Marseille: On Soup, Soap, and Snorkeling
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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Marseille: On Soup, Soap, and Snorkeling

Oh hey Marseille...

“Oh I hear it’s really dirty down there,” people tell me every time I discuss summer vacation. I guess it’s tough to shake some labels. But seriously, Marseille is far from the cesspool people think it is. Or at least that's the case since 2013 when it was the European Capital of Culture, forcing it to scrub up a bit.

My friend Lindsey, who loves Marseille, has written about it quite a few times, so I know I’m not exaggerating. The city, the third largest in France, is also the biggest port along the Mediterranean and the town that has now stolen my heart twice.

It was the starting point for a road trip from Provence to Paris, and it started with a taxi ride from the train station that could rival the zigzaginess of any Parisian driver. Safe and sound in the Panier, one of the oldest parts of town, we slipped easily into vacation mode. There's just something about the south, ya know?

Well maybe you don’t. Let me tell you. When the sun shines all of the time and the temperature hovers around perfection all day and night long, it’s easy to see why so many people flock to Provence. But it’s more than a comfortable climate.

Early morning boat ride...

Food

In Marseille, no one was rushed. Our first meal called for convenience, and pizza was beckoning us. The waitress at Pizzeria Le Vieux Panier took the time to explain each pizza to us with her best Marseille accent (think French with a lot of twang). When people called me at Pink Flamingo Pizzeria in Paris, where I worked for about a year, I told them to go online and look at the menu and call back when they were ready to order. Who has time for that? 

Oh, well, I guess they do in Marseille.

A few days later, while settling on a lowcost version of the famous bouillabaisse, the local fish soup, the owner of Chez Madie made time to come out and check on every client in whichever language they spoke. The soup was just fine, coming in waves. It starts with croutons and a fish bouillon full of a garlicky and saffron-flavored rouille, like a mayo. Then the the server comes out and debones the fish to add with potatoes once we finished the soup.

It was rather tasty, even though conversation was cut short by excessive fish bones poking our mouths, but we’ll chalk that up to Marseille’s rougher side. We could have asked for a bit more tact on the fish-end, since the soup did go for 40 euros a person. It was still cheaper than 65 euros a person at the higher end Chez Michel, but we spent the difference on ice cream, so all was well.

Add a few glasses of Pastis, several bottles of rosé, some amazing gelato from Le Glacier du Roi, and cookies flavoured with flur d’oranger called “navettes” baked at Les Navettes des Accoules and you’ve got enough noshing to keep you happy.

Almshous? Cultural center? Both?

Sightseeing

We played tourists, happily. Sure, we walked around quite a bit, visited the market, bought some fish to cook, some corn to grill, some rosé to drink. We went to the beach at the Plage des Catalans and soaked up a bit of sun with the other tourists. We even took the little tourist train from the Vieux Port all the way up to the church, Notre Dame de la Garde, which offers you the chance to see Marseille as God him/herself does.

We spent nearly a whole day around the Vieux Port, the old fortresses, and the Panier district just north of the port with it's bohemian vibe, colorful architecture, old and cutesy boutiques. My favorite continues to be the ever kitschy 72% Pétanque, which sells the city's staple souvenir: soap. I stocked up as if it weren't available in Paris. We took a look at La Vieille Charité, an almshouse finished in the 18th century that now acts as a cultural center. It's easy to get lost and stop for a drink, watching an entire afternoon pass.

Wandering the Panier...

But this, my second time to Marseille, called for an adventure. I wanted to get away from the cattle call of the boats at the Vieux Port and find something special. Cue Groupon, of all places, where I found a snorkeling excursion in the famed calanques, limestone cliffs that jut over the Mediterranean. 

Little did we know that the sea’s temperature would be a chilly 15 degrees Celsius that day. But there was lunch included on the boat of about twenty that left from a harbor in southern Marseille out to the calanques. What could go wrong?

Zipped up in our wetsuits and ready to go, the boat whisked us out to the imposing cliffs where our guide gave a little talk about the formations before anchoring us and letting us jump in with our snorkels. Fish and jellyfish were a plenty, but after about 20 minutes, I had had enough. I sat on the boat, awaiting the others, feeling the not-always-gentle rocking back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Needless to say, I didn’t need lunch, but I did feed a school of fish with my previous day’s lunch. It was a benevolent act, really…(note: no photos of the calanques, due to the sick)

View from up high...

Accommodation

Since we were four, we opted for an AirBnB, and our host Julie met us upon our arrival and gave us some great tips for our stay in the Panier district. We wanted the option to cook but we also wanted to stay somewhere in or around the Panier, and AirBnB fulfilled our needs at a very attractive price.

If going the budget route in Marseille, know that budget AirBnB’s might lack some of the charm that other big cities have. But for 80 euros a night, with a balcony, it was worth it, even if there was a 7AM wake-up call by a rooster every morning. Yes, a rooster. Really. In the middle of the city. Provincial!

Cassis...

Day Trips

Marseille is located conveniently close to several other major towns worth visiting, like Avignon and Aix en Provence. You can even spend a day on the Frioul islands just off the coast and go hiking. We opted for Cassis, since I hadn’t been there yet, and spent a day wandering the tiny streets and eating Tropézien pastries on the beach. It’s a cute little town that does trips to the Calanques by boat, as well.

Be sure to organize travel carefully, wherever you go. We took the train, which is harder to mess up, but the towns are well serviced by buses to and from Marseille.

Even the dogs help you with directions...

Bottom Line

In a city whose main souvenir item is soap, it’s hard to imagine why Marseille has such a grubby reputation. With ferries to and from North Africa, the immigrant population might seem intimidating to some, and the crumbling bits of the Panier may not seem charming or rustic to certain travelers. But after six years in Paris, none of this was alarming or off-putting at all. The bad reputation worked for us though – the lack of English-speaking tourists made it feel like we had traveled much further than the 3 hours and few minutes on the train.

But if you’re looking for a slice of Provence that’s still cosmopolitan and bustling as much as southern France can bustle, Marseille is a sure bet. It’s still a big city, just like Paris, so safety is always an issue, but there is little that should deter an open-minded traveler looking to experience something real, vibrant, and decidedly un-Parisian.

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