Anyone who has stepped foot in Paris in the Summer months may notice a distinct lack of Parisians, and albeit an abundance of tourists trundling around the Latin Quarter and ordering snails. Those observant enough to pick up on this will begin to wonder where they all are, and were you to ask them you could be sure that a large number would tell you ‘Marseille’.
In recent years, and precipitated by the pandemic, this southern port city on the Mediterranean has become the place to be outside of Paris for the French for those who wish to escape the prices, the isolation from nature, the ‘bourgeois’ atmosphere… or whatever other excuse the might throw in.
But regardless of the reason, there has undeniably been an exodus of Parisians to Marseille, and when the summer throngs have cleared away and the peak of the summer heat has passed, you might be tempted to go discover this city for yourself.
For most living outside of France, Marseille is likely to be beyond the radar, perhaps with a slight ringing of alarm bells and a vague sense of danger. Indeed, Marseille was the centre of the infamous ‘French Connection’ for drug trafficking many decades ago, and the Corsican Mafia at one stage ran rampant, but those days are done.
By no means is the social fabric of the city entirely healed, with the northern quarters holding some of the most abject poverty in Europe while to the south of the city lie gleaming villas, the purview of rich holiday-makers.
A certain edge is palpable upon arriving in the city, and the streets aren’t the same spotless, postcard-worthy scenes as you might encounter in the capital, but if you catch the train down from the north of the country, it is impossible not to gasp as you disembark and find yourself atop the stones steps of the Gare St-Charles, a huge staircase in the iconic cream-coloured stone of the area which rises above the city and affords a view of its towers and rooftops with perhaps a glint of the sea.
Descending the staircase and entering into the bowels of the city, the streets hum with activity, and as you will quickly realise, therein lies the charm of the city. It is a city very much inhabited by its people and even as a visitor you are very much invited to partake. Keeping your eyes peeled, you’ll notice that posters adorn the walls displaying upcoming events of all kinds; cinema screenings, gigs, parties, festivals… There is a vibrant culture in Marseille that is generated by its own people.
It lacks the official, institutional veneer of Paris, though there are a few noteworthy museums, particularly the Mucem, the museum of Mediterranean culture housed inside a fort from which crusader knights once departed towards the Middle East, and which boasts a stunning view over the sea and the islands that dot the coast just a few miles from the shore.
Another central part of street life in Marseille are its culinary offerings, the standout of which is pizza. There is such a quantity of pizza vendors that the air is almost saturated with their aroma, and at less than 2€ a slice you will find yourself consuming many.
Other culinary offerings include the North African specialities of tagines and cous-cous, with a number of such restaurants clustered around the market district of Noailles, which will no doubt tempt you after walk through this commercial hub of the city, with spice shops lining the streets. For those wanting a taste of the fruits of the sea, Bouillabaisse is the local seafood delicacy, a dish emblematic of the city, containing a host of freshly caught seafood, likely mussels and crab alongside haddock and other fish fillets, all tinted a distinct, rich red due to the saffron used in the recipe. Diplomatically, I can offer no recommendation as to the best spot for Bouillabaisse in town as every Marseillais(e) would tell you a different one.
A recommendation I can offer with authority however is for a place to drink. Ascending from the vieux port (old port), where a forest of masts floats upon the water between the jetties and flanked by the city on both sides, winding through alleys and staircases, you will soon reach a plateau, a relief after such a momentous ascent.
This square lined on all sides with bars and restaurants is the Cours Julien, one of a few centres of activity in the activity, where live bands can be found, drinks can be had and the general, relaxed and DIY atmosphere can be soaked in.
It is likewise home to independent cinemas, galleries and boutiques to have you wanting for nothing. Continue further through a maze of zigzagging streets, where the sprawl of shops and bars spills into, and arrive at Place Jean Jaures, colloquially known as La Plaine, where café terrases spill onto the square and locals and tourists alike drink coffee, beer and pastis (the regional liqueur, aniseed flavoured and best consumed diluted with ice-cold water) at almost any hour of the day.
Wandering this part of the city in search of food and drink is a joy and you’ll no doubt return night after night.
For an active day, heading south of the city along the cliffs that jut above the mediteranean, leads you to a string of rocky beaches, with Vendoume perhaps being a hidden gem, where you can plunge from body-polished boulders into the sea before clambering out to sun yourself.
The benefit of visiting past the peak season is the joy of having this expanse of natural beauty largely to yourself besides small groups of locals scattered around, nursing beers and chatting.
Just to the south of the city itself, a bus journey away are Les Calanques. These, the dull english translation of which is ‘inlet’, form a national park which spans a significant stretch of the côte d’azure. Towering cliffs, which can be traversed, connect the individual inlets which are better described as secluded bays where, again, you can swim or simply enjoy the scenery. Although it requires some trekking to reach certain spots that don’t have road access, the views to be had in this area are sublime and worth a day’s investment to escape the hubbub of the city.
Though, if a more urban peak is desired (though, as you may have learned to expect by now, climbing an enormous hill is required) then the summit of Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille’s cathedral, provides a panorama not only the city which extends to the north, but a vast expanse of sea and the beginnings of Les Calanques to the south.
The monument soars above the city from almost any angle, so there’s little doubt that you would have missed it this far into your sojourn, though even still the view, particularly as the sun is setting, is likely to take your breath away to an equal or greater extent than the climb to the top. A fitting place for a site of worship, as sitting contemplatively and observing the landscape before you is more or less all you’ll manage at first.
Altogether, Marseille will appeal to those who seek a less polished city-break and want to savour a more real city life. It offers a vibrant cultural scene, nightlife and some outstanding natural beauty and bit of excitement all at a reasonable price, making it quite rightly the destination of choice for tired Parisians.
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October 12, 2022 @ 4:23 pm
I’ve been to France many many times but never to Marseille, but your post makes me want to visit 🥰 thanks for sharing and have a good day 😊 Aiva xx