Marseille is France’s second city, but according to les Marseillais, Marseille is a place unto itself.
Coming from the shiny Côte d’Azur, a place that infuses the best of all that is French and Mediterranean, Marseille is a different world. It has its own culture, its own rhythm, its own look and feel. Sure, while there are some inescapable French trappings (rosé), Marseille is a distinct place along the Mediterranean coast.
Keith and I picked up our rental car in Nice and drove past notable places like Cannes, Saint-Tropez, Grasse, en route to Marseille. We stopped quickly at the Marseille airport to pick up Abby and Szymon, who arrived from Belgium and were joining us for most of the rest of our time in France. It’s so much fun to rendez-vous with people you know while you’re traveling. It was also so much fun to be able to exclaim «Bienvenue en France !» like you’ve been welcoming people to the country for your whole life.
Once in Marseille, we immediately set out to visit a few neighborhoods, notably Panier and Cours Julien, as well as to see the old port in the center of the city. Marseille has a reputation for being rough around the edges, gritty, a wasteland and a waste of time—a straight up dangerous place to visit. Coming from Chicago, living there the majority of the time, I get it: crime happens. But just as I’d never tell people to not visit Chicago because of the crime, I’d never not visit Marseille because of the crime. Be a smart traveler, and enjoy everything these intensely cultural cities have to offer. Marseille is vibrant, pulsing, intoxicating. Music and smoke fill areas like Cours Julien and you can’t help but gravitate towards it.
It’s also relaxing and picturesque. One day we took a ferry out to les Îles du Frioul to have a picnic and wander around Château d’If, which is a fortification build to in part secure Marseille’s port from invaders. It also was the setting for The Count of Monte Cristo. I wanted to go to the calanques but I’ll save that for next time I’m in Marseille since you pretty much need to visit them by boat in the summer. Our ferry trip sufficed and the picnic we had on Îles du Frioul was a lot of fun… and delicious.
So I guess I should mention the food. Marseille is famous for bouillabaisse, the fish stew made up of at least three/four specific fish plus shellfish; though it’s hotly debated which fish exactly. All will agree that to get very good bouillabaisse, you need high quality olive oil, and classic Provençal flavors like tomatoes, leeks, garlic, saffron and herbs to provide the essential flavor of bouillabaisse. To get very good, authentic bouillabaisse you’ll pay a lot for it and you may need to order it in advance. Apparently there’s a charter of restaurants who prepare authentic bouillabaisse (compared to those at tourist traps), so perhaps I’ll check one or two out the next time I find myself in Marseille. Bourride is an alternative to bouillabaisse.
My meals were still inspired by the sea. I had a very good octopus salad at a restaurant in Cours Julien, and while we were on les îles we had a picnic in the mini calanques that dot the islands. It was a relaxing, sun-drenched lunch inspired by the sea/on the sea. I’m hoping for many, many more afternoons like that in my future.