This is way longer than it should be. I did a TL;DR (Too long, didn’t read) summary at the bottom
- The cast: Myself, my wife (aka L), my 20 year old daughter (C) and 14 year old son (T)
- The locations: Marseille, Port Grimaud, Nice, Lyon, Saint Etienne, Aix-en-Provence and a few other spots in Provence.
We leave Vancouver on the Friday night and are overnight into London before connecting to Marseille. We’re supposed to arrive three hours before the England v Russia game that we have tickets for. We’re also meeting our daughter who’s been away for six months studying in Lyon and then travelling the past seven weeks with friends around Europe. One of her parting remarks to me was, “You’re getting fat. Seriously, you better lose some weight and get in better shape.” Nice kid. The plane arrives an hour late and for the first time ever in the 200+ flights I’ve been on, our luggage has been lost by BA. Another delay.
After a quick bus/metro combo from the airport, we emerge within 5oom of the stadium to a throng of people hawking tickets for the game. Dozens of them. The crowds along Avenue du Prado leading to the Stade Velodrome are a mix of tense people trying to navigate through to the stadium and bellicose drunks both Russian and English. I recall telling L that the safest place to be would be inside the stadium as the security will be stifling. I’d resolved that I would quietly ensure that we avoided crowds and minimized time in airports and train stations. You find yourself in helter skelter crowds heading to games though and you realize whatever plans you have do not jibe well with reality on the ground and you just go with the flow.
We’d fortunately found a place to stay for that night in a hotel that was all but touching the stadium. Couldn’t have been closer so after our brief, joyous reunion with C where it was clear that the 25lbs I had lost since last seeing her had somehow found its way onto her in the form on Pain de Raison, croissants, souvlaki and booze. I couldn’t help but laugh.
Security was as expected but still not quite as overwhelming in terms of its presence as the World Cup in Brazil was. Ill say this though. The police and military that were working….were working. They were focused on their job and taking it very seriously. Into the stadium 45 minutes before kick off and England fans are everywhere. We have great seats 20 yards from the touchline and 11 rows up. The designated area in one end zone for the Russian fans is full as is England’s but the English have got at least two thirds of all the other seats in the stadium and dominate by colour and volume. It really is something to see England play in international tournaments. Especially in their first game when there’s still all that unwarranted optimism competing with alcohol in the bloodstream of the hordes from Albion, Hull, Croydon, etc.
We had a great view of Dier’s goal for England.
We were very fortunate to be at the other end of the stadium post-game when Russian ‘fans’ charged into what was ostensibly an area for neutrals but had a large percentage of England fans. This was nasty and flew in the face of my repeated statements to L that the stadiums themselves would be safe and secure. I kept repeating “I’ve never seen this happen at a game I’ve been at.” What you can’t quite see in the video below is that as people were rushing to the right to escape Russians there was a high retaining wall and while it was possible to get over people were getting crushed against it for a minute or so before security got ahold of the situation. In the end, from a ‘my family’ point of view,the only thing that took a hit was my credibility.
Planning this trip had been an exercise in negotiating various agenda. My wife’s interest in soccer approaches zero if her kid isn’t playing but she stuck on a smile and joined in on the “Allez les Bleues” chants. She was tolerating the games as interruptions to the various Provence excursions she had planned but definitely came away glad to have experienced them. I’m still not sure if her repeatedly calling it the ‘World Cup’ was a passive aggressive piss take or not. She actually copped to briefly falling asleep, standing up, at the England-Russia game. Jet lag? I have my doubts.
T’s agenda was simple. See as many games as possible and return home with a pair of the newly released Nike Hypervenoms that he was sure wouldn’t arrive in Canada for another six months. I’d researched likely places we could buy them and really wanted it out of the way early so it didn’t become a source of tension. This is a kid who knows which players wear which boots, when they’re released and what the YouTube reviews for all new boots say. He knew exactly what boot he wanted and was fine with the fact that getting them would mean stacking what I’d normally spend on boots for him on top of the full weight of what would generally be spent on his birthday present.
