Monday, 8 June 2015

The Bad Boy of France - Marseille

Pink Oleander in front of our holiday house - exquisite but highly poisonous

Every country has to have a 'bad boy' city and I think Marseille is that for France. You know the one - you may swoon over its beauty but clutch your bag a little tighter at the same time. You feign a bit of confidence and try not to look over your shoulder. Yet despite the rubbish in the streets and the warning cries about pickpockets ringing in my ears, I went back and would do so again in a heartbeat.

We spent three nights in Marseille as the start to a week-long Mediterranean cruise. My mum is in France visiting us so we thought it would be an easy way to see some beautiful places. The only problem is that 7 hour drive from Bordeaux right to the other side of France (toilet stop, food stop, toilet stop, toilet stop, no it's still four hours to go!).

Marseille is the oldest city in France and one of Europe's largest ports. It was settled in around 600 BC by the Greeks as a trading port, then captured by the Romans in 49 BC. It became a part of France in the 1480s but still retains its own identity. It is a sprawling metropolis of white buildings and set amongst the mountains. Everything seems to draw you toward the dazzling bright blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Old Port viewed from the harbour


Reminders of its turbulent past dot the city like scars. Fort St Jean was built in the 17th century and stands watch over the harbour gates with its forbidding presence. The German army used it to store ammunition during the Occupation. Just around the corner, you are surprised with beauty again with a modern slender pedestrian airbridge made of iron joins it to the next building.

Along with trade and people, ports bring disease. Marseille has had a history of epidemics and plague. Marseille was affected by fourteen epidemics in the 16th century alone. After World War Two, a sanitary station was built for efficient processing of migrant boat passengers into Marseille. We went to an interactive movie in the sanitary station about this prototype for stopping the spread of disease. The passengers were showered and disinfected, while their belongings were transported on hooks as they proceeded through the areas. It must have been a sobering experience for the passengers arriving after months at sea.

This visit we went on a boat trip of the islands and calanques around Marseille. These beautiful bays are hidden amongst limestone cliffs and and some are only accessible by boat or a long tramp in the hot sun. Some have no water or electricity supply. If I return, I would like to get a wee house in the bay of Sormiou (one with hot showers though please).



The smell of the sea pervades in Marseille, getting the saliva flowing for some seafood. We ate at a bustling restaurant on the seafront, where the waiter seemed to skate from table to table, barely pausing to take an order before floating back to the bar. The ingredients were fresh and the whole meal was designed to bring out the best flavours of the fish and shellfish. The heat was hot so we had no choice but to drink some wine.




The Island of the Chateau d'If


 I think Marseille is a city that belongs more to the Mediterranean than to France. The people even seem to be a little less reserved and refined but staunchly Marsellais. It is a beautiful, down-to-earth, intriguing, multi-cultural city with many traps for young tourists.

Also read about our last visit to Marseille and Provence in September here: Taking a drop of eau de vie.

Read more about Marseille's cultural melting pot in this article if you are interested.




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