Running in the Marseille Marathon in Provence, France was memorable for two reasons — the writer visited three Unesco World Heritage Sites and, more importantly, he made a new friend.
PROVENCE is one of the most visited regions in France. It conjures up the images of rolling lavender fields and quaint villages.
For me, the three As of Provence are Avignon, Arles and Aix-en-Provence. What brings me to Provence is the Marseille Marathon.
I arrive at Marseille Airport on a Wednesday afternoon. There are regular bus shuttles to Marseille every 15 minutes, or Aix every half an hour. It is more economical to buy return tickets.
Only the train has non-stop service to Avignon and Arles. However, the Vitrolles Marseille Airport train station is not at the airport. It is situated five minutes away and a free shuttle is provided.
The airport train station is really small. The only ticket counter is away from the station and in a building that looks like a car park booth.
So it is advisable to buy your train ticket at the credit card machine in the airport to avoid queues.
I take a train to Avignon from the airport. The journey is about one hour and five minutes.
Avignon is a small town surrounded by a wall. The main thoroughfare opposite the train station is Rue de la Republique and at the end of it is Place de l’Horloge where the town hall and opera house are located. Lots of al-fresco restaurants are located here.
The next square is Place du Palais facing the Palais des Papes or the Pope’s Palace.
This Unesco World Heritage Site is the world’s largest Gothic Palace.
It was built when Pope Clement V abandoned Rome in 1309 to settle in Avignon and this became the seat of the highest power of the Roman Catholic Church for the next 70 years.
The other famous sight is St Benezet Bridge that was completed in 1185.
However, most of the spans except four were washed away in the mid 1600s. The bridge is also immortalised in the nursery rhyme Sur le Pont D’Avignon, popular in French-speaking countries from France to Canada.
In the exhibition area, one can see the video reconstruction of this bridge that crosses the wide River Rhone.
I book the YMCA at the village of Villeneuve. It’s across the River Rhone and situated on hill. So the view of the Pope’s Palace at night is breath-taking.
However, for those who want a more convenient location, I suggest Ibis or Ibis Budget which is next to the train station.
I take a 20-minute train ride from Avignon to Arles. The train station is so small that I don’t even realise that it is Arles when I arrive.
The first thing I notice about Arles is that how quiet it is compared to Avignon. This was the first Roman Capital of Provence. Therefore, there are two Unesco World Heritage Site, namely the Roman Amphitheatre known as the Arenes and the elegant Roman theatre.
The artist Vincent van Gogh lived here for much of his life and the town featured regularly in his work.
Unfortunately, the yellow house that he shared with artist Paul Gaugin was destroyed during World War II.
It was in Arles that van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute. Arles was outraged but was greatly relieved when he entered the local hospital. The garden courtyard of the hospital is now preserved just like his painting and now known as Space Van Gogh.
The Van Gogh Foundation was opened on April 7, 2014. It is dedicated to the work and legacy of the artist.
The old capital of Provence has nearly 100 fountains. Cours Mirabeau is mansion-lined. In fact, no other avenue epitomises the graceful town of Provence than Cours Mirabeau.
Aix-en-Provence is indeed the belle to Provence’s ball. It is like the Left Bank of Paris, bohemian and chic.
Most tourists come here to see Paul Cezanne’s legacy, Aiix’s most famous citizen who spent much of his life here painting the limestone hills of the surrounding countryside.
The Atelier Paul Cezanne (or Cezanne’s studio) is also open to the public. Most of the items are still preserved from his time, thanks to Marcel Provence who bought the house from Cezanne’s son.
He kept everything in it — including the furniture — in memory of the artist. The studio is closed from noon to 2pm during the non summer months. So I took the opportunity to visit the Terrace of Painters on a hill where I see Mont Sant Victorie which Cezanne painted 11 times.
Marseille, the premier port of France, is a extraordinary mix of ethnicities and culture.
For instance, the information board on the airport bus has notices in both French and Arabic due to many migrants from North Africa.
Halal food is readily available and many women are in hijab. Buskers play Arabic music on their accordions in Vieux Port, the old port of Marseille. It is now gentrified thanks to a master plan by world-renowned architecture firm Fosters+Partners.
The Hotel de Ville or City Hall is located at Vieux Port. That is the race expo and the finish of the Marseille Marathon.
I collect my race bib on a Friday afternoon. Security is generally tight in Marseille. There is a security check at the entrance to confirm that you have a confirmation slip before you are let in.
The starting line of the marathon is at The Calanques., This is the most dramatic scenery of the French Rivera — dazzling white cliffs plunging into sparkling turquoise waters of mini fjords.
This fjord-like landscape is unique in Europe. The coast is broken up by a series of tiny, narrow creeks or calanques.
This is located 20km from Vieux Port. Therefore, on marathon morning, shuttle buses ferry us to the start from 6am to 7.30am. Luckily we are allowed to deposit our baggage and warm clothing.
At the start, there are toilet facilities and even breakfast with hot coffee in an Irish pub that the organisers have rented. So, those of us who are early huddle up there. I also get my St Patrick’s Day hat there as it was celebrated two days earlier.
At one kilometre into the run, I bump into a guy wearing a pink tutu. Since both of us are Asian-looking and are wearing costumes, we chat.
I find out that he’s a Parisian of Cambodian-Chinese descent. Pom Pui, whose real name is KT Phan, spoke Cantonese from young and has worked abroad in Hong Kong. We speak Cantonese and English throughout the marathon.
He also becomes my French translator. It makes me feel very “local” even though I am running in France.
The marathon route is scenic. We run at Parc Borely and the Corniche twice. We’ll reach the Vieux Port twice but the first time we are directed to La Canebiere and Castellane, the shopping street.
By then the half marathoners are done. Trams stop their service and shoppers cheer us on.
We even pass the Stade Velodrome, the second-largest football stadium in France after the Stade de France in Paris, twice. It was also the venue of the World Cup and the EuroCup.
We pass some of the most expensive houses in Marseille at Corniche before ending the marathon in front of Hotel de Ville.
We hold hands as we finish and congratulate each other. It is indeed fun to run as a “local”. We take a photo together before he rushes back to Avignon. I head for the shower before the airport.
What a way to end my trip to Provence. I’ve seen three Unesco World Heritage Sites but, more importantly, I made a friend.