So while L & C had a sleep in after the England v Russia game we were up early to get into Marseille to go to JD Sports. Plan was to take the Metro, get the boots, pick up the rental car on the way back, pick up L & C and then head out of Marseille. I looked up the JD Sports map for their Marseille store and we headed off. For some hilarious reason, the map shows the location as being 5km from where it actually is.
We asked four or five locals where it was when we were standing right where the map showed and they couldn’t figure it out. We sought wi-fi and eventually figured out the problem. A short metro ride later we triumphantly arrived to find that it was closed on Sundays despite the website saying it would be open.
Fortunately, picking up the car rental was smooth. I was worried that two speeding tickets I picked up in Portugal and Spain in 2011 (both sent to me in Vancouver by registered mail; both ignored) might pop up on the Europcar computer as I used them back then as well. Nope. Got a spanking new Renault Kadjar SUV and was feeling pretty stoked as T and I got in. Then I remembered it was manual and the last time I’d driven anything but automatic was the last time I’d rented a car in Europe five years previous. Naturally, my re-introduction to 5 speed transmissions was a quick right across the sidewalk from where it was parked followed by an immediate left onto Marseille’s busiest road. We were twenty seconds and two lurches into the trip before T pronounced, “We’re totally gonna die.”
I’m pleased to say that in the course of driving that car about 1200km, I only stalled once and disappointed my family many times in the process of not stalling and lurching far more than that thus negating their opportunity to ridicule me.
Our base for the next week was Port Grimaud near St Tropez. You’ve heard of St Tropez but likely not Port Grimaud or the neighbouring town of Grimaud. Simply put, don’t go to St Tropez unless you have an obsession with high end brand boutique stores, staring slack jawed at $50m yachts and/or a desire to bump into Russian oligarchs while sipping your $6 bottle of Coke.
Instead go to Grimaud and Port Grimaud. So much less crowded and other worldly. You still get a beautiful beach and I’ll take the town of Grimaud in terms of beauty over St Tropez every time.
We were hooked up with AM Sport Tours through local soccer mastermind, Chris Murphy, for accommodation in Port Grimaud. They had teams coming through two weeks at a time for all inclusive trips during the Euro that included playing games, seeing Euro games as well as accommodation, meals and transport. These guys totally know what they’re doing and the place in Port Grimaud was a perfect choice. We were very happy to glom on for the accommodation side of things.
Left: C & L at the beach in Port Grimaud. Top right: Us at the castle in Grimaud. Bottom right: From the electric boat you can inexpensively rent to tour the canals at Port Grimaud and where L’s hat flew off her head and into the water just as we were docking causing considerable screaming and panicking as she tried to back the boat up to get it only to see a larger tour boat run right over it, sinking it pronto.
Port Grimaud was a great place to relax and have some beach time but the reality was that we had a packed itinerary and we were on the road a lot. First on the list was a day trip to Iles d’Hyeres. Short, fast ferry took you from the mainland to laid back island with travel brochure water.
Beach at Iles d’Hyeres
Great afternoon then back to the car. France, by the way, has a parking lot system I haven’t seen before. Get your ticket when you come in then put it in the slot as you leave. Machine tell you what you owe and you put your credit card in the same slot to pay. Gate rises and you’re gone. All done in ten seconds. No attendant. First time I saw this was where we parked to go to Iles d’Hyeres I was so impressed it overwhelmed my urge to vomit at how much I’d just paid to park.
So now it was time for our second game: France v Albania back at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. When I got the tickets in the mail and saw we’d be in Row 72 I was worried about us falling off the back of the stadium. No need to be concerned. There were at least another 25 rows behind. Cool perspective too if you’re a coach. We were almost on the halfway line. T’s second demand after getting me to buy him the ugliest, most expensive boots on the planet was to ensure that we got to the stadium at least an hour before kick off. Bad weather worked to T’s favour on this day as a plan to visit Cassis and then hike the famous calanques around there was abridged to just Cassis leaving more pre-game time. It also meant we’d have more time to get to JD Sports again before it closed.
The Albanians were in full throttle party mode in the port area of Marseille. Where the English and Russian supporters had staged full on battles four days previous the scene was now French and Albanians together trying to out sing each other.
