To the east of Marseille and on the edges of France, la Ciotat sits frozen in time. Full of quirky architecture and nestled alongside the sparkling azure sea, this sleepy village is the perfect place to escape to for a day, or at least a couple of hours. Here’s why you must visit this off the beaten path village, as well as what to see and do once in La Ciotat!
Introducing La Ciotat, A Hidden Provençal Gem
Sure, everyone’s heard of Marseille, and Aix-en-Provence, but what about those smaller towns that aren’t mentioned in any guidebook? Of course, every travel book about Provence recommends that you visit the quaint little town on Cassis on any trip. And, obviously, they’re not wrong!
However, when it comes to seeking out smaller towns in Provence that are a little off the beaten path, there is an abundance to choose from, many of which are not frequented by tourists. Well, last summer, one such town fit the bill perfectly: the little town of La Ciotat, once a major industrial hub for shipbuilding.
It was my first day in Provence and I hadn’t visited for years. Having escaped the French capital for a week (and more rain than my umbrella could cope with), I was looking forward to good food, time with friends and soaking up some sun rays! After all, it was the summer and Provence seemed the perfect opportunity to make use of a summer wardrobe.
The name ‘La Ciotat’ comes from the Occitan word for city. Residents there are known as “Ciotadens” or “Ciotadennes” and the town first rose to prominence in the 15th century when it became known around the region for the townspeople’s skill in shipbuilding.
La Ciotat remained a hub of industry right up until the 1980s when the naval shipyard closed for the final time. Today, the town is a hub of trade and tourism and is well-known for its role in several historical events which firmly placed La Ciotat on the map.
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat
La Ciotat was the backdrop for one of the first ever motion films: ‘L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.’ This can otherwise be translated into English as ‘the arrival of a train at la Ciotat Train Station.’ The silent 50-second trip depicts the arrival of a train at the port side train station and was filmed as early as 1896.
Should you opt to research the short film silent film online, you’ll find that a popular myth incorrectly touts the original airing date as in 1895 in Paris. Whatever the truth, one popular story about the first screening of the film suggests that people were so shocked and taken aback by the moving picture, that they ran away from the screening screaming!
The origins of the game of petanque
For fans of boules, the game of Pétanque likely needs no introduction. Pétanque is the game you see being played on little sand patches around cities like Paris, especially around Canal Saint-Martin. And it’s worth noting that the modern form of the game apparently originated in la Ciotat!
If you’re not familiar with the game, the play goes a little like this: a small ball (often wooden) is tossed a few meters away. Each player is given three metal, large balls (known as boules). The aim of the game is to get your ball as close to the small ball, touching it if you can.
As the game progresses, each player gets the chance to not only touch the small wooden ball but also to knock other players out of the running. The player with the closest boule at the end wins the game! Records suggest that the game was invented as early as 1907, with the first tournament being held in La Ciotat in 1910.
The Beach at La Ciotat
Truth be told, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen water so crystal clear and… so empty! This is especially surprising as I visited the quaint village at the beginning of summer, towards the end of June. Perfect for bathing, the beach at La Ciotat was the perfect place for a quick dip and a lazy lie on the sandbank with a book in hand.
Surprisingly, due to the rocky nature of the region, the beach had to be artificially placed near the town. As such, it’s in prime position for swimming and bathing post exploring the maze of streets which make up the historic part of the village.
La Ciotat Old Town
Like many of the French towns that dot the region, la Ciotat has a vibrant and charming old town. Although we (mistakenly) spent the first few hours of our visit just wandering around the port and spending time in the commercial part of town, we soon realised that the Provençal settlement had so much more to offer.
The majority of the bars, restaurants, and shops in la Ciotat are concentrated to a single street which runs parallel to the port. This being said, the Older part of town is much more interesting. Narrow streets, cobbled lanes, colourful shutters and we even stumbled across a statue displaying a statue bearing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (the foundation of French law).
Where to stay in La Ciotat
Though this charming town could be visited simply as a day trip from Aix-en-Provence, if you’re looking for a slower pace and a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of modern day life, then it’s worth staying for several days. Here are the best places to stay in La Ciotat (based on web reviews, location, and ratings):
The Crew House La Ciotat: Constructed in 1930, this property is situated right in the heart of town and is a three bedroom holiday home equipped with WiFi, kitchen, and TV area, making it the perfect escape if you’re looking to travel in a larger group.
Best Western Premier Hotel Vieux-Port: Located along the seafront, the clean and comfortable three-star hotel offers free WiFi and is reasonably priced.