Marseille: French Bohemia provides a marvelous mix of cultures
July 16, 2009
As a traveler in Europe, are you in a rut? Tired of the same lineup of castles, cathedrals and half-timbered houses?
Try Marseille instead.
Yes, the French city is grimy and littered in some spots, and many Frenchmen tend to think of it as, well, not high on their list of places to visit.
But Marseille has a beautiful port, some fascinating historic and cultural sites, tempting seafood, an exciting blend of African and Mediterranean influences, a gorgeous coastline and good beaches. It’s abuzz with artists, musicians and clothing designers. It’s an important scuba-diving center. And it’s a short bus or train ride to tony Aix-en-Provence and the charming seaside village of Cassis. Thanks to the speedy TGV train line, it’s just three hours from Paris.
Enthusiasts call Marseille, France’s second largest city, the new Barcelona, and while at least one resident scoffed when I mentioned it, the city does have an undeniable vibe.
Walking around the city — and it’s very walkable, although there’s also a competent Métro subway system — I kept trying to think of what it reminded me of. I finally came up with a mix of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with its sea of fishing boats and yachts; Casablanca, Morocco, for its air of mystery; and Greenwich Village in New York City for its diverse population and bohemian atmosphere. What’s not to love?
The heart of the city is horseshoe-shaped Vieux-Port, or the Old Port, crammed with boats and surrounded by interesting neighborhoods. It’s fun to stroll around the port, people-watching, perusing the sometimes odd-looking sea creatures sold at the dockside market and perhaps taking a boat tour to the calanques, impressive rocky cliffs along the coast, or the nearby Frioul islands. Château d’If, a fortress on the island of If, was once a prison and is the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ tale "The Count of Monte Cristo."
The port is also where you can catch a tourist tram to Notre-Dame de la Garde, a basilica at the highest point of the city, perched on a hill with spectacular views of the city and sea. At Vieux-Port, you can also catch the No. 83 bus, which meanders along the coast with stops at several beaches.
For other fine views, visit the towering Abbaye Saint Victor, which has a crypt and a prime spot at the top of a rise, and windswept Palais du Pharo, built by Napoleon III on a hilly knob of land looking out on the sea and the city.
A short walk away from the Vieux-Port, is Vielle Charité, a grand compound and former hospice that has three museums featuring excellent Egyptian artifacts and displays of African and Oceanic art. It’s located in Le Panier, an old immigrant neighborhood composed of a hilly maze of streets dotted with stores and eateries. The city also has museums devoted to fashion, natural history and local history.
Marseille’s history goes back to 600 B.C., when the Greek Phoenicians arrived at what is now Vieux-Port. The community was later controlled by the Romans, who called it Massalia. Marseille served as an important port for French kings, but the people supported the French Revolution and it was the first city to call for abolition of the monarchy. The city became a primary port for French colonies and has, through the years, absorbed many immigrants, including Jews, Armenians, Italians, Spaniards, Algerians (soccer star Zinédine Zidane grew up in Marseille of Algerian parents), Moroccans, Tunisians, Vietnamese and Cambodians.
The city’s old quarter was bombed during World War II, reputedly at Adolf Hitler’s direct orders. During the war, La Canebière, Marseille’s main boulevard was referred to as "Can o’ Beer" by U.S. troops, and the name lingers.
Today, the city has the excitement of a true melting pot, reflected in the fashions people wear and the food they eat. There’s a Ukranian restaurant in one neighborhood and African open-air markets in another. But Marseille also has many of the same ritzy shops and brand names that Paris has.
I stayed in a studio apartment kept by the owners of a bed-and-breakfast near Cours Julien, a street going through a lively neighborhood that made me think of Greenwich Village. It’s known for its good bars, ethnic restaurants and funky stores selling all sorts of things, including unusual clothes by local designers.
Those clothes, including sundresses, are generally moderately priced and come in appealing color combinations, patterns and textures — but can be a bit small for bulky American bodies.
Know & goGetting to Marseille
Airlines from around the world fly into Marseille Provence Airport. Shuttle buses leave frequently from the airport to the St. Charles train station downtown, which is also a stop on the Métro subway system. Trains also serve Marseille, including the speedy TGV, from Paris.
Marseille has plenty sights you’ll want to visit — and lots of hills — so take a good pair of walking shoes. There’s also an efficient Métro subway system with passes that can be used on buses, too. You can purchase a 5-euro day pass or 10.50-euro three-day card. Trams from the Vieux-Port tour neighborhoods and climb up to Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. Boat rides to the Frioul islands and calanques, striking rocky cliffs along the coast, are available at Vieux-Port.
Where to stay
BnB Les Amis de Marseille, 84F Rue de Lodi, 13006 Marseille. The friendly owners of this bed and breakfast, located in a high-rise building, also let out apartments. See www.bnblesamisdemarseille.com (there is an English version) for rates and details.
Where to eat
Marseille has good wood-fired pizza and seafood. There are restaurants for every budget. A diverse assortment of ethnic restaurants, including French, Lebanese, Indian and Ukranian, line Rue des Trois Rois.