Hung around for a bit there and then off to the (open!) JD Sports who had a DJ playing at the front door and freestylers doing their thing on the pedestrian mall out front. Awesome! Where’s your boots? “We only sell football boots online. Not in the store.” To offset the sting of not getting the boots, again, we went by an Olympic Marseille store and picked up a ball (T gets the equivalent of the DT’s if he has to go more than a few days without a ball at his feet). Cool looking OM ball and picked up an even cooler t-shirt for myself.
Top: My Bielsa t-shirt. Guy at the France v Albania game in front of us rocking no less than three cameras. Middle: View of France v Albania from row 72. Bottom: 90 minutes before kick off and there’s already about 12-15000 Albania fans in the stadium. T and the OM ball that would last less than 24 hours. Yes, that’s a CANmnt hoodie.
Got to see late, quality goals by Griezmann and Payet and then it was back to the car. My fingers were quietly crossed as we made our way back (by the way, full kudos to the French for the efficient way they got crowds in and out of the stadium and on their way; 68 000 at this game and we waited maybe 10 minutes to get on a Metro). After we’d bought the ball and t-shirt, T and I walked back to the huge parkade we’d parked in nearby. On our way in, we heard an Albanian family, gathered at the intercom, loudly telling whoever was at the other end that their car had been broken into and all their stuff had been taken. Naturally this was the one day I’d had to bring my laptop with me as C was scheduled to register for her courses at UBC after the game and couldn’t miss her time slot. Crossed my fingers and told T to just keep that to ourselves so we could just enjoy the game.
By the way it was truly a Jetsons moment on the drive home. Zooming down the excellent French highways while my daughters iPhone streamed songs on Apple Music via Bluetooth through the car speakers while she simultaneously used her hot spot to connect my laptop to the UBC course registration page. I reminded everyone that when I did my big round the world back packing trip, I had to send a telegram when we got to Nepal as it was the only way to communicate with our families back home. Meanwhile C paid just 20 Euros/ month for her French phone package and got unlimited calling and texting (including to Canada) and 50GB of data.
Highlight of the next day was kicking around our new Olympique Marseille ball. Smiles all around until I tried to chip it over a stout palm tree and it got stuck 20 feet up. No problem. We found some rocks and pelted it until it looked like it had to fall. I knew there may be a problem when it clearly looked an ornament hanging from a Christmas tree. It was defying gravity. One more solid hit with a rock and it fell to the grass. Totally deflated. A very sharp palm frond had pierced it as if a very large hypodermic had been jammed into it. Done. T made it clear I owed him a new ball.
Writing about going to Nice is difficult now given the light tone of this and how it just doesn’t fit at all with the tragic attack on innocent people celebrating Bastille Day on the very road we drove along. I’d worried, like most, about some sort of attack while we were there and L’s sisters were none too pleased about us going but we talked about it and came to the conclusion that the odds were very low, that we would take precautions to avoid crowds and that, in the end, you just can’t live your life hiding under a rock waiting for doom to descend on your life.
Spain v Turkey was the only game that I wasn’t able to get via UEFA.com directly so I went through Louie, a local ticket broker who worked all the high profile events world wide. We got one of our Brazil World Cup games through him so I knew the deal. 50% deposit up front and then the rest in Nice where he would give me the tickets. Unfortunately, one of the first texts I got when we arrived was from my friend Dale who let me know that Louie had been tossed in jail for selling tickets at the France v Romania opener the night before. I had no idea how that was going to affect getting the tickets but it got sorted out in time and one of Louie’s associates got the tickets to us when we got to Nice. That ended up being the lesser of our logistical challenges for that game.
