“No,” I answered. “We have visited four or five times. But this is our first market here. We’ve lived in Aix since January.”
“That’s where I’ve seen you,” she replied. “I’m there at the Sunday markets on Cours Mirabeau.
So began one of our loveliest impromptu conversations in France, with the jeweler and her friend at the next stall, who was selling hats. They asked whether we had studied French before coming to the country. They asked if it was hard to learn the language. They wanted to know what brought us to France. They complimented my French, not once but twice (always a huge ego boost, even if unwarranted). And after awhile, we bought Kathy a pink cap — made in China, bien sur — but very French-looking, nonetheless. And just $7, a little extra present for a birthday whose number will go unmentioned.
“A bientot,” they said. We’ll see you soon, always a little nicer than just goodbye.
Our 30 hours in Cassis yesterday and today proved to be slow-lane travel at its best. Instead our usual pre-planned five or six hours in this friendly Mediterranean village, we arrived early, stayed overnight and dawdled through a second day. Instead of the stress of narrow streets and too-scarce-and-expensive parking, we left the driving to others. With our newly discovered senior passes, it costs just $8.40 roundtrip from Aix-en-Provence (you have to change buses in Aubagne). Instead of specific goals, we poked and peeked. Thursday was gray, wild and windy; today, calm and perfectly clear. We hiked along the calanques, visited two free village museums, ate a good fish meal (a requirement), enjoyed what may be Provence’s friendliest market, and devoured a half day of Mediterranean beach sun. Parfait.
Who needs upscale, overpriced, overcrowded, big-name destinations of the Mediterranean — St. Tropez, Cannes, Antibes, Villefranche-sur-Mer? Not us. Cassis, low key, slow moving, easy-going, and absolutely beautiful, does the trick.
Should you come here — and you should — here are a few tips:
1) Come on market day (Wednesday and Friday), but don’t come by car
Again, this is a friendly place. And the prices in the market are considerably lower than in Aix. For example, there were blue jeans — an incredibly expensive item in France — on sale for $35 here; tank tops with silk-screened designs for $14. We bought our grandson, Dylan, a French police car, with siren, for $11.
And the merchants! The man who sold us the car, threw in the batteries (and proudly showed us his multilingual, mechanical parrot that answered questions in French and English … we were dutifully appreciative, but passed.) We stopped to buy six organically grown apricots. The vendor hand-picked the best for us to eat at the beach that day and then threw in two extra at no charge that were really ripe to eat right then. This for a $1.25 purchase.
It’s one sweet market that stretches almost from the sea to the duck pond near the mayor’s office.
2) Stay in town
We stayed at a family-owned two-star, Hotel du Grand Jardin, our window opening onto the kids’ playground and duck pond in the park. We went to sleep to the sound of frogs. It’s a block from a great people-watching and breakfast square, three from the beach. (Price for a double: $115).
3) Eat a fish meal in the harbor
There are lots of choices. We went back to our old favorite, La Vieille Auberge, where the fish is fresh and well-prepared, and the pace of the meal leisurely and pleasant. We weren’t disappointed. That’s the restaurant’s special dessert on the right.
4) Spend a bit of time looking around town
The local museum, Musee de Cassis, is free. Downstairs it has a variety of urns dating back to the first century B.C. They were discovered in 1960 on a shipwreck in one of the calanques, the inlets of water, with rocky hillsides rising from their fingers. Upstairs was an exhibit of Jean Tognetti, a painter and designer for the Marseille opera who toward the end of his life painted landscapes of the village and Provencal countryside. On a side street we wandered into the four banal communal, a 17th century round, communal oven, nearly 10-feet in diameter, that was discovered just 12 years ago. That exhibit, too, is free.
5) Hike the calanques
I’ll write more about this tomorrow. Even if you just go to the first, however, it’s worth the walk. Great views of the ocean and cliffs, or Cap Canaille, which rises more than 1,300 feet from the Mediterranean near town.
“It’s cool to hear the waves here,” Kathy said on our wild and windy walk. “It sort of reminds me of Maine.”
6) Take a boat trip to the Calangues
7) Slow down
“I loved today,” Kathy said, as we boarded the bus back to Aix.
Me too. But then, there’s still dinner ahead.