Marseille and headed back through the rain to our sweet little campground.

The next day, the sun returned and we made our way east to Cassis. We had wanted to visit Calanques National Park, a relatively new addition to France’s national park system (created in 2012) known for its fantastic hiking along dazzling cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the lingering winds from the prior day’s storm, combined with a very hot and dry summer, made for fire risk conditions too hazardous to allow visitors, so we settled on Cassis, a nearby port town which turned out to be a very decent consolation prize!

Just beyond the port, at the sea’s edge, hundreds of visitors speaking a myriad of languages lay on towels under the blinding mid-day sun. Though the water was frigid, many ventured in for a cooling dip, ourselves included. This was my first time swimming in the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, and it was definitionally refreshing.

With salt in our hair, we returned to the car and drove further east, arriving at our next campground just outside Antibes in the late afternoon. It was a cheap, nondescript site with a lot of mosquitoes near a town centered around a water park and a casino. It wasn’t the most glamorous spot to spend our last night in France, but with some effort, we located a restaurant that had charmingly converted its parking lot into a dining area, and toasted a great six weeks in this lovely country under a dreamy purple sunset!

As our time in France came to a close, there was much to reflect on. A mosaic of memories large and small stick out to me now: the preponderance of square (rather than rectangular) pillows; the way people enunciate – almost sing – their greetings and goodbyes (a high pitched bon- followed by a soothing, drawn out jooouuur); the strange popularity of NASA t-shirts; the two Syrian refugees we met over dinner in Rouen who shared their stories, their love for soccer, their loneliness, their taste in music, and their despair with us; the wide color palette of window shutters; the much narrower color palette of soft cheeses; the fields of grain in growth, sunflowers at peak, and endless rows of wine grape vines; the ubiquitous and almost ominous jingle of the train station announcement system; the consistently bad coffee.

The next morning, we opted for the scenic route to Italy. We covered the distance to Milan in about six hours, first hugging the coastline and then heading slightly inland through mountains forming the southern end of the Alps (the roads and bridges that allowed our passage were as much an engineering marvel as the mountains were a natural one). Because of the aforementioned Schengen Zone, there is no formal border crossing between these two countries. You only know you’ve crossed over by the Au revoir and Benvenuti signs, and the noticeable acceleration among your fellow (now Italian) drivers.

About thirty minutes over the border, we stopped in a small seaside town for our first meal in Italy. We (well, Drew, really) stumbled through an earnest attempt at ordering in Italian, and to our moderate surprise, we soon thereafter successfully received our order of wine, fresh mussels and, being only a few miles from Genoa, pasta with pesto alla genovese. After lunch, full of delicious food and the unmistakable thrill of new terrain, we smiled heartily in arrival and embrace of the next country of this scheme-based adventure.

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