The promenade of Vieux Port in the city centre of Marseilles, France.
The promenade of Vieux Port in the city centre of Marseilles, France. iStock

Don't miss out on Marseille during French sojourn

Like many travellers before us, we were uncertain about visiting Marseille. This Mediterranean city on the Provencal coast has an unfortunate reputation as being dangerous.

Warnings of muggings and pockets being picked ... every traveller has heard them. Much like Naples in Italy, the name Marseille has a sense of menace to it.

We almost didn't go. But we were in Cassis, no more than half-an-hour's drive away, and it seemed irresponsible not to give this city and its bad reputation a fair go.

Admittedly we kept our wallets and passports locked in our hotel safe and hit the streets with watchful eyes and a small amount of money hidden down our shirts, but there was no sense of threat anywhere.

Quite the opposite. Just a party-in- full-swing atmosphere in the summer air. The festive feeling began in the early morning and bubbled through to the wee hours of the next morning.

 

Vieux Port, Marseille.
Vieux Port, Marseille. iStock

Staying in the Old Port (Vieux Port) was a smart decision. Our hotel across the road from the historic harbour, with its mast-to- mast yachts, large ferries and small fishing craft, not only gave views of an authentic Marseille, it offered day-long entertainment.

In the early morning the fishing boats came in with their fresh catch to display on stalls along the Quai des Belges. We watched from our hotel window as chefs, restaurateurs and home cooks descended in droves to buy what they would cook that day, much of it to go into bouillabaisse, the quintessential Marseille dish of fish stew.

It's a lively scene as the crowds gather around the fish, inspecting with experienced eyes, while the sellers shout the superiority of their catch.

 

A fisherwoman sells fresh giant lobster at the fish market at Vieux Port in Marseille, France.
A fisherwoman sells fresh giant lobster at the fish market at Vieux Port in Marseille, France. iStock

The fast pace around the harbour never stops as tourists pack into cafes and restaurants for big bowls of bouillabaisse. Even if you are not a fish fan, sipping the heady brew of bouillabaisse is a must-do.

Finding the most authentic and historic bouillabaisse restaurant isn't easy, there are so many, but our concierge steered us a short way from the port down one of the narrow streets to a tiny hole-in-the-wall place where a lesser version of the bouillabaisse - a fish soup made with a pungent stock simmered for hours with fish heads and bones and carefully strained - satisfied our feelings of commitment to this fishy city.

The street performers work the crowds all day and night along the Quai des Belges by the harbour, with acrobats performing beneath the Port Vieux Pavilion. This is an enormous canopy with mirrored ceiling, a stainless-steel architectural highlight of the city and a civic space. It's both surreal and giddy to watch the acrobats perform on the ground and look up to the mirror image in the ceiling high above.

If you can leave the buzz of the Old Port, a hop-on-hop-off bus will take you all over the city to every highlight, including the impressive Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille's most famous symbol built at the highest point in the city. A half an hour visit to the cathedral is probably enough, then it's a question of hopping back on the bus, perhaps to the next most popular site, the Mucem.

 

Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille, France.
Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille, France. iStock

The Mucem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations), built on the historical site of the Fort-St-Jeanne, has permanent and temporary exhibitions. You can walk back to the Old Port from there.

Twenty-six centuries of marine and multicultural history, dating back to classical Greece and Ancient Rome, make Marseille the oldest of all the French cities. Ancient monuments and modern museums sit comfortably together.

Food and wine are paramount, with myriad restaurants, bars and cafes. Small sandy beaches are there if you just want to chill. It's a pity the city has a reputation for danger that deters many travellers. We found it safe and exhilarating.

www.annrickard.com


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