The city of Marseilles, second largest in France after its famed capital, Paris, lies on the Mediterranean sea. It’s strategic location was historically advantageous and contributed to its current status as a melting pot of cultures. As a port city, it attracted waves of migration from the Mediterranean and beyond: North Africans, Armenians and Italians, among others, populated the city and although many of the descendants from these migratory movements now proudly identify themselves as French (some going as far as calling themselves Marseillaise first, French second), traces of their cultural heritage impregnate the city: from the sounds of the bustling market in Noailles strongly reminiscent of the chaotic medinas in Morocco, to the taste of hearty spaghetti alle vongole from a seaside restaurant, best savoured alongside a glass of a fragrant and ice-cold rosé.
As the oldest city in France, founded around 600 BC, Marseilles’ rich history contributes to its charm. Among the fortifications enclosing the Vieux Port lie centuries of history that have forged the landscape of Marseilles and the character of its denizens. Fort Saint Jean, in particular, has borne witness to the feisty personality which is to this very day, characteristic of the Marseillaise people. The fort was built by Louis XIV to ensure that the the city’s rebellious spirits were kept in check. This, as we now know, cost him his head since his foolish move only served to fire up the Marseillaise people, who didn’t just march into Paris and start a revolution, but also composed a very well-known song on their way there, La Marseillaise.
Yet a walk across the Vieux Port is a must not just for history buffs: some of the Provençal capital’s famed sights and internationally renowned restaurants attract visitors hungry for a good picture or a mouth-watering bouillabaisse, the star of Marseillaise gastronomy. Originally a seafood stew only preferred by sailors and now a local delicacy elaborated from different varieties of fresh fish, vegetables, broth and Provençal spices, slowly stewed to perfection for hours, which explains its average hefty price tag of 40 Euro.
A quick ferry ride across the turquoise waters caressing the centuries-old Vieux Port leads visitors to a small rocky island upon which sits the Château d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas’s character, the Count of Monte Cristo, who was this ancient jail’s most renowned, albeit fictional, prisoner.
Sports lovers can also easily indulge themselves while in Marseilles: the city’s stadium, known as the Velodrome, is the proud home-base of the local soccer team, l’Olympique Marseille (OM). Its supporters are reputed for their passion and fervour, which is exhibited at each match that their team plays, be it on their home turf or abroad. Enjoying a French football match is easy for visitors and depending on the match and how well the team is doing that season, tickets can range from 20 Euro up to the hundreds. If a visit to the stadium is out of your league, then the next best thing is to watch the match live at any local bar. It’s the perfect way to soak in the passion and fervour of true OM football fans and perhaps learn a few French swear words in the process. This would also be a good opportunity to try the local drink of choice: pastis, a green anise-flavoured liquor traditionally from Marseilles. Outdoors lovers can also profit immensely from a visit to this bustling city: magnificent hiking trails fit for every level are just minutes away from its sometimes chaotic centre. Most of these can be found surrounding the calanques, breath-taking natural coastal rock formations precipitously dipping into the sea and can be enjoyed by amateur hikers and professional climbers alike. For those who prefer a more relaxed setting to enjoy the natural wonders nestled near Marseilles, there are boat tours available with regular departures from the Vieux Port.
No visit to Marseilles could be finished without a visit to its crowning jewel, the basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, which stretches into the heavens atop a hill overlooking the city. Lovingly nicknamed la bonne mère by locals, this basilica is an impressive example of neo-byzantine architecture and it’s a landmark that represents very much the same as the Eiffel tower does to Parisians: local pride. Its strategic location on top of a hill was meant to inspire and call out to the faithful below, although given its prominence in the city’s landscape it also suffered some heavy bombing by the Germans during WWII. To this day, a US tank that defended the Marseilles’ beloved basilica is on display on the road leading up to Notre-Dame de la Garde as a sign of gratitude.
Marseilles has been undergoing an overwhelming amount of change. Along with a rich cultural history, it has held a reputation as a dirty crime-ridden city for some time. As a result of its nomination for European Capital of Culture in 2013 as well as its preparation to host the European Football Championship in 2016, it has been given an extreme lift, far beyond its façade. Visitors will be glad to know that Marseilles is now not only as safe a city as any other in France, but also that its infrastructure has greatly improved. The city now boasts a tram linking the central neighborhoods, besides its regular metro and bus lines, making it easier to get around town. A tourist mini-train is also available to easily access all major tourist sites in the city. It has regular departures scheduled from the Vieux Port. The city’s traffic still leaves a lot to desire, but locals are proud of their fame as the most daring drivers of the country. Test this claim at your own risk. Marseilles St. Charles, the main train station, is centrally located: just atop a hill that leads straight into the Vieux Port by one of the city’s main arteries, La Canebière. The train station provides easy access to and from the local airport and is well-linked to the French capital (just over 3 hours by high-speed train), as well as to other major cities in France and abroad (mainly Italy and Switzerland) and, of course, to smaller, quaint locations throughout Provence. Marseilles shares an international airport with Aix-en-Provence which has just been expanded and now offers a wide array of national and international flights.
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