On The Road: Marseille
JUST skirting the boundary of the enchanting Cote D’Azur, Marseille on the Southern French coast is quickly catching up with the longer-standing meccas of French tourism for those seeking Mediterranean allure.
We chose Marseille for a family holiday, where sun, sightseeing and cultural intrigue could be combined to please everyone. Though it is France’s second-largest city and its oldest, rendering its name to the French national anthem, Marseille has never attracted the tourism of Lyon or of the Riviera towns, which made us question with trepidation how it was awarded the 2013 European City of Culture given the negative reviews we had read online. Arriving from the Metro station to the breath-taking sight of the sun beaming down onto the Vieux Port, our anxiety immediately lifted as we sensed that the sun and warmth brings out the best in Marseille. Having flown into Marseille-Provence Airport at an unearthly hour, we headed straight for the hotel to recuperate before enjoying a late dinner at La Piazza Papa on the eastern side of the Port.
Our first excursion along the tourist trail by means of an open-top bus was to the Notre Dame de la Garde Catholic basilica, a Neo-Byzantine creation by Henri-Jacques Espérandieu, located at the highest natural point of the city and offering panoramic views of the Marseille. Tradtionally seen as the guardian and protector of the city, locals travelled to the basilica for pilgrimage to pray for the safe return of the native sailors and its slopes played a pivotal role in the Liberation of France during the Second World War.
While in Marseille we visited two beaches, Plage des Catalans and Plage du Prophete, further along the corniche that winds eastward towards the Riviera. We favoured the second for its cleaner beach, greater space, family friendly atmosphere and view of the imposing Point Rouge coastline but both are served by the 83 bus which leaves from the Vieux Port.
Following that, we took in the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean and the newly opened Mucem, Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, inaugurated to mark Marseille’s year as Europe’s capital of culture. It’s built on reclaimed land at the entrance to the harbour next to the site of the Fort Saint-Jean and a former port terminal called the J4. A channel separates the new building and the Fort Saint-Jean, which has been restructured as part of the project. The two sites are linked by a high footbridge, which led us to Cathedral de la Major in the Panier quarter and Les Terrases du Port, a newly-opened shopping centre which is the result of the most recent urban renewal project in Southern Europe.
Lying at the epicentre of the southern French coastline and faced with a difficult toss-up between Nice, Saint Tropez, Monaco and Cannes, we decided to do a daytrip to discover Aix-En-Provence, a mere 45-minute bus journey from Gare Saint Charles where French resistance myth is on show on practically every street corner. The old city, from one end to the other, can be discovered on foot in a mere 9 minutes. Widely renowned as the city post-impressionist artist Cézanne frequented, Aix would make for the perfect weekend destination to discover the blossoming lavender fields and the ancient art of wine-making, in which the renowned Chateauneuf-du-Pape lies at the heart of.
Returning to Marseille, while I recovered from a case of the most ridiculously patchy sunburn acquired during our second beach trip, the rest of my family took to Palais du Longchamp which houses the city’s natural history museum while the surrounding park is listed as one among the Notable Gardens of France. Designed by the architect Henry Esperandieu, the building was centered on the structure and elaborate fountain known as the chateau d’eau (‘water castle’) which reinforces the historical importance of water to Marseille as a whole. We rounded up our trip on our final evening in Marseille with a sun-set boat trip from Vieux Port to Le Point Rouge, which you could choose to turn into a day drip to discover some of the man-made beaches along the coastline, created from the blasted sandstone recovered from the instillation of the city’s Metro system.
7 days is ample time to explore all that Marseille has to offer, giving you abundant time to explore the Cote d’Azur which stretcheds easterly from Marseille or the picturesque villages dotted around Provence. We were advised to stick to the Vieux Port and Rue de la Republique areas rather than venturing into the unknown and more dangerous areas which stretch from the Canebiere, according to the locals, something you will quickly sense yourself. Prepare to have to use your Leaving Cert French as English is not widely spoken, which is bound to change when tourism takes hold. Those in the tourist office on La Canebeire aren’t quite as helpful as those encountered in Aix, which is a little surprising given Marseille’s recent history as European City of Culture. Perhaps a tell-tale sign of how new to the mass tourist trail Marseille really is so come prepared with your questions rather than hope for a general stream of information from them. Try some of the restaurants hidden behind the Hotel de Ville for better prices and welcoming locals who are sure to help you plan your itinerary.
If the locals haven’t put on the usually-nightly show of salsa dancing outside the town hall, enjoy the night time markets to the west of the old port, where a beautiful range of gifts are on offer at very reasonable prices against the stunning backdrop of the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica dominated by a golden statue of the Virgin and child illuminating the night sky. Travel around the city by bus for €1.80 single, regardless of where you’re going, with equally reasonably-priced fares offered on Metro or Tram. Locals will tell you to be cautious with your belongings given the city’s notorious reputation for pick-pockets, but any veteraned traveller will take that as a given, no matter where in the world they find themselves.
There is plenty to see in Marseille alone, yet it acts as a perfect base to explore the southern French coastline. Exploring on foot, you can do a lot in one day. The fashionable shopping street Rue St.-Ferréol; the Panier, a winding and formerly impoverished immigrant quarter from which Jews were rounded up during the Nazi occupation; and the old stock exchange, La Bourse, with its exhibit of French shipping-line posters and, instead of gargoyles, the prows of ships. While it is distinctly different to other French cities, old clichés do crop up with café life overflowing onto the curbsides, in an energetic yet decidedly less loud fashion than you might find in Paris.
Marseille is both geographically and historically, the most outward looking of all French cities. It has long admitted and even welcomed immigrants, especially sailors and fishermen – a history which remains on display in Notre Dame de La Garde. With its gritty charm, Marseille is quickly engraining itself as a must-see destination of La Nouvelle France.
Photos c/o geo.de, insureandaway.co.uk, aideordi.com