They say Paris is always a good idea, but let’s be honest, it’s not always cheap. If you’re looking for an affordable way to experience France, our Travel Expert Rita Puglisi shares some secrets, and why you should consider travelling to the South of France instead.
After the brutal months of winter and many mornings of shoveling off the snow from my driveway, I was counting down the days to my spring trip to the South of France with Air Transat. Why go in May you ask? The seasons in the South of France are demarcated and spring in France is like nowhere else.
It is suddenly as warm as our summer season in Canada, so sunny and incredibly uplifting. The smell of lavender and thyme wafting in the air and the views of the vines growing in anticipation of the new crop of grapes for wine is just a couple of reasons.
Need more convincing? Air Transat now offers direct flights from Toronto to Marseille and their package for the South of France made it an easy choice. In the span of 8 days I had the pleasure of staying in 3 of the world’s most renowned cities and visiting 4 more with their abundant choices in day tours. Here’s an overview of what I experienced:
It is the third largest city in France after Paris and Lyon with around 1.6 million inhabitants. It is the capital of the Provence-Alpes-Cote D’Azur region and historically, one the most important commercial ports in the Mediterranean.
With its beaches, history, culture and architecture it is a very attractive destination that appeals to over 4 million visitors a year. This brings me to why I made the decision to visit the south of France in May. Peak tourism starts in June until end of September so going in May is ideal with minimal crowds especially when it comes to visiting the city’s attractions.
Visit the Notre-Dame De La Garde, wander around the city with the 48 hour RTM pass (included in the package) and see how many of the 42 museums you can visit. Enjoy your hotel stay steps away from the Vieux Port as Air Transat provides exceptional city centre accommodations and partake in the incredible shopping or if you rather, watch the beautiful “Marseillues” flirt in the many open cafes and bistros.
If you are anything like me, you will take the ferryboat tour with offerings of a delicious Bouliabasse lunch (a Marseille specialty seafood soup with garlic-mayo croutons) and make your way to the Chateu D’If (the inspiration for the novel The Count of Monte Cristo) and the beautiful Calanque region that takes you to the town of Cassis.
Situated roughly about 20km from Marseille, the community of Cassis has about eight thousand residents until summer hits. That is when it boasts up to twenty-five thousand visitors. Known for some exceptional white and rose wines, if at all take up the opportunity to visit one of the local vineyards for samplings and stunning views. I had the pleasure of visiting Clos Ste Magdeleine, a family owned winery and it was one of the most idyllic moments of the trip. Surrounded by stunning views of the coast and sipping on their award-winning rose made for a relaxing afternoon.
After a great walking tour of Cassis we built up an appetite and ate at Hotel Les Roches Blanche. The cuisine in the south of France is undeniably a work of art. Attention to detail prevails with a minimum of three course meals being the standard. When you are in the south of France visiting Marseille, Nice and Aix En Provence there are things that are a must to try and readily available to bring home. The obvious being a variety of white and rose wines and so many varieties of Cheese and seafood options. Feel like a local once you try Pastis (an aperitif that is neon blue in color and anisette flavored). I took an immediate liking to a drink called Gambetta. It is a simple syrup made of figs that is added to lemonade, soda water or even milk. I brought home a bottle and regrettably I have shared it with friends and family. Let’s just say I wish I bought one more. Other great edibles to consider bringing home would be good olive oil, a variety of tapenades, charcuterie (cured meats), not to mention the popular orange blossom flavored Navette biscuits and marzipan “calissons” sweets.
Departing from Marseille we took a scenic transfer (included in the Air Transat package) to Nice. We made a quick detour to one of the oldest Medieval towns in France called St Paul de Vance. It is a 30 min bus ride (just a few Euros to budget) from Nice and is a haven for many of the rich and famous. Wander the winding cobblestone streets and admire the many contemporary art galleries and unique shops.
Nice is the fifth largest city in France (the second most populated city in the south of France after Marseille with 1 million inhabitants) and the second most popular destination in France (after Paris which by the way is very accessible to get to with a 4 hour train ride). I stayed at the Hipark Hotel that was just a twenty minute walk to the major shopping/touristic areas. What I loved most about the apartment style accommodations was that it dispelled my initial notion that Nice is just for the rich. Nice is the perfect destination for anyone, especially for families and long stays. The hotel is situated in lovely residential area and just across the street is a huge commercial shopping mall. The property has a rooftop pool, kitchenette and balcony. There are a variety of options when considering accommodations in Nice and Air Transat has considered all of the possibilities. If you wanted to plan a ladies shopping getaway the Mercure would be my recommend. For a romantic getaway, The Aston overlooks the Promenade Des Anglais and Mediterranean Sea. With some planning, all are attainable, affordable and city centre located.
Spend the day at the beach, browse the markets in Cour Saleya, enjoy a tour at the Florian Confectionary shop or just watch all walks of life go by at the many cafes or brasseries at Place Rossetti, Garibaldi or the main square of Massena. One of my favorite day tours was the ferry ride to Ville Franche. Sailing in the South of France just has to be on the itinerary!
As if there wasn’t enough to do in Nice, we made a quick decision to go to Cannes for dinner and why not? It is just a 30 min train ride and going at the end of May means you just might schmooze with a few celebrities at the world famous Cannes Festival Du Cinema. After dinner we made our way back to Nice and enjoyed the rest of the Saturday night dancing at a local nightclub that was so eclectic with protagonists that you would find in a classic French New Wave film.
With your stay in Nice, you have the option of taking a day tour to a small town called Eze and Monaco, the smallest country in the word. While in Eze, enjoy a local speciality called Socca, it is a chick-pea and cheese pancake that is commonly eaten at breakfast. As you walk up to the top of the mountain discover the incredible seaside views and gardens. Also take up the opportunity to visit the Fragonard outlet where you can treat yourself to some of the most exquisite fragrances, soaps and beauty products at a fraction of the cost from what you will find in the shopping centers. This is a guaranteed place to pick up Savon Du Marseille that is comprised of 72% olive oil as possible souvenirs to bring home.
Another reason to visit the South of France at the end of May is to go to Monaco and watch the Grand Prix! It wasn’t something I had planned for, however it was one of the most surreal experiences just listening and watching the roaring racecars as we picnicked in the beautiful Monaco Gardens just beside the King Albert’s Palace.
Known as the city of a thousand fountains. This is the final destination stay for this Air Transat package. Known for some of the best shopping, spa facilities and home to the artist Cezanne, every which way you look is just elegant. Reality setting in that it was my last day in France was a little hard to grasp however I made the most of it wandering the streets for some incredible shopping, taking in the sights and savoring the cuisine and wine of the region.
Final stop, a locale called “Les Domaines Qui Montent”. Owned by a young but very knowledgeable couple for all of Provence’s specialties, they served and educated us on the tastes and smells of the copious amounts of great Provence wines with locally made tapenades and charcuterie to start. Our main was the most incredible turkey Osso Bucco with potato Rosti. To end off the meal, a gorgeous lemon meringue dessert was presented.
With one last scenic transfer back to Marseille to catch our flight and en route back to Canada, Air Transat took out all the guess-work on how to make the trip leisurely and eventful. This is due in part the strong relationships built with the tourist boards of the regions and providing nothing but the best available options and advice for anyone out of the Greater Toronto Area wishing to travel to the South of France.
Want to experience the South of France for yourself or looking for more information? Rita Puglisi is a Team Leader at the Flight Centre Oakville store in Ontario and can be reached online or by calling 1-866-704-5359.