The eatery is a tiny place, decked out in a sea theme: shells and stuffed fish in nets dangling from the ceiling, a bench adorned with orange life vests as cushions around a corner table, a wall plastered with small sardine cans.
Perfect decor for La Bôite à Sardine, a popular Marseille restaurant. A few regulars seated at the mini bar down pastis, the French licorice-flavored spirit, while chef Celine busies herself with lunch preparations.
Outside, proprietor Fabian arranges freshly caught fish on a sidewalk table. The display of creatures, which had been swimming in the Mediterranean only hours earlier, greets us at the entrance.
My husband and I came to Marseille from our home in northern Provence to savor treats from the sea for which the port city is famous.
We were charmed with La Bôite à Sardine — and even more so when Fabian sat us at a table with two friendly women, Jeanne Feutren, 68, and her mother, Claire Gilormini, 93, who live nearby.
“We come here because the fish is fresh,” said Feutren, who, like her mother, was born in France’s second-largest city and is a retired English teacher. “It’s delivered every morning. That’s rare. We know.”
They and many others began their lunch with platters of oysters. I asked for Fabian’s recommendations and he suggested we split an order of calamari followed by a main course of sole.
“It’s the season for sole,” he explained. “They are full of eggs. The taste is the best.”
The squid was prepared in a tasty sauce with a side dish of panisse, a local specialty made with chickpea flour. The sole, lightly fried, was exquisite.
“I love Marseille. It’s so cosmopolitan,” Feutren said of the city often referred to as France’s oldest. “You can meet the whole world here. We have the sea, the sand, hills, the calanques (dramatic coastline cliffs). People are so exuberant.”
“It’s a wonderful town,” her mother interjected. “We have sun year-round. It’s January, but look at the weather.” (It was glorious. Marseille has 300 days of sunshine, the highest number of sunny days in France.)
This is the year to visit. Marseille is one of two designated European capitals of culture for 2013, along with Kosice, Slovakia. The French city has a wealth of activities on its agenda, and The New York Times rated Marseille second in its list of “46 places to visit in 2013.”
Crime, drugs, violence, the Mafia — the city’s reputation was shrouded by all for years. Policing and public security have improved, and the drug trade, the focus of the 1970s movie “The French Connection,” migrated to Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, as in any big city, caution is advised.
If you’re planning a visit to Marseille this year, here are my recommendations for the city’s top must-sees:
• Vieux-Port: The old port is the heart of the city, founded by the Greeks six centuries before Christ. Every morning, fishermen unload their catch at the tip of the port, Quai des Belges, for the fish market. Soles vivantes, fish still flapping in a shallow pool of water, were a hot item during a recent visit, no doubt because it was sole season. On one table, an octopus slithered back and forth in a tray.
• Pavilion M: A temporary structure erected especially for 2013 in the Place Bargemon near the Vieux-Port has exhibits on the city and its people. Visit the tourist office on the upper floor. Tickets for events are also sold here.
• Chateau d’If: Take a boat from the Vieux-Port to the legendary 16th century castle-turned-prison, known as France’s Alcatraz. It served as the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ prisoner Edmond Dantès, immortalized in “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
• Le Panier: Steep steps from the Vieux-Port climb the hills of this district with narrow, cobbled alleys. The Place des Moulins was once the home of 15 windmills where flour was milled. Check out the boutiques on rue du Petit-Puits
• Vielle Charité: The striking architectural masterpiece in Le Panier was a home for the city’s poor in the 17th century and housed up to 1,000 residents. The complex of columned arcades includes a baroque domed chapel.
• Notre-Dame de la Garde: A golden statue of the “Bonne Mère” tops the Romanesque-Byzantine basilica at the highest point of the city, 500 feet above the harbor, majestically towering over Marseille’s 860,000 residents. Hike up the hill or take bus No. 60 from the old port and enjoy the best views of the city and nearby islands.
• Calanques/beaches: Sightseeing boats from the Vieux-Port offer coastal tours to admire stunning cliffs and deep fjord-like inlets between Marseille and Cassis. Marseille has many beaches along 35 miles of coastline.
• Markets: This vibrant city has numerous morning markets. The merchandise reflects the diversity of the city’s population, which includes 200,000 Italians, 150,000 Corsicans and 400,000 Muslims (mostly from Algeria). Shoppers can find Arab specialties at the Marché les Noailles every morning except Sunday. Nearby is the Marché des Capucins for fruit and vegetables, daily except Sunday. Everything imaginable is for sale at the huge Marché du Prado along the main artery of the city Tuesday through Saturday.
• Bouillabaisse: Marseille is the capital of this legendary fisherman’s soup. Bouillabaisse is a hearty meal beginning with fish broth served with aioli and rouille. Smear the creamy garlic-based sauces on toast rounds then submerge them in the soup. The broth is followed by a huge platter of fish and potatoes.
It’s a pricey dish, between 53 euros and 60 euros per person at restaurants known for serving authentic bouillabaisse, such as Le Rhul, Chez Michel, Le Miramar and Chez Fonfon. Other restaurants along the Vieux-Port offer Bouillabaisse for less, but it might not be the genuine version.
Leah Larkin lives in France and can be contacted through her website, leahlarkin.com, or blog address, http://talesandtravel.com.