An Erasmus semester is an opportunity to discover another culture. You are invited to immerse yourself in a foreign language.
This is what your university’s “Preparing for Erasmus” brochure will advocate as the principal purpose for your year abroad. What they forget to mention is that, let’s face it, Erasmus is not academically demanding, thus can prove to be a once in a life time opportunity to explore your surrounding areas.
The French Department of NUIG shares links with many universities scattered throughout the south of France.
If you happen to draw the lucky straw and end up spending your semester in this sunny sector of the hexagon, realise that you can create for yourself an exciting trip to a new town each weekend, and all within a very tight budget.
If you are staying in the Bouches-du-Rhone department which encompasses the towns of Aix and Marseille, be sure to avail of the CarteTreize which you can obtain free of charge and entitles you to make as many bus journeys as you desire within 24 hours for just 2 euro.
Another great service is BlaBlaCar or Co-Voiturage (car-sharing). Check out their website. http://www.covoiturage.fr/
With a packed lunch or a ready-made baguettee, a drink and a pastry from a boulangerie for a fiver, your weekly holiday will not break the bank.
Take advantage of your free time, and soak up every ray of vitamin C while you can. While French towns hibernate on Sundays, their museums and art galleries remain open as Sunday is devoted to family days out and cultural appreciation.
Here is a small scattering of towns I visited during my semester in Aix that I hope will help you steer your compass if you happen to find yourself in “Le Midi”.
A small picturesque beach destination that is only a forty minute bus drive from Aix and within the CarteTreize Region. Best visited during the months of September and October when temperatures are at their highest. Home to “Les Calanques”- steep limestone cliffs and coves on the Mediterranean coast that will leave you breathless.
It is not surprising that this pretty town is home to one of UNESCO’s most beautiful beaches of the world. Warning- a popular destination for tourists, eating out here can be expensive.
The imposing rocky giant that is Saint Victoire towers over Aix with a menacing eye. A hike up this mountain is a must. The scents of wild lavender, thyme and rosemary are thick in the stifling autumn air- don’t forget to bring some of these herbs home to use in your tomato sauce.
If you do not feel physically capable of tackling Victoire, there are many other equally beautiful hikes in this area which is home to gigantic reservoir lakes.
Only a 30 minute bus journey from Aix, Marseille hosts Aix’s closest beach. Often deemed a “dangerous” city, for me, Marseille was anything but intimidating. .
A visit to an “Oriental” boulangerie is a must do to discover the sweet treats of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria (diabetics stand clear!).
Bargains can be grabbed in the immigrant area where clothes and shoe shops are aplenty.
Even though a trip to the steep summit of Notre Dame de la Garde, the cathedral, takes about 40 minutes on foot, I would strongly advise making the pilgrimage this way rather than by bus-the view is worth every pant.
The old port is the heart of the city and surrounded by markets, museums and near to both the arty area “La Vieille Charite” and the Palais Longchamps.
A favourite go to for the rich and famous. The port is crowded with spaceships- I mean yachts!
In spite of the town’s elite inhabitants, there remains a certain quaint atmosphere in this doll sized town. View the panorama from the citadel which is a ten minute walk for the harbour and near the market place.
A slice of “la tarte tropezienne” is simply a duty you must fulfil. A brioche cake that is sandwiched by a custard cream and sprinkled with rock sugar, it was a favourite of the film crew of Brigitte Bardot’s earlier film “When God Created Women…” which was filmed here.
Do not forget to venture to Cap Taillet to catch some sunshine, a stunning beach area that stretches for miles which is a 10 minute drive from the town.
Who needs Rome when you have Arles? Again about a 40 minute bus journey from Aix, it is a must see. Famous for its ancient Roman ruins which include an amphitheatre, baths, cloisters and a necropolis.
If that wasn’t enough, the town also boasts a connection to Vincent Van Gough. It is here where the genius painted his masterpiece “Starry Night” and in honour of this, Arles is home to the “Starry Night Café”.
Replicas of other paintings he created here, inspired by his surroundings, are scattered around the town. Arles is home to the asylum where the troubled artists severed his ear which today serves as a modern library.
The Musee Reattu houses a collection from Paublo Picasso that is well worth a visit. Inspire not only your imagination, but your taste buds with a stroll through Arles market which seems to stretch towards infinity.