After a fruitless third and fourth attempt to get T’s Hypervenoms at stores in Nice, we touristed about Nice and then met up with Dale and his family to watch the rest of the Italy v Sweden game. We had a vague plan for a fifth quest for the new boots but I’d got a taste of Nice traffic on the way in and decided it was best to just give us lots of time to get to the stadium as it meant getting from the waterfront up to the north east of the city. Only 10km away and the stadium only held 35000 but better safe than sorry. We left at 6pm. The pain began at 6:10pm once we got off Promenade des Anglaises. Our parkade exited to it and it had been closed to traffic in advance of the game in anticipation of crowds coming down to the fan zone area to watch the game. Once off our private road we hit the very definition of gridlock. If I’d known how bad it was going to be from there on in, I’d have parked the car and walked the 10km. There were 20 minute stretches where we moved two car lengths. It seemed our strategy to head a bit east and then north to the highway before going west to the stadium to avoid cutting through the central part of the city was not my most original thought. While it lightened up once we got to the highway it was still two hours plus before the stadium came into view. Now picture cars arriving from various directions and all trying to park. Europe doesn’t do stadium parking the way most North American cities do. In the end I had to go tap into my inner action movie star and pull out of the crawling traffic being heavily guided by police and take advantage of the SUV’s high clearance to muscle up onto a sidewalk taking a hard right between people walking to the stadium through a just wide enough pedestrian entry to a small gravel parking lot that seemed to be for staff or VIP’s as its regular entrance was closed off and patrolled. At this point I had no idea if there was any space to even park but we found literally the only real estate big enough to fit in and then to our joy, realized we were just 400m from the stadium entrance.
There must have been anywhere between 4-8 police who saw all this but they were not concerned. The traffic cops were in ‘no harm, no foul’ mode and the security cops had bigger fish to fry.
Got to the stadium with 30-40 minutes to spare. Even had time to pick up something from the souvenir stand. Patiently waited behind a Turkish guy with his son who was impatiently waiting for an older guy who was clearly trying to re-enact a Monty Python skit with his purchase. He took at least ten minutes from the time I joined the line and the Turkish guy accelerated from fuming to full on yelling, “This is not normal! You have been here 30 minutes! This is not normal!” So now a manager comes over to calm him down. As they start talking, Michael Palin shuffles off after changing his order eight times and having two credit cards not work. I seize the space at the counter, “Large Spain shirt, please.” and hand over exact change. Out of their in seconds while the Turkish guy is still being told he’ll have to calm down or they won’t serve him.
Left: The Nice waterfront. Right: T and I playing soccer table tennis in the fan zone on the Promenade des Anglaises and action from the Spain v Turkey game.
Got to watch the Spain game in the Spanish supporters section behind the goal which was pretty cool. Got a text from another friend, Fred, once the game had started, asking if we’d made it in. I knew he was going to this game too. I let him know we’d made it. He let me know he was still on the highway, moving at a crawl. I felt terrible for him. In the end they made it in before half time and he had to pull his own version of ‘how to creatively park you car’.
Two days later, as scheduled, we met up with Fred and his family at the 17th century farmhouse they had rented in Aix-en-Provence. Set on four acres with a gorgeous swimming pool it gave us a nice change of pace and a chance for the kids to hang out, kick a ball around (yes, I bought a T a replacement ball in Nice) and pretty much wander about agog knowing we were in a house that was built the same year the first white man laid eyes on Lake Erie.
It was everything you want in a stay in Provence. I pictured two idyllic days watching games on TV, drinking local wine, lounging around the pool and having some laughs. Then someone with a seriously maladjusted sense of adventure and/or humour suggested we all ‘hike’ Montagne Sainte Victoire. See in the pictures below how happy we are as we start? That was the only picture where we look like that. Naturally we started the festivities around 3pm to take advantage of the full brunt of the summer sun. It was nearly 30 degrees celsius and your best chance of shade was to hope some kind of flying insect shadowed you as you went up.
Take the Grouse Grind, double the length, remove any and all semblance of shade, add long patches of scrabbly rock and then mock people with signs that tell you you’ve gone the ‘easy’ (facile) route. That’s the approach trail makers took here. We bumped into a group of Americans who had tried the ‘difficile’ route and turned back. “There was ropes and shit. Part of it you had to free climb.” Thanks for the comprehensive warning sign, mes amis!
I moan and wish I could say I jest but it was really, really hard. Nine of us set out. L, C, Fred’s wife and youngest turned back about halfway through due to a combination of heat, lack of water and common sense. Fred, who had summited before on a previous trip, then back tracked to make sure they got back to the bottom all right. That left me, T and Fred’s two eldest sons, aged 14 and 17.
