In Toulouse now – where I know the place well and don’t have the strong feeling of wide-eyed wonderment that I felt the entirety of the five-day stretch in Marseille.
I’m really glad I got to see Marseille. It’s an amazing city. Most of my French friends were either lukewarm or negative on it but its status as the country’s second largest city by population (860-thousand) made it must see for me. It exceeded my expectations by a lot.
On arrival a week ago today (10-1-19), I lumbered down the large staircase pictured above at Gare St. Charles, the main train station in Marseille. The view of the city from the top of that staircase is amazing. It’s a hardcore first impression. At the bottom you filter into the busy free-for-all that is the city’s center. A significant number of people from the Arab world, north Africa, Turkey are concentrated in central neighborhoods. My first stroll the evening of my arrival, I walked down a street and passed by a hodge-podge of small businesses run by people with ties to all of those places including a bustling restaurant serving Iraqi cuisine.
The centerpiece of the city is Vieux Port, an active harbor for fishing boats as well as recreational vessels and ferry service. I went there each morning to see fishermen present their catch on ice-packed tables for sale to the public. The modestly-sized Daurade is the most popular fish it appears – and it cost more than most of the other types but was still only 10-12 dollars a pound – sold whole and cleaned.
The cruise ship business feeds a lot of tourists into the Vieux Port area. These people stick out like a sore thumb, walking in herds – exiting tour coach buses – but their presence must play a large role in keeping this district economically healthy. They get off the boat looking for bouillabaisse and a glass of wine overlooking the port and probably drop a couple hundred euros. One day from a high altitude near the beaches area, I could see three massive cruise ships at port to the north of Vieux Port.
The weather is ridiculous in Marseille. Sunny and 75 every day I was there. A sharp cool-down at night. A salty, gusty wind off the sea. It’s said to be sunny in Marseille at least 300 days a year. The water is a deep blue and at all vantage points I saw nothing but crystal clear. The combination of intense sun, blue sea and crisp breeze made going to the Port a really rewarding experience. Given new vigilance about car and truck-driven terror, there are concrete barriers encircling the popular parts of the port which made for plenty of places to sit and stare at the beauty.
The new museum “Mucem” is in this Vieux Port area and is totally worth checking out. Even better than the art inside it (which included an interesting and expansive exhibition about the subject of islands), there are several stunning spaces to lounge in and take in the view. The ticket with art included is 9.5 euros but you can see most of the good stuff without paying anything.
A city bus that passes by the Vieux Port takes you south along the sea to the beaches area. I went out to Plage du Prado on Friday. People were swimming, sunning and biking in massive spaces set aside for recreation. I had a couple of cheap lagers and took it all in before making the 20 or 25 minute bus ride back to the city.
My best meal in Marseille came at La Tete de Chou, a newish place owned and operated by three friendly young guys serving classic but reasonably-priced French food. I had the Cabillaud, a thick filet of white fish which tastes of the sea. Spinach on top and a cooked grain mixed with dried tomatoes and other morsels. The restaurant’s terrace is especially nice because there’s no vehicular traffic on the street in front.
Most thrilling in Marseille was the Castellane Market on Avenue du Prado. The vendors selling produce, fresh seafood and flowers covered I’m guessing three or four hundred yards or more. You know the fish are gonna be plentiful there but I forgot how important and how good the farms growing veggies and fruit are in the region. The Friday market at Castellane was especially impressive and busy. The growers selling flowers shielded their product from the sun with a haphazard setup of canopies – so you had to watch your step – but the presentation was amazing. Older people especially were buying big bunches of flower arrangements displayed with great thoughtfulness.
On Saturday – I got caught a bit outside of the center after attending an exhibit at the Friche la Belle de Mai, an old tobacco warehouse converted into a giant arts space. After exiting the Friche, I waited for the bus only to be told by a young woman that the bus “was not coming today.”
OK. I walked ten minutes to the Tram to again be told by a guy that “there is no tram service right now.”
That brought me to a Metro station another ten minutes away where the escalators were powered off and the interior of the station was pitch dark. At that point I did a Google search to learn that public transit workers across all sectors of service had walked off the job at midday after a Metro operator was attacked in the morning. There were no updates either on Marseille’s public transit web site – or on their Twitter page.
Riders I encountered didn’t seem too rattled. The sidewalks bulged with pedestrians. I walked about 25 minutes to Cours Julien where I found a place serving decent IPA.
I stayed at an Ibis property in Marseille near the train station in a small room at a good rate. Just before I left the states, I double-checked all of my arrangements and learned that somehow the reservation had been cancelled. I spent a good week going back and forth with the Ibis reservations and “customer care” staff to get it reinstated but got nothing but runaround. They literally did nothing more than repeatedly confirm my reservation was cancelled and promised to examine why. Two days before I was to arrive in Marseille, I finally got a guy to tell me I was out of luck and that I should find another place to stay. It was at that point I made a last-ditch effort and called the local hotel desk directly. I explained my situation, they understood and they offered me five nights at the same rate I originally booked at. Wow. Thank you. I should have gone that route to start.
Just when I was ready to swear off Ibis forever, the local hotel staff saved the day. And I can now drink the fresh-squeezed orange juice famous as a fixture at free Ibis breakfast buffets in French hotels for years to come.