Before we moved to the UK, people always spoke about how easy it was to get to Paris. So it might a bit of a surprise to know that we took 8 months to get to France at all, and that our first taste of the country was not in Paris, but the seaside city of Marseilles. As we discovered, the south of France is not always sunny. Throughout the weekend it rained a little and at times was quite windy. Despite this, Marseille has charm and was more friendly that I expected.
Upon arrival we walked to another airport terminal and purchased tickets for the bus into the city. On the way we saw surprisingly dilapidated areas with sparse housing and overgrown bushes. I think part of travelling is acknowledging your own ignorance and realising how much your impression of a place is guided by cliches. I imagined southern France to be sunny, convivial and prosperous. Instead, Marseilles was rustic like a fisherman’s village.
While I was prepared for warmer weather a seemingly endless winter had made me conservative and I was still wearing too much. We found a local mall and for me to buy a t-shirt. Les Terrasses du Port is a large and very nice looking mall which had two security guards checking all bags before granting entry. That was a first for me! Inside, the mall had a few levels and felt relatively new. We were not in Marseille for shopping however! After a quick stop at H&M we were off to check out Fort Saint Jean. The fort sits at the entrance to the old port and dates back to the 1660’s. It was built by Louis XIV along with Fort Saint Nicholas on the other side of the harbour. Fun fact, the two forts were built because of an uprising against the local governor so their purpose was not to defend to the city like you might expect. The canons point towards the town rather than out to sea!
Today, the fort is connected by a bridge to the Musee des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Mediterranee, which happens to be the first French national museum outside of Paris. We didn’t feel inclined to visit the museum during our stay but did appreciate the bridges connecting the fort to its more modern neighbour.
We were happy to discover that it is free to wander around the fort. There were a lot of garden spaces and plenty of nooks to explore. We got good views of the harbour and out to sea.
After we had walked around the walls of the fort, we ventured down towards the main harbour. There is a ferris wheel, and the entire u-shaped area is surrounded by restaurants and souvenir shops. It was easy to imagine people flocking to there on a sunny day to enjoy a seaside meal.
That night for dinner we found a real gem of a restaurant called Côté Rue. We arrived early so only a couple of other tables were occupied in the small restaurant but it soon filled up while we were eating. It felt like stepping into someone’s home, from the warm greeting to the large black dog lounging on the floor. I communicated that we didn’t speak French so the lady brought the blackboard of dishes to our table. It felt like we were in a classroom as she pointed to various dishes listed on the blackboard and roughly translated what they were. We decided to start with a version of an antipasti platter which was a true winner. We had an array of dips and vegetables to graze on including a garlic aioli-type sauce which had SO much garlic! It is difficult to explain how strong the garlic flavours were because I have never experienced anything like it. This would not be our last run in with garlic over the weekend which gives me the impression that the people of Marseille like garlic about as much as Italian’s love lemons.
For our main course Richard had veal and clams. The clams had an intense flavour which did not suit me very much but Richard enjoyed his meal very much. I had stuffed duck and I’ll give you two guesses as to what the duck was stuffed with. You guessed it! Copious amounts of garlic and some herbs. The duck was tender and we were safe from vampires which is a bargain we hadn’t even thought of receiving. The flavours were rich and slapped you in the face, but they were also oh so amazing. We were thrilled to have discovered this little place so we ordered dessert too and left incredibly full. I would highly recommend Côté Rue for it’s wonderful staff and homely food.
On Sunday morning we left the hotel early and purchased croissants from a shop since our hotel did not include breakfast this time. It was easy to navigate the tram and bus system to get to the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. This neo-byzantine church is built on the highest natural elevation point in Marseille, which for the record is 149m. The style was slightly different to what we have seen in our travels with layers of contrasting coloured stones. There is extensive use of mosaics inside and I especially liked the gilded statue of the Madonna and Child standing above the bell tower. The statue alone is 11.2m tall. It is kept very clean and shiny.