None of us had enough water and their ages combined were still 5 years shy of mine. I powered through using mumbled obscenities as fuel. The summit is marked by a huge concrete and steel cross. Upon reaching it, my attitude changed entirely and we took pictures of what is now clearly my favourite non-soccer memory of the trip.
Top left: Nine enthusiastic, smiling people near the base. Top right: Two signs. One understated, one underestimating. Essentially two lies. Bottom (L-R). At the summit. Don’t care what your sign says. The boys heading back down. Para-sailers mocking our efforts with their grace.
What saved us in the end was the well located within the deserted chapel 200m from the top. The sign said the water wasn’t drinkable but we saw a French guy drinking it and asked him if it was safe. He shrugged and gave it the old, “Je ne sais pas mais c’est froid!” That was enough for us. After about a litre each of cold, not entirely clear water we had enough to clear and cool our heads and happily make our way down. Ordered loads of pizza on the way back. As per French custom in the region, it came with a free bottle of rosé wine.
Clockwise from top left: Pool chez Fred in Aix-en-Provence, the house Fred’s family had while there, the massive-est fireplace you’ve ever seen, fantastic vinyl vendor at the outdoor Monday market in Aix-en-P, me and L in Aix-en-P (with replacement hat).
Our time in Aix-en-Provence wrapped up at what Fred’s wife said was the best public market in Provence. They were previously in Aix for a year so she knew and was right. L & C went early with her while Fred and I joined later on. It was great weather and it really was impressive. Could’ve gone nuts at the vinyl vendor’s stall but that stuff doesn’t pack well.
I’d booked every night’s accommodation before we left except for the one following Aix-en-P as I’d wanted to keep open the option of getting Sweden v Belgium tickets and selling our Portugal v Hungary ones in Lyon. The price never wavered on the SWE v BEL game though and there was no market for selling my POR v HUN ones so we opted to head north a bit, find a place to stay in the Vaucluse region at the north end of Provence and then get to Lyon the day after in time to see our game. I was left to book a place with instructions from L to get something nice with a pool. I almost cheaped out and got a room at an Ibis by the highway but instead we got a place as close to what we’d enjoyed chez Fred as was possible. Seriously, if you want an authentic Provence experience try to spend a day or two at Hotel L’Hermitage just north of Pernes Les Fontaines. The rooms are decent enough but the grounds and the setting for breakfast are what make it special.
Hotel l’Hermitage; clockwise from top left: Breakfast outside, beers by the pool, the view of the hotel grounds we woke up to from our window in the morning, hotel patio.
We were into the final days now. A quick sprint up to Lyon, check in at a blah business hotel halfway between downtown and the stadium (Lyon’s new stadium looks great but is way out in the sticks and not serviced by the Metro). This was where C had spent the winter semester studying here as part of UBC’s Go Global program and had really enjoyed her time here. She wanted to show us around and we were happy to have a knowledgeable guide with rock solid French. She’d already seen the Olympique Lyonnaise v Olympique Marseille game there, the second ever league game played there so the stadium wasn’t new to her.
Portugal v Hungary was a game I picked up in the UEFA lottery before the draw. Having seen Portugal twice in the World Cup I wasn’t too jazzed and had been hoping to dump the tickets and get in to see Zlatan against Belgium but it wasn’t to be. Our expectations were low and we’d already seen three really entertaining games so we were probably due a dud.
In qualifying, Portugal managed to score 11 goals in their 8 games. That got them first place and automatic qualification while Hungary’s 11 goals in 10 games meant they had to go through a back door home and away with Norway. So, no, we didn’t see a 3-3 thriller coming. It stagnated a bit when Austria tied it up against Iceland in the group’s other tilt. Portugal realized the 3-3 draw would carry them through to the second round and Hungary realized it would win them the group. But what a first 65 minutes. Every game had seen great support for both teams but this one brought out the noise from both sets of fans more than any other. Those that say going to a 24 team tournament bloated it and the minnows diminished the quality really needed to be in the stadium to see the excitement that we saw from Albanian and Hungarian fans and how bringing four of six third place teams into the second round made every final round robin game meaningful.
