Sea, sun, and city: a warm mix in Marseille
MARSEILLE — Within minutes of arriving for a study abroad program at Aix-en-Provence years ago, the school administrators warned us: Never go to Marseille.
The city next door was useful only for its airport and train station. Even then, we should watch our bags.
It was 1978. “The French Connection,’’ an Oscar-winning film about New York’s heroine pipeline, was still in our minds. Marseille was viewed as a dark underworld, home to international drug kingpins. I would steer clear of the city in two subsequent trips to Provence.
But Marseille has come up in the world. This diverse, cosmopolitan city of 850,000 on the Mediterranean is not without problems, including high unemployment and a continued reputation for mob-related crime. But its safety and image have vastly improved. Residents tout it as “the new Barcelona,’’ and it has been designated a European capital of culture for 2013, a distinction that typically boosts tourism.
Last summer when I had spent a month in Provence, I finally gave Marseille a try and found myself returning again and again.
Marseille has 35 miles of coastline and is still one of the leading commercial ports on the Mediterranean, though shipping has been rerouted north. Vieux Port, or Old Port, the heart of the city, today is a terminal for boat tours and an enormous pleasure craft marina.
On my second trip, my daughter and I were treated to a tour by a friend, Anny Moussu, who has lived here for 20 years. She took us to the famed 19th-century basilica, Notre-Dame de la Guard, which is perched on a bluff, the highest point of Marseille.
The view alone makes this trip worth the climb (or bus ride). From 532 feet above sea level, the wraparound terrace looks down on the bay and the Frioul Islands, four islands that include Château d’If, the prison that was the setting for Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.’’
Notre-Dame de la Garde’s interior is decorated with inlaid marble, mosaics, and murals. Model boats hang from the ceiling. On the wall, there are plaques, letters, paintings, War World II medals and flags — all offerings from parishioners. Anny pointed out the shirts given by players and supporters of Olympique de Marseille, the local football (soccer) team. It all has a playful, nautical feel, and a charm that comes from the visible connection to the community.
Anny, who grew up in Strasbourg in the north, says the warm climate and seaside nature of Marseille keep her living here. An avid swimmer, she took us to her favorite local beach, known as “insiders’ beach.’’ Plage des Abri Côtiers, which means coastal shelter, offered clean water, an intimate sand-and-pebble shore, and a backdrop of tall buildings that blocked the wind.
After a stop at Anny’s favorite patisserie, Allegrini, on 57 Avenue Montredon, where we loaded up on pain chocolat and croissants for breakfast the next morning, we ended the day in Le Panier, the oldest district in the city, on the hill just north of Vieux Port.
There we climbed a winding road full of shops and galleries to sample what Anny considered the best chocolate in all of Provence. Tiny La Chocolatière du Panier offers 138 varieties, including unusual combinations with lavender, basil, even onion. We stuck to the more conventional varieties, and I tried a sheaf of dark chocolate filled with caramel. My daughter chose chocolate and dried cherries.
After stopping at a small shop to buy gifts and savon d’huile, the region’s luxurious olive oil soap, we ended the day at Place de Lenche, the old Greek market, now an open square full of restaurants and cafes. We sipped the favorite summer wine, a crisp, not-too-sweet Provencal rose. Between buildings we could see the sun beginning its descent over the harbor.
Upscale shopping and hotels are found on the main thoroughfare, La Canebière. For funkier shops and a more bohemian feel, the Cours Julien district offers colorful graffiti and a multitude of ethnic restaurants that reflect the city’s diverse population and North African influences.
On my next trip to Marseille, Anny drove me and my husband along the coast, on la Corniche Kennedy. This cliff road, rebuilt in the 1960s and named for President Kennedy, starts in the city center and heads south, along the water to exclusive beaches and quaint fishing villages.
As the road escapes the city proper, and we passed dive shops, windsurfing rentals, and a carnival ride park, the terrain begins to look more like Greece.
When the coast road came to a dead end, we parked and climbed a small hill to look down on the Baie des Singes (Bay of Monkees). Here, at what seems like the end of the world, a beautiful azure cove is nestled between sun-bleached bluffs in a stark, almost lunar landscape.
An exclusive restaurant on the cove with spectacular views and good reviews was tempting, but it was too early for lunch so we headed to another inlet in Goudes, where we strolled between shops and dockside cafes.
On the way back, we stopped at le Tiboulen de Maïre for lunch. The restaurant has a warm, family atmosphere with great views of the Bay of Marseille. It serves only fish — fresh and expensive — which waiters filet at the table.
Many US tourists sidestep the beaches of Marseille to head to the affluent and picturesque town of Cassis to the southeast, drawn by the calanques, the sun-bleached limestone cliffs that create the Mediterranean fiords. Anny, who hikes in the mountain range between the two places, says there are more calanques and pretty inlets in Marseille.
That is an understatement. According to Marion Fabre at the Marseille tourism office, there is only one calanque in Cassis, and 15 in Marseille.
Anny adds that Marseille has the advantage of being a little less touristy, and a lot more real.
Jan Brogan can be reached at email@example.com.