First view of Marseille from the top of the St. Charles Railway Station steps
My twin goals for my sojourn in France were a week each in Paris and Marseille. The cities have little in common: one a northern gray city under often-cloudy skies, France’s capital, and one of the world’s great centers of culture, the other a sunny Mediterranean seaport in tones of yellow, ochre, brown, gray, and the impossible blue of the Mediterranean.
My first view of Marseille is permanently imprinted in my memory: it followed shared car ride from Tours to Toulouse, an all-night train journey from Toulouse to Marseille, and at the end of a sleepless night a charcoal-gray pre-dawn breaking over massive ships in a harbor and then, at the end, exiting from a train station. I was at the top of a monumental flight of steps, the great sweep of a foreign city before me, and in the distance a pinpoint of golden light: the statue of the Virgin and Child atop Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica. I watched in what I imagine now was open-mouthed astonishment as the day dawned over this strange new place.
It was 1979, and I was in France on a Rotary International Graduate Fellowship. After a couple of months at a French language institute in Tours, I had come south to Provence, where I would be a student at the Universite d’Aix-Marseille in Aix-en-Provence. To reach Aix I first had to go to Marseille, a city that I would visit ten or twelve times during my soujourn in the south.
I found Marseille fascinating, the most exotic place I had ever been, a blend of north Africa, France, the Mediterranean, all of it contained in France’s oldest city and its second largest. That first day I walked and walked, all the way up the hill to Notre Dame de la Garde, where the Mistral – the violent wind that rushes down the Rhone Valley – almost blew me off of the lookout point over the city. I ate my first bouillabaisse on the Vieux Port (old port) at a place called Les Deux Soeurs, and I inhaled the atmosphere of the slightly down-at-the-heel, gritty, salt-air city.
In later years, when I smelled the smoky exhaust from large trucks or city buses, I was immediately transported back to Marseille. Today, that smell is gone, as is the gritty quality, and the cleaned-up city with its slick new tram lines owes much of its shine to its status as European Capital of Culture in 2013.
The Vieux Port, Marseille
Before my recent return, I had spent the past year or two poring over Google Maps, tracing the streets of Marseille, reading about its restaurants, and starting to make plans for an eventual retirement to the south of France. The city had a hold on my memory that wouldn’t let go. Finally, 35 years later, I exited the same train station and, spread out in a glorious vista before me, I beheld the same view as I had long before, this time in bright daylight. The St. Charles railway station had certainly changed, with a new addition, cafes, boutiques, and a much cleaner and brighter new atmosphere.
The Cathedral (Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille or Cathédrale de la Major)
After the view, I went back into the train station to buy a one-week transit pass and catch the Metro to my hotel. I can’t say enough good things about the B&B Hotel in the Joliette (main port) area. For a two-star hostel, its amenities were for superior to similar accommodations. It’s new, for one thing, and from the minute I opened my room door and felt the arctic blast of air conditioning that worked (there was a heat wave) I knew that we would get along fine and that there would be some delicious air-conditioned afternoon naps in my future.
Mucem (the museum of Mediterranean culture) connected to Fort Saint-Jean by a footbridge.
I took the Metro back to the train station just so I could officially start my visit from the top of those monumental steps. I worked my way down to La Canebière, the city’s principal street, and, just in time for lunch, saw Toinou seafood restaurant in front of me, from my list of recommended places to eat. It would become a favorite, and I believe I ate there four times over the rest of the week.
My Marseille adventures are too varied to recount in detail here, but I will post some of my food photos in the next post. I visited all the places I had never had the time nor inclination to see before, including the Corniche along the Mediterranean, the Cité Radieuse (or Unité d’habitation), a “vertical city” apartment complex designed by Le Corbusier, the Cours Julien artsy/chic area, several museums, the old Panier district, and, on my final day, a boat excursion to the Calanques – deep inlets or valleys along the Mediterranean coast from Marseille to Cassis.
Le 14 Juillet – July 14 fireworks over Marseille.
I was in Marseille for Bastille Day July 14, so I caught the night-time fireworks show. My daily routine was to walk from morning to lunch time, have a wonderful lunch of seafood, retire to the hotel for my air-conditioned nap to recuperate from the heat, then venture out again in the late afternoon and evening. As in Paris, nightfall didn’t come until about 11:00 p.m., but there wasn’t much use hanging around after dark, since the city seemed to close up tight in the late evening.
Samaritaine Cafe, on the Vieux Port
By the end of my stay, I was pretty much convinced that this would be a superb place in which to spend my “twilight years,” if in fact I ever have any, or can afford a comfortable retirement. Checking out rental prices in the windows of local agencies, however, the city seemed quite affordable, which was very encouraging.
Vallon des Auffes, Marseille – a small fishing port not far from the central city.
The changes that I saw to Marseille seemed mostly to be for the better; the planners and designers responsible for the makeover of the Joliette port area, the Cathedral district, and the new cluster of nearby museums, achieved brilliant results. Excellent design sense, simplicity, and not overly-gentrified renovation of the Rue de la République made the city literally sparkle under the bright sunlight. I wasn’t able to sample the more upscale gourmet eateries, but I read that Marseille has come up in the world’s culinary estimation. You can still get the traditional bouillabaisse, but at the cost of 40-100 Euros per person (roughly the same in $$$). Increased tourism, plus the scarcity of the Mediterranean fish used for the dish, have sent the price spiraling upward.
Vallon des Auffes, view toward the Mediterranean
My dream vacation ended after one week in the Mediterranean city, which was exactly enough time, and yet not quite enough. It was back to Paris for the remainder of my trip, and on to new adventures. First, however, I had to re-visit Aix-en-Provence, where I had spent 6 months in my youth, but that’s a story for another post.
Palais Longchamp, a monument to the waters of the Durance River brought into the municipal supply.
Rooftop terasse of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse
Panoramic view – Marseille and the Mediterranean from Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica.