We had not returned to my second favorite French city (Paris #1) since moving to the Mediterranean coast three years ago. When we lived north in the Luberon, we made frequent jaunts to France’s second city, just about 1 ½ hours away from our home in Reillanne. Many medical specialists have their offices in Marseille. We always took time to enjoy more than doctor visits.
Reason for this visit was an appointment – not with a doctor – but at the American Consulate to have a Power of Attorney notarized. Not our lucky day. We arrived at the appointed hour only to be told all appointments for that day had been canceled. We were to have been notified. We were not. I was fuming, furious. Marseille is three hours away from our new home. It would be a chore to come back.
We sought solace at a nearby cafe. I calmed down and realized we needed to move on and take advantage of this visit.
Marseille is not chic and glamorous. It’s tough and brawny. It’s not the den of iniquity many imagine, but it’s not a paradise of peace and tranquility. Drug wars have been a major concern recently. So have decaying schools, hospitals and public housing. French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced a multi-billion euro plan to tackle the ills of France’s second city. “We need to build the Marseille of 2030,” he said.
Despite the city’s serious woes, visitors like us can enjoy its charms and vibrancy. France’s oldest city was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. Romans took over in the first century. Italians settled in the city in the 1930s. The city was the gritty port for France’s colonies (Tunis, Morocco, Algeria).
Immigrants from the Caribbean, Lebanon, Turkey and other lands have joined Africans in making Marseille their home today. The melting pot atmosphere with exotic tastes, flavors and colors is captivating. “It’s exactly the kind of place I like,” said the late Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef and author whose travel documentaries were ingenious.
It’s my kind of town, too. This time we set off to discover places new to us. My brother, also a fan of Marseille, recommended we visit Maison Empereur. Founded in 1827, this ancient, funky store is the oldest hardware store in France and like no other. Room after room, upstairs and down, is filled with all kinds of gadgets, tools, bric a brac. Copper pots of all sizes, baskets, cleaning supplies, antique toys, even some clothing items and cosmetics. It is mind-boggling. I bought some Marseille soap. The city is famous for its soap which it has been making for 600 years. I passed on the soap made from snail mucous, as well as the corn stripper…The range of kitchen paraphernalia is intriguing.
Across the street is Pere Blaize, a Herbortisterie which is even older, dating to 1815. If you are into natural medicines, this is the place. Tell them the prescription drug you are taking and why. They will come up with a plant-based substitute. I bought something for reflux. Unfortunately, it did not offer the miracle cure I hoped for.
We wandered through the Noailles neighborhood, a bustling, colorful area that seems more foreign than French. Shops sell ceramics, baskets, vibrant African fabrics. Merchants hawk washing machines at houseware stores. Food stalls sell kebabs and flatbread. We had a delicious, copious and cheap lunch at a Turkish “hole-in-the-wall” kind of eatery: Tender chunks of lamb and veggies.
For dinner, we revisited the popular Chez Jeannot restaurant in the Vallon des Auffes, a mini harbor jammed with small boats, two restaurants and a young, jovial crowd crammed at tiny outdoor tables during apero hour – all very special and very Marseille. Chez Jeannot is noted for pizza, fish and calamari (the best). That was the reason for our return.
Since lockdowns have ended and virus cases are down, tourists have returned to Marseille, we learned, but not yet in the numbers hoped for. Cruise ships are once again docking at the city, but passengers are bussed to Nice for the day. Pity.
Years ago we met Jeanne Feutren and her mother at La Boite a Sardine, a lively, legendary Marseille restaurant. “I love Marseille. It’s so cosmopolitan,” Jeanne said. Both Jeanne and her mother were born in Marseille and are die-hard fans of their hometown. “You can meet the whole world here. We have the sea, the sand, hills, the calanques (coastal cliffs). People are so exuberant.” Her mother chimed in. “It’s a wonderful town.” I second that.
In 2013 Marseille was a European Capital of Culture. It was spiffed up with lots of polishing, scrubbing and renovating, plus a refurbished waterfront and stunning new architectural attractions. I wrote an article for two newspapers at the time and a blog post. To learn more about Marseille and all of its attractions, do a search, upper right, on “Marseille”and read my previous post.
Next week, at long last, we hope to return to our old stomping grounds and visit friends in the Luberon. This trip has been postponed too many times due to Covid. Look for a post on our adventures. And, one of these days I’ll write about my travels last summer to Lake Como and onto Croatia. Both super.
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