Two summers ago, Maman rented a little apartment in this town none of us had ever heard of: Cassis. Spelled like the black currant liqueur, but the “s” is silent when you say the town’s name. Mr. English and I stayed for a few weeks, and we toured around all over Provence, and some of the Riviera, discovering gorgeous seaside villages and majestic perched medieval towns. I wrote about it all in the Papiers Provence. So, as my father was in town, and because he had never seen our little seaside getaway, we drove the two and a half hours to Cassis.
It’s a simple town. Not fancy. Right on the sea. With sailboats docked, and a petanque court, and a pebble beach. It is a natural cove, between the giant calanques, these seaside cliff inlets, that blockade it off from Marseille. But what I love about Cassis is it’s not to touristy. The shops sell lovely things. The restaurants have good food. There’s an Amorino gelato bar (I’m an addict), and a real beachside ice cream and sandwich vendor that sells me my merguez frites sandwiches for 4.50. The sea is cold and fresh. And the sunset against the huge stone cliffs is breathtaking. There are little garden restaurants that serve ceviche of the local scorpionfish, and seaside terraces that serve “the best bouillabaisse from here to Paris”. We arrived early, around 9, and I sat down for my breakfast of champions: chocolat chaud and pain au chocolat. I think only an American would ever order that much chocolate, but I loved it! Then, we boarded one of the tour boats for the calanques, and a small merry band of us set to sea. We wove in and out of the secret inlets, the sea so bleu-marine that it was like a siren’s call to dive in and escape the clear sun. We could see straight to the bottom of the deep sea, and almost straight to the tops of the cliffs. We arrived to shore windswept, and sad that we’d already seen the whole tiny town, and were moving on to Aix.
I first came to Aix when I was fifteen–my mom took me on a little vacation in the South of France for an early sweet sixteen gift. I was breathlessly in love with the whole place. And Aix was my favorite. We stayed right on the Cours Mirabeau, a shady eighteenth century-looking avenue through the middle of town, with platane trees that tangle their fingers up over the road, and a building that looks held up by two famous Atlas figures bearing up the lintel of the front door. I tried to take a picture to share them, but they are being cleaned. I guess a shower after a few hundred years is probably a good thing.
I found Aix, back then, almost sleepy. Not so two years ago, and not so now. It is bustling, full of all my favorite French-only shops–Princesse Tam-Tam, Petit Bateau, Aigle–and restaurants and crowds. But the markets remain my favorite, and they sell purple asparagus, pistou-soaked green olives, zucchini flowers, fruits-de-mer, and my favorite, this homespun, completely not Laduree macarons. I have a whole post coming on those, because I think they’re the next big thing.
We dug up an old favorite lunch spot of ours, Le Pizza, and ordered one of those dishes that you dream about and drive anywhere for (my French In-N-Out burger): vegetable lasagna. It sounds weirds, I know, to drive hours for a vegetable lasagna, but this one is à la Provençal. A layer of chunky ratatouille in the bottom of a gratin dish, covered in fresh lasagna noodles, a simple tomato sauce, and a mix of mozzarella and Gruyère bubbling on top. I had to stop myself, so I could save room for my rustic macarons, which I bought in chocolate-raspberry, lavender, and pistachio. Again, more on those to come…
We drove back to La Turbie, desperate for our “local”–Café de la Fontaine. But they were booked. We drove to Menton, and everywhere was absolutely booked. Lesson: on the Riviera, in summer, make a reservation. No matter how crummy some these places look, and how all their tables are empty, they’re “booked”. Starving and cranky, we tumbled into a little café that I would never recommend because the service was so rude, but we had the best bowls of moules marinière I’ve had in a while. With itsy-bitsy, tiny mussels. So much sweeter and less like dead tongues in your mouth than those giants everyone oohs and ahhs for. I woke up the next morning still tasting the garlic.