Marseille on the Côte d’Azur…
Its colourful image owes credit to a fascinating population mix of Italians, Corsicans, Russians, North Africans, Armenians, Vietnamese, Algerians, Greek and Americans. And a sensational drugs-and-crime reputation isolates it from its polished, glamorous cousins. But don’t believe what they say…go sift fact from fiction. Say ‘Bonjour’ to France’s second biggest city, its largest commercial port and capital of the scenic Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. You will discover that Marseille is the most soulful note in the sweet symphony of the French Riviera. Only one prerequisite…you must listen with your heart.
Vye for Vieux Port
Ideally, airdrop at the Vieux Port for that quintessential Marseille frame that you’ve drooled over on travel websites. Sapphire blue waters of a fault-free U-shaped harbour, dotted by yachts, sailboats, speedboats and fishing boats. Rows of cafes lining all three sides of a busy waterfront promenade. To the left, a gentle hill, crowned by a magnificent basilica. Two sprawling forts at the mouth of the bay, opening up into the vast sea. And soft lemon and sand-colored buildings completing the vista. Symmetrical, elegant, pristine. This was France’s oldest city, where Greek settlers from Phocaea first landed in 600 BC, set up a trading post named ‘Massalia’, starting centuries of maritime activity, and put Marseille on the world map till the 19th-century. Where 18,000 merchant ships once passed through the port each year, today stands a pretty marina and a terminal for tourist boat excursions….a nautical vision in blue and white! Consider an afternoon cruise to Calanques National Park.
Dissolve into the throngs of the colourful market at Quai des Belles, where dozens of white-tented street stalls display paintings, home collectibles, local crafts, and lavender oils. Stock up on an interesting array of natural Marseille soaps… lavender, apple, cinnamon, almond, fig, jasmine, magnolia, patchouli, rose and even honey. Sample French macarons, that true gift to the dessert world…a simple layer of ganache, buttercream or jam sandwiched between two meringue cookies, deceptively simple but unbelievably delectable. Pamper your taste buds with lavender, peach, orange, vanilla, chocolate, rose, apricot, hazelnut, lemon, strawberry, passionfruit, coffee and even pistachio…delicately sweet and light as candy floss.
Loiter through Le Panier
Get your priorities right…reach the edge of the harbour to explore the landmark site of Cathedral de la Major. This Roman Catholic cathedral, standing on top of the remains of the old La Major Cathedral, is one of the oldest in France. Measuring 142 meters in length, a central dome of 70 meters, and a nave rising 20 meters high, its impressive dimensions rival that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The cream and grey striped facade of the monument contrasts against the intense blue panorama of the sea like a giant seafaring emblem.
Venture into the magnificent Fort St Jean and Fort St Jacques nearby…the cultural and ethnographic centres of the town. Fort St-Jean forms the centrepiece of the MuCEM (Musée National des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée). Apt reincarnation for the city fortifications of 1660, which were built on the orders of Louis XIV to survey the rebellious town of Marseille and remained his safeguard till 1790, when the French Revolutionaries had attacked and demolished them. The forts were modified by the Germans in 1942-1944 and that’s how they remain since then. Well worth a few hours of your time.
An image of the basilica reflecting on a window glass enraptures you before you lose your way in Marseille’s oldest quartier, the charming Le Panier (meaning ‘bread basket’). A maze of cobbled, narrow steep streets, colourful houses, pastel shuttered windows with fluttering laundry, rickety doors, quirky stores, the occasional boulangerie, abandoned compounds, high steps up and high steps down…are faint reminders of a hallowed past. Here Greeks laid the foundations of a home away from home way back in 600 BC…till it reached heights of prosperity in the 16th-18th centuries with funding by rich traders, attracted Neapolitans at the end of the 19th century and Corsicans after the First World War, and finally plunged into depths of destruction during the WWII with evacuation and bombing by Nazis, when it had turned into a haven for seafarers, sailors, resistance fighters, refugees, criminals, Jews and Communists. Digest all that if you can.
Clear the way for a lady manoeuvring her way past in a pastel aqua vintage car. Pass by a local resting his arms on a window sill, leaning into the kitchen within, chatting animatedly to his neighbour. Cross an elderly woman opening a bright blue door to enter her home. Ordinary scenes, ordinary people, ordinary lives. Forget who you are, where you’ve come from. Float along…invisibly.
Interesting landmarks litter the the way…La Vieille Charité, a former poorhouse and the Diamond House, both museums today. A couple of small squares later, the Hotel Dieu, a colossal 18th century hospital, now converted into the five-star Intercontinental Hotel, an imposing structure atop an exclusive hilly perch. Rue du Panier (basket street), Rue des Moulins (mills street) and Rue du Refuge (shelter street)….a poor neighbourhood then, perfectly preserved like a giant museum exhibit now. Its an abrupt exit onto the broad, buzzing Rue de la Republique, leading to the Vieux-Port, with its elegant Haussman styled buildings and end-to-end high street shopping. A rude shift in a time machine. Refocus. Adjust.
Gape from Garde Hill
Craving for more? Then ride the bus to the hilltop for the exotic Romano-Byzantine Notre Dame de la Garde. The monumental 30-feet gold leaf statue of Madonna and Child glints in the sun. A lookout post since prehistoric times, Notre Dame de la Garde is a true symbol of the city, its drawbridge and ramparts unabashedly proclaiming its history as a fortress. Inside, intricate models of boats hang from the ceiling, a tribute to the marine history of Marseille? The red stripes on the inside arches, bright, colourful mosaics depicting olives, vines, palm trees and exotic birds and intricate gold painted ceiling domes point to definite Islamic influences. Outside, savour the gorgeous 360-degree view from the wraparound terrace with its bullet scarred walls and memorial tiles. At your feet…the Mediterranean sea, bay, hills, islands, tapestry of red-roofs and modern buildings. In your hair…the wild Mistral wind and a feeling so free, you’re ready to fly.
Continue the expedition to the Palais du Pharo close by. This impressive 19th- century waterfront residential palace for Napoleon III, stands on a hill overlooking the entrance to Vieux-Port, where a terrific view awaits. Napoleon is long gone and so are the royal guests, all that remains is a majestic conference center with a glorious past that receives up to 60,000 people every year. Across the waters, peer at Ile d’If, one of the cluster of islands that makes up the Frioul Archipelago. An imposing 16th-century fortress built on the island by François I to guard the harbour, later converted into an escape-proof prison, this was once Marseille’s Alcatraz…where inmates spent days, months, even years in windowless dungeons, cooking up ingenious escape ideas, eyeing the town in the distance, today a mere 20-minute boat ride away. Little did the prisoners know that centuries later, those dark and dingy quarters would become a worthy inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo…and one of the most popular excursions from Marseille attracting millions each year.
Sing with a sundowner
Back at the Vieux Port, survey the night scene when the crowds have disappeared and shopkeepers have folded up their stalls. The water is pitch dark, a million lights are dancing on the surface, and the city is resting. From the hill above, the gold-leafed statue of the Notre Dame is gleaming, watching over the city below. Your heart is singing and you’re redefining the French Riviera in your mind. Aren’t you?
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