Marseille, France, is an ancient city that never ceases to arouse passions. This colorful Mediterranean port has seen the arrival of Greek settlers, Roman conquerors, swashbuckling sailors, religious crusaders, tourists looking for sunny skies and immigrants looking for a home in France's melting pot.
The French either love or detest Marseille, but it certainly leaves no one indifferent. Whereas Parisians once snubbed Marseille, many are now heading south on the high-speed TGV train to experience the charm and sun of this thriving cosmopolitan city.
Marseille has rhythm and spice, and its inhabitants are fiercely proud of their city. Though twice as big in area as Paris, it is still thought of as a series of small "villages," each with its own unique history and traditions. In fact, unlike in Paris, is it not uncommon to see people in Marseille who live, work and socialize in the same district, which makes the feeling of living in a village all the more present.
The more popular villages include Le Panier, La Belle de Mai, Mazargues, Le Roucas Blanc and Saint Giniez. Some are known for their beaches (La Vieille Chapelle), some for the famous artists who were inspired there (Cezanne and Braque in L'Estaque), still others for their charming ports (Le Vallon des Auffes, La Pointe Rouge, Le Vieux Port).
With its rich history, diverse culture, authentic character, immense pride and warm people, Marseille will have you lowering your anchor to stay awhile.
Marseille, in the region of France called Bouches-du-Rhone (mouth of the Rhone River), owes much of its charm to its agreeable geography. The city itself stretches 43 mi/70 km along the coast, with the mountain ranges of St. Cyr, Etoile and Estaque at its back and dozens of breathtaking sea inlets along its rocky coastline.
To navigate the city, imagine Marseille with the Vieux Port as a starting point. To the immediate north, you'll find the shipyard where cruise ships dock. From the center of the port, the city's main street, La Canebiere, divides the city in two. Heading southeast from near the base of the Canebiere, you'll reach the other main artery, Rue de Rome. Parallel to Rue de Rome is the fashionable and boutique-lined Rue Paradis. Follow Rue Paradis to its end and you'll bump into the Avenue du Prado, which leads to the Promenade and Marseille's wonderful beaches.
Marseille is one of the oldest cities in France. Around 600 BC, the Greeks settled in what they called Massalia, an inlet on the southeast coast of France that was protected from harsh storms and blessed with a direct route to the trade-facilitating Rhone River. Years later, the Greeks invited the Romans to help them fight the Franks, a move that had disastrous results: The power-hungry Romans eventually claimed the town's fleet, treasures and trade. In 1481, the thriving port of Marseille became part of the kingdom of France.
In the 19th century, Marseille prospered, with flour mills, sugar refineries and factories that produced olive oil, soap and cigarettes. Wide boulevards were built, and a system of public transportation was developed. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 further advanced commerce in the Mediterranean, bolstering Marseille's trade networks.
In the 20th century, however, the city's fortunes declined. It was heavily bombed during World War II and suffered losses under the German occupation in 1943. The eight-year closure of the Suez Canal (1967-75) and the loss of French colonies in northern Africa in the 1960s eroded Marseille's economic prosperity.
Things improved in the 1980s, when the city rebuilt itself with a vast, modernized port, a new science and technology business park and the arrival of the high-speed TGV train line from Paris. Because the city has focused more on industrial growth than historic preservation, there are few historic sites in Marseille relative to its population and size.
For a unique look at one of the industries that makes Marseille tick, visit the fish market on the Quai des Belges at the Vieux Port before dawn—you'll hear the singing southern accents of the fishermen and witness local commerce at its animated best.
After the market, and with a cafe au lait to embolden your spirits, hike up to Notre Dame de la Garde, one of the highest points in Marseille. Your trek will reward you with the best view of the city. A different destination might be the Fort Saint Nicolas, which offers romantic views over the Vieux Port without the crowds.
Most nightclubs don't even open their doors before midnight. One way to while away the hours before heading out for a night on the town is to sample the tea at Les Arcenaulx. If tea isn't your thing, sample what the locals drink—pastis. There are two major brands of the anise-flavored liqueur, 51 and Ricard. Order the Ricard and you'll get a tall glass with about 2 in/5 cm of a cloudy white liquid. Fill the glass with water to the brim—or to taste.
The main ethnic groups in Marseille tend to be from around the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa. Likewise, the good "ethnic" restaurants tend to be North African and sub-Saharan African (unless you include Corsican as an ethnic group). Since these groups constitute a large part of the city's population, couscous can be considered a typical dish from Marseille (which many French people joke about as belonging to North Africa anyway). For most other cuisines, it is best to go to Paris.
One famous dish is the local soup known as bouillabaisse. This dish is made with a combination of fish and shellfish, tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, fennel and saffron. It is served with shredded cheese melted on top and toast spread with aioli. Wash it down with a glass of rose wine from Provence or the heartier reds from the nearby Bandol region. For an aperitif, if you can handle the alcohol, order an anisette-flavored pastis or a kir, white wine with creme de cassis, a black-currant liqueur. Or you can order toasts with tapenade (puree of olives) and anchoiade (puree of anchovies).
Restaurants are clustered in several districts. There is a wealth of dining possibilities in the Vieux Port area, along and behind the Quai de Rive Neuve, but they are expensive and geared toward tourists. If a spectacular view is your prime objective, the dozen or so restaurants near the Espace Borely offer spectacular sunsets overlooking the water.
If delicious cooking and good service for a reasonable price are most important, then the rule of thumb is to look for restaurants frequented mainly by locals. If you go with somebody who lives in Marseille, you can sometimes get various things for free, such as drinks or desserts. The lack of movement between various districts encourages these restaurant owners to remain as professional and friendly as practicable.
In the summer, call ahead to confirm that your restaurant is open, especially in August, when many establishments close for vacation.
Here is a sampling of restaurants in town. Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than 13 euros; $$ = 13 euros-40 euros; $$$ = 41 euros-60 euros; $$$$ = more than 60 euros.
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