We joined a crowd being allowed inside although we didn’t realise that there was a service in progress. No one seemed at all phased that tourists were being allowed through and walking around which was a little odd. The inside was truly beautiful with endless mosaics and a fair amount of gold glittering above us.
After having taken the bus up the hill, we decided to walk back down towards the Palais du Pharo. Napoleon III had this built in the 19th century for Empress Eugenie although the style seems to resemble a holiday home rather than any home for royalty. These days, the Palais du Pharo is a conference and events centre which was closed, so we couldn’t go inside to have a look around. It is surrounded by 5.7 hectares of gardens where plenty of people were enjoying the outdoors with their children. It was a nice area for us to sit down and enjoy the delectable treats we had purchased from a patisserie on the way.
The next stop was Abbey of Saint Victor. Not many visitors were around this particular site and I suppose its appearance is not as interesting as the Basilique. It is believed that in 415, two monasteries were set up in Marseilles by John Cassian (one for men and the other for women). Both monasteries however, were destroyed in either 731 or 838. It wasn’t until 977 that the monastery for men was rebuilt (the site for women was never reestablished). For a site with such a long history, it was surprising to find the abbey so bare. I found out later that the abbey was stripped of all its treasures, relics and gold and silver objects in the late 18th century. Eventually, the church was built in 1200, which is the structure we were able to visit. The church is used for worship today and allows visitors through. Inside was very dimly lit with various dusty statues but otherwise, very little decoration or information. Even though there was a visitor desk and one lonely wobbly stand of postcards, the place had an air of being quite forgotten.
It didn’t take us long to finish with the abbey. We then headed towards Vallon des Auffes by the sea. This is an area south of the main township that really feels like a fisherman village. The colourful homes were stacked together on a steep hill in a tiny harbour area where a collection of small boats were taking the Sunday off. It was a busy area with a couple of restaurants. We decided to try a place called Fonfon. It felt a little fancy so we were a bit out of place in our jeans and t-shirts, but we were seated promptly nonetheless. I ordered fisherman’s soup and was more than surprised when the waiter delivered the many condiments to accompany my meal. A bowlful of croutons, a small bowl of finely grated cheese, a dish of a mildly spicy creamy sauce and get this – a handful of raw garlic cloves. I have not had soup like this before. It’s like bathing in a broth of prawn heads and for me, consuming it was about as fun as that sounds. I had been growing confident in my ability to consume shellfish in Europe and this promptly put me in my place. Even Richard found the flavour a bit too intense. Anyone who is French or knows a bit about French cuisine may be able to advise the correct way for me to consume my soup and accompaniments, but this is what I did. I rubbed garlic onto the croutons, dipped them into the sauce and stuck some cheese on. They were pretty delicious mouthfuls to cut through the crazy flavours in my soup. Even more than dinner at Côté Rue, my tastebuds were beaten up by the flavours of my starter. The main course of cod was more to my taste and Richard enjoyed his prawns and duck main which was delicious.
The staff were great given our lack of French and the fact that we came near the end of their lunch service. We ate quickly and enjoyed the experience. Afterwards we meandered through the colourful homes, up to check out the Monument aux Armées d’Afrique. The memorial commemorates fallen soldiers from the armies of the orient and distant lands. I realise that’s quite vague and unfortunately there was no further information at the site.
With some time to spare, we decided to check out the Palais Longchamp. The beautiful building is where the natural history museum is housed. Getting there involved walking through a lovely park and passing a hilarious ‘zoo’ where all the animals were brightly coloured figurines rather than real animals. The palais itself is a beautiful semi-circular building with a huge fountain at the centre.
Our journey home was reasonably smooth apart from a lack of Gatwick Express trains )which is something that happens ridiculously often!). It was a weekend filled with beautiful sites, bold flavours, and understanding locals. While Marseilles was not the place I expected it to be, the differences were good. It felt comfortable and relaxed with a humble rather than glitzy vibe. It’s going to be interesting comparing this to Paris when we finally get there!