ENCORE MARSEILLE - My Favorite Place in France


Marseille, France – Once the bad boy city of France, immortalized in “The French Connection,” Marseille is unfairly maligned by those who haven’t seen her lately. She has reformed and urban renewed herself with a fresh coat of paint, increased trade, a thriving entertainment and artistic community and a booming tourist industry that attracts visitors from all over France and the world to its sun-drenched outdoor cafes and striking natural beauty.

The view from my hotel window - one of the most beautiful harbors in the world

Like bouillabaisse, its most important culinary contribution to the world, Marseille is a savory stew with many elements brought together into a harmonious and unforgettable melange. She’s still the naughty sister to Paris, but who says naughty can’t be Nice (according to locals Nice is now the Mafia’s home base).

Corseted by a ring of hills, the city winds around a 50 mile shoreline along the Mediterranean coast, under the deep blue skies and brilliant sunlight of southern Provence; an area which attracted such painters as Cezanne, Dufy, Braque, Derain, Marquet, Van Gogh, and Picasso to draw its portrait.
As in any big city ( Marseille is now France’s second city with a population of 1.1 million, just outstripping Lyon) it does have its dark corners and rough edges (especially at night by the train station, in its red light district off La Canebiere, and in front of the Opera house), but the shear joy of life that abounds in its 111 local districts imbues it with a vibrance not found in other parts of France.

Settled into one of the most beautiful harbors in the world, I had to laugh when I opened my hotel curtain and revealed the stunning living postcard below. From the Hotel Residence de Vieux Port, I looked across the harbor, a 500-yard expanse containing a flotilla of boats rocking on the soft waves. The view rose up to Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica, which sat like an ornament atop the city’s highest hill, a mile away.

Guarding and protecting its citizens, the gold statue of the Virgin Mary gleamed in the sun atop the church dome. The city flowed in a gown of multi-colored stone edifices, swirling in irregular forms from the church as it moved down toward the harbor, the whole of the city funneling into this spectacular inlet around Vieux Port. Lovingly captured in the 1961 Leslie Caron film “Fanny,” it is one of the great natural harbors of the world, and it is what first attracted the Greeks to settle Massalia, as they named the city, in 600 B.C.

From its beginnings, Marseille has been an important trading center. It was a major European launching spot for the Crusades, a short-lived republic in the 13th Century, and when absorbed into the kingdom of France in 1481, become the chief defender of its Mediterranean border. In 1792, 600 volunteers from Marseille marched into Paris to join the Revolution, singing a little known military hymn. It was later renamed “ La Marseillaise,” in their honor and adopted as the national anthem.

All that remains of old Marseille is the district of Le Panier, built on the site of ancient Massalia. This charming and picturesque neighborhood of small cobbled streets, tall shuttered houses and lovely little squares is a melting pot of cultures and one of the best areas of the city to explore on foot.

Marseille is a gateway to Europe from Africa, with a daily ocean liner shuttling between Algiers. As a result, it has large North African and sub-Saharan neighborhoods, adding to the savory mix of the stew.

The live fish market on Quai des Belges where Marseille’s fishermen sell their daily catch

At least one morning you must visit the daily fisherman’s market on Quai des Belges, at the front of the port. About 8 a.m. wives and associates of the fishermen begin setting up their open stalls, awaiting the arrival of the fleet. By 9 a.m. most of the boats have docked at the quay. The live fish are tossed flopping and splashing into the salt-water bins and by 11:30 a.m. most everything has been sold, from sea urchins to red mullet, John Dory, monkfish, eels, octopus, lobster, shellfish etc., whatever the sea has to offer that day.

A fishermen’s cove off of Mareseille’s Vieux Port, where the city’s fishing families live and moor their boats after the days work

While in Marseille you must also try the bouillabaisse. There are literally hundreds of restaurants that serve the native dish, generally costing between 15 and 35 Euros. It was first created here by fishermen, to use up the left over catch. I was lucky. I have a friend in Marseille who is a life long resident. Gisele De Gennaro was my personal guide to her favorite restaurants and haunts, making my travels (on foot and in her car) easy, enjoyable and informed. The Tourist Office at the corner of Quai des Belges and La Canebiere also offers free information for self-guided tours and guided tours (6.5 – 20 Euros).

