Some cities make you work hard to discover its personality and flavour. Others are easy. No real planning ahead is required as you’ll discover much just by strapping on a pair of good walking shoes and wandering. Of course, you’ll miss plenty of the lesser obvious sites but that’s okay – it just means you have an excuse to visit again. This style of travel is especially good if you’re only in a place for a weekend. By not researching ahead of time, you are forced to take in the essence of a place rather than rushing from site to site. I learned this lesson at Marseille a few years go. While the city is known as a major centre for history and art, all I really knew about the place was that photographers and artists rave about the natural light. Marseille definitely does not have a shortage of museums, galleries, and buildings of historical interest but all I knew about the city was that it was a port. And for the first time in my travels, that was enough. I wandered around Marseille for one weekend, visiting sites as I found them.
Marseille is the second largest city in France, after Paris. It has a long history of trade due to its status as a port – in fact, it was apparently the main trade port of the French Empire. This rich history goes a long way to explain why Marseille is not what I would have expected from a port city. Yes, it can be a bit dirty and it does seem to have its fair share of cockroaches* BUT it is a beautiful place nonetheless. Barely scratching the surface what this city has to offer, here are some things for which you should keep your eyes peeled in your own visit:
There are many churches scattered throughout the city. One is the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure which was founded in the 4th century. However, the building you see today was built in the later part of the 19th century. It’s a huge building done in the Romano-Byzantine style and even the outside is pretty ornate. The other church is the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde – it lies high up on a hill overlooking the city. The building that you see today was built in the mid-19th century but it stands on the spot of an older church of the same name – that one had been built in 1214. This church is especially interesting to see as it was built with green limestone found near Florence and you can see numerous bullet marks on the outside walls from a battle during the Liberation of France near the end of WWII. Once finished examining the church, don’t forget to explore the grounds as there are some fantastic panoramic viewpoints!
The Vieux-Port and Shoreline
Marseille has two huge forts and a lighthouse guarding the main city harbour. It is a fantastic area to wander, especially if you’re hungry. There are plenty of restaurants and cafés around here. Why not try the local specialty of bouillabaisse for me? I couldn’t have it as I don’t eat shellfish L Also, don’t forget to check out the fish market – it doesn’t get fresher than this!
Marseille has some pretty interesting architecture dating back several centuries. There are grand palaces, colourful houses, and many fountains. One of the more spectacular of these is the 19th century Palais Longchamp. It is one of those things that are probably tacky but you like it anyway. Palais Longchamps, in my mind, is best seen in the light of the setting sun. It makes the stone glow warmly and it sets the fountain water to sparkling.
Les Calanques are a mountainous area of dry rock, scrubby brush, and thirsty looking palm trees. It’s beautiful, though. If you’re tired of walking the city, come out here for a hike for a bit of natural rejuvenation. It is very exposed though so come prepared with hat, water, and sunblock. Today, the area is now a National Park (it did not have that designation when I went). If hiking is not your thing, come out here anyway and watch the rich people on their boats.
City Streets and Statues
Just wandering the city of Marseille is the best way to explore this place. There are so many statues to find, including war memorials and oddly enough, a statue of David. Marseille is a very hilly city which means exhaustion at the end of the day but it also means many panoramic vantage points. The narrow streets are atmospheric and the narrowness also means cute toy fire trucks!
If all that wandering has made you hot and tired, no worries – Marseille has several beaches from which you can frolic with the French! After being traumatized as a kid by the concept of topless French beaches, I was rather hesitant to go this time. But either I got lucky that day or no one felt like getting a sunburned boob.
I’m a little bit of a book nerd so imagine my excitement when I figured out that Chateau d’If was in Marseille! Even line-cutting nuns didn’t dampen my enthusiasm as I boarded a ferry from the Old Port to the island on which the prison lies. I knew of this place because I’m a fan of Alexandre Dumas’ literary works. It was also pretty neat to see the sign declaring this was where the Man in the Iron Mask was supposedly held prisoner. While the Man in the Iron Mask’s existence may be disputed, the fact that Chateau d’If was a prison is not. Many of the fortifications and gun platforms remain and it is easy to see why this place was considered to be escape-proof. It had been the “perfect” place to keep political and religious prisoners.
Have you been to Marseille? What was your favorite part about the city?
*I actually did take a picture of one but I thought I’d spare you that 😉