C had advised us to get a place in Presqu’île so our last three days were there and it really was the place to be. Beautiful downtown area. Huge chunks in and around Lyon have been declared UNESCO Heritage sites including all of Presqu’île. Many refer to it as a more liveable version of Paris and I’d find it hard to argue against that. It’s also considered the culinary capital of Lyon, as C’s new circumference can attest to. Yes, if you get a chance to go to France you really have to see Paris at some point but get down to Lyon if you can. It’s excellent. Nice has the ocean and a great little area in behind but if I was going back, Lyon’s the first city I’d return to.
Once we were into our new digs in Presqu’île we had business to attend to. We were in our last major city and still had Hypervenoms to find. SO Foot looked like our best chance and it was less than a ten minute walk from the hotel. The four of us set off. Again, you have to appreciate that T’s favourite landmark in London was The Boot Room. In Barcelona, after the Camp Nou, it was FutbolMania. This is not at all an exaggeration. For this trip, when pressed, it’s quite likely that his favourite landmark in all of France may be SO Foot.
Top: finally! Middle: Boots in the bag. Trip is officially a success. Bottom: not staged.
It was a pretty great store for fanatics like us. Not only did they have all the stuff you’d expect, they had more French national team kit than anyone else and large sales racks for adidas (50% off), Nike and Puma (40% off each). I almost bought some French sweat pants that would have cost more than any pair of dress pants I’ve ever owned. C agreed they were top notch but I didn’t pull the trigger.
Our last game was the second rounder between Poland and the Swiss. While we’d been hoping France and Germany would stumble in their round robin games and come second so we’d get to see them play, the odds were always low and being fresh off the surprise six goal thriller we happily hopped on the train from Lyon to Saint Etienne and figured anything could happen.
Of course what did happen was the goal of the tournament. Shaqiri’s acrobatic side volley to tie it up happened almost right in front of us. We were thirty yards out and 13 rows up both on the side and end that he struck it from. It was a perfect end to the five games for us.
I caught the fan reaction right after the goal including T’s stunned face.
Clockwise from top left: Ticket to the Sociology of Football exhibit at a museum in Lyon, beers in Old Lyon with freiends, action from Switzerland v Poland, just a couple of Poland fans sitting behind us in Saint Etienne…
So post-game we made our way back by Metro and train, grabbed a quick dinner and set about packing for the trip home. The last of the Irish fans were making their way to Lyon as well ahead of their second round game against France the next day. You were more likely to hear the Irish fans before you saw them. They were there for a good time and given they were up against the French probably knew it wasn’t going to be for a long time. We were in the heart of the bars and restaurants of Presqu’île and despite being eight floors up the noise from the fans below boomed up towards us. We had to be up before 6am to get on our way to the airport to catch our flight so we passed on going down and joining what were awesome festivities. I almost jumped out of bed around 1am when I heard what sounded like every French and Irish fan down below joining in on a extended version of the Yaya/Kolo Toure song but figured by the time I got dressed and got down it would be over.
Here’s a quick video shot from our room of the French singing their national anthem to give you some idea of what it was like.
And that was it. A very long layover in Heathrow let us catch most of the Ireland v France game and even the first bit of the Germany v Slovakia match. Then it was homeward bound. In tact, smiles on our faces and very fortunate to have seen five entertaining games and had some great day trips. To tie in with being to spend time with friends over there made it even more memorable. Unlikely a trip like this will happen again for us unless of course Canada qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Two days later T discovered that his boots were available at Sport Chek…
All pictures and video copyright Gregor Young
- Go to Provence with your family. It’s a pretty easy trip and the people are hospitable
- Buy tickets for games and not worry if it’s two teams you’re not excited to see
- Stay at Hotel l’Hermitage in Pernes des Fontaines
- Go to Lyon and stay in Presqu’île
- Leave for the stadium three hours early for big games in Nice
- Climb Montagne Sainte Victoire
- Go to St Tropez
- Expect to find good beer anywhere in France
- Believe that violence never happens inside the stadium anymore
- Kick soccer balls into palm trees
- Pay attention to how much you’re paying for parking and road tolls
- Climb Montagne Sainte Victoire