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by Caroline M. Jackson

After mulling over plans for a western Mediterranean cruise, I boldly scratched Marseilles, Nice, Florence and Rome from my list of choices. This time I would forgo the popular destinations in favor of smaller, less traveled villages. Most cruise ships offer such alternatives in their excursion itineraries, and Celebrity Cruises was no exception.

When our ship, the Century, berthed in the busy French port of Marseilles, I joined a group of fellow cruisers and headed to the honey-colored Luberon villages of Provence. As we drove past vineyards, fields of lavender and gnarled olive trees, I could appreciate why the region's luminous light inspired artists such as Cezanne and Van Gogh.

The region's popularity has soared ever since the publication of Peter Mayle's book "A Year in Provence", the story of an English couple who moved into a local farmhouse. Our lunch stop was in the village of Lourmarin, the setting for his first novel. On arrival, I found a quiet spot in a shady café and ordered Mayle's favorite drink, a Pastis - an aniseed-flavored aperitif. One mouthful and I was gasping. Only later when I tucked into my plate of pate, did I realize I should have added water to the drink.

Now satiated, I strolled around the tranquil village and savored the heady fragrance of thyme, rosemary and basil which was wafting in the breeze from nearby fields. Our final sojourn was a walk through the Provencal village of Roussillon, set amidst red ochre canyons. Cameras clicked as visitors captured the stunning shades which changed from lemon-yellow to fiery mandarin orange, and I wished I had a longer time to walk down the red canyon trail. Instead, with a lavender-flavored gelato melting down the sides of my cone, I lingered in the fascinating shops with a plethora of wicker baskets, colorful pottery and lavender essence. For the hungry, there were offerings of goat cheese and fresh local truffles, a much prized delicacy.

The following day found us in the charming port of Villefranche-sur-Mer. Nestling against the hillside, its warm Mediterranean colors and busy harbor are a watercolorist's dream. From here I took a bus trip inland to Eze, a cliff-hugging medieval town perched atop a conical rock. Built to resist Saracen pirates who once plagued the coastline, the town's labyrinthine vaulted passages and stairways didn't deter today's fleet-of-foot visitors.

After fascinating visits to Italy's famous Cinque Terre and Napoleon's hometown of Ajaccio in Corsica, we navigated southwest through the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier in Morocco. On arrival, the heat was pervasive as the midday sun bounced off the white Andalusian-style buildings.

On the crowded pier, I was directed to my bus by men wearing hooded cotton jellabas. It was noisy and chaotic, but at the same time a rush of excitement ran through me, and almost boarded the wrong bus! Then, safely aboard the right one, I was finally en route to Tetouan, a small town among the Rif mountains.

Once in the medina (old town) our group was escorted in crocodile fashion past craftsmen and artisans who worked in cool alcoves. In one of the narrow alleys, I felt something warm and feathery brush past my legs-a pair of protesting chickens were being carried by their feet. At another intersection, we passed a group of visitors rushing past us while covering their noses and mouths inside their tee shirts. We had arrived at an odorous tannery where sheep skins are softened in giant stone vats, but understandably none of us lingered there for long. Later, our guide, Mohammed, directed us into a beautiful open area, Place Hassan II; from an adjacent mosque, the haunting sound of the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer reverberated across the square.

On the return journey to Tangier, I had a glimpse of rural life: women retrieving their laundry from atop bushes, children drawing water from wells and loading the containers onto tethered donkeys. Dusty roadside stands offered yellow melons, and goats roamed nearby. As the sun dipped behind the hazy mountains, our bus driver stepped on the gas. I couldn't blame him. The day's fast for Ramadan was over and the streets of Tangier were deserted. Muslims were now free to eat and quench their thirst until sunrise.

Photos by Hamish M. Jackson:

1) Quiet village of Lourmarin, Provence
2) Villefranche-sur-Mer, France
3) Hassan II square, Tetouan, Morocco
4) The tannery in Tetouan, Morocco

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