To the east of Marseille and on the edges of France, la Ciotat sits frozen in time. Full of quirky architecture and by a sparkling azure sea, it’s the perfect place to escape to for a day, or at least a couple of hours…
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? I mean, sure, most travel books recommend that you visit the quaint little town on Cassis on any trip (and, of course, they’re not wrong to), but I also enjoy seeing the smaller towns that are a little off the beaten path. 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 been for years. Having escaped the city for a week (and more rain than my umbrella could cope with), I was looking forward to good food, time with friends and plenty of sun!
‘la Ciotat’ comes from the Occitan word for city and residents are known as “Ciotadens” or “Ciotadennes”. The town rose to prominence in the 15th century when it became known around the region for the townspeople’s skill in shipbuilding. It remained so until the 1980s when the naval shipyard closed for the final time. Today, the town is a hub of trade and tourism.
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat
The town was once the setting for one of the first ever films: ‘L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat,’ otherwise translated as ‘the arrival of a train at la Ciotat Train Station.’ This silent 50-second trip depicts the arrival of a train at the port side train station and was filmed as early as 1895. A 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!
If you’re a fan of Pétanque- a type of boules (it’s also the game you see being played on little sand patches around cities like Paris), then 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!
If I’m honest, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen water so crystal clear and… so empty! The beach at la Ciotat was the perfect place for a quick dip and a lazy lie on the sand bank 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.
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. The majority of the bars, restaurants, and shops in la Ciotat are concentrated to a single street which runs parallel to the port.
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).