Marseille’s oldest district, Le Panier, is known for its tall shuttered residences that open up onto cobbled streets and open squares

About 17 miles south of Marseille is the lovely resort village of Cassis, full of flowering gardens bordering steep, serpentine streets that lead to the brightly painted harbor, a ringer for Porto Fino. But be warned. Do not visit on the weekends unless you like endless traffic and impossible crowds.

You can take a one hour boat tour from Cassis around the Calanques, inlets of crystal clear water and imposing white limestone cliffs (10 Euros), or take the boat in Marseille from the Quai des Belges for 20 Euros round trip, and beat the traffic.

Marseille abounds with affordable and delicious restaurants. There are a number of outdoor cafes and restaurants lining Vieux Port that serve tasty and reasonably priced meals. But look for Rue St. Saens, and Cours Julien, two tiny walking allies behind Quai Rive Neuve where exceptional seafood restaurants offer even better prices. Gisele brought me to her favorite, La Daurade, 36 Rue St. Saens, where the chef even took time to show me how to properly open oysters.

Another day she took me to her favorite Italian restaurant, a homey place where her Italian family had eaten for years, Sauveur Rive Neuve, 4 and 5 Quai Rive, just down from Marseille’s best nightclub, Le Trolleybus.

If you’ve got the Euros and want to experience one of Marseille’s top restaurants, try Les Trois Forts. Owning a spectacular view, the restaurant sits upon the hill guarding the entrance to the harbor. Unlike the French, make an early reservation so you can enjoy the sunset over the harbor as you dine on Chef Dominique Frerard’s Michelin starred cuisine.

A more reasonable and hip French menu can be found at restaurant La Girafe, 8 Rue Sainte. Because of the large North African population, there are some wonderful and inexpensive “Couscouseries,” especially along narrow Rue des Feuillants.

La Canebiere, the city’s main thoroughfare, is home to some of the best shopping, but La FNAC, just off La Canebiere near the tourist office, is the city’s largest mall and offers the best prices on film, toiletries and other travel necessities.

Worth a visit is Marseille’s oldest bakery, Four des Navettes, 136 Rue Sainte, Garde Hill, just below the Basilica. It is named for the orange-spice cookies that resemble the little boat Mary Magdalene and Lazarus supposedly wrecked on Marseille’s shore escaping Israel following Jesus’ crucifixion, a preposterous myth which the locals have taken to heart. There are also a number of shops on the street selling Savon de Marseille, a high quality olive oil soap popular all over France.

It would be hard to beat the Hotel Residence, [email protected], 18 Quai du Port, with its spectacular view of the harbor (98 Euros). One of the nicest hotels, but on the far side of town, is the Sofitel Palm Beach, 200 Corniche Kennedy (179 Euros). The tourist office has brochures listing hotels in a number of price ranges, as inexpensive as $25. Employees speak English and are happy to help with accommodations. But avoid cheap hotels in the North African quarter, which are dangerous at night and cater to unseemly activities.

Always carry some Euros. A surprising number of shops don’t honor credit cards or traveler’s checks, because of the exorbitant fees. And most won’t accept American dollars. Also be aware of the time. A Lot of businesses close for the lunch hour (sometimes two hours).

The city has 22 museums, 17 theaters and an opera house. If you want to know what’s going on in town, look for Marseille Poche, a monthly events calendar, Sortir, for weekly arts events, Tak Tik, a hip weekly or Situ, a free guide, or ask at the Tourist Office. They can also provide you with a Marseille Privileges Card, good for 1-3 days (15-30 Euros). It entitles you to free citywide public transportation, store and museum discounts, and yes, a free sampling of navettes at the Four des Navettes bakery. While there look for regulars, Mary Magdalene and Lazarus.

From Paris there are one-hour flights into Marseille and the new TGV speed trains get you there fast (about 3 hours).

The French Tourist Office (212/838-7800), www.franceguide.com, and www.marseille-tourisme.com provide booklets, maps and brochures, and guides to housing in all price ranges.

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