Marseille – The Other French City You Must See
Marseille wasn’t on my original itinerary. After touring chateau of the Loire Valley and exploring Bordeaux I planned to visit Toulouse and St. Girons in the French Pyrenees, but there was a problem. Bad weather had been following me around France. I’d had one lovely sunny day in Mont Saint Michel and another one in Tours, but the rest of the time it either was gray and chilly or it rained. The foul weather had been bearable in October, but by November the temps had dropped and rain that had been an inconvenience turned bone-chilling.
The beauty of traveling nomadically is that I have no fixed schedule and can change my plans on a whim. I whipped out the laptop and Googled a map of France, looking for warmer destinations. Far south, in the heart of the French Riviera, Marseille stood out like a beacon. Wikipedia told me that the average high temperature in November was 59.2 degrees, and the more I read about Marseille, the more intrigued I became. I hopped over to the website for SNCF, the French National Railway Company, and discovered that high-speed TGV trains ran directly between Bordeaux and Marseille. Now I only had to find a place to stay. A final web search turned up Vertigo Vieux-Port Hostel, centrally located in the old port area, within walking distance of restaurants, the central market, marina, and the famous Notre Dame de la Gare church. The reviews looked fantastic and the price was right at $31 per night for a four-bed female dorm with ensuite bathroom. The planets had aligned; I was Marseille bound. A couple of quick telephone calls later I had train ticket and a reservation for the next two nights.
I fell in love with Marseille immediately. My hostel was located a short stroll from the Vieux Port (Old Port), once an international hub where goods arrived from and were exported around the world. By the late 19th century, ocean-going ships had grown so large that the 20 foot depth of the harbor was no longer sufficient. A new commercial port with deeper docks, La Joliette, was constructed to the north and the Vieux Port gradually evolved into a city marina.
Vieux Port is the heart of Marseille and the hub of tourist activity. As the largest port in France, Marseille has always attracted immigrants; today the city is a multi-cultural mix of French, Italians, Russians, Armenians, Africans, Corsicans, Algerians, Greeks, and even Americans. This rich heritage is reflected in the wide variety of ethnic restaurants found in the squares and streets surrounding the Vieux Port. When I wasn’t frequenting cafes specializing in French Crepes or Moroccan hummus, I was wandering the night market, buying fresh vegetables and fruits from local farms or selecting from a mind-boggling variety of olives, roasted peppers, and tapenade displayed in giant crocks in the food stalls.
One evening I raised my camera to take a photo of the men working behind a row of tables in the center of the street. One of them raised his hand, palm out, as if to stop me.
“No photo?” He shook his head. “OK,” I consented, putting on a disappointed face.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“USA,” I answered.
“Obama!” he cried, giving me a double thumbs up. As elsewhere in France, President Obama is wildly popular, and the U.S. Presidential election had occurred the day before. I laughed and nodded, returning his double thumbs up. Suddenly, everyone in the booth insisted on having their photo taken with me. I left a short while later, with new friends and a free bag of fruit.
Another day I explored the Quartier du Panier on the north side of Vieux Port, site of the original settlement of Marseille. I climbed the street leading up from the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) into a neighborhood of historic buildings daubed in a palette of pastels, many of which had been transformed into gift shops, cafes, and art galleries featuring the work of local artists. I strolled the narrow cobblestone lanes, stopping occasionally to puzzle over street art painted on many of the buildings, until reaching La Vieille Charité, a baroque chapel surrounded by a courtyard lined with arched galleries. Originally built as a prison for beggars, who were reviled and brutally repressed in the 1600’s in France, the structure was subsequently used as an asylum, barracks for the French Foreign Legion, and as housing for the homeless, until in 1962, dilapidated and squalid, it was finally shut down. Fortunately, between 1970 and 1986 La Vieille Charité was restored to its former glory and it now stands as the crowning structure of the Quartier du Panier.
Having thoroughly investigated the Vieux Port, on subsequent days I wandered further afield. Just south of my hostel I climbed the highest hill in Marseille to visit Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica. The present-day Neo-Byzantine church was built on the site of an 11th century chapel and fort, which served as a lookout over the city and Bay of Marseille. The early chapel became a pilgrimage site for sailors, who climbed to the summit to pray for a safe journey. This tradition has been handed down through the centuries; local fishermen still make votive offerings to saints, asking for safe voyage. Known as ex-votos, these paintings or intricate wooden models of their ships hang on the walls of the Basilica or are strung from its ceiling.
I began in the lower-level crypt, then climbed to the main sanctuary where I gasped in astonishment. The walls, ceilings and domes were covered in glittering mosaics – more than 12 million small pieces in all, intricately pieced together to form geometric designs and religious scenes. Columns and arches were crafted of alternating pink and white limestone imported from Florence, Italy, creating a Moorish-influenced Baroque style that was somehow appropriate for this French melting pot. When I’d had my fill of the opulence, I descended from the 490-foot summit on the north side of the hill, taking a circuitous route that allowed for a stop at Fort Saint Nicolas, one of two that guard the entrance to the harbor.
Another day I wandered past hundreds of pricey sailboats and yachts docked in the marina, turned left at the mouth of the harbor and continued along the Bay of Marseille. The sun dipped low in the sky, painting buildings along the rocky coastline in shades gold and ochre and turning the sea an exquisite shade of emerald. I reached my destination, the fishing village of Vallon des Auffes, in the late afternoon. Nothing was doing in this sleepy little enclave tucked into a small inlet in the rocky coastline; it was too late for lunch and the restaurants had not yet opened for dinner, so I settled for taking photos of the picturesque little harbor, filled with colored ropes, fishing nets, and lobster pots.
At the end of a week I decided it was time to head back to Spain but the travel gods thought otherwise. All of Spain was locked up in a transportation strike. Happily, I extended my stay in Marseille another two days. Under crystal clear, sunny skies I hopped on a ferry that carried me to the Frioul Islands, perhaps best known for Château d’If, the prison on the smallest of the three islands, which was the setting for the famous novel by Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo. We docked at the largest island, Ratonneau, a dollop of brilliant white limestone dropped into the Mediterranean like a lump of cookie dough. Half an hour later I was standing at the gate of an old fortress on the highest shelf of granite, looking down on the quaint harbor and handful of deserted cafes. During the summer, thousands of tourists descend upon these islands for their pristine beaches, secluded creeks, and snorkeling spots, but in mid-November I had the place totally to myself. I lingered as long as possible, examining crystal strewn pockets in the rocks and watching gulls swoop between nests and sea, barely making it back to the dock for the last boat of the day. We motored back in a pink-hued twilight, passing beneath the twin forts at the harbor mouth and into the Vieux Port just as the city lights were twinkling on.
When Spain’s transportation strike ended, I left with regret. Though I had spent nine days exploring this city that had become my favorite destination in France, I barely scratched the surface. I had sampled the famous orange-blossom biscuits known as Navettes at the oldest bakery in Marseille, Le Four des Navettes, but I hadn’t tried Bouillabaisse, the most famous seafood stew in Marseille. I’d hunted down the gorgeous art deco Opera House but hadn’t attended any music performances or visited any of the city’s numerous museums. My experience in Paris was similar, in that I did not have time to see everything on my wish list, but leaving the City of Light did not affect me as profoundly as my leave-taking in Marseille. If you have only two weeks to spend in France you must, of course, visit Paris. But there is another must in France, and its name is Marseille.