Dispatch, Provence: Marseille has come a long way

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Nadine Godwin joined other journalists and travel agents in early June on XL Airways’ inaugural flight from New York to Marseille, France. They journeyed to Avignon and Saint-Tropez, as well. Nadine's fourth and final dispatch follows. Click to read her first, second and third dispatches.

MARSEILLE, France — Our tour guide arrived 40 minutes late for morning sightseeing here in France’s oldest (2,600 years) and second-largest city.

He quickly explained himself: He was badly hung over after having spent the previous evening drinking toasts to the world’s largest cargo ship, which had pulled out of Marseille the previous afternoon.

I am not making this up.

Marseille-Chateau D If

My press group had been sharing toasts, as well, but we celebrated, among other things, new passenger services, meaning XL Airways’ launch of nonstop flights between New York and Marseille.

I have never toasted a cargo ship (though I acknowledge such vessels are very important), and we were disarmed by our guide’s frankness.

Headache or not, over the next few hours, Mika provided a window on a city that has been in transition for nearly 20 years, a process that hits a crescendo this year with the opening of new museums and Marseille’s position as Europe’s culture capital.


Mika was an art student when he came to Marseille from Germany 30 years ago. He loved the city then, when it was run down, unsocial and sometimes dangerous. He remembered there were only two bars in the city center that stayed open after 9 p.m. because “this is a working man’s city and people get up early.”

It wasn’t tourist-friendly either. He said that when the first tourist trains passed through the Panier historic district, locals tossed eggs and tomatoes at them.

Things have changed dramatically. Mika recalled the mayor, who in the 1990s said the city needed a plan for improving the quality of life. Plan B was abandoning the city altogether.

Choosing Plan A, Marseille in 1995 instigated the ongoing Euromediterranee project, designed to redevelop the central city. The new museums, debuting to coincide with culture-capital events, are part of Plan A.

Marseille-Museum

Our group had already been admiring the revitalized Vieux Port (Old Port) from our windows at the InterContinental Marseille-Hotel Dieu, a deluxe property that opened this spring.

Even our hotel is an example of Marseille’s rejuvenation: It was masterfully created within the grand structure of an 18th century hospital.

For an overview of the city, we did what any tourist does nowadays: traveling to the hilltop Notre-Dame de la Garde, a 19th century church that is 500 feet above sea level.

From there, we could see a lot more than the Vieux Port, including mountains behind the city and the Mediterranean on the other side.

We got a first distant view of the hottest new thing on the Marseille culture scene, the European and Mediterranean Civilizations Museum. The museum’s heart is a startlingly modern building overlooking the sea just outside the Vieux Port. It is an eye-popping manifestation of this city’s rebirth.

The tres modern facility, which debuted June 7, is linked by bridge, over water, to the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, now also part of the museum.

A little treat for me was a preview, from a distance, of the 16th century Chateau d’If, an island fortress associated in modern minds with Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

Later, when we visited the island and fortress — both much smaller than I had imagined from the book — I met a Canadian who said she came to Marseille for two reasons: to eat the bouillabaisse for which the city is famous, and visit Chateau d’If because she loved Dumas’ book.

Marseille-Vieux Port

Our group ate bouillabaisse, too — in a very lively late-dining spot on the Vieux Port — although the flavors were very strong for my taste. I won’t be making it at home.

The irony is that bouillabaisse, expensive to buy in a restaurant, was once the fisherman’s cheap dish, made by tossing unsold fish, scales and all, into a pot of boiling water. Well, that’s how Mika described the process.

At trip’s end, a journalist asked hotelier Cyril Denoix, director of operations for Mama Shelter, how Marseille differs from Paris.

It’s less expensive, he said, and “we have the sea and the sun … and beaches … and people smile a lot.”

Also, he said, because of its location, Marseille is very mixed ethnically, but integrated. “It’s a big mess but